Zoey + Jasper: Profile of Photographer Grace Chon

By: Grace Jahng Lee

February 22, 2015

At the end of 2008, as the economy was collapsing, Grace Chon decided to quit her full-time job at a major ad agency to pursue her dream: pet photography.

“Everyone thought I was nuts. I had just received a raise after launching a major TV campaign,” says Chon. A few months later, the ad agency folded, and everyone lost their jobs. “You never know what’s going to happen,” says Chon, 33, who resides in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Grace Chon is the creator of the Zoey + Jasper tumblr photo series, which features her seven-year-old rescue dog Zoey and her cherubic, grinning 20-month-old son Jasper. Born in Taiwan, Zoey was washed into a gutter as a newborn, along with her five siblings. A volunteer with Animal Rescue Team Taiwan (ARTT) retrieved the puppies and placed them in foster homes. She decided to foster Zoey (originally named Star), who was the runt and the sickest. At four and a half months old, Zoey was adopted by Chon and found herself on a China Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

Zoey’s pastimes include “hiking, playing fetch with her toy squirrel, eating crumbs off the floor, and Jasper,” according to the Zoey + Jasper tumblr page. Jasper is described as a “Chinese-Korean mutt from Los Angeles” who enjoys “going for walks, eating pancakes and meatballs and yogurt and oatmeal and cereal (sometimes all together).”

The duo elicits smiles from around the world as they pose wearing identical headgear or accessories (such as Korean sauna towel head wraps, rainbow headbands, purple hoodies, and blue and gold viking helmets). Zoey + Jasper has been featured in Vanity Fair Italia, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and People. It boasts nearly 35,000 Instagram followers since going viral last April.

Chon loved dressing up her dogs for the holidays and taking photographs of them. One day, she put her infant’s hat on her dog, and her sister suggested that she take photos of them sitting side-by-side. A year ago, Chon posted the Zoey + Jasper series for a small audience of family and friends on Instagram and Facebook. She sent the photographs to a former client, The Bark magazine, which reposted them to its Facebook page. The photos quickly went viral, capturing hearts across the globe.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Grace Chon always adored animals and planned to become a veterinarian. At the same time, she continued to cultivate her creative talents. In the eighth grade, she was voted “Most Artistic.” In high school, she taught herself web design and Photoshop and joined the school newspaper’s ad department. She began pursuing graphic design as a hobby.

Chon obtained an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo to gain experience working with animals and majored in biology at Pennsylvania State University. While volunteering at an animal emergency clinic, she realized that although she loved animals, she did not enjoy medicine. She recalls traumatic incidents where she was assigned to carry a dog in a body bag to the basement morgue and being present when the vet informed a family that their dog needed to be put to sleep. Witnessing an elective ear-cropping surgery while shadowing a veterinarian also led her to reconsider her career path: “I almost fainted. There was no full anesthetic because it was a puppy. I was very indignant. The surgery was purely for cosmetic reasons.”

“Growing up in a Korean American family, your job options are a bit limited in terms of what your parents would allow you to major in. I didn’t have many career choices working with animals. Being an animal trainer wasn’t an option,” says Chon.

While her mother tried to steer her toward becoming a pharmacist, Chon decided to pursue her creative interests and apply to graduate school for ad design. “I only applied to one school, the Academy of Art in San Francisco. If I didn’t get in, I was going to consider pharmacy school,” says Chon.

Fortunately, she received an acceptance letter. “It was my first time leaving Philly. I had my coming-of-age experience in San Francisco,” says Chon. “Art school was a dream come true, being able to go to school for something creative. I met some really talented people in school who didn’t take it seriously. I felt I wasn’t getting a second chance and would not mess it up. ”

During art school, Chon interned at Swirl, an ad agency, and was offered a full-time position as an art director while she was still a student. After a year and a half, she moved to L.A. to join her boyfriend (now husband) and worked for a prominent ad agency.

“In the ad world, you’re either a copywriter or an art director. You come up with ad ideas together. It’s very collaborative and really stressful. There’s a lot of problem solving. You’re given a strategy and have to figure out how to convey the message in a creative and fun way. The hours are crazy. You go in at nine and you’re there until seven or eight, sometimes one a.m.,” says Chon.

To alleviate the stress, she began pursuing pet photography as a hobby. She posted a Craigslist ad volunteering to take photos of rescue dogs that were seeking homes and received several responses. The Dawg Squadwhich hosted adoption events every Saturday at a pet store, enlisted her services. She also redesigned the Dawg Squad’s logo and website on a volunteer basis.

Chon created a website featuring her pet photography and started shooting on weekends. People began asking her to take photographs of their pets and soon, magazines also approached her. Before she knew it, she was booked for three months and had to turn down clients due to the demands of her full-time job. She decided to take a major risk, resigning from her ad agency job during the economic recession to pursue pet photography full-time. She opened her business, Shine Pet Photos, and eventually expanded into commercial photography, shooting ad campaigns.

“Having come from the ad world, I didn’t want to do commercial photography,” says Chon. “But in 2010, I was approached by a huge ad agency and after that shoot, I decided to do commercial photography.” Last year, she retired from Shine Pet Photos to focus exclusively on commercial photography. Her bookings are managed through her agent, Kim Knight Represents.

Her clients have included Milk-Bone, Purina, The Bark magazine, Modern Dog, Cesar’s Way magazine, Nintendo of America, and celebrities such as Margaret Cho and Tori Spelling. Numerous publications, such as The New York Times and Family Circle magazine, have featured her photography tips.

“I never wanted to photograph anything else but animals,” says Chon. “People ask me to shoot weddings or do headshots but I have no interest.”

Chon was also the photographer for the Shelter Pet Project, a collaborative effort between two animal welfare groups (the Humane Society of the U.S. and Maddie’s Fund) and The Ad Council, which produces public service advertising (PSA) campaigns. The project seeks to promote adoption of shelter animals.

“I love rescue animals and I loved that campaign,” says Chon. “It’s a cause that’s near to my heart [her second dog, Maeby, is also a rescue and comes from Mexico]. For a while, animal rescue campaigns were so depressing. The Shelter Pet Project campaign took a humorous, bright, and colorful approach.”

The key to successful pet photography is to “keep it really positive, fun, and light-hearted,” says Chon. For her pet models, she provides treats made from high-quality meats as rewards. “Only reward positive behavior and ignore bad behavior. I’ve always been able to read animals really well. If they’re tired, I let them rest. If it doesn’t work, we move on. You need a lot of patience. Never get frustrated,” says Chon.

Grace Jahng Lee is a contributing writer for KoreanAmericanStory.org.