When I enrolled in the New England School of Photography in the fall of 2004, instead of pursuing a traditional post graduate degree, I was in my mid 20’s, passionate, committed and interested in photography from a relatively early age. Even if I didn’t have much practical exposure to photography prior to my enrollment in NESOP, and had been repeatedly told that photography was likely far too difficult and technical for me to grasp and that my interest would never amount to anything, much less a career. I was absolutely fascinated by the photographic process and unwilling to just let it go. With a limited understanding of camera technique and only just on the cusp of adulthood I very inexpertly floundered my way through high school accidentally creating the odd “good” picture while doing my schoolwork but never really achieving the desired results. It wasn't until I took my first official photography class as an exchange student in Italy that it all started to make sense, but even then it was kind of a crapshoot with our class weighted more towards the creative than the technical and half of my images being either incredibly over or underexposed. Don't get me wrong, I loved it all the same. When I finally started photo school several years later in the fall of 2004, I didn’t have any particularly lofty aspirations of photographic superstardom I just wanted to make good pictures and try to carve out a living doing so.
As a photography student I was probably not what you would call a prodigious talent but I had a lot of vision and what I lacked in technique I made up for in enthusiasm. My instructors while excellent, gave me no illusions about my future prospects as a creative professional. They weren't mean about it, but their sobering advice came with all the weight of the decades of hard work and the struggle it took them to get to where they were. They explained their reality as freelancers and added that unless you are a prodigious talent and had a major “in," or were independently wealthy, upon graduation you would be wading through the shit in the trenches with everyone else on the first rung of the employment ladder. It was either that or as one instructor put it, "ladies, you can always marry rich.”
In the late spring of 2006, just after my final portfolio review, I found myself standing on the steps of the gallery in the International Center of Photography amidst my co-finalists in the Dom Pérignon-Karl Lagerfeld ‘A Bottle Named Desire’ Photography Competition as they started to announce the winners. In comparison to most of the other designs that were present mine was significantly more abstract. Before I got to New York a few people even shared their opinion that my creations weren’t really photographs and therefore probably not what they were looking for. I knew my work was kind of a risk, as it was very non-traditional, but I also thought my work was just as good as everything else represented. Since I am a realist at heart, I never expected to make it through the first round, much less the final round of the competition.
Winning was arguably the best and worst way I could have started my burgeoning photography career. On the one hand, who doesn’t like to win? On the other hand it set the bar kind of unrealistically high for a new grad. The hurly burly that followed in no way dampened the candy coated the sweetness of my small success. I might have still had a few reservations about my professional future but for at least one hot minute I thought, “Shit, I could really do this.”
The collective wisdom post competition seemed to fall in one of four categories. 1) Shit. That’s awesome! 2) It’s all down hill from here. The win was a fluke that will never be repeated and represents something which anyone with the wherewith-all could do. 3) Quit while you’re ahead. 4) I should be making waves and marketing myself here, there and everywhere. I should get an agent, I should move to NYC, I should do all sorts of things that realistically someone starting out just couldn’t afford. Frankly, I felt lucky to still have a roof over my head. While I had a lot of faith in my ability to survive and move forward I felt like unless someone was going to give me a big bag of cash or help me make a move to a city even more expensive city than Boston, it wasn’t going to happen.
It was easy to dream about a future as a professional photographer but not so easy to realize. Starting out in the world as a photographer was very different from the path laid out for me as an undergraduate Spanish major. Unlike being a Spanish teacher there was no predetermined path to follow that could ever fully prepare me for starting out in the “real” world much less as someone who is self employed, and even less so as someone who aspired to be a successful creative professional.
Someone once told me that Confucius said, “choose a job you love and you will never had to work a day in your life.” Well, I call bullshit. As a neophyte I took pretty much every job that was thrown at me, super small jobs, trade-for-prints, work-for-food, work-for-exposure, freelancing, per diem and contract gigs. They were are all resume builders and par for the course even if they only barely made me financially solvent. As I struggled on I realized that there is much more to being a professional than having business cards or a social media presence and a website, which are no more a measure of professionalism or success than getting a bike means you are an athlete or will win the Tour de France. What people don’t tell you about freelancing and being a creative professional, or at least trying to be one, is that it isn’t enough just to be creative. It isn’t enough to have a passion for something, or go to school for it, or to be good at whatever it is you do. It isn’t even enough to have connections, although that can certainly help you get your foot in the door. You have to have something else…
My first “real” job fresh out of photo school was a temp job, in the donations department of a local hospital. I started in late May of 2006, a few weeks after graduation and I immediately knew it wasn’t going to work when the office manager, who was giving me a tour, asked me if I was positive I knew how to alphabetize. Then she showed me to a workstation where, with a flick of her wrist, she told me I was supposed to sit all day pressing buttons like a LOST reject and I realized that job was not a good fit for me. My co-workers didn’t seem to mind any part of it. They didn’t mind sitting all day, the lack of sunlight, the subtle nodes of onions and tuna fish that wafted through the office, or the fact that the department managers disembodied dentures spent the entire day smiling down at us from a glass on the side of her desk. I only stayed at that job for one horrible week, during which I had all my keystrokes counted and had to listen to the same five songs on rotate ALL. FUCKING. DAY. By the 4th time “Promiscuous Girl” looped around I had already “gone to the bathroom” every hour and a half or so just to stand up and walk around until the department manager pulled me aside and said, “bathroom breaks are fine as long as you really have to go.”
There are a few fundamental truths you have to understand when you work as a creative professional. First, before you can create with abandon you need to survive. Second, potential clients might think it’s great that you are super creative and are a master of alternative processes but most of them are not likely to hire you to do that, at least not in the commercial world and especially not right out of the gate. They are most likely hiring you, and your camera, to take fairly straight forward pictures of their product/event/staff and deliver them on time and on budget. Third, you will not get a paycheck if you do not work, and you will not find clients if you do not look for them. Rent, bills, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, equipment fees, taxes, maintenance costs, website hosting, business cards, promotional materials, healthcare, insurance and marketing, plus all the exhaustive hours of administration and planning it takes to run your life and produce whatever it is you do that makes you the creative professional you are, that is all on you.
In the absence of enough paid work I lived very carefully off of savings and credit cards while I continued to canvass for work. The way I saw it, I was better to be busy than to be bored and any job was better than no job, particularly if it was all building experience and towards the career I envisioned for myself. In the interim I did some volunteer photography for a local film festival and a few local non-profits. Then I shot a series of events for a couple of local schools and I volunteered as a teaching assistant. I even picked up a few commissions and sold a couple of prints. I contacted local newspapers, magazines and photo editors but I was never quite what they were looking for. It could have been discouraging but I figured it was all just par-for-the-course. At one point early on I even fielded a series of phone calls for work like my “Dom Pérignon Abstracts,” which in the end were deemed “too arty” for the products being advertised, but it was flattering nonetheless to be considered for the jobs.
Eventually I started landing small one-off freelance assistant gigs. For several months I swept, organized, labeled, and made lunch runs, I ran up and down Mass Ave carrying equipment and chasing reflectors. It was very different from what most of my family had pursued, there were weird hours and sporadic pay, and it was also a lot of physical labor… but I made some friends and connections and ultimately I felt like I was moving forward, plus it was kind of fun. At least at the beginning the work came and went in small clusters of furious activity all the while I bounced between temp assignments and assisting gigs that, while resume building, still somehow always left me short on cash.
The thing about “making it” is that you have to decide what “making it” means for you. For some it means having a 401k and getting a 9-5 job. While for others it means going viral, getting grants, surviving off wine and ramen, and for some it doesn’t matter what they’re doing just as long as they also have the time to be able to do what they love while still being able to pay the bills. However unlikely it might be that everyone who sets out to “make it”will be the next Annie Leibowitz or Mario Testino, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to produce great work or have something to contribute and above all certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.