How I got started as a photographer - part one

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Since I quit my full time job just over a year ago to pursue a career as a freelance photographer, I've received a ton of questions about how I did it. I understand that to anyone wanting to pursue photography as a career, it can seem impenetrable and more than a little intimidating. The question of how one becomes a photographer is both the easiest and hardest question to answer. The easy answer, and the one I should think every professional photographer will give, is to get yourself a camera and start taking photos. That's the foundation that all photographers have in common - they started with a camera. But that, my friends, is where the similarities end, and why it's such a difficult question to answer properly - because there is no single route into being a professional photographer. There is no qualification or rite of passage that will make you a photographer, and even more so to make you into one who will be able to successfully find fulfilment, satisfaction and adequate earnings from it.

The best way I can help you understand how to become a photographer, is to share with you a little of my journey so far. My story is not one of overnight success, nor of an upward trajectory along a focused path. It is a long and winding journey with many mis-steps along the way, of figuring out what I wanted to do and then of finally finding the courage to go out and do it. It's the story of a lifelong love of cameras and taking pictures, of an obsession with preserving memories and using photography to grab hold of as many moments in time as I can before they slipped through my fingers. 

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Before you start reading, it's important to understand that I am not writing this from a place of having "arrived" but instead as someone who is on a journey of pursuing a passion and figuring out how to make it work for me and my family. It is my personal story of how I went from amateur enthusiast to professional, to my primary source of income being photography. I by no means make a full time living from it yet, as I balance my photography work around being a full time parent, and have only done this for one year so far. I have learnt a lot from my first year as a freelance photographer, but also from every step I have taken in my life so far to get here. That's why I am going to start you off at the very beginning...

In the beginning...

I remember the day my dad first showed me a camera. He took out a large, silver flight case from under the bed and opened it, revealing an array of lenses, filters, and other equipment neatly fitted between dark grey mountainous foam. The star piece was an Olympus OM-10, which I was too young to be allowed to use back then and was instead given a cheap 35mm automatic fixed lens black camera. And there began my obsession. I remember going for walks with my dog, capturing everything in sight and using rolls and rolls of film. I'd lie on my back and shoot upwards at the trees, trying to get a new perspective and understand the possibilities of this new way of seeing. I began to capture family holidays, my dog, my friends, any event I possibly could on film and fill scrapbooks with my adventures. It was the nearest I could get to a time capsule, that black piece of plastic and glass. 

In those days, I sent my film off to be developed. Green and white plastic Truprint bags, filled with rolls of 35mm film and a folded cheque. You'd tick boxes on the back of the bag to say what film was inside, how many exposures and if you wanted matt or gloss. I filled boxes of photos, albums and scrapbooks of all my memories, started a small collection of cameras (mostly junky ones and polaroids) and would buy photography books from charity shops, pouring over all the incredibly images and falling in love with monochrome photography especially. Alongside my growing interest in cameras and taking pictures, I was also a gymnast with a busy schedule. I trained at the local gym club for four hours a night after school, and was back in on the weekends too. There wasn't much time to pursue anything else seriously, and I don't remember it ever occurring me to do more with my photography. It was a hobby to me, one that I loved and did as often as I could, but gymnastics was my primary passion at that time.  

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Starting to learn about analogue photography, cameras and the dark room...

When it came down to choosing subjects for my AS Levels at Secondary School (year one of A Levels which had been recently introduced in the UK) I decided to take Photography alongside Biology, Chemistry and English. It was a leap for me, because I had no aptitude for straight 'art' or drawing, but I was desperate to learn how to use a proper SLR camera and develop my own film in the darkroom. Those weekly Friday morning photography classes quickly became my favourite thing in the world, with the darkroom becoming my second home. I'd arrive at school early, and stay as late as I could, listening to cassettes of my favourite albums under the glow of the red light. It was my happy place, and often had to be dragged out by friends to go to my other lessons.

I loved so many subjects at school, science, the arts and sport especially. Honestly I think I could have pursued any one of them, but the problem I had was in narrowing it down and choosing a degree subject that would be something I would eventually follow as a career. The advice I constantly received was to choose, and to focus. Everyone else was doing that, so why couldn't I?. Compared with my peers at school, I often felt in the middle somewhere with my abilities. I wasn't a stand out student at any subject, but I was capable at almost all of them (ugh, mathematics, I am looking at you). I would have loved to go to Art school, and to study photography, but there were the 'art' students and then there was me. I didn't think I was a creative person, nor did I think I was good enough at photography to pursue it at that time. I had always said I wanted to be a scientist, and so that's how everybody saw me - my parents, my teachers, my friends and even myself.. Looking back, I wish I had chosen that moment in my life to take some time out, delve deeper into photography and work my butt off to produce a portfolio good enough to apply to art school. I don't think I really knew that was an option for me, because I truly believed that there was such a thing as creative people and non-creative people, and that each one belonged in their own box and couldn't cross over. So, I continued along the science path as planned, even though the clues were there that this wasn't right for me. 

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In 2001 I went to university to study zoology, following another lifelong love and interest in animals and the natural world. I loved science, but found I hated sitting in lecture theatres all day or standing around in stuffy labs with hundreds of other students. So many of the other science students were very different to me, and I preferred to spend my time amongst the English, Drama and Music students playing pool and watching old movies. I was also a member of the photography society, and with my own key to the darkroom I ended up spending most of my days and nights in there. I shot only black and white film, mostly of my uni mates, nearby Windsor great park and the beautiful scenery around my university. Again, nothing I thought about taking more seriously at that stage, but despite all the other things I had to fill my time, photography was something I just couldn't quit. I spent so much of my student allowance on cameras, film and developing chemicals, papers and other equipment and started to delve deeper into the work and writings of the old masters of photography. I wish I still had some of the photos I took during those years, but a fire at my student house (started accidentally by me, but that's a whole other story) burnt almost everything I owned. All my photos, negatives, books and more.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.
— Steve Jobs (Stanford commencement speech, June 2005)

Losing my way, and finding it again...

After leaving university in 2004, I was completely and utterly lost. I had left early, without completing my degree, due to some mental health issues that I spoke a bit more about in this post. My last year or so at university was an extremely difficult time for me, and I still feel very sad about it, how much time I spent deep in the darkness of my own head without a rope to help me out. So I left university with no plans, no money, nowhere to live, and some fairly serious problems with depression, anxiety and insomnia. I ate a lot of rice, slept on a lot sofas and walked to a lot of crappy job interviews because I couldn't afford the bus. I delivered sandwiches on a bicycle, worked in fancy wine bars where I hated all the rude, entitled customers and did a few waitressing jobs before I found work as a barmaid in a little pub in Kentish Town. In that bar, I found a family of sorts, mostly musicians and creative people where I didn't feel so pressured to have a plan and a proper job. I learnt to play the banjo, joined a band and started running music nights all over London. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were doing something alternative, something for themselves. Most of them were pursuing a passion, a dream, without any sort of a plan. All they knew was that they didn't want a 'proper' job and a conventional way of life, and they were prepared to do whatever it took to keep doing what they loved. I adored them, I loved being in their company and I loved being part of that community. It was fun and free and inspiring and different, and it changed my world.

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A year or so later,  I decided to go back to university to study Music Management and Events Management,  thinking I could get a qualification and some theoretical knowledge behind what I was doing, buying myself three more years of pursuing something I loved before I had to get a real job. I worked for a music promoter on the side to earn money, and went to uni during the day. I took a Summer internship on a small festival, worked with comedians and artists, writers and musicians. I learned a lot about running a small business, and became interested in the idea of working for myself one day. When my second degree finished in 2009, I was offered a paid events internship at a charity in East London. The internship soon progressed into a full time job as their music and events manager, and as the team was so small I was in a fortunate position where I could dream anything up and make it happen. It was a wonderful place to be, and the first time that my enthusiasm and endless stream of ideas and the energy I had to give to them was appreciated and valued. I took ownership over several areas of the charity and the cafe/event space we ran, including the marketing and social media. Alongside my other tasks, I started to teach myself how to build basic websites, write a blog, use Twitter and Facebook so I could promote our services and events to a wider audience. It was exciting, and I loved that job more than almost anything else I have ever done. 

My first digital camera, and starting a blog...

Around the same time as I started working for the charity, my parents gave me a digital camera for my birthday. I'd pretty much stopped doing photography a few years previous, I don't quite remember why...I guess life just took me in another direction for while. The gift of a new camera, and a new world of digital photography to explore and teach myself really was the beginning of the next phase for me. I started to take photos of the events I put on at the charity, using the images on our website and marketing materials. At the end of 2010, I started a blog of my own, and began to develop my photography, writing and social media skills for my own personal use as alongside doing the same for my job. I wasn't much good, to start with, using the kit lens on my Canon 450d, but the more I did it the better I became. I remember thinking to myself that one day I would need a blog, and so I had better start one and learn how to do it, so when that day came I would be ready. 

After a couple of years working at the charity, I became frustrated with some things about the job that I lacked experience to figure out and negotiate a pay rise. I left, thinking that was my only option, and took a job in the digital marketing team at Southbank Centre. I was so excited, at the time, to have got a 'real job' at a big organisation. It seemed like a stamp of approval, and I thought that was the start of my future in the arts organisation circuit in London. In reality, I was way too experienced for that job and I got bored quickly, but all the while I kept writing my blog and taking photos. My camera came everywhere with me, I started capturing more of daily life, the things I did at the weekends, the people around me, the trips I went on. It was just like when I was a child, documenting everything I did in a scrapbook, except this time my scrapbook was on the internet. I got up early before work, disappeared to quiet spaces on my lunch break and stayed up late at night working on my writing and photography.

Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.
— Ray Bradbury

After just 18 months at that job, I learnt just how limiting it was to have a small role in a large organisation, and I retreated back to work for the tiny PR/events firm I had interned for at university. Through them I got a full time contract with a theatre company, a small team but a global operation. The role was remote, so I worked from home and relished in the extra time this gave me to work on my writing and photography now that I wasn't commuting several hours a day to an office. I became obsessed with blogs (which were booming in popularity at the time) online businesses, creative people sharing their journey to building a life that they loved. Instagram was just starting out, and all of a sudden there was a very easy window into not only the lives of people doing what I wanted to do, but debunking this myth of 'the creative person' and who was and wasn't allowed to pursue a creative career. I found so many like minded people, with meandering careers and tales of lost years just like mine. People who wanted to be writers and artists and photographers and small business owners, but because of the twists and turns they had taken with their lives, studies and jobs they had been convinced they weren't capable of following their dreams. Suddenly, the narrative of my future changed. Everything I had been telling myself for years was wrong, and I started to believe that if all these other people were figuring it out, making it work...then maybe I could too. 

Have you enjoyed Part One of my story of how I got started as a photographer? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Look out for part two coming next week! 

 

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