Rare are the moments in life when pure joy intersects with paralyzing anxiety on the human emotional spectrum. There’s childbirth, of course, when the thrill of creating a new life is simultaneously matched by a feeling of, “Oh, crap — now what?”
Another? When cap-and-gown-wearing college students waltz across a stage to receive a degree. At that moment, graduates are justifiably filled with a profound sense of accomplishment and personal pride. Then they exit stage left and … again: “Oh, crap — now what?”
Jordan Shiraki experienced this reality back in 2009, when after four grueling years as a biology major — “My partying happened in the library, where I studied for my next exam,” he said — the Hawaii native received his bachelor’s of science degree. That degree was supposed to lead Shiraki right back to UNLV and its School of Dental Medicine, which would lead him back to Hawaii to take over his father’s orthodontic practice.
But as he pondered this next challenging stage of his life, Shiraki was overcome with another emotion: dread. “I knew I would be a good dentist,” Shiraki said. “But I wanted to be great at something.”
That something was photography — or more specifically, exotic car photography, which blended two of Shiraki’s longtime passions.
“I thought I could be one of the top 25,000 dentists in the U.S., but I’d rather be one of the top 25 car photographers in the country. I wanted to be the leader in my industry. And there was just no way I was going to be able to do that in dentistry.”
So barely a month after graduating — and after being inspired by the recommended book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t” — Shiraki called a life audible: He put aside his application to dental school and picked up his camera.
He did so much to the horror of his mother and father back home in Hawaii. “Telling Asian parents that you’re going to become an artist is kind of crazy, because when you’re Asian, you only have three career choices: a doctor, an engineer, or an accountant. Being an artist is definitely not in the mix, and I really felt I needed to prove myself.”
Prove himself he most definitely has: In fewer than six years, Shiraki has become one of the most sought-after automobile photographers in the world, with two of his biggest clients being Dodge (he shot its 2015 international ad campaign) and Lamborghini.
To understand the origins of Shiraki’s affinity for both exotic cars and photography, you have to travel back to a pair of seminal moments. The first occurred at age 8, when he received a die-cast model of a Lamborghini as a Christmas gift. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I remember being blown away by its aesthetics; the design was beautiful yet aggressive, with utterly insane proportions. It looked like it was going 200 miles per hour just sitting on my desk. From that moment on, I’ve been a Lamborghini fan.”
Five years after falling in love with Lamborghinis, a 13-year-old Shiraki got his first peek through a camera lens while visiting the tiny Hawaiian island of Lanai. “I saw this beautiful landscape and I wanted to capture it, so I grabbed my parents’ point-and-shoot camera” he said. “But when we developed the film, it looked nothing like what I had originally seen. And I’m like, ‘What the heck? Why can’t I capture the scene that was in my mind?’”
Later, Shiraki got his hands on a 1960s Nikon camera that his grandfather found in his attic and immediately began experimenting with it. “All of a sudden,” he said, “I could print a picture of what I saw in my mind. I’ve been fascinated with photography ever since.”
Shiraki had his camera gear in tow in 2005 when he arrived at UNLV, which he said he selected because the school was part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, which lowered his costs as an out-of-state student. He had never previously been to Las Vegas, but quickly fell in love with the city. “I like modern and shiny things, so when I first came to Vegas, I saw everything was new and contemporary, filled with glitz and glamor.”
Preoccupied with the heavy course load required of biology undergrads, Shiraki didn’t have much downtime to pursue his hobby. But whenever he did pick up his camera and go in search of a car to shoot, he did so with a philosophy. “When I was about 16 and first started out with car photography, I told myself that every photo shoot I performed, the car had to get better and my photos had to improve as well,” he said. “This was to ensure that I would be taking steps to better my art on a never-ending staircase so that I wouldn’t become stagnant.”
By his senior year, Shiraki said he had some of his work picked up by the online magazine J-Tuned, a site for automobile photography. Soon after, while still finishing his studies, he said he was hired to run the photography portion of the site, which was how he secured his first big commercial job: shooting photos for the national debut of Lexus’ LFA supercar.
Shiraki’s next big break came not long after graduation. Desperate to lock up some work, he attended the Saturday morning Cars & Coffee gathering for owners of vintage cars, trucks, and exotic rides on Eastern Avenue in Henderson. His goal: to convince some of the owners to pay him to take high-quality photos of their vehicles.
When a Lamborghini drove past him, Shiraki flagged down the driver, who happened to be in charge of the marketing department for Lamborghini Las Vegas that had recently opened.
“I gave him my business card and said, ‘If you can find a better car photographer in a 300-mile radius, call them instead. But if you can’t, give me a call on Monday, and I’ll do some free photos for you,’” Shiraki said. “Lo and behold, he called me on Monday and said, ‘We just got one of the latest and greatest Lamborghinis in the country — the Murciélago SuperVeloce. Come out and shoot it, and let’s see what you can do.’”
Not only did Lamborghini Las Vegas love what Shiraki produced, but once the folks at headquarters feasted their eyes on the photographs, he began receiving corporate gigs. Ironically enough, one such gig called for Shiraki to travel to New York and photograph the life-sized version of the dye-cast model he received on Christmas morning some 20 years earlier. “It was the exact same color, model, everything — it was like I came full circle.”
Shiraki has since partnered with a former high school classmate, Johnathan Walk, who is a producer and director. Together, they can execute photography, video, and design for marketing campaigns.
Asked to share the secret to his relatively rapid success, Shiraki credits an old-fashioned American ethos.
“Hard work and being a good person,” he said. “I know it sounds cliché, but eventually you’ll rise to the top if you do those two things. I see a lot of talent (in my industry), but also really big egos. I also see really big egos and not too much talent. It’s hard to find big talent and small egos. I’ll outwork just about anyone, and I refuse to throw in the towel no matter how bleak the circumstances may seem.”
As his photography career continues to flourish, one can’t help but wonder about that biology degree he earned. “It is nice when people think that I’m just an uneducated artist, but in reality, I have a degree in biology from UNLV that I’m extremely proud of.”
While he may not spend his days treating patients and encouraging them to floss, he nonetheless acquired a great deal of knowledge from his time at UNLV that’s applicable to his career.
“Some people argue with me that college was a waste of time, that I should’ve just gone into photography [instead of going to school],” he said. “And I tell them that, even though I don’t use my degree directly, I learned so much about persistence and fortitude. I gained this sense of tenacity from struggling through really difficult courses like organic chemistry.
“Had I quit school, I don’t think I would’ve made it through a lot of the adversities that I’ve encountered since then. That regimen, and those classes, had a tremendous impact on me and really helped to develop my character, which enabled me to get to where I am today.”