How To Become a Professional Photographer Without Assisting: Stephanie Gonot

April 6, 2017

By David Walker

Stephanie Gonot fell into the photography business almost accidentally. While selling ice cream sandwiches out of an ice cream truck, she started curating collections of photos—taken by other people—on Tumblr. Soon she was putting on small exhibitions. Along the way, a friend at Art Center in Pasadena invited Gonot to a talk featuring Maren Levinson of Redeye.

“I wanted to get involved in the photo scene, so I wrote her an email afterwards, inviting her to meet for coffee,” Gonot says. When they met, Levinson said she was looking for office help at Redeye. Gonot took the job.

Before long, Gonot was a Redeye rep. She spent three years at the agency, and while she was there, started shooting in her spare time. “I just liked doing it, and putting my own work on Tumblr,” she says.

In 2014, Gonot was getting enough assignment work to transition from Redeye rep to a photographer on the agency’s roster. Looking back, she says she saw first-hand the ebb and flow of the careers of various photographers. One important lesson she learned was to keep a list of personal projects she wanted to work on, and marketing tasks she needs to do, in order to keep busy during slow periods.

© Stephanie Gonot

From Gonot’s platform story for Nylon. © Stephanie Gonot

“I remember Maren telling photographers: ‘You have a week or two off. I know you’ve been talking about this project or that project.’ I remember her reminding people to keep a list. It helps me not freak out [when I’m not busy]. It reminds me I have work to do, and that those other tasks are all part of work.”

Gonot says she also learned what not to do when work slows down. “I’ve seen photographers blame others when they’re not getting work. They blame their rep, or a photo editor who used to hire them,” she says. “People would come in to show us their work and sometimes they seemed a little angry and frustrated. I saw some people stagnating, and then get out of it by just shooting a lot. I realized jobs go up and down. You don’t have to freak out. But if you’re not getting work for a little while, change something up!”

Gonot also learned practical skills that have helped her photography career, such as how to put together a crew and estimate job costs. She learned the importance of showing agency creatives and clients a printed portfolio, not just a digital portfolio. “They remember you better afterwards,” Gonot says. “And you should make it look as much like you as possible. A black leather cover is the default for a lot of people, but Maren advocated for [a cover] that reflects your work. So mine is purple book cloth.”

Other lessons she learned as a rep included how to communicate with art buyers and photo editors effectively. “I think I was a little enthusiastic at the beginning, and I toned it down,” she says. “My emails were a little too long, with exclamation marks all over the place…Nobody wants to read super long emails. They want something thoughtful, that has their name in it—not just ‘Hello’—and maybe a picture at the end. It should be super short and casual.”

Gonot says she was nervous talking on the telephone to creatives when she first started working at Redeye. “Then I tried talking like we were just two people working together on the same team, trying to make a photo shoot happen. [Thinking] that we were trying to build something together was super helpful to me,” she says.

The Career Roads Less Traveled

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Geordie Wood, former Photo Director

Sara Macel, former Producer