I remember March 17 2012, the first day that I sat at my desk as a full time photographer. Our warehouse apartment in inner-city Melbourne was the coolest place I’d ever lived in, it had concrete walls, polished wooden floors and exposed piping all above us. Beautiful diffuse light streamed in through the 5m tall windows and I was drinking a coffee I’d picked up from the cafe 30m down the road. I was absorbed in imagining what lay ahead – I was free, doing what I loved and optimistic about my new career.
Just a few months earlier, I’d applied for a job at a medical research facility in Melbourne but hadn’t been successful. It turned out that this was the only job in my life where this had happened and it meant I was unemployed. Kristen reassured me telling me all the reasons we would be ok but I still felt conflicted. For the last few months, I’d been tossing up the idea of being a photographer because that was what made me truly happy. For the previous 6 years, it had consumed so much of my life but actually doing it as a career felt like a challenge too great. I wasn’t sure I had the technical ability and I definitely didn’t have the personal confidence to step out into the unknown after having done the only thing I’d ever been good at for the previous 13 years. Self confidence has never been an abundant trait of mine so my failure in getting that job was, in hindsight, the best thing that ever happened. The lack of other options forced my hand, I had no choice but to be a photographer.
My path to being the person that I am, and the photographer I would become started long before this time. I was born in Australia but grew up in Sri Lanka and we moved back to Australia when I was 7 where immediately, things weren’t easy. Besides all the usual migrant experiences, I was a child who was teased and treated differently, mostly due to where I came from and what I looked like. The other kids in my school were nearly exclusively white and they taunted and called me Vegemite every recess. They laughed at my strong accent and made fun of the fact that I sometimes got my V’s and W’s mixed up when saying words (even now, anyone that speaks to me without seeing my name or skin would never know I was anything but a born and bred Australian – I consciously worked hard as a child to get rid of my accent so the teasing would stop). There were also two girls in my Year 3 class that wouldn’t hold my hands during our bush dancing classes, but they held everyone else’s – at that time I wasn’t quite sure why they did but I just remember it hurt. All I wanted was to fit in and be accepted and indistinguishable from everyone else, I hated being seen as different and being me wasn’t enough for them. I recognised in my 20s that all I had wanted at this time was to feel ok about who I was, have pride in myself, my skin colour and my culture. The words of typically sometimes cruel 7 year olds left deep scars that had taken much longer to recover from than they should have.
Somehow in the space of the first 6 months as a photographer, I had managed to book 30 or so weddings. My fear about whether I’d be able to cut it was, for the moment, pushed aside. Over the next few years, things just grew and grew and my apprehensions were pushed further and further back. I was shooting at least 40 weddings a year and for the next 3 years spent 6-12 weeks in the northern hemisphere over their summers traveling and shooting weddings in places like Sweden, France, Canada, Greece, Scotland and the Netherlands just to name some of the 14 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to go to and photograph weddings in. I spoke at events, was asked to write a monthly column about running an ethical photography business by an English photography magazine publisher and had countless features in magazines and blogs throughout Australia and the world. I had relationships with lots of influential wedding blogs and bloggers that supported me and promoted my work whenever I put something new out there. I’d made it – I was more successful now than I’d ever expected and this is what I had always wanted for my business. It was in the midst of all of this that it dawned on my that something was missing – I realised that I was actually unhappy.
The thing was, being a wedding photographer made me see that my Australian childhood was happening all over again. Only this time, I was on the side of the bullies dishing out the feelings of inadequacy to other people. My industry makes people feel like they’re not enough, they aren’t “good looking enough” and that their weddings don’t have “enough details” worthy of being photographed and shared/blogged – they’re just insufficient. So many people can peruse through a bunch of blogs and websites without seeing a single person that looks like them and not seeing weddings like theirs being shown as inspiration. My industry makes people feel like they’re on the outer and don’t fit in despite having done nothing except for being themselves. I could’t imagine me doing anything worse to a couple than to make them feel any inadequacy, especially when they’re doing something as beautiful as committing themselves to the person they love and want to be with for the rest of their lives. I wanted to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives and to leave a lasting legacy of kindness. My idea of success and business plan had always been simple:
1) Be Kind to People
2) Take Awesome Photographs
3) Be Happy
I’d felt like I had succeeded at point 1 and 2, but 3 was glaring at me, incomplete.
I’d been involved in so many wonderful/lovely/authentic people’s lives and knew that I’d created happiness with beautiful photos for them. I also knew that lots of these people had soft spots in their heart for me (as did I for them) and as wonderful as that was, it had taken me some time to accept that I wasn’t truly happy. My willingness to see other people’s happiness and my own outward success was making me oblivious to my own state. I should have been honest with myself much earlier and reassessed my own ideas of what success meant. I still loved photographing and spending time with these folks on the weekends but it was the other 5 days of the week that were hard work. I felt myself being pulled in different directions and being asked to do things and collaborate with people that I felt didn’t quite see the world with the same values as me. I had become a “brand” and I know some people stopped seeing me for who I was. They didn’t get me and they didn’t get my values and it was as if some people cared less for me and more about my reputation and name and what that would mean for them to be linked to it. Because of my success, I was being treated differently, something that didn’t feel real or authentic. It felt like those girls that didn’t hold my hands as a 7 year old suddenly wanted to dance with me because I was popular.
It was also around this time that I had a particularly upsetting experience with a significant industry leader (which I won’t go into) that left me questioning why I engaged with the industry at all. This is not to say that there aren’t wonderful and truly kind wedding folks out there because there are many and I’d met and worked with lots of them but this negative experience, along with the nagging thoughts about my unhappiness, made it obvious that I needed to reassess what I was doing.
In Sept 2014 I decided I would effectively disappear from the radar of the mainstream wedding industry. I felt the best way to stay happy was to work less (40-45 weddings a year was slowly breaking me down) and to surround myself and collaborate only with people I genuinely enjoyed being around – people who would be good for my spirit. I’d made a big career change to be a photographer so what was the point in compromising the things that were important to me just to have a job I hated all over again?
The fade-out began – I stopped submitting and sharing my work with blogs and magazines (even though some of them are brilliant and had offered me a lot of support along the way). Sometimes blogs would specifically ask for weddings to feature and unless the couple asked to see their wedding featured, I refused politely. I also dropped my pricing because I realised that the kinds of people that often understood me the best didn’t have budgets anywhere near what I was charging. I’d always tried to be accessible to all folks by bartering and exchanging stuff and this was just another step towards making people feel like I might be their kind of person. And rather than utilising the wedding machine to promote myself, I asked the couples I’d shot for to share my work via email, Facebook and Instagram and to say any nice things they wanted to about me in the process. I was going to rely on the kindness of people to encourage their friends, family and work colleagues to go and look at my work and to find out about me as a person. In my mind, this was far more valuable than any amount of advertising money I could ever spend. I’d been really fortunate to build up a great portfolio of work shooting for couples that understood me and what I did, so I now hoped that this would be enough to sustain me. I wanted to harness the greatest asset that I had as a photographer, the goodwill that I’d created in peoples’ hearts and minds. It was organic, it was real and it meant that I kept getting to photograph people that would be like-minded and that I would genuinely enjoy being around. People that saw the world in all its beauty and tragedy the same way as me. People that recognised their privilege and ones that truly respected and cared for the people around them.
It was a pretty scary time though, I didn’t know if this process would make me any happier or if I was just destroying everything I’d worked so hard for. I immediately noticed a huge decrease in my web traffic – it was down by over 60% within 18 months. I also went from having 200-ish enquiries per year to about 50. But the silver lining was that of those 50, a much larger fraction, about 50% were booking me versus the 20% or so previously. I think this showed to me that more people who contacted me recognised that I was a good fit for them. My social media engagement also dropped significantly, the numbers for my FB and Instagram profiles haven’t blown up in the same way they have for many other photographers who started out around the same time as me. I’m also a little ashamed to say that on days my ego suffered a little. I felt like I had gone from being “somebody” to “nobody” and if I’d gone a couple of weeks without an enquiry, I again wondered if it was the right thing to do. I worked really hard to keep my emotions in check and get through it because it felt like the only thing that I could do in order to create some sort of change for myself. I knew that I’d just have to try it out and see how things went.
So here we are now nearly 2.5 years later, a lot has happened and I’ve learned even more. As fearful as I was when I first started out, my business survives and thrives, successful solely through the word of mouth of the wonderful couples I photograph and their family and friends. Week after week I shoot for people that I love spending time with and a giant chunk of my circle of friends is made up of people who I met through photographing their weddings. Some of the wonderful experiences we’ve had in our lives are a result of these connections. Despite this being perhaps not the most financially rewarding approach to take, I’m rich in other ways. I can spend and enjoy the time I have where I’m not working – I can live. Everything feels more authentic and real because my idea of success became exactly what I was doing each day. I feel proud of myself for having taken a huge risk to take care of myself and it having worked out. I’m able to finally say that I’m happy in my life and business and I’m now aware this doesn’t come from being successful, it comes from knowing that I’ve been honest with myself.