For most people, a 40th birthday is a reason to celebrate. Yet for event photographer extraordinaire Jensen Sutta, he was faced with a decision which would not only define his character, but perhaps his career as well. As luck would have it, he received two inquiries for the date of his 40th, but with two very different projects. One included a limo ride, stipend, and first class airfare for a job at the Wynn in Las Vegas, with the task of being paid handsomely to photograph a VIP’s opulent soiree. The other would see him returning to the vulnerable country of Haiti, to continue his unpaid work in photographing the efforts of a non-profit aid organization.

As photographers, we know all too well that often times there is a perception of ego associated with those who have become successful, popular, or influential because of their craft. Once a certain status is attained, the stereotype for many artists kicks in, and the ego is revealed. Without digressing on a complete tangent, many photographers in Jensen’s shoes would not even consider this to be a difficult decision. They would simply pack their bags and be off to Vegas.

Jensen Sutta went to Haiti for his 40th Birthday.

For those of you who would have done the same, quit lying to yourself. For those of you who really, truly would have gone to Haiti, well, the world needs more of you. But it takes more than staying humble and being kind to be successful as a photographer in most cases. In the case of Jensen Sutta, those very characteristics, along with a keen photographic eye and deep drive to help others, have defined his success.

Having worked several events with Jensen over the course of nearly a decade, we can personally attest to his infectious kindness and the unwavering desire to put a smile on everyone’s face. Sometimes as photographers we forget that this can often be achieved by connecting without the camera first. In the realm of celebrity event coverage and portraiture, this may be just a brief moment. But in Haiti, this can mean something entirely different.

Jensen notes, “…the entire trip was incredible, emotional and impactful. But by far the most powerful interaction for me came in a remote village in the mountains. It was rare to NOT get a smile or a wave, but there was a stoic young girl who just observed, and despite my best efforts of peek-a-boo, tickling, laughing and funny faces, I could not get any reaction. My new friend Liz shared the experience and learned her name was Roseminuto, who nodded her approval to allow me to take her picture:

After I’d guess was 20 mins or so, I played peek-a-boo again while Liz was holding her, and that’s when it happened. First a smile, and then an unabashed full giggle, and it was one of the sweetest sounds. Now, a couple of weeks later, I still get misty (I’m sure it’s just allergies), and can’t help but wonder if it was her first laugh:”

Juggling a host of non-profit work along the way, 2019 saw Jensen debut on network television as a guest celebrity judge on American Beauty Star on Lifetime TV.  He then returned as the contracted photographer for the Santa Barbara Film Festival to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite not even a month later. The remainder of the year saw him travel to Europe, South America, Africa, and all over the US to photograph the world’s best events. At one point, his own portrait was on a huge video screen in the middle of Times Square.

Then came 2020 and COVID-19.

The inevitable event crash from the global pandemic had a far-reaching effect on the entire photo industry. As the event cancellations and postponements began to pile-up, Jensen seized the downtime as an opportunity to work on “bucket list” items. One of which was to self-publish a photo book featuring a collection of black and white celebrity portraits.

Aptly titled “Five Feet From Greatness,” the photo book showcases some of Jensen’s favorite celebrity portraits. There is an accompanying quote with each that is derived in most cases from a “diary” of quotes and anecdotes that he kept to document his subjects and events.

The book should also serve as inspiration for other photographers who may be considering ways to offset their losses resulting from the cancellations of so many events and photoshoots due to the pandemic. In fact, selling printed versions of images from your archive, whether as a book, canvas, poster, or really any type of branded product should at least be a consideration if your revenue has been impacted. In addition, the marketing potential for producing something as significant as a book should not be overlooked as a way to showcase your best work.

With the recent political climate and the uncertain days ahead, the value of simply being kind and staying humble could not ring more true. As photographers, remember to check those egos at the door and be willing to connect with people on a more personal level. Jensen notes, “A musician named Zach Sobiech died from cancer at 18 years young, and before he passed, he said the greatest thing in life is to see a smile on someone else and know you put it there…I happen to agree! If I can help bring joy and be helpful to others, that is my definition of success.”

Being nice never hurt anyone, but it might just get you the job you were hoping for.

Editor’s note: For more information or to donate to relief efforts in Haiti, please visit Believe In Haiti.  “Five Feet From Greatness” a photo book by Jensen Sutta can be purchased here