Despite the current challenges facing society and the economy, people are still making a successful career from photography. We meet three shining examples, who show there is still plenty to be positive about once the restrictions start to lift
Your guide: Tariq Zaidi
Tariq is a freelance photographer based out of London. In 2014 he gave up an executive management position to pursue his passion for capturing people. His photography focuses on documenting social issues, inequality, traditions and endangered communities around the world. Tariq’s new book, Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentleman of the Congo, is out now and can be ordered via the publisher. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @tariqzaidiphoto or Facebook @tariqzaidiphotography
Six years ago Tariq Zaidi was working in the corporate world, and it was squeezing the life out of him. ‘I thought I was going to die,’ he recalls. ‘I needed to stop, to live and to do what I love.’ At this point Tariq didn’t have a computer or a ‘proper’ camera, but what he did have was a passion for travel and a desire to share the unique stories of the people he met along the way. As a result, he decided to give freelance photography a go.
‘A friend of mine who is a professional photographer in London said to me, “Do you know how hard it is? Here alone there is something like 22,000 photographers trying to make a living”,’ recalls Tariq. ‘He told me to make sure I had enough money to survive three to five years, because basically nothing was going to happen in that time.’
But Tariq needn’t have worried – it transpired that a career in the corporate world was actually quite helpful when it came to setting targets and budgets. Tariq gave himself five years to make a success of his new career, but within 12 months it was pretty obvious that he had made the right decision. ‘I was very lucky,’ he says. ‘I went on multiple assignments, I started teaching, I was getting stories published and people were buying my pictures.’
His target for year one was simply not to lose money, but he actually ended up in the black. ‘I made enough money to keep going for another year, and then another and another, and here we are today,’ he laughs. While his corporate career is firmly in the past, Tariq still finds himself drawing on the skills he learnt in his previous profession.
‘I feel comfortable in face-to-face meetings and I’m not scared of sending off 100 emails,’ he says. ‘If somebody says “no” I don’t take it personally; it’s just business.’ In fact, Tariq is keen to stress that the skills many of us learn in our working environment (regardless of the profession) can be transferred to freelance photography – if you know how to pitch an idea, deliver a presentation and carry out research then it seems you’re in a good place to start.
One of the things that Tariq wishes he had known before embarking on his new career is just how much work has to be undertaken before and after a trip. ‘Pre-travel includes a tremendous amount of research, logistics, budgeting, negotiations and talk between the photographer and the client to find out what they need,’ he reveals. ‘Post-travel tasks include editing, sequencing, post production, more research, captioning, story writing, sales, social media and meetings.’ In fact, Tariq estimates just 20% of his time is spent on location (with 3% taking pictures), while the remaining 80% is dedicated to more admin-related tasks.
‘That’s a huge reality check,’ he warns. ‘The glamour lasts a few seconds, days or weeks if you’re lucky; the rest is slogging away and doing the things you need to do to put the story together and prepare it for publication.’ Despite the lack of glamour, Tariq has clearly found his purpose, and obviously delights in sharing stories, lifestyles, traditions and cultures from around the globe. ‘I want to show people that we live in an amazing world, and while each location is different we are pretty much the same across cultures, boundaries and religions,’ he assures.
‘I want my work to show the dignity and humanity of people who have allowed me into their lives, irrespective of their environment or culture.’ It’s a noble cause, and one that Tariq hopes will give rise to greater empathy, respect and understanding – there can’t be many better reasons to quit your day job and pursue your dream.
Tariq’s top tips
1) Keep everything you do personal, honest and true to you.
2) Always be respectful and thankful to the people in your photographs – they have allowed you to get close to them and capture an intimate moment from their lives, so thank them in whatever way you can.
3) There is always more to learn, and that’s a good thing.
Your guide: Jessica McGovern
Jessica McGovern started her photography business when she was just 16, and was soon gaining international recognition for her work. Her photos have appeared on billboards, food packaging, magazine and book covers. Visit her website, follow on Instagram @thatdogspotphoto and Facebook @thatdogspotphoto or subscribe to her YouTube channel.
Jessica McGovern was just 14 when she was given a DSLR for Christmas and started taking pictures of the family dog, a Labrador named Tess. With her model close at hand, she read everything she could on online forums, blogs and in magazine articles, and began teaching Tess tricks for photographs. The following year she started selling images via Shutterstock and soon after she was accepting bookings for dog portraits.
For Jessica, the innocence and purity of animals is a big draw. ‘There is something freeing and unguarded about working with animals that I’ve never felt when working with humans,’ she says. ‘I enjoy commercial on-location photography too, but it doesn’t make me grin from ear-to-ear like knowing that I’ve got “the shot” with an unruly dog.’ By the time she passed her driving test at 17 Jessica was running a profitable business, and promptly dropped out of university to apply herself to it full time.
‘It was a great test of my grit and resolve, because nobody took me seriously,’ she recalls. ‘When I started out the biggest challenge was down to my age: it was hard to gain credibility, and landing jobs without word of mouth was tough.’
But Jessica was determined to make it work, and within a few months she was running in-person sales sessions, taking upwards of £1,000 per sitting. Unfortunately, her finances received a serious blow when she moved to a lower economically viable area. ‘The difference it made to my business was crazy,’ she says. ‘It became very difficult for me to maintain the average order value, and I ended up switching print suppliers to retain margins.’
A series of personal events left Jessica in search of security and stability, so she decided to take her career down a different path – entering the world of marketing and design. Now she divides her time between running her own marketing agency, shooting animal portraits and filming her popular YouTube channel. ‘I love the variety of my life at the moment,’ she reveals. ‘In the morning I can be on a call with an international brand discussing upcoming campaigns; and in the afternoon I can be in the woods, lying in the mud, photographing a spaniel.’
Balancing this diverse workload might be tricky were it not for Jessica’s incredible work ethic – some days she can be at the computer for 14 hours, spinning multiple plates. ‘I’m good at organising work, prioritising and maximising productivity, so I can get a fair amount done in short chunks of time,’ she explains. Having launched a business at such an early age, Jessica has learnt a few things the hard way. ‘I wish I’d listened to people who run successful businesses instead of those who don’t,’ she admits.
‘I also wish that I had invested in education to fill gaps in my knowledge when I needed to. There’s a lot of value in well-run workshops from a working professional… nobody can do it all alone and it’s okay to need help sometimes!’ In fact, training and education is something that Jessica is keen to offer to others. In those formative years much of her knowledge came from generous individuals on the internet, so she’s determined to give something back.
‘I’ve never forgotten those people who gave their time to help me, so when I had the technology, skills and knowledge to do the same it seemed like a no-brainer to give back to the tuition space,’ she reveals. Anyone who’s watched one of her YouTube videos will know that she is happy to share her hard-won knowledge. ‘If I know I’ve helped one person today then today was a good day,’ she concludes.
Jessica’s top tips
1 Preparation is key. If you haven’t run your own business before then make sure that you save around six-months income before you make the jump – it can take up to a year to build momentum.
2 If you’re looking at weddings or portraits as income streams, focus on in-person sales to show clients images and receive orders. The difference in revenue between online galleries and correctly done in-person sales sessions is significant.
3 Make sure your shooting skills are solid before going pro. Ask for critique and take note of any comments offered by people ahead of you on your journey
or people whose work you admire.
Your guide: Tianna J Williams
Tianna switched careers from midwifery to photographer just three years ago. Currently focusing on maternity, newborn and weddings (with plans to expand into beauty and boudoir), she relishes the opportunity to share the stories of those she meets via her photos. Visit her website, or follow her on Instagram or Facebook @tiannajwilliamsphotography.
When Tianna J Williams was on maternity leave with her first child, Olivia, a friend of hers invited her to join a Facebook group populated with newborn photographers. ‘It sounds silly now, considering it’s so popular, but I just didn’t realise that you could book a photographer to take pictures of your child,’ she laughs. The pictures she saw struck a chord with her, but when her maternity leave ended in 2017 she returned to her job as a midwife.
When Olivia was 18 months old, however, Tianna had a particularly bad shift at work and her frustration came to a head. ‘I just thought I can’t do this any more, so I picked up my bag and coat, went to the manager and said, “I’m off. I’m really sorry”,’ she recalls.
By now Tianna had been toying with the idea of becoming a photographer for some time, but her original plan had been to run the business alongside part-time work as a disability assessor (a job she had accepted before the shift from hell.) However, ‘part-time’ ended up being more like 70 hours a week, and Tianna found juggling the role alongside her responsibilities as a mother exhausting. ‘I was always tired and I just thought, this is not a life!’ she explains. As a result, she ‘rage quit’ just before Christmas.
Just weeks later she discovered that she was pregnant again. ‘I thought, okay, you’ve just quit your job, you’ve got another baby on the way and a business you don’t know how to run,’ she says, ‘so I threw myself into it, and it has gone from strength to strength!’
But Tianna didn’t become a successful wedding, maternity and newborn photographer by hard graft alone; she also utilises the people skills she developed as a nurse and midwife to ensure her subjects feel comfortable, safe and empowered. ‘Working as a midwife you get to know women in such a short space of time, and they tell you their stories,’ she explains. ‘It’s a privilege – for someone to trust you in that way, and to give so much of themselves is just magical.’
Tianna has fond memories of her time as a midwife, and admits that were it not for the politics she might consider returning to the profession someday, albeit part time. But for now she’s thoroughly enjoying the flexibility of working for herself. Tianna has even found a way of conjuring up the feelings she experienced while delivering babies. ‘I want to capture and show the same beauty I see in women when they are giving birth,’ she reveals.
‘I love it. It gives me the same buzz I got working as a midwife, without the added pressure!’ Some clients also take the opportunity to quiz Tianna about all things baby related, and that’s fine with her. ‘I like to build up more of a friendship with my clients, so I will happily chat about labour and birth from a mum-to-mum perspective and a professional viewpoint,’ she explains. ‘If I don’t know the answer I’ll point them in the direction of someone who does.’
To begin with, Tianna wrapped Zara (her second daughter) in a sling and wore her during photo shoots. To her surprise, this helped to spark conversation and build trust between her and her clients. But not everything came as easily in those early days. ‘I enjoyed the journey, but it was hard,’ she admits. ‘Learning how to run a business is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.’ For one thing, Tianna struggled with the realisation that taking pictures was a very small part of the process, for example.
‘I just wanted to be creative,’ she recalls, ‘but it comes second to knowing how you are going to actually survive! Learning how to market herself has been crucial to Tianna’s success, and she urges any photographers who are on a similar path to use their websites and social media to help establish trust. ‘All of those little bits add up,’ she says, ‘and that’s what will get you to the creative part at the end.’
Tianna’s top tips
1) Learn about the business and marketing side, because trying to make up for that later is really challenging. Figure out who your ideal client is, as it really helps you to home in on who you want to photograph.
2) Don’t feel that you have to buy loads of props. When clients come to you it’s because they want to be photographed by you, and that’s all they are going to see when they look at the pictures. Get a few small pieces you really love, because then you’ll get comfortable using them.
3) Enjoy it! Running a photography business is fun. Don’t feel that you have to do what everyone else is doing – if there’s something you love and you want to learn, then go for it. Don’t worry about trends.