Over the years, PDN has interviewed a number of photographers about how they launched successful and sustained careers. Women photographers in particular have been enterprising in leveraging their personal projects to land assignments. Most of the women we’ve interviewed say their successful transitions from assistant or digital tech required strong networking skills and a passion for making work—whether it’s photographing animals, fashion, kids’ portraits or fine-art—that stood out from the competition. PDN subscribers can read the full versions of these articles, and other articles on successful photographer transitions.
When Kate Owen moved to New York City in 2010 to work in photography, she already had some momentum. As a student at Brown University, she won the grand prize in American Photo magazine’s 2009 GoPro contest and, through a friendly connection, had her work critiqued by Annie Leibovitz and Jim Goldberg. “I had never received such harsh critiques,” Owen recalls. However, their criticism proved helpful. “My need to be a perfectionist was honed,” she says.
She landed some assisting jobs that she found on Craigslist, which led to a connection with Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman. After a few small assignments, Owen landed a cover shot which led to more jobs and allowed her to make more connections. “Establishing a career is a slow process of one thing leading to another,” she says. “It’s a snowball effect.” Read the full article to learn how Owen built her career and landed assignments from clients including The New York Times, Rebecca Minkoff, Adidas and more.
After Shaniqwa Jarvis moved from Los Angeles to London, a rep advised her to try capturing portraits of the people around her. “I took her advice to shoot something personal to me,” Jarvis says. That idea led to “This Charming Man”—a series of portraits of intriguing men she met in public and then photographed in their homes.
More than two years into the project, Jarvis submitted it to the Londonewscastle Project Space, which let her exhibit the work for two weeks. Jarvis mailed out copies of the show’s catalogue “all over the place,” and within a few months the phones started ringing. Clients, including The Standard Hotel, streetwear brand Stüssy, fashion retailer ASOS and more all called looking for campaigns featuring the look from “This Charming Man.” More recent assignments called for her to apply the style of her personal work to a kids clothing campaign. Read the full article to learn more about Jarvis’s personal motivation for the project, and how she’s continuing to grow her career beyond the success of her personal work.
When Polish-born Magdalena Wosinska moved to Los Angeles at the age of 20 to pursue photography, she immediately began interning for editorial and advertising portrait photographer Art Streiber because, she explains, “Art is one of those people who will always take kids in, because the more interns, the merrier.”
But as a female assistant, she says, “you really have to hustle twice as hard” as the guys. Through contacts she met on Streiber’s sets, she landed assisting work from other well-known photographers, including Chris McPherson, Jeff Lipsky, Frank W. Ockenfels 3 and more.
By her 26th birthday, Wosinska had self-published her own book, Bite it, You Scum, featuring images of the skateboarders, musicians and other twenty-somethings she met in LA. “I realized, OK, they’re all consistent. I have a style,” she says of the photographs. She used that book to land her first clients—Dazed & Confused, Lee Jeans, Converse and more. Wosinska talks about her hustle to make the transition from assistant to photographer in the full article, available to subscribers here.
Kate Parker was at first discouraged when her personal work, images of her athletic daughters and their friends being their confident and strong selves, didn’t sell at a local exhibit. However, after sharing the work online, she soon realized that she would have more success positioning the photos with a message: The images of these confident children are combatting the negative messages that the media sends to young girls about their appearance.
Parker sent the photographs to some bloggers and the images were picked up by the Huffington Post in a 2014 story titled “Strong is the New Pretty: What Beauty Looks Like in the Next Generation of Girls.” The story and images went viral, and Parker started getting calls from commercial clients including clothing brands, TV networks and Kellogg’s. She’s since published a book of the work and continues to think long-term about the type of work she wants to produce to maintain a successful photography career. To learn more about how Parker’s personal project led to successful assignments and about her next career moves, click here to read the full article.
Shaina Fishman always dreamed of becoming a fashion photographer, and was on track to do so as a digital tech for Peter Lindburgh, but while shooting at a local dog park one day, she had an epiphany: “I realized, why not blend my two loves: photography and animals.” She used a friend’s studio on the weekends for test shoots and soon connected with the local dog community—owners, shelters, animal-fundraisers, etc. Her first big boost came in 2007 when she was asked to work pro bono, shooting images for a calendar for an animal shelter in New Jersey to create a calendar. She stuck with the project for six consecutive years. “Every year I tried to give it new art direction,” she says, helping her hone her skills and develop her own style. As the calendar project helped her build her portfolio, she began reaching out to magazine editors, such as the editor at FIDO Friendly, who gave her assignments photographing celebrity dogs. Fishman also took the extra step, pitching and writing pet-themed stories, which earned her covers and a consistent flow of work.
She was equally ambitious in networking with fellow creatives. In 2012 she met photographer’s rep Ralph Mennemeyer. Though he wasn’t interested in pet photography, Fishman showed him her work, and when he got a call from IAMS a few weeks later, he recommended Fishman for the job—the start of what has become a successful stream of commercial assignments. To learn more about Fishman’s transition and how she photographs animals for assignments, read the full interview on PDNonline.com.
Frances F. Denny spent many years in the art world, but for a long time she was unsure of what type of career she wanted. She interned at galleries and with photographers, but it wasn’t until a summer course at Maine Media Workshops that she was convinced she should be a photographer.
After the workshop, Denny worked as a darkroom assistant at the International Center of Photo—giving her both experience with the medium and connections to fellow photographers. By assisting photographer Hannah Whitaker, an ICP alum, sge learned the technical skills of lighting and composition. She enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2012 and began assisting as well as getting her own assignments, sometimes through friends of friends, from clients like Architectural Digest and online fashion retailer MM.LaFleur. “If you do the job well, and get along with the client, that can lead to another job with them, and that’s great for both of you,” Denny explains. Through her connections at RISD, Denny advanced her fine-art career. In 2016, she published a monograph about her family, Let Virtue Be Your Guide. To learn more about Denny’s transitions and career, read the full article here.
While working as an art director at an advertising agency, Grace Chon always had a passion for animals. In 2008 she started a pet photography business on the side, and by 2009 she had the confidence—and clientele—to support her turning that side business into a full-time job. As it turns out, her experience in advertising lent itself naturally to a career photographing animals—especially for commercial clients. “I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” she says. “I can instill confidence. I know what they need, and how to do it, and my work shows that I’m able to accomplish what it is they want.” Additionally, her agency experience taught her the value of patience. Behind the scenes at an agency, she says, “it’s a wait-and-see process. Be patient. There’s a whole lot going on that you don’t know about, and have no control over.” Subscribers can learn more about Chon’s transition and the lessons she learned from her art directing days in the full article.
Stephanie Gonot spent three years working as a Redeye rep, surrounding herself with talented photographers and learning the business. While there, she started shooting in her spare time since, she says, “I just liked doing it.” She posted her own work to social media and in 2014 she had enough assignment work to transition from a Redeye rep to a photographer on the agency’s roster. In the process of transitioning, Gonot says personal work is what kept her afloat. She kept a list of projects she wanted to work on, and marketing tasks she needed to do, in order to keep busy during slow periods. “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.” She also learned how to communicate with art buyers and photo editors effectively. “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,” she says. PDN subscribers can learn more about Gonot’s transition and her key takeaways by reading the full article.
Upon graduating college, Sara Macel worked as a studio manager for photographer Bruce Davidson. The job inspired her to try her own hand at photography, but she soon realized “I knew nothing about the business side” of building a career. She ended up taking a job as a producer at Art Director and quickly learned the essential business skills, but she kept steadfast to her goal of becoming a photographer and left to earn a master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts. Macel currently shoots fine-art work and editorial assignments and has published May the Road Rise to Meet You, a book documenting her dad’s work as a telephone pole salesman.“Keep focusing on your own work, because that’s the end goal.” she says. PDN subscribers can read more of Macel’s advice for aspiring photographers in the full article.