When Rae Apodaca wanted a new start, the newly divorced mother of four focused on the photography program at Santa Monica College — and even uprooted her life to move specifically to be closer to campus. “I’ve always loved taking pictures and thought, ‘maybe I can do this for a living,’” she says.

With her children ranging in age from 11 to 20 at the time, she briefly considered nursing as a profession. “Nursing is definitely more practical in that you don’t really have to look for work constantly — not in the same way you do when you run your own business,” she says. Having previously owned a construction company, Rae already knew firsthand the challenges of self-employment. Ultimately, she decided to follow her passion.

“Photography does not have a real traditional career path,” notes Josh Sanseri, chair of the SMC Department of Photography. “Even when you’re in the business for 30 years as an established professional, you still have to pound the pavement. Success often depends on how much effort you’re willing to put in. Rae has really shown she has that drive.”

Although she lived in Orange County near a community college with a good photography program, SMC appealed to her because its curriculum spans every aspect of the field — from artistic techniques to business development — providing shutterbugs with the framework for commercial success. Although she received financial aid support to attend SMC, she also had to take out loans and continued working full time at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

She unexpectedly found herself falling in love with food photography. “There was no love to start,” she recalls, with a laugh. “When I started the program, I knew I wanted to work commercially but I didn’t know where I would end up.”

That’s common, Josh says. “We help students find their voice by forcing them to shoot different types of subject matter in different classes. We expose them to photographing fashion, portraits, architecture, food, cars and products. A student might come into the program thinking they’re going to be a rock star fashion photographer and then realize what they really enjoy is working in a controlled environment in the studio with products. That’s something they wouldn’t discover if we didn’t push them out of their comfort zone and encourage them to keep an open mind and roll with the assignments.”

Of Rae, he says: “Once she started photographing food, it seemed like her passion and her interest just really skyrocketed. I think it shows in her work.”

Initially she was more interested in product photography, but “everything has to be lit perfectly,” she explains. “It’s time-consuming and you need a high-end computer. My computer does not like to be in Photoshop for more than half an hour to 45 minutes at a time,” she quips.

One day, she thought to herself, why not food photography? “I work with this all day,” she says. “I know my way around a kitchen. I know how to dice. I know what things are supposed to look like plated. So that’s where I started. And I kept shooting until I found my style.”

While Rae may not need as advanced a computer as that required for product photography, staying up to date with equipment is challenging for any professional shooter — or college photography department.

“One of our strengths as a department is that we’re always working to give students access to quality, professional, practical gear,” Josh says. In the past, beginning students had to supply their own cameras, but this year the department garnered enough grant support to purchase new cameras and professional photo-studio lighting. “This is a very technologically driven profession. Cameras aren’t cheap. Lenses aren’t cheap. Computers, lighting — it all adds up.” Now, students without the resources can borrow a camera and other equipment from SMC. “We’re trying to limit the out-of-pocket expense for students, and make our program as accessible as possible.”

Another advantage of SMC for Rae was the availability of the faculty. “They are there for you,” she says. “That’s what really makes the photography department at Santa Monica fantastic. I could go in today and, if I needed it, I know that any one of those professors would stop what they’re doing to help me.”

Graduates also are often willing to give back to help aspiring photographers in the program, which attracts an average of 1,100 students per semester to its courses, including some from foreign countries.

“It’s really hard to break into this business,” Josh says. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do — to get that chance. We have a long history of putting our people to work. And we have a whole lot of successful alumni who give a lot of people their first chance out of school.”

As Rae contemplates her move out of food service, where she continues to work six days a week, she dreads the marketing and cold calling. “But the more my work is seen, obviously the better chance I have of actually finding work,” she says. Her work has been featured by Profoto, a major manufacturer of lighting equipment for the industry. And she’s launched her website, raeapodaca.com.

She plans to pull funds from her 401(k) so she can launch her photography career full time. “I’m just going to do it. Sink or swim. There’s really no other option at this point.”

She’s already overcome numerous obstacles to get where she is today. Both of her parents passed away while she was in the program, and her eldest son was in a major car accident and spent 10 days in the intensive care burn unit. He has since recovered.

“She didn’t let the many challenges in her daily life affect her education,” Josh adds. “I know she had a lot going on. But she persevered. It takes a strong person to do that.”

Rae dreams of someday shooting a cookbook with a major chef, and being in line at the supermarket and seeing her images on the cover of newsstand magazines.

Her advice for others? “Whatever your goals are, and whatever your passion is, just follow it. Life is too short to not do what you want to do.”

* * *

To see the full range of options offered by the SMC Photography Department. Rae—and her photography—is on Instagram as @apodaca_rae.