For Emmy Award winner Albert Lee, ‘always having a North Star’ is the key to success

December 3, 2014
Multimedia producer and journalist, Albert Lee of the Los Angeles Times

Multimedia producer and journalist, Albert Lee of the Los Angeles Times

By Brian Han

Emmy Award-winning producer Albert Lee of the Los Angeles Times is driven by a simple tenet that has brought him his own brand of success.

“A few years ago, our boss told us that we should be looking at plan Bs because they didn’t know where [the L.A. Times was] going,” he said. “The thing is, I’ve always been on plan Albert and that plan is having fun and trying new things.”

As a second generation Korean American, Lee was naturally pulled between two worlds with widely differing values as to what defined a fulfilling life.

For many in similar situations, the cognitive dissonance amounts to a lot of stress and unwanted compromises.

Aside from his current job at the L.A. Times, Lee teaches a photography course at a local college and one recurring piece of advice he gives to his students is to “always have a North Star,” he explains. More specifically, to have one key idea that drives every decision that’s made.

His North Star has led him to freely explore his curiosities since a young age and gave him a bright light to follow towards a fruitful career.

“I was always off living my own life,” explains Lee. “My parents never wanted me to be a photographer, they wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. It was always a source of pressure for them, but they didn’t realize it was respectable or a good career.”

Such an attitude allowed him to avoid some of the typical psychological burdens of cultural expectations.

(Co-produced by Albert Lee, “Caught in the Crossfire” won a National Emmy Award for News and Documentary)

As Lee started showing his parents that he could make a decent living during his early stages as a professional photographer, he soon realized that their threshold for acceptance was higher than he had expected.

“I would bring home checks for my day labor of doing commercial photography and the checks were on the high end of a couple thousand dollars for one day’s work,” Lee said. “Even then they said, that’s still not respectable at all. Call me when you get a real job.”

Now fully aware of his parents’ opinion, he made a conscious effort to spare them of any unnecessary disappointment in his career choice when the opportunity arose.

“That’s when studios I was working with started using the code phrase ‘going fishing,’” he said. [They] would call and ask if I could go fishing which meant, ‘Are you available for a photo shoot?’”

Eventually though, the tough yet loving stubbornness of many Korean parents can be softened in unexpected ways.

During his 16-year ongoing tenure at the L.A. Times, it wasn’t the Emmy or any of the other numerous awards that changed their minds. It wasn’t the journey from working as a self-described “photoshop jockey” to becoming the multimedia producer of one of the most respected news outlets. And it wasn’t the undeniable quality of the work that he’d been creating with his world class team.

Ironically, it came down to something much simpler than that.

(“Crossing the Finish Line” highlights the runners of the 2014 L.A. Marathon and is also one of Lee’s first roles as videographer and interviewer for the L.A. Times.)

“[A Korean newspaper] did a story on me three or four years ago and that’s when my parents actually felt proud, more so than an Emmy – which is just weird and wild to me,” Lee said.

Regardless, the approval and recognition from others whether its from his family or from a renowned awards committee has always been secondary.

“Obviously, we’re spending some effort towards that, but I try not to think of contests,” explains Lee. “When I’m working on a project, I don’t think about the awards. I’m thinking about the story and if there’s some kind of unique way to approach it. I’d rather try new stuff and fail at it and be content with the fact that I tried to make progress in my field rather than emulate it.”

The way he approaches his career is similar in that it is not dictated by externally imposed standards. Instead, it’s all about “plan Albert” and what generates the most interest to him personally.

“I had the title of senior editor at one point and I gave it away,” Lee said. ” I told them simply that I wanted to shoot, which is in many ways a downward step [from multimedia producer]. They said ‘What? No. Why would you want to shoot when you have some of the best photographers and videographers in the world on your staff?’”

His bosses didn’t hold that position for long though and now Lee can expand his job description. He recently worked on projects at both the L.A. Marathon as an interviewer and the Maker Convention as a videographer, which is an event for do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts and professionals to showcase their work.

“I love human connection,” Lee said. “I’m happiest when I’m in the field working.”

“Having fun and trying new things” is not always as simple as it sounds, but Albert Lee is living proof that staying lighthearted and flexible can sometimes be the best route towards fulfilling your emotional and professional needs.

One Comment

  1. Joseph Han

    December 3, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    This article made me look back wether I was a good guide to my kids or not. Beautiful and impressive! Bravo!