In Focus: An Alumni Photographer Pursues his Dream

Mike Kandel at work.

After years of observing his photographer father, Mike Kandel, CCAS BA ’09, decided to pick up a camera himself in the fall of 2006. At the time, he didn’t know that this decision would change his life.

While studying criminal justice at GW, Mike started to carry his camera with him everywhere he went, documenting everything from his friends on campus to protests throughout DC. Quickly, his new hobby became a passion.

Mike began to post his work online and take on small gigs. “My first big hit was a ‘Rock the Vote’ concert in Wheaton, Maryland,” he says. “The experience convinced me that photography was something I wanted to do every day.”

So, after graduation in 2009, Mike set off on his path to becoming a professional photographer. He wrote for, who sent him to cover music festivals and concerts. As his reputation grew, Mike gathered a variety of other clients, from academic institutions to government associations.

President Obama visits the Lincoln Memorial.

Then, something clicked. “I realized the sky was the limit—I started reaching out to large scale music festivals, cold calling DC based organizations, associations and companies, and emailing work to just about every address I could find,” Mike explains.

Soon, his networking began to pay off. Mike clinched a gig shooting a fundraiser for Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias in New York, with special guest Vice President Joe Biden. He then followed a couple of candidates on the campaign trail in Virginia, as well as the Mayor of Jerusalem on multiple visits to DC.

As his business grew, Mike entered contests, including a few with The Washingtonian. He was a finalist multiple times and went on to win in March 2011, resulting in his first publication.

Since that breakthrough, Mike’s work has been featured in a number of news outlets, including, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, MSNBC, The Times of Israel and CNN, among others. He also works with architecture firms, boutique clothing companies and other organizations.

Engagement photos on the Mall. © Mike Kandel.
Engagement photos on the Mall.

As Mike’s business continues to grow via word of mouth, he remains ambitious in a cutthroat environment.

“Photography, especially in DC, is highly competitive,” he says. “There are a lot of people trying to do it. But I have succeeded by taking my failures or missed opportunities and using them as fuel to find what’s next.”

While his passion is live music and political photography, Mike also shoots weddings and events. “Any shoot is a great opportunity to try new things,” he says.

Mike’s dream job is to be the Chief Official White House Photographer. “I’d love the chance to follow the president and make photographs that document living history.” He would also be thrilled to be a full time tour photographer for a musician our music label, or shoot for a newswire like the Associated Press. “I would love to travel the world and make pictures that tell stories of people and places far and wide.”

In the meantime, living in DC keeps Mike busy.  Whether he’s on assignment or not, he’s constantly captivated by the city. “There is always something to shoot here!” he says.

He also credits his time at GW for giving him a great jumping off point.

Up front at the Electric Zoo festival. © Mike Kandel.
Up front at the Electric Zoo festival.

“GW gave me access to so many opportunities,” he says. “From friends, to my fraternity, to events, rallies and protests that took place on campus and around the city, being at GW was critical to building my portfolio.”

His advice to new photographers?  “Take as many pictures as you can. Learn about your gear and use it regularly. The more pictures you take, the better you will get. Most importantly: never give up. Keep shooting and keep reaching out. Eventually people will take a moment to look at your work—and then it all pays off.”

Follow Mike’s journey as he grows his business and works towards nabbing one of his dream jobs! Check out his website and blog for updates on his latest work, or find him on Facebook.

All photographs courtesy of Mike Kandel.

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