Today I am -listening to Arcade Fire (which falls into Dave's "hippie fire dance music" category, which is why we don't listen to it on road trips : ). -wearing a red sweater. -eating zucchini "brownies," which turned out to not be brownies at all, but more like chocolate zucchini bread. if I think of them that way, they taste better. -totally thrilled that tomorrow I'm getting my split ends chopped off AND we're getting internet. glory hallelujah, what day. -reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. -super thankful for my super hot husband. -thinking about my job and why I do what I do.
Yesterday I got an email from a colleague that said "Abby has photo groupies!" Below that was a forwarded email from a college student asking a series of questions about my job and what's brought me to where I am today. I've been getting these kind of inquires more and more often lately, which is flattering, and humbling, when I feel like I have SUCH a long way to go, and am really not that much further ahead than the students writing me (how about 3 years ahead - wowza).
As I wrote this email to her, I realized how incredibly helpful it is to articulate these things, because it keeps me focused. Why AM I doing this job? Where am I going? Where do I hope to go? It makes me reflective and thankful and motivated.
So here's what I wrote...
(1) How long have you been a photographer? I started doing photography as a kid when my parents taught me the basics (both were amateur photographers). In high school I took darkroom classes and set up my own darkroom at home. Then I studied photojournalism (and everything was digital by then : ) at the University of North Carolina and graduated in 2009. Throughout college, I had a few photo internships, and then started with World Vision in October 2009.
(2) What brought you into the field? When I was 16, I took a missions trip to Ukraine with my youth group, and my youth pastor asked me to be the team photographer (I had just received a new camera for my 16th birthday). I loved doing this, and it ignited a spark in me for hearing and telling people's stories using beautiful photographs. This is still why I do what I do, and those pictures from Ukraine are still some of my favorites.
(3) What is your primary income stream? I work full-time for World Vision, so that's where my salary comes from. However, I did have to intern for free first (see below : )!
(4) How long did it take you to establish your position as photographer working with World Vision? A friend introduced me to Jon Warren, and I asked him if he needed an intern. I had been working in Portland as an intern for the Oregonian, and was planning to move to Seattle to be with friends after I finished my internship. Jon agreed to take me on as an intern (his first ever!), and so I began in October 2009. After Christmas break that winter, I came back to the office in January 2010, and just a few days later, the Haiti earthquake happened. Jon was due to go to China to take photos, but had to go to Haiti instead and couldn't cancel the China trip. So they ended my internship and asked me to fly to China with a team five days later. After that, I had a few short-term contracts (3 months and 6 months), and then was hired full-time last June. All-in-all, I had been here almost 2 years before I became full-time staff.
(5) What do you believe have been the key factors in your success? I think this job takes a lot of humility - you have to be willing to submit yourself to harsh criticism if you want your portfolio to be stronger as a student, and as a professional, you have to listen if someone you respect says your work is weak in one area and you need to strengthen it. It's often hard to see your flaws when you're doing something you're passionate about and feel proud of. Sometimes you know when you've done bad work, but sometimes you need someone to kick you in the pants if your work is just okay and has the potential to be awesome. It also takes humility to shut up and listen to your story subjects. You are a conduit for someone else's story - your opinion doesn't really matter all that much, so it's better to listen. Good mentors are key to growth and fueling creativity. A good editor or coach will catapult you towards new and better storytelling, because they can see your strengths and weaknesses, and know how to encourage you to be better. A bad coach won't see these things, or won't take the time to help you develop, which can be crippling. I've been blessed to have mostly great coaches. And a lot of these coaches have been at phenomenal workshops I've attended. These intensive weekends/weeks/months have been the periods where I've grown the most as a photographer because they are high pressure, high stress, and demand creativity in an environment of very creative people. I've loved them all and they've given me some of my best skills and photographs.
(6) Have you altered your career trajectory along the way? If yes, how often and why? I'm still pretty early in my career, so I haven't altered it too much yet, but being recently married and thinking about the prospect of having kids one day, I can see how it might change. This job is demanding - being in the field is exhilarating and exhausting, and it's hard to be away from home and family for long periods of time. That's also balanced by slow time in the office when nothing much exciting is happening. I travel internationally an average of 4 times per year, and domestically an average of 2-3 times per year. The rest of the time I'm sitting in - guess where - a gray cubicle typing on a computer. So that's an interesting tension in my job - I have two worlds, and I have to learn to excel in both. Another thing I often heard when I was working with different photographers as an intern was that they were tired of being observers and wanted to be directly involved in people's lives. So much of honest photography is fading into the background so you can capture real moments and not alter the situation too much by your presence. One photographer I knew quit his job and went to nursing school because he wanted direct touch with people. After a few years of doing photography (especially non-profit photography), I resonate with this. Not that I'm leaving photography yet, but it's an interesting thought for the future.
(7) What advice would you offer a photographer interested in pursuing your career type? No one ever likes to hear this, but I think you have to be willing to work for next to nothing, or nothing at all, for a while. Not forever, but long enough to develop a strong portfolio and contacts and get yourself established in a good/rewarding job. I think if you really want it, you'll find ways to make it happen. I lived with family friends and nannied for their kids while I interned at World Vision for free (they've since started paying interns). Some people wait tables or work at coffee shops. This doesn't sound glamorous, but nearly everyone has done it. I'd also say it's helpful to have people regularly review your photography. Almost everyone will have a different opinion, but it's good to hear varying perspectives and let that inform how you assemble your portfolio. An image that you may think is really strong may actually be weakening the rest of your portfolio. A few years into this job, I've found that it's sometimes difficult to maintain your passion when it's also what you do for a living. My advice would be to constantly seek opportunities for creativity - photoshoots with friends, portrait sessions, covering a concert, concept photography, experimenting with film, etc etc. Keeping a blog or Tumblr or even posting photos on Facebook can be a great motivator, because you get feedback. I think there's something about art that makes you dissatisfied until someone else sees it. Maybe that's really narcissistic of me, but I think good art wants to be seen, and should be seen. And recently I've been learning the importance of developing your personal style. I heard a lot about this in school, but looking at different photographers' work now, it makes more sense. Especially if you're considering something like wedding or portrait photography, people will hire you for your style, not the strength of individual photos or stories. Ask someone else who knows your work to help you identify elements of what makes your photography YOURS, and why it stands out because of that. This is somewhat innate, but can also be developed. I was thinking about this concept yesterday while looking at this photographer's work: http://maxwanger.com
ps: just for fun, here are a few photographers I look to for inspiration: Alyssa Bistonath http://www.alyssabistonath.com/ Kristen Marie : http://www.iamkristenmarie.com/ Esther Havens : http://estherhavens.com/ Alex Webb: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP=XSpecific_MAG.PhotographerDetail_VPage&l1=0&pid=2K7O3R1V0OB0&nm=Alex%20Webb