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Meet Josh Liberman of JL Studio in Coconut Grove

Today we’d like to introduce you to Josh Liberman.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Josh. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
To truly understand where I am now, you must first know where I began. As a freshman, I came to the University of Miami with the hopes of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a surgeon. I was on the pre-med track, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry. Like many, I thought that if I followed my father’s road to success, I’d also find happiness and fulfillment. But also like so many, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

As college wore on, I grew increasingly frustrated with myself when I started struggling in class. I couldn’t understand why I liked my English and art electives way more than cell and molecular biology. I was unhappy, but couldn’t figure out why. Ultimately, I viewed changing my degree as a failure, and my stubbornness to “not give up what I started” kept me going.

Looking back, there’s no way seventeen-year-old Josh had any idea what he was doing when he checked the “pre-med” box on the application. Thankfully, during my junior year, I received an incredible opportunity to study abroad. At this point, I still thought I’d become a doctor, so I craved to do the craziest thing I could before starting the medical school shuffle. Naturally, I chose to embark on a journey around the world with Semester at Sea. I didn’t even tell UM that I was leaving, and I was ultimately kicked out of school, which I didn’t find out until months later. I was on the greatest adventure of my life, and the responsibilities of day-to-day life hardly mattered anymore.

I enrolled in a photojournalism course, which required me to use a DSLR, something I’d never done before. I convinced my mother to let me take her already ten-year-old Nikon D50, complete with 2GB SD cards, no autofocus, and a busted LCD screen. It was this camera that started it all, showing me the power of manipulating and adapting the light to communicate a feeling. During my trip, I routinely ventured off with camera in-hand and got lost in all the craziest places, just letting my impulses guide my photographs. Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, South Africa, Namibia, Morocco. So many new lands, new cultures, new people, and new discoveries.

At the end of the four-month trip, there was a ship-wide photography contest. I had never entered a contest in my life, but my photojournalism professor pushed me to apply. I didn’t think any of my photos were good enough, and I had never shown them to a large group of people. On the last night, all 750 students gathered for the awards ceremony. There were five categories. I placed first in two of them, and runner-up in a third. My professor, Dr. Amber Johnson, went up in front of everyone and told me how proud she was of my development, and that if I didn’t pursue photography, she would “find me and punch me in the face.” Someone else believed in my photography, someone I looked up to and admired. That metaphorical punch changed my life. I realized getting punched in the face wouldn’t be so bad, but living a life without following my passion would lead to much more profound pain.

Finally, after traveling for nearly 8 months, I returned to Miami in the fall to finish my senior year, though my interest in pursuing a career in biology was long gone. Having already completed ¾ of my degree, I decided to stick it out for two more semesters, crawling through the last upper-level biology classes I needed to graduate. In my free time, I started shooting anything and everything I could, joining the school magazine club, begging my friends to let me take their LinkedIn headshots, and skipping class to take photos of lizards I found in the arboretum.

When graduation came, I had no idea what to do next, but I knew I had to keep taking photos. I convinced my friends to let me move into their garage for the summer until I figured things out (I ended up living in that garage for two years). Wanting to legitimize myself, I started an LLC, continued to advertise headshots to students, and said “yes” to pretty much every gig that came my way. Fraternity formals? Sure. Family portrait sessions? Why not. Graduation photos? Absolutely! I did it all and started sharing them on Instagram. Three months after graduation, the University of Miami Shark Research and Conservation program (SRC) sent me a direct message, saying that they were looking for new photographers to join their team. It was a volunteer position, but I knew that if I gave it my all, the doors of opportunity would start to open.

To keep the garage over my head, I started working nights as a waiter, days as an inventory photographer in a warehouse, and weekends with the shark team, all while continuing to build my company. Fifteen-hour days were the norm, and days off were bi-monthly, but my network slowly began to grow and people started to see my work. I put myself out there, and suddenly I was a photographer.

I volunteered over 1000 hours across 50 expeditions with the shark tagging team and eventually earned the opportunity to film with Discovery Channel for Shark Week. That summer, sitting with my loved ones, I saw my footage aired on national television. It was what I had been working towards, and people noticed. I was asked to be the Underwater DP for a surf film along the New England coast. Nat Geo Wild filmmaker James Curry asked me to film the opening segment to his feature-length documentary on elephants. Sandals Resorts sent me to the Bahamas to create an adventure and document it. Then Victoria’s Secret held an event in Miami and asked me to shoot it. The next day, my photos were in PEOPLE magazine. I soon found myself hanging out of airplanes shooting great whites off Cape Cod, creating films in Haiti with world-renowned artist Xavier Cortada, filming shipwrecks in the Caribbean, and producing marketing content for global brands.

It’s been three years since I graduated, started a business, and committed myself to my passion. I’ve learned that every interaction you have with others is important, and being open to challenging yourself can take you places you never imagined. In the tumultuous world of freelance, there are constant ups and downs and I never really know what’s coming next. But one thing I do know is this: It’s not always clear to see, but you don’t wake up and become something you weren’t already becoming.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The road to get where I am today has been anything but smooth. In fact, it’s been a rollercoaster of ups, downs, mistakes, and lessons learned. My senior year of college, my home was robbed and I lost everything. Cameras, computers, hard drives, lenses. The house was stripped clean. I lost 90% of the photos I’d taken up to that point, and it took me a long time to let go of that as those images were the foundation of my development as an artist. Nowadays, I store my photos on multiple hard drives in multiple locations. There have been many months where I’ve barely made enough to pay the rent and had to frequently pull from my life savings, which is very scary. Being a creative is difficult on an emotional level too. I feel such a close tie to my work and have struggled with taking business decisions too personally. Simultaneously being an individual, business and brand is a weird concept that I’m still perfecting. I have no doubt the road ahead will hold even more challenges, but I’m confident that if I continue to ask endless questions and reflect on my mistakes, there’s no mountain I can’t climb.

Please tell us more about what you do, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I’m largely known for my work in wildlife and conservation. I try to demystify animals by capturing them in an emotional light, simultaneously showing their power and their vulnerability. I do not solely crave to create, but instead, to create a difference. I’ve learned how to communicate critical research to non-traditional and non-scientific audiences by taking an approach to content that sparks conversation and engagement. A simple photo of a shark swimming hardly influences one’s emotions or holds their attention in the modern age of digital media. Instead of beauty-shots, I work to create images that are dynamic and exciting, telling stories in a way that causes people to do a double-take. One way I accomplish this is through split-shot photography, where half the lens is below the surface and half is above the surface. This unique view bridges the gap across that thin blue line that separates our worlds and allows me to both communicate the virtues of a large predatory shark and the story of the researchers fighting to protect it. I’m proud to help people understand the critical role sharks and other large predators play in keeping our ecosystems in balance. I believe that as humans, we are programmed to protect what we love and understand, and it’s a never-ending challenge to convince the world to love sharks, a challenge that keeps me pushing for that next great shot.

Beyond the conservation world, I’m also known for my adventure and lifestyle photography. I’m an outdoorsman at heart and truly value the healing power of nature. I love working with outdoor-minded brands and organizations, and always push to shoot on-location instead of in a studio. I like to bring the viewer into a world they’ve never experienced by fully immersing them in my subjects. One of the greatest joys is seeing people experience an emotional connection to my work. That’s the beauty of photography, and also the greatest challenge, as every person comes to you with a different perspective and vision. When Freestyle Watches approached me to produce a new round of social media content, I recruited my friends for a camping trip in Ginnie Springs. I threw a few watches on them and we spent the day diving down into the underground caverns and paddleboarding over the crystal-clear springs. I could have created a mock beach scene in-studio with perfect lighting, but I’m after the organic feelings of wanderlust and adventure. I want my audience to say “Hey, I should do that!” To me, there’s no right or wrong way to adventure, and if I can get someone to step outside for any amount of time, then I consider it a job well done.

So, what should we be on the lookout for, what’s next in store for you?
These past few months have been incredibly transformative for me. I was fortunate enough to land a position with a large international production studio, where I’ve been able to learn the intricacies of the business from some incredibly talented mentors. I’m terrified of plateauing and realized in order to keep moving forward, I had to make myself vulnerable and surround myself with people whose skills are far beyond my own. This summer I’m heading back to the British Virgin Islands for a two-month project with Action Quest. I’ll be living on a sailboat and producing and filming content highlighting their SCUBA, sailing, and marine biology programs. It’s my fourth project with the company, and every time provides a new challenge for me to hone my craft. Living on a sailboat for months at a time isn’t sexy or comfortable, but I know that by frequently forcing myself outside of my comfort zone, I’ll continue to grow, learn, and see the world from a new perspective.

Moving forward, I want to keep developing my skills as much as I can. My 5-year plan is to continue learning the business of content production inside and out, and then bring that knowledge to wildlife filmmaking. For a story to be told correctly, there are so many elements that must come together in harmony and I want to be the person to make that happen. I’m focused on increasing my value at all levels of production and content creation so I can one day lead a team that works to create a difference.

Contact Info:

credit:  Josh Liberman © Image Credit:
Liv Williamson, Josh Liberman

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