What I learned when photography alone couldn’t pay my bills

Helen's first day at a new school in Jinja, Uganda.
Helen’s first day at a new school in Jinja, Uganda.

Here’s a list of jobs I held between 2006 – 2008, when I was launching my photography career after two years of graduate school and one year on a fellowship. They’re listed in the order I landed the jobs:

  • Person setting up and breaking down a kiddie obstacle course
  • Person slicing up granola bars and handing them out at trade shows
  • Person handing out dietary supplement samples at a food and music festival (perfect for seeing how fast people can run from you)
  • *Part-time receptionist at a dental school (quit after eight months)
  • *Full-time photographer for a small studio (laid off after four months)
  • Freelance photographer at a wonderful mid-sized newspaper
  • *Part-time substitute teacher (moved to D.C. at the end of the school year)
  • Adjunct photography instructor at a wonderful two-year college
  • Waitress (fired after two weeks)
  • Freelance photographer for a couple NGOs
    *These are the jobs that actually paid me just enough to live on if I had no other work.

I wrote this list to show that sometimes you have to take non-photo work to pay your bills – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But when I held all the jobs listed above, I did feel something was wrong. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t make it as a photographer, something I thought was my calling, especially when other photographers I knew seemed busy and successful. Everyone says the photo industry is hard. Then why don’t we talk about what we do when the going gets hard – i.e. how we get by when photography skills alone can’t pay our bills?

If I’d been on Facebook back in 2006-2008, I’d probably have felt even more depressed than I already did.

I applied for almost 100 photojournalism jobs in eight months and got three interviews, no offers. I was living with my parents for the first time in 12 years in an area of the country where I had no friends. One cold winter’s night, when it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job for which I’d been told I was a frontrunner, I went for a 3-mile run at 9 p.m., sobbing the whole time.

“Why did I switch from business reporting to photography?” I screamed in my head. “Why did I think I could be a photographer?”

I was hungry for photo experience. I thought of applying for an unpaid internship or volunteer job, but I’d never worked an unpaid journalism job and I couldn’t imagine starting now. Anyway, it was out of the question. I had bills to pay: car loan, car insurance, gas, school loan, food, camera equipment, photo paper and ink (why did some job applications still require print portfolios???), and a big, unexpected medical bill from the previous year. True, my parents did graciously allow me to live in their home for several months (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but I paid them a small rent. They couldn’t help me financially, and I didn’t expect them to. All my work had to be compensated.

So non-photo jobs paid my bills for two years. I pursued my own photo projects and sought career guidance everywhere. That one-hour ride on a commuter van to and from the receptionist job? I photographed an essay on the commuter’s life. That video story I needed to submit for a job application, even though I knew nothing about video? I cold-called the lone video journalist at the local paper and asked for an in-person learning session, to which he agreed.

I also took a calculated risk I hoped would boost my career and pull me out of my depression: I scraped together enough money to move to Nepal for three months. I worked on a couple personal projects, published a couple stories and earned the equivalent of half the cost of my plane ticket. I felt less depressed, but my career was the same when I returned.

And yet, slowly, things changed. I attended an inexpensive photo workshop in my area. One of my pictures won best of the workshop and I picked up regular freelance work for the excellent local paper, where a couple editors helped me when they could. A two-year college asked me to teach a photo course. I still relied on non-photo jobs to pay my bills, but my confidence grew in my career prospects.

When I was living through those two years, especially the first year, I felt awful. I wish I could say I was grateful for what I had. I wasn’t.

But now I’m grateful for how much I learned, like how terrible receptionists get treated and how hard teachers work. I’d always thought of myself as an empathetic person, but my reserves of empathy and humility permanently swelled while working these non-photo jobs. I think that’s served me well as a photographer and as a human being. Also, I grew faster as a photographer during that time than any other, maybe because I was so desperate. I learned to separate my identity from my career. I learned how nice it could be living near my family, which I hadn’t in years. I learned comparing myself to others is no good. Every career has its own progression, ups and downs. I’m OK with that.

Why don’t photography programs teach business skills?

Crystaline Randazzo at photography business workshop | Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
Crystaline Randazzo teaches at a photography business workshop we created and co-led in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this year.

My wonderful friend and fellow photographer Crystaline Randazzo recently wrote about the lack of business classes in some of America’s best university photography programs. In her words:

I’ve invested a lot of time in the last five years into learning about business of photography. There are amazing photographers out there whose businesses are failing because they don’t understand how to run their businesses. And there are less skilled photographers that are making a good living because they do. I am not saying that photography degrees aren’t teaching valuable skills, but I believe that we are missing the bigger picture of photography as entrepreneurship

I think that if you’re a photographer, then there’s a good chance you will one day be running a photography business. Staff photographer jobs in any part of this industry are few and far between. Remember when The Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire photo staff last year, including Pulitzer-prize winner John White?

Like Crystal, I acquired my business skills through trial and error. A lot of error. I loved studying photojournalism in graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I had amazing professors and mentors. But I wish I had learned something, anything about business. I believe photography programs should 1) help their students understand the realities of the industry and 2) give them basic business skills to succeed.

So what do you think?

Sorwathe tea plantation and factory for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

posted in: Africa, Rwanda, Work | 1

Sorwathe tea plantation by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Years ago, a photo editor who had just reviewed my portfolio showed me a beautiful picture of a golden wheat field. He said that one of his staff photographers had shot it. “See, that’s the kind of photographer we like to hire here,” he said. “Someone who can make a wheat field look gorgeous.” I remember thinking it couldn’t be that hard to shoot a lovely photo of a wheat field. In fact, I thought, fields of corn or even tall grass would be low-hanging fruit as far as pretty pictures go.

I’ve now shot plenty of fields of corn and tall grass and tomatoes and passion fruits. I was right back then: it’s not so hard to make a pretty photo of any of these things. But it sure is fun. It’s also nice to add some beauty to the world through my pictures. My most recent “pretty photo” assignment was to photograph the Sorwathe tea plantation and factory in Rwanda for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Nothing beats working outside in the mild sunshine, walking in tea fields and learning about tea-making. The most interesting thing I learned (which may also show what a dunce I am about tea) is that green tea and black tea come from the same leaves. It’s the processing that makes one green and the other black.

Sorwathe tea field by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea plantation by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Sorwathe tea factory by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Please don’t photograph for free just because you want to go to [insert country name]

Rwandan coffee farmer by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services
Rwandan coffee farmer. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services.


I’m going to say this straight: please don’t photograph for free just because you want to see Malawi or Cambodia or Haiti.

“But the client will pay for my plane ticket and hotels and meals so it’s worth it for me,” you’re thinking. “And when other potential clients see these pictures, they’ll pay me to go back. That’s practically like getting paid!”

No. It isn’t.

I can think of a lot of reasons not to take assignments like this but there are three I want to highlight.

  • If a potential client wants you to photograph for them, it means they see value in your work. That should include financial value. So negotiate with them. Ask them about their budget. Does everyone else at their organization work for free? No? Then you shouldn’t either. My guess is working for free does not factor well into your cost of doing business. Charging money is a cornerstone of being a financially successful photographer.
  • You’re hurting the industry by working free. When you work without compensation, the client learns that good photographers work for free. The client will continue believing this and keep trying to get photographers to work for free until something happens that changes their mind. Like you starting a discussion about compensation.
  • You’re hurting photographers in those countries who could be working for the potential clients. I live in Rwanda, and I know of other photographers living in Africa who have been asked to lower their rates to below what it would cost the client to fly a photographer to Africa from the United States or Europe – a photographer who’s willing to work for just that plane ticket.

It’s possible to convince a client to pay you to work overseas. I know from experience.

About eight six years ago, I was freelancing in Washington, D.C., when a potential non-profit client contacted me about working for them in Laos. They wanted me to write and photograph some stories. They had “no money,” they said, but would be happy to pay for my air ticket, hotel, meals and in-country transportation.

This was the first time a potential client asked me to travel overseas. I was flattered and excited. I was tempted to say yes right away. But I had almost no money myself, and I just couldn’t. (Hurting the industry didn’t factor into my thought processes just yet.)

I told the potential client that I couldn’t work for free, but I’d like to meet them in person and talk about my 10 years of journalism experience, what I could do for them and why I would charge them. The next day I dressed up, bicycled down to their office and pulled out my presentation: a print portfolio, a video I’d produced and edited, and some print stories I’d written and designed into nice layouts with photos. I talked about the different ways they could use content on their blog, website and in their marketing materials and presentations. At the end I gave them a breakdown of my fees.

The potential client thanked me and said they’d call soon. I didn’t have a good feeling.

A week later, I was out eating pasta with friends when they called. I was surprised and nervous, sure they would say “no thanks” and I’d be disappointed. But instead, they accepted my charges. They saw the value in what I could provide them. Within two weeks I was in Laos.

It might be nerve-wracking to negotiate back and forth with a potential client. It can be disappointing when you turn down a cool gig because the client says they don’t have money. But think of how great it would feel to get paid to photograph overseas. Think of the good you’ll be doing for the photography industry. Value your photography enough to fight to get paid for it.

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. at the top of Table Mountain. We were wrapped in clouds the whole time and had to leave the mountain sooner than expected because park officials said the cloud cover made it dangerous for visitors.

Cape Town topped this year’s New York Times list of 52 Places to Go in 2014 and for good reason: it’s beautiful, it’s history-filled and it’s got a lot going on. There are restaurants, museums, plays, restaurants, shops, parks, live music, restaurants. Maybe Mr. P. and I had been feeling particularly deprived of those things after one year of living in Rwanda, but we loved Cape Town when we visited at Christmas.

I tend not to take as many pictures when I’m vacation as when I’m working. This means my archive is filled with way more pictures of strangers than of friends and family. But look — on this trip I made an effort. If you were to see at all the photos from Cape Town, it would appear that Mr. P. hired a professional photographer to document his South Africa vacation. Which isn’t so far from the truth, actually.

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlThe clouds broke for about five seconds and I got this stunning view of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlTypical view of cloud-shrouded Table Mountain as seen from the Castle of Good Hope.

Fish Hoek, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlNear the beach at Fish Hoek. The sign tied between the palm trees says, “Merry Christmas.”

Fish Hoek, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlPlaying on the beach at Fish Hoek. There’s Mr. P walking to the immediate right of the jump-roping girl.

Simon's Town beach, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlSimon’s Town beach on Dec. 26. We didn’t find this out until later, but visiting the beach the day after Christmas is a Capetonian tradition. No wonder it was packed and we couldn’t find parking for a while (we ended up parking on a sidewalk).

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. stepping on a giant piece of thick seaweed at the Cape of Good Hope. Many people believe this is the southernmost tip of Africa – I did until this trip – but it isn’t. That distinction belongs to Cape Alguhas, about 90 miles southeast.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. and a panorama of part of the Cape of Good Hope. See the black things floating in the water? That’s the seaweed Mr. P. was stepping on before. The seaweed roots itself in the bottom of the ocean and grows up like a long, thick piece of hair.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlRough seas at Cape Point.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlAlso very windy at Cape Point.

Looking at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlThe Cape of Good Hope as seen from Cape Point.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlA girl looking out from Cape Point.

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