As the son of a pastor, Jon Meadows grew up both literally and figuratively in the shadow of the church, and his father imparted upon Jon a guiding principle from early on.
“It’s not our life,” his dad told him. “We should be living to do good and help others. You only have one life, and it’s important what you do with it.”
Two degrees, three careers and many years later, the problem Jon faced was that he had little idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing with his life. He’d long planned on law school but opted against it after falling short of admission to the top programs. He found temporary purpose in a career in politics before becoming disillusioned as election defeats piled up. Just as Jon entered his final J.O.B., he started to discover — almost by accident — the gift he’d been given to do good and help others as his father directed. And being fired 15 months later forced his hand into doing that work full-time.
As the owner and founder of High-End Headshots, Jon now takes pride in bringing out the best in others in front of his camera with a full-service experience that caters to professionals throughout the DMV area.
“The whole goal is to have authenticity,” Jon says. “It’s all about expressions. I want expressions that look like you’re meeting the person in person, and I want their headshots to build trust and create connection for them. Occasionally people will cry out of joy, because they’ve never seen themselves look like that before.”
Clients of Jon’s receive, as his business’ name suggests, a high-end experience from start to finish, with Jon also serving as a facial expression coach who actively provides feedback throughout the session and receives client feedback to personalize his coaching. His strategy relegates fake smiles to where they should be: the 90’s. He produces authentic headshots his clients can be proud to display to potential customers and employers.
“It’s basically the polar opposite of telling people to ‘say cheese,’” Jon says. “I teach people about their faces so I can coach them while I shoot. I analyze images with them so they get better in front of the camera by learning how I see images and evaluate expressions. They give me feedback about what they like and don’t like about specific images so that I can coach them better. I then review images and help them delete all but the best shots.”
Though his purpose and passion have since become clear, the future was anything but for young Jon. Born in Annapolis, Jon’s family settled in Exeter, New Hampshire, a small town near the state’s southern border, after his father quit his electrical engineering job to follow a call to ministry. Jon was raised just a stone’s throw away from the Baptist church where his father served as pastor, and the small congregation became his extended family. Jon readily admits that, while he did enjoy tennis, video games and chess (in which he won the New Hampshire junior high state championship), he never found a sport or activity that called for his full attention.
“Our 5-year-old is always asking, ‘Daddy, tell me a story about when you were little,’” Jon says. “There weren’t a whole lot of stories. I wish there were more, but it was pretty much playing with my sister and attending church and school. We have memories of funny things that happened, often things I said. I remember those fondly, but not many interesting stories.”
Though no deep interests jumped out at him through childhood, Jon did cultivate strong critical thinking skill thanks to his parents, who richly valued robust debate. The family would argue — “in a healthy way”, Jon notes — about anything from politics to whether water is wet, so perhaps it’s no surprise that when Jon took an aptitude test in high school amid his parent’s concerns about what he would do with his future, the results revealed lawyer as his ideal profession.
After being homeschooled through the 10th grade, Jon’s parents enrolled him in a classical Christian school for his final two years of high school. Though the school only had 12 total students from grades 6-12 and one teacher for the core subjects, it broadened Jon’s academic horizons in a way homeschooling never had.
“It changed my perspective on a lot of things,” Jon says. “I found out that I like challenges, and I hadn’t really been challenged before. When I started being challenged by school, I started enjoying it.”
Though they were no longer his formal educators after his foray into school, Jon’s parents continued to serve as his primary source of intellectual conversation, encouragement and motivation to pursue the law career the aptitude test had suggested for him. They remain such a profound influence on Jon’s life that his most valuable possession is actually not his possession at all, but instead a Mercedes Benz GLC — his parents’ dream car — that he customized and gifted them last year as a measure of thanks for the sacrifices his parents made to pave the way for the opportunities he now enjoys.
“The school I went to in 11th grade was very cheap for what it was, but it was still a financial hurdle for my parents,” Jon said. “I really appreciate their sacrifices and the impact they make in the church and churches around the world. I love them. As the business started to do well, I was talking about the sports car I wanted and Dad said, ‘That’s cool for you, but I would want a Mercedes.’ As soon as I heard that, I said, ‘I’m going to get him a Mercedes before I get what I want.’ It’s by far the biggest gift I’ve ever given anyone and the biggest gift they’ve ever received. Everything they did for me led to everything else.”
After finishing high school, Jon continued to live at home to save money and commuted 25 minutes to the University of New Hampshire, where he studied Philosophy, Humanities and Criminal Justice while also holding a job at a local Wal-Mart distribution center. College also presented an opportunity to study abroad in London, where Jon first took advantage of the photography gift that his mother had first noticed years before in a school art class.
“I bought a very basic camera, a $120 Lumix point-and-shoot,” Jon says. “I went over there and wanted to take pictures for me and my family. Dad had been to Niagara Falls in Canada, but my family hadn’t travelled outside the U.S. besides that. I wanted to take pictures for me and to post onto Facebook for everyone to see where I was.”
After his semester abroad, Jon threw himself into the pursuit of law school, quitting his part-time job to free up valuable study time. He took every practice test he could find — about 80 over the course of one summer — and applied to eight prestigious law schools but ultimately did not gain admission to any of his preferred destinations and elected to go back to England and pursue a Master’s degree at Oxford University. After completing his Master’s of Science in Criminology, Jon again applied to a collection of top-15 law schools, only to fall short again.
“My mom said, ‘Harvard’s loss,’ and I said, ‘Well, no, it’s mine,’” Jon recalls with a laugh, “I really put in a good effort, and it didn’t really help my score all that much. I ended up about 70th percentile.”
With law school temporarily out of the picture, Jon moved to New York City and took a job as a paralegal, a career stop that lasted just six months but changed his life forever. For the first-time, Jon got a close look at what actually went into a law career and the people who occupied the field. He was not impressed, and the sour experience was enough to make Jon rethink his career plans.
More importantly, however, Jon met his future wife Katie during his brief stint in the Big Apple. The couple married in 2015, and Jon now values her not only as a life partner, but also as an important key to High End Headshots’ success.
“She’s not married to who she thought she would be married to,” Jon says. “Any success I have in the business is a ‘we’ accomplishment. I tell Katie, ‘We got a big client.’ She didn’t talk to them, but I wouldn’t be able to get them without her. She’s loving, and she forgives super easily. She’s getting to do what she always really wanted to do, and that’s be a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t expect me to be able to stay at home as much as I do either, so she appreciates that. I think she likes spending time with me, but she also appreciates that I can be a bigger part of the kids’ lives and help out. The kitchen is mainly my domain.”
Jon returned home to New Hampshire after leaving the New York law firm and began volunteering for a gubernatorial campaign, eventually landing a job for $150 per week near the end of the race. His candidate lost that race, but Jon enjoyed the work and went on to work an additional three campaigns before landing a staff position in the House of Representatives in D.C. Unfortunately for Jon, the outcome of the latter three campaigns was the same as his first, and his boss on Capitol Hill lost his first reelection. Jon became disenchanted with politics after enduring five tough defeats, but his second career did give him the opportunity to plant roots in the place where he wanted to grow.
“In five elections, nothing happened,” Jon says. “There was one thing we supported policy-wise that got done, but it was mostly six years of losing and getting jaded. It gave me the experience to get a job in D.C., which was part of the reason why I was working on a couple of the campaigns. I was hoping the candidate would win and then I could work in D.C. for them.”
Jon stopped working in Congress but stayed in the political arena with a job at a non-profit in the political space. It didn’t take long for him to discover that it too was not a long-term fit. The first month went great, but then there was a gradual shift in the office environment which confirmed it was not the best fit.
While still on staff at the non-profit, Jon began another foray into photography, this time shooting photos of staged homes for a local realtor. He initially resisted the idea of photographing people, but Jon decided to give it a try when the realtor asked him to photograph home buyers. He stumbled upon education around headshots by Peter Hurley, a world-renowned headshot photographer based in New York who coaches a group of up-and-coming photographers looking to enhance their craft. He joined the coaching group and dove into perfecting the craft, learning the intricacies of lighting, positioning and facial expression.
“I really liked his work, which looks somewhat like my work now,” Jon says. “I liked his teaching, and he was teaching what I needed to learn. We’re somewhat similar in the way he coaches people to laugh and smile. You don’t usually get someone like that in an industry to coach you, so I said, ‘I’m gonna be a headshot photographer.’ I took a lot of what he taught and came up with my own way of doing it.”
Jon continued to hone his skills and expand his side gig over his 15 months at the non-profit, and he soon began to call himself a photographer rather than a political communications professional when others asked about his line of work. He grew more interested in photography than his day job which may have contributed to his being fired in 2018. Jon now looks back on that as one of the best things to ever happened to him. He planned to quit the job anyway to start his business in 2020, but had he waited, High-End Headshots likely would have become a casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I had a bit of a runway because they fired me earlier than I would have quit,” Jon says. “I kind of made it a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t have any hard feelings, but I wanted to make this thing that most people think is bad, I want to make it a great thing that happened to me.”
Unburdened by his 9-to-5, Jon immediately threw himself into building his business. He decided shortly after the firing that he would not pursue other full-time jobs, instead taking the leap of faith and committing himself 100 percent to his newfound passion.
“Katie was super supportive,” Jon says. “I went home, told her that I had indeed been fired, and I said, ‘I think I should probably just go start working on a website.’ She’s like, ‘OK.’ There wasn’t a great reason to believe I could do business, but she’s super supportive.”
Jon got his burgeoning business off the ground quickly. He picked up new clients and rented a studio just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. All was going according to plan. Then the pandemic hit.
“The business tanked without in-person work,” Jon recalls. “In May 2020, I earned $550 and the studio was $875. The business had been growing, and we expected 2021’s business income in 2020, but sixty percent of my income was going to offices and doing groups, and that just stopped.”
Jon kept up enough business to survive the scare, and he’s since more than made up for lost time as workers around the DMV region returned to in-office work. He was in such demand, in fact, that Jon was able to realize his goal of charging the area’s highest rates for headshot sessions. It may sound like a dubious distinction, but to Jon, it is a reminder of the quality that is expected of him each time he steps behind the camera.
“A lot of photographers will say, ‘I don’t want to ask for that much,’” Jon says. “You’re not asking for that much. You’re just setting a price. I want to work with people who value me and what I do. Your pricing should scare you a little. It shouldn’t feel like you duped your client when they book, but it should be your inspiration to really do an amazing job for them. That’s why it’s called High-End Headshots.”
Jon considers his location a crucial part of his success, as the transient nature of D.C. ensures new business will always be available and its thriving scene of networking professionals will continue to generate referrals. He shoots professionals of all fields but feels he’s done his best work with those who “trade in trust” and thus get the most value from a standout headshot, including lawyers, business owners and financial service professionals. He is also active on LinkedIn and credits the platform with helping expand his reach and generate additional business from previously unknown connections. And sometimes business development comes from unlikely sources, as Jon learned when the person who trained him in his job at the non-profit who later fired him booked a session of her own.
Just a handful of years ago, Jon couldn’t have imagined he’d be in the position he is today, realizing his dream of making a great living while maintaining the flexibility he desires to spend time with his wife and children. His path to a photography career was no straight line, and the willingness to take life as it comes and keep chasing your passion is central to Jon’s advice to young people and aspiring business owners. Oh, and don’t necessarily trust a 10th-grade career aptitude test.
“I kind of laugh at that test,” Jon says. “It did not say headshot photographer. You can’t necessarily take anything you like and make a business out of it, but you can do that with a lot more things than people imagine. I love photography. I love what my vision of being the best and being the most expensive has created.”