PDN’s 30 Photographers on Building a Career, and Maintaining Hope

April 27, 2017

When we interviewed this year’s PDN’s 30 photographers, one comment came up often: Art school had not taught them the basics about how to run their own business, nor had it prepared them for just how challenging it can be to get a foothold in today’s competitive photo market.

In the profiles featured on, they explain how they honed their styles and their business skills. Here, we share more of the valuable lessons they learned as they launched their careers. They emphasize the value of building a network of mentors and trusted peers, constant experimentation, and above all, perseverance.

On Continuing to Learn Through Assisting, Shooting and Studying

Anastastiia Sapon: When people start assisting they stop shooting. They’re tired. If you want to be a photographer, not an assistant, you have to find a way to shoot. [While assisting] Elena Zhukova, we’d go to a commercial shoot and afterwards we’d create, we’d photograph each other. Otherwise what’s the point?

Victoria Stevens: [A big challenge is] being a woman in this boy’s club. I’ve had numerous clients walk right past me on set and go to my assistant and introduce themselves. My assistant, who is awesome, responds, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe you should ask her.’ That’s happened a number of times—it’s part of the job. All you can do really is shake their hand and move on. It’s annoying but you have to get the job done—you can’t let it ruin your confidence. I’m also a short, clumsy gal, so even trying to get on set as an assistant wasn’t going to happen. I had to be a producer, be a retoucher, be a digital tech.

Ronan Donovan:  Kathy Moran [of National Geographic] pushed me to open my skill set…. I never used to take pictures of a human until three years ago. I thought of conservation photography as just showing what’s beautiful and what’s there [in nature]. You can’t even address conservation if you don’t address the human interaction, and so she suggested and essentially told me that I should think about photojournalism workshops. So I went to the Missouri Photo Workshop a couple of years ago. That’s a super intense week where you are taught news photography: Go out, walk a beat, try to find a story about somebody and then get as intimate as you can in four days.

What [Moran] was telling me was about storytelling as opposed to just focusing on one piece of the story, which is what I always did—focus on what I thought was beautiful in nature.

Benedict Evans: I went to the Eddie Adams workshop in 2013. I was a black-sheep portrait photographer among photojournalists, but it was amazing to learn the why more than the how. It’s a great workshop if you’re ever wondering, “Why am I doing this?”

On Finding Inspiration and Your Own Photographic Voice

Andy J. Scott: Find your voice. Knowing what subjects you want to shoot and how you want to portray them will keep you on a path, and honing your style will bring clients who want your unique voice.

Benedict Evans: While working for Platon, one thing I noticed straight away was the idea of having a vision as a photographer—a way in which you see the world. Trying to make work that fits what the commissioning editor is looking for, and also making sure that pictures are your own and your vision, is a skill in itself. It’s amazing how strongly he believed in that and could stick to his own vision…. That’s what I think is the most important thing I learned from him.

Ian Bates: Learning to take a step back and not look at stuff right away and not have to have any definitive edit has been really beneficial. I went from downloading images right away and then posting them on a blog to [a different method]: Get home from a trip, upload everything, back it up and then just sit on it for a month. Then [I] go through it all and order a ton of little prints, put them on a wall and let them sit for another month. A lot less stuff makes the initial cut, and then from there on, if I make one good picture on a trip then it was a good trip.

It’s about making sure I take time to think about why a picture should be in the mix in a project and not just grabbing it and putting it in the edit because I think it’s pretty or something like that. That could be a perfectly good reason for it to be in there. I’m just the type of person that takes a lot of time to figure all that stuff out.

Peter Garritano: A friend once taught me to put something away when you’ve been staring at it a long time. Take a break from it entirely, and return to it the next day. Often when I come back and look at an image or edit again with fresh eyes I’m able to see more clearly the direction things should go.

© Xyza Bacani

© Xyza Bacani

On Promoting Yourself and Building Contacts

Xyza Bacani: Be prolific and proactive. Don’t wait for work to come. Shoot, pitch stories or submit proposals to galleries for exhibitions or assignments. Don’t be afraid of rejections.

Peter Mather: I’m on Instagram and Facebook, but nothing compares to portfolio reviews and making person-to-person contact with magazine editors. Talking with an editor or meeting them face-to-face is the only way to establish a relationship and begin working together. Emails rarely cut it. If you are visiting a city, make time to stop in and meet with the editors in the area.

Christina Holmes: I met the photo editor [for Bon Appétit, one of Holmes’s first editorial clients] at one of those portfolio review speed round things. I was covered in paint from painting my new apartment, I remember thinking they are never going to hire me! I think just always be you. Good personality can go along way and couple that with great work, and you’re set.

Anastasiia Sapon: I send out postcards and emails a few times a month. Someone told me a theory that you have to reach people seven times to get response.

© Cait Opperman

© Cait Opperman

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Cait Opperman: Be patient and keep at it. Some of the people I’ve been sending promos to waited four or five years before reaching out. It’s disappointing to send out a promo and think that it didn’t generate a single job, but stick with it. It takes time for people to remember your name.

Amanda Ringstad: I’ve had conversations with other photographers about persevering. Just keep going because I think it’s really easy to get frustrated…. When there’s a dry spell, you don’t know how long that’s going to go. What I know more now—I don’t think I knew this before—is that so many photographers go through these periods where there’s no work. And I think you just have to go back and renew everything and see what you can do to improve your presentation, or do more portfolio reviews. So I think it can actually be a really good time to improve what you needed to improve but didn’t have time to do. I try to think about those periods as a time off and a time to do what I need to do.

Clare Benson: Years ago, I was given the advice to seek out, and apply for, as many opportunities as possible from Susan Kae Grant, a professor at Texas Woman’s University, during a lecture at Society for Photographic Education. I’ve found that another key is to have an open mind about where opportunities can come from, and what kind might be beneficial at any given moment. I have learned to keep my eyes open, follow my intuition, and try not to get stuck on any one expectation or desired outcome.

Adriane Ohanesian: I am able to fund my stories through grants, and keeping a steady supply of NGO and UN assignments – I never turn down work. I also do my best to apply for as many grants, competitions, and workshops that I have time to complete: Always apply, you never know what’s going to happen.

Support the Community

Anastasiia Sapon: [One] challenge is to learn how to say no to under-paying gigs. People do not really understand what goes into a photo shoot and what the cost is.

By accepting a low price, it’s not only hurting me, it’s hurting the photographers who come after me. By accepting a low price you’re hurting the business of others. People will say, ‘Last year, this girl shot all this for $400.” Why are you trying to get a better [shoot] for the price of someone who did a bad job? If I shoot for myself, it’s because I want it in my portfolio. Someone from a big company comes to me and says, ‘Will you shoot this for free?’ I don’t go to my dentist and say, ‘Will you do root canal for free?’”

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Advice

Justin Kaneps: Through [photographer] Jake Stangel, I met [photographer] Mark Mahaney when he moved to California from New York City and was setting up his studio. Mark took me under his wing… I think one of the most valuable things about our working relationship is that there was an open line of communication: How he was dealing with clients, how to communicate with clients, what worked for him, what didn’t. He pushed me to become a better photographer and person simultaneously.

I always like to approach my subjects with simplicity, minimal gear and while retaining my voice on how I emotionally felt about a subject, but retaining honesty to who the subject was—things that were core values to Mark also.

Andy J. Scott: Being ready to move up to ad jobs was definitely a challenge. I remember the first couple times I was up for ad jobs, I would be all excited then get off the phone and realize I had no clue how to do an estimate or creative deck. I overcame this by asking colleagues, friends’ reps, producers and anybody who would help for advice. I learned that it’s okay to be inexperienced and that people are excited to help you level up.

I’ve assisted, digi-teched, shot behind the scenes, edited video, all kinds of different ways of connecting with other people working in the industry. It’s definitely been helpful; I’ve often been referred by other photographers who are too busy to take on jobs. My friend Jonpaul Douglass [a photographer/director] has been very supportive since I picked up a camera. In the early days he helped me understand technical things and gear, and in the past few years he has taught me more of the business side and how to deal with clients.

Salwan Georges: Don’t burn your bridges, don’t use people, keep up-to-date (through sites like Lens Culture, Lens blog, Time Lightbox) with what people are doing, and make connections by going to portfolio reviews and workshops. I was always researching to find out who the top people in industry are. Don’t be afraid to contact them and say, “I’m working on this project.” Now it’s easy for me to approach top editors.

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