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When I was twenty years old, me and my team found ourselves in the police station, separately being interrogated in a tiny room at 10pm at night. We had been there for six hours, being asked question after question. We each also had our very own good cop/bad cop. My frustration and embarrassment piled up with each tick of the clock. “Surely, this isn’t how a photographer’s career is supposed to go.”
And it shouldn’t have been. But you see, I got myself into a sticky situation. Turns out we weren’t supposed to be taking pictures in that area of the park, and we got in trouble for it. The trouble included sitting and being interrogated for two days, six hours each. For something as simple as taking pictures in a pond in a park. I’ll never forget it.
It’s safe to say that I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to be a freelance fine art photographer over the past ten years. (In Japan, more specifically, where it’s more strict) It’s grueling work, and a lot of the time, you find out things the hard way.
All that aside, it can be an incredibly beautiful and rewarding experience. You learn so much about life, and you see an underbelly that not a lot of people have the chance to see.
If you are planning a career on the creative side, I want to share a few things that could have made my trip a lot easier, and maybe help yours be a lot smoother than mine.
During your career as an artist, you will be hearing a lot of voices. Most of them will be loving, but only a few will be correct or be in alignment with your voice. It is so incredibly important to solidify what you believe in as a creator, and what you want to make. And of course, to learn to say No if it doesn’t feel right (Barring work that I would do to feed myself). So often I would say Ok to projects that I didn’t love, people who didn’t want to listen to my direction, and straight up conflicted with my aesthetic. It’s not only valid to exclusively expand in the ways you want to, it’s necessary for your mental health as an artist.
A simple example is on a shoot a few years ago, a stylist wanted to make the model’s hair huge and goth-like, almost reminiscent of Paul Stanley from Kiss. I wasn’t feeling the look at all, but I didn’t want to be rude and allowed the rest of the shoot to follow a similar direction. The images, of course, didn’t turn our how I wanted it to. It wasn’t just because of the hair, but saying Yes to all the little things that doesn’t match you creatively all add up. Eventually you are left with a product that leaves you frustrated and dissatisfied.
Back in 2019, my sister and I began renting a studio. Prior to signing the paperwork, I was super conflicted about it. I knew it deeply in my gut and chose not to listen, because I felt I needed the studio to succeed and to expand my career. Despite it having been a dream of mine for years and finding a beautiful space here in Japan, something about it felt off and forced. While we tried to enjoy the process, eventually all my funds went to paying for the studio, instead of actually making work. I had asked several other photographers advice beforehand, but none of them could tell me the right direction to go in. Phrases like “Fortune favors the brave” were thrown around, I believe. But, I wasn’t ready for it. So if you are questioning whether or not to go in a certain direction, make a list of your own personal goals first, and see whether or not those things can be made without any big step you want to take.
Having a group of amazing, beautiful people has not only kept me sane, but they were an incredible support system when I needed them. The only thing I regret is not taking care of them better. Writing letters, reaching out more, and simply being a better friend. This could mean a lot of things to you, but what ever it is, do it. Always put your friends before your work.
There was a day where I was working hard on a set for a shoot, and a friend of mine asked if she could call. I looked around, surrounded by a sea of unfinished props. I had a deadline, and I had to finish, so I felt tempted to tell her I was busy. But then I remembered that piece of advice: The people you love in your life should come first. In the end, we called and had a wonderful and reviving conversation (Turns out I needed the call more than I knew)
At the end of the day, the connections and the friends you make are some of the most beautiful aspects to this creative world. Especially how dog eat dog the industry can be. So don’t take them for granted.
When I was younger, I was given the amazing advice to become a sole proprietor on my tax forms. I was fresh to everything, but this little nugget of information was a godsend. I didn’t even know what a sole proprietor was, or what it entailed, but I said Yes to it. Not only it has helped me over the years with deducting the equipment and other fees, during the beginning of Covid 19 here in Japan, sole proprietors and bigger businesses were given grants to help with the dip in work. It literally saved me in 2020.
Also, you need to make sure where each of your pennies (Or here, yennies) are going to. I save every single one of my receipts and put it in a folder and organize it yearly. Even the things you buy for yourself. It’s helpful to see where everything goes, and even though I don’t do this perfectly, I do get better at it each year.
It’s always discouraging to message and email, and then not get a response. Especially when you do it for years. After a while this can grind down on you, and can be one of the most vulnerable things to continue doing. But keep doing it. Despite thinking that your email could get lost in the sea of messages in the recipients inbox, keep going. There will be someone who believes in your vision, but you have to believe in it first.
I was in L.A in the beginning of 2020 (It boggles my mind that I was anywhere in 2020). I can’t even begin to count the number of emails I sent out to galleries and agents. The amount of unanswered and rejected emails I received was tough, not only because I wanted to make connections in the industry, but I truly wanted to make friends as well. All that frustration was worth it in the end, because there was one person who said Yes to me. During our meeting we had a splendid conversation, and we still talk to this day. In my head I still consider him an oasis in L.A’s fashion world desert.
In everything you do, there always comes costs and things you need to invest in initially to make your work better. With photography, it just happens to be one of the most expensive arts to go into, so it’s natural to want to skimp out on equipment. But this isn’t necessarily the right direction to go into.
For example, when I was just getting started out almost ten years ago, I wanted to buy a 50mm lens. There were two options I had at the time, with slightly different price points. I still went with the cheaper option (To be honest, I didn’t even understand what focal length meant).
Unfortunately I didn’t research things at all, and that cheaper lens didn’t serve me as I would have liked during shoots. Eventually, I had to buy the more expensive lens anyway. If you want to cut corners, gear is not necessarily the place to do that. So if you are questioning where to save and where to go in full-heartedly, research, research, research. Don’t merely know what you want, but also why you want it.
When I was just starting to become interested in Fashion Photography, I wanted to get connected to the bigger names in the industry. Unfortunately for me, Instagram wasn’t as ubiquitous at the time, and it was a lot harder to just pop and email or a message. So what I ended up doing was going directly to the Vogue office in Tokyo. I didn’t exactly have a plan, but I was curious as to whether or not I could get a meeting out of it. I was standing idly in the hallway for several minutes, and then someone came up to me, asking if I had an appointment. I told him I didn’t, and that made him confused so he went to fetch someone else who might be able to help me. The person he brought back came up to me, telling me that I needed an appointment to be able to talk to someone in the office. I asked how I could get an appointment, and he gave me his business card. “If we’re interested, we’ll call you back for one.” I sent him an email that same day, and I was called back the following week for a meeting at the Vogue office.
One thing that saved me in the beginning was an incredible friend of mine who works as a lawyer. He graciously helped me with the initial contracts, and helped me analyze terms, learn what to look for, and saved me from some pretty shifty deals. There was one where I would have been locked into a print deal for 5 years. But at the time I was so young and eager to work with anyone, so if he hadn’t pointed out how strict and binding the contract was, I would have been stuck, and a lot of my prints would have been open edition (Verses limited edition). So over the years, I’ve taught myself to read contracts a bit better, and to know how I want to protect myself and my artwork. For example, one thing I try to stipulate is no matter where my client uses the work online, to fully have credit for my work, or the foreign language equivalent (Since I’ve worked with a lot of non-English speaking companies).
Also, one of the most important ones: Always GET a contract. Even if they are your friends. There is nothing worse than a misunderstanding with legal and financial side of your projects. If a potential client is being too friendly and buddy-buddy, saying that they don’t need a contract because its too formal, definitely write one up. And if they refuse it, don’t work with them. They definitely don’t have your best interests in mind.
A year ago, I worked with a new client, and I slipped up and didn’t have a proper contract written out. And it turns out that they were the worst client I’ve ever had to work with. Looking back, I know that if I had had a contract, things would have turned out much differently.