Keep Watering Your Plant

A friend of mine, Mike was recently in town for the weekend. I hadn't seen him in like three years since he moved to San Francisco and we hadn’t talked much during that time either.  Although I've been feeling really low energy lately, I agreed to go out with him and see his friend Mel the DJ. This just so happened to be the same day Adam Yauch, from the Beastie Boys died. As a tribute to Yauch, Mel played Beastie Boys songs all night long. It was a nice trip down memory lane.
It’s interesting to me how I may not speak to a friend for months or years, but when we reconnect we are going through the same phases. Mike and I were having a discussion about life and he said something to me that really helped me put things back in perspective. He said that life is like a plant and you have to water it to make it grow. Over the past few years I’ve become a 100% a believer in what he was talking about, I just need to hear it again.  

A few years ago I was associated with a tragic and horrifying experience which unexpectedly brought hopefulness and change to my life in an unimaginable way. 

I’ve worked as a photographer off and on for my whole adult life. It’s a passion I’ve had since I was seventeen. Over the years I’ve gone through various phases of my career. Sometimes I’ve been more serious about it than others.  

Six years ago, in 2006, I was really motivated and would take any photography job regardless of the pay just to get the experience in the field. I was working non-stop for pennies or for free. I’d photograph anything to get my foot in the door and build my portfolio. 

During that time I photographed an album cover in Austin for some small local band with not a whole lot of cash. I only charged them $150. Little did I know at the time, I had taken a photo that would be invaluable to the world four years later.

As time went on, I soon grew discouraged with working for way too little pay and didn’t feel like I was moving forward. Unfortunately the “doubt” demons won and I basically put my camera down for close to three years.  I then experienced some of the roughest times I’ve ever had which also led to some of the most inspiring and progressive periods in my life. My heart had been broken, I fell on my face, bumped my butt on the bottom a few times, picked myself up, finally began to believe in myself again and rebuild my life.

Throwing myself into hard training for the Pan Ams and Worlds is what got the through the worst of my rough patches in early 2009.  Gracie Jiu-jitsu is what led my way out of a long funk I’d been in and helped me cope with the despair of going through a hard break up with my ex-boyfriend of twelve years. My self-confidence and self-esteem was in the crapper after the break up, but GJJ helped rebuild my broken state. 

Much to my surprise, I went on to win the Pan Ams in 2009. This was the first time I really started to believe in myself again and realize what I am truly capable of accomplishing if I put my whole heart, mind, body and soul into it.  I had done more than I ever imagined I could and I went on to place second in the Worlds against Sofia Amarante. Words can’t describe how much this lifted my spirits and opened my eyes. 

By 2010, I had almost completely restricted my life around training GJJ.  I was 100% focused and dedicated.  Although my life was moving in a positive direction, it wasn’t perfect. 

I was working for a major insurance company. My job was painfully boring and unrewarding. It paid the bills and that’s about it. I hated everything about it. It was a toxic environment and just walking into the building put me in a foul mood. I was unfulfilled in cubical world with the other office droids. As each day passed, I felt increasingly trapped as I gazed out the big glass window. Freedom was staring me in the face but that glass barrier was there to remind me I was stuck. I felt like I died a little each day.

It was one of those jobs that suckered you in with the perks; on site health clinic for only $15 a visit, on site full gym for $25 a month, tuition reimbursement, massage therapist on site for $15 a visit, health, dental and life insurance for part time employees, etc. The perks were too good to move on and let this dead-end job go. I justified it by thinking I was only working part time and it was allowing me to still train full time for competitions. I’d be an idiot to let go of a job like this. 

In those three years I took a break from photography, I didn’t miss photography even though it had once given my life direction and brought me so much happiness. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever pick it back up again. 

And that’s when a small private plane flew into the IRS building in Austin, and changed my life's direction forever.

IRS Building Austin, TX
I was sitting in my cubical when the office gossip swept over the office like a tsunami. A plane had flown into a building? Landed on Mo-Pac Expressway? A house was on fire? The media hadn’t yet figured out what was going on. We all sat at the edge of our seats wondering if it was a terrorist attack or an accident, while we continued answering insurance claims. 

Not long after, it was determined that a man had flown a private plane into the IRS building and that he had also set his own house on fire. Then a "manifesto" was found online detailing why he had done what he did. It was his final protest against tax harassment which caused his suicidal crash and the death of an IRS employee. Even in knowing all of this, there still wasn’t a photo or name released for the pilot. 

A few hours passed and I got a call from the assistant editor at the Austin American Statesman asking if they could use a photo of mine of some band for a feature article. Without thinking or asking more questions I agreed to let them use my photo for the story, no compensation was offered for my photo.  I didn’t ask because I was just happy to have a published photo with the Statesman. I assumed the photo had no value and it was just some band that did something interesting.

After I hung up with the Statesman, it all clicked, had I just been taken? I asked a co-worker that had been following the story, if they had a photo up for the pilot yet and he said no. I waited a few more minutes and the sure enough the Statesman had my photo front page. There was Joe Stack the pilot of the crashed plane, with photo credits to Shama Ko Photography. That was my Holy Crap moment! I had no idea what was to come next, no-one could have predicted it. 

New York Post-Joe Stack
Next thing I know I got a call from Inside Edition, CNN, ABC, MSNBC and Fox News, followed by every major local, national and international press outlets you can think of in radio, television and print. I immediately asked to leave work. For the next seven hours my phone was blowing up. I was the only link to the story. I had the only existing photo of the pilot at the time. If the Statesman had not found that photo in their archives, none of this would have happened.  Things got so out of hand that I couldn’t answer all the calls. I had no idea about the value of my photo. This wasn’t something they teach you in school. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never negotiated usage of my photos on such a large scale. 

After speaking to the editor at the Austin American Statesman he gave me some good advice, apologized for the mix up and offered to pay me for the photo they had used.
I didn’t have much time to decide who to represent me. I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. Everything was moving very fast and it was overwhelming. My head was spinning out of control. I thought about it as long as I could, which was only a moment, and decided to call in the big boys at Getty Images to represent me, and negotiate on my behalf with the media.

It was a strange feeling to profit from such a horrible tragedy. I felt guilty, like I should give the money to his family or the victim's family. In some weird way, I felt like I was responsible for it happening when I had nothing to do with it at all. I didn’t feel good about taking any money for the photo, until my mother reminded me that I deserved it. This was my pay it forward coming full circle. All that hard work I did years before finally caught up and in a very tragic and ironic way I was watching my plant grow out of the ashes. So I decided to water my life plant and do something I always wanted to but never had the money to do before, go to Brazil and train with one of the best women in the world, Leticia Ribeiro at a camp that happened to be scheduled a few months later.

Although things didn’t go as planned and the camp was cancelled, I still decided to go to Brazil by myself. Through my experiences in Rio de Janeiro, I blossomed even more. I took on a new situation by myself and had an amazing time. Going to Brazil was a pivotal point in my life and my journey of self-discovery. In Brazil, I took lots of amazing photos, met amazing people and was inspired by everything around me. After a month in Rio, I came back to the States with a golden tan and a new understanding of who I am and what I wanted to do. I decided the whole experience was a sign that I need to get back into photography.  I decided to return to school and study photography to further my career and finally restructure and invest in my photography company.

Sometimes unexpected things happen in this world that we don’t understand, but I’m starting to see that everything has some kind of meaning or purpose. Just because things don’t go as planned, doesn’t mean you should give up on something you believe in or desire. Hard work and not giving up are the keys to making anything happen.  

In some ways I feel that this tragedy provided me with an opportunity to be reborn and connected with a part of myself that was missing. Revitalizing this passion and love in my life that has brought me even more happiness than I thought I could ever have. Since then, I’ve combined my two biggest passions, GJJ and photography with Mean Streak Photography.  It’s strange how life changes and one of the only things that stays constant is our love, for what is truly meant to be.


  1. Wow Shama...that's crazy. You really never know how where life is taking you.

    Love the plant analogy btw.

  2. I know, right? It was a such a surreal experience. It's so true, we get back what we put in. Being patient is the hardest part. I'm not the best at remembering that. :) Thanks for reading.


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