Life Behind the Lens, One. How I Got My Start and the Path to Becoming a Freelance Photographer.
Welcome to a new series on my blog where I hope to share everything I know about working as a photographer, from getting started to building a client list and everything in between. This has been a long time coming and firstly I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get started, but now we’re here I thought I would jump it with the question I get asked most often, “how did you get your start in photography?”
I’m going to make this as short and straight forward as possible, mostly because it takes place over several years and there’s enough in here to fill a book…
About six years ago I started a job in a not for profit working in the communications team – it was a position I’d worked my way up to from a fundraising job and because I had my MA in journalism it seemed like the most logical step for me. It’s worth noting that my career story started with the recession hitting London and all journalism or communications jobs drying up… so I was working from a mindset of “I’m lucky to get whatever I can”. It was hard to get that job at the time because my self esteem was rock bottom – I’d interviewed for countless jobs I didn’t even want and got turned away every time. This was the first yes I’d ever had in my career and I took it without thinking – as it would turn out it was probably one of the best things I did at the time.
Over the next four years I worked doing all the social media for this not for profit. I had no experience in social media but I did have my masters which seemed to count for something even though it hadn’t covered facebook or anything like that. I was really keen to do a good job mostly because I didn’t want to go back to being jobless again – I might add that I spent 13 months unemployed in London before I landed this job… it was hell and I didn’t want to be there again. All of the decisions I made over the coming years were pretty much driven by desperation. I wasn’t where I thought I would be in my career by that age (mid twenties), I was still at a junior level, and I had barely any experience. My ego was shouting “not good enough” in my ear all day every day and I was determined to get good enough as fast as I could.
Looking back, desperation and determination is really what drove me to work do what I did over the coming years. For the following four years I was split between being incredibly unhappy but so driven to make something of myself. I was unhappy because I had the worst boss, I mean I used to come home from work every day and cry because he was so mean to me. He was a real bully and I knew exactly why – through a long and complicated story which I won’t bore you with he had found himself in a senior position and he and NO CLUE what he was doing. I know this because he would spend 90% of the time ignoring me and 10% of the time being a bully while telling me to do things that made no sense. I used to look over at him and watch him read the paper all day, and while he did no work I tried my best to manage and teach myself what needed to be done.
But I knew almost from the first moment that his laziness was probably the best opportunity I’d ever had in my career so far. It allowed me to create my own work week, to basically build my own job description, and to focus on the areas that I wanted to develop. If I asked for a training he’d sign it off without a second thought. I’d never really been known as a driven person, I was too busy being crippled by a rock bottom opinion of myself, but while he wasn’t interested enough to manage me, he was happy for me to do whatever it took to do well at my job because obviously that made him look good.
It was at that time that I found myself drawn to creative content and how it was made. Managing social media means you need a wealth of photos, videos, case studies… basically anything you can get your hands on at your fingertips at all times. I had none of this. I had a photo library that literally started from the 1900s, a few professional shots that were very old, and whatever random photos could be sent in from people doing work in the field. And the stories were so few and far between that I sometimes had to re-purpose content that was years old. It was a lot of work and the output wasn’t great.
It was at this point that I realised there was budget! Remember I was new to how companies are run and NGOs are essentially companies, so when I found out that maybe I could spend some money on content, I gathered my three favourite stories that I’d heard from other people who had traveled overseas and approached my manager – he just said “well why don’t you go and get them?”. My shocked reaction was “um… ok?”
So that’s how I found myself in Kenya with a freelance videographer, a list of interview questions and an itinerary. I remember sitting in my hotel room wondering what the hell I was doing… But again desperation to prove myself and determination not to be a failure crept in and I powered through. I was the definition of “fake it ’till you make it”. My masters covered none of what I was about to do, none of it. I had learned how to write a news story, how to write shorthand, and how to layout a magazine… that’s basically it. Now I had to manage a cameraman, storyboard, script, direct, produce, all through a translator, and then eventually go home and edit three stories into short films… I knew I needed to do all of this because I had googled it.
But I did it. I got home with the footage, I smoothed over any mistakes I had made, and I got to work on teaching myself how to edit a film. Needless to say if anyone noticed that I didn’t know what I was doing, they didn’t say anything!
I don’t think I would have succeeded if I didn’t a) have a certain aptitude for this kind of work, and b) an on-fire desire to prove myself. But the films I made were a success and they paved the way for me to pitch other ideas. As far as I was concerned the sky was the limit and good grief I was persistent. But I think it’s important to note that I was determined out of interest, yes, and out of enjoyment for what I was doing, of course… but more than anything I was driven by a feeling of not being good enough for anything. It’s what made me a prime candidate to work under a manager that made me feel like absolute dirt for four years, while at the same time, making the most of it.
So over the coming years I traveled a lot and I learned a lot. I lost my budget for freelancers so I had to teach myself how to film, how to photograph, how to interview, and how to do it all at the same time (something I would NOT recommend). I also was blogging on my old blog during the evenings and weekends, I was producing five to six posts a week while holding down a full time job plus teaching myself how to actually do that job. It was a lot. Looking back I have no idea how I did it – I’ve never worked so hard at anything in my life!
But eventually things changed and my job changed, it changed a lot over those four years actually, I think in total I went through four title changes and had to interview for my position about three or four times. Finally on the last change over I had a change of manager too – it was amazing. I was actually managed! Of course I was afraid that I would have to stop doing what I loved so much (it was too good to be true), and I would have to spend more time behind a desk. I was also afraid that I would be exposed as a fraud! But my content had been so successful that I was taken away from social media and moved to full time content creation.
I got my budget back and started being able to hire freelancers, I could even hire someone full time to work with me so that I could focus less on the admin of planning and more on the creative side of things. I also started to lose my passion for lifestyle blogging and I started to drift more towards photography. I’d been photographing for years already but in a more functional kind of way – it was never the focus of my work, just part of the focus amongst filming and interviewing.
It took me completely by surprise when I, without a second thought, hired someone else to film, someone else to do the case studies, and put myself forward to do the photography. It was at this point that I recognised that photography was what I loved the most… but it was also at this point that I made a promise to myself never to make photography a career. Freelancing I thought was too risky, and I had known unemployment, I had worked too hard to get the security of a monthly pay check and I was not about to let it go! (ha ha!)
I carried on with my work and besides having to create plans, budgets and write content strategy, I was now able to focus entirely on photography and filmmaking, and I was able to really grow and develop as a photographer. I was so surprised! I remember coming back to my hotel room after days in the field and just staring at my laptop, I couldn’t believe what I had done… But more than that, when I posted on my blog and when I posted on instagram I used to get comments about being really good – and I thought “if strangers who owe me nothing are taking the time to say I’m a good photographer, it must be true…”
Over the next two years I learned so much about being an overseas photographer on assignment, I was like a sponge for everything I could learn. But also at the same time, I had to manage the whole trip. I had to direct, I had to make decisions and I had to be responsible for everything that was going on – and also the organisation was going through a rebrand and I was leading on the photography so, you know… no pressure.
I think it’s important to remember at this point, the only experience that I had was what I had taught myself. And I knew that when I put forward my ideas to external people at branding and fundraising agencies, I had to do so with complete confidence in my experience, that it was worth something and that I was worth something… it turns out that faking it until you make it can actually convince you of your own self worth, if you do it for long enough.
It was at this point that I started to feel restless and insecure at the lack of diversity in my experience – I had A LOT of experience, but only in one field. So I started to do my full time job plus I started to pitch myself as a freelance photographer. I began to take my instagram a bit more seriously. I started to turn my blog into a website and a portfolio. I started to test out fashion photography, food, lifestyle, landscape, styling… even weddings! I started to grow some freelance clients, and I started to drift away from my full time contract. I was still working really hard at my job but I was also splitting myself in two – I was full time and I was freelancing. Goodness knows how I didn’t give myself an aneurism from all the stress and juggling. But somehow, everything always seemed to work out. My scheduling, my trips, my shoots… it just sort of fell into place. I think this was the first sign that I was on the right track, I was slowly burning myself out but I was happy and everything was working out for me.
I was fully aware that I was moving towards what I had promised myself I would never do… full time freelance photography, but it was almost like I couldn’t help it. Yet I still didn’t want to give up my full time job because I was scared. I didn’t want to lose the security and I was still working from a place of desperation and “not good enough” – I had gained confidence, but only in my little familiar pool. Going freelance means betting on yourself. You can’t convince people to hire you if you don’t think you’re good enough…
Eventually I was put in a position where I was given too amazing of an opportunity to pass up – and I had to resign. It was terrifying! I can’t go into the details of that opportunity because they’re still confidential but I waited for about a year for a sign that it was the right time, and eventually it came… and suddenly I was unemployed again but under completely different circumstances.
I couldn’t even look in the direction of “not good enough”, and I couldn’t afford to be driven by desperation anymore – I had to focus on my confidence and my experience and the fact that I KNEW I had a lot to offer, especially in the development sector.
Of course I was terrified at first. I cried a lot because of the crippling self doubt. I made my friends promise that they would tell me if I was making a huge mistake… and then I just turned away from any kind of negative thinking and got to work. I didn’t focus too hard on the big picture, I just put one foot in-front of the other until I was sailing smoothly. It’s been a year now and I wouldn’t say I feel like I’m flying yet, but I’m busy and I’m earning more than I was before I left my job so I’d count that as a win.
The whole point of this is, if I could pick out just one point… there is more than one path to becoming a full time, paid photographer and it’s going to be messy and winding. Everyone has their different story and you can’t expect yours to look like mine, or anyone else’s. And for goodness sake you are not failing because you haven’t achieved what I have or taken the same steps as whichever photographer you look to for inspiration…
You don’t need to be amazingly confident with clients and experience to consider yourself a professional photographer. You just need to think your work is good enough, and put it out there for people to feed back on – and you need to act professional!
You can definitely reach your photography goals by your own path, and lack of self confidence can still be present and not hold you back. I really hope this series will help give you as much information as possible to help you on your way.
I can’t wait to dive in with you!!x