helen_newThe principal leads Helen to class on her first day at a new school in Jinja, Uganda.

Here’s a list of jobs I held between 2006 – 2008, when I was launching my photography career after two years of graduate school and one year on a fellowship. They’re listed in the order I landed the jobs:

  • Person setting up and breaking down a kiddie obstacle course
  • Person slicing up granola bars and handing them out at trade shows
  • Person handing out dietary supplement samples at a food and music festival (perfect for seeing how fast people can run from you)
  • *Part-time receptionist at a dental school (quit after eight months)
  • *Full-time photographer for a small studio (laid off after four months)
  • Freelance photographer at a wonderful mid-sized newspaper
  • *Part-time substitute teacher (moved to D.C. at the end of the school year)
  • Adjunct photography instructor at a wonderful two-year college
  • Waitress (fired after two weeks)
  • Freelance photographer for a couple NGOs
    *These are the jobs that actually paid me just enough to live on if I had no other work.

I wrote this list to show that sometimes you have to take non-photo work to pay your bills – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But when I held all the jobs listed above, I did feel something was wrong. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t make it as a photographer, something I thought was my calling, especially when other photographers I knew seemed busy and successful. Everyone says the photo industry is hard. Then why don’t we talk about what we do when the going gets hard – i.e. how we get by when photography skills alone can’t pay our bills?

If I’d been on Facebook back in 2006-2008, I’d probably have felt even more depressed than I already did.

I applied for almost 100 photojournalism jobs in eight months and got three interviews, no offers. I was living with my parents for the first time in 12 years in an area of the country where I had no friends. One cold winter’s night, when it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job for which I’d been told I was a frontrunner, I went for a 3-mile run at 9 p.m., sobbing the whole time.

“Why did I switch from business reporting to photography?” I screamed in my head. “Why did I think I could be a photographer?”

I was hungry for photo experience. I thought of applying for an unpaid internship or volunteer job, but I’d never worked an unpaid journalism job and I couldn’t imagine starting now. Anyway, it was out of the question. I had bills to pay: car loan, car insurance, gas, school loan, food, camera equipment, photo paper and ink (why did some job applications still require print portfolios???), and a big, unexpected medical bill from the previous year. True, my parents did graciously allow me to live in their home for several months (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but I paid them a small rent. They couldn’t help me financially, and I didn’t expect them to. All my work had to be compensated.

So non-photo jobs paid my bills for two years. I pursued my own photo projects and sought career guidance everywhere. That one-hour ride on a commuter van to and from the receptionist job? I photographed an essay on the commuter’s life. That video story I needed to submit for a job application, even though I knew nothing about video? I cold-called the lone video journalist at the local paper and asked for an in-person learning session, to which he agreed.

I also took a calculated risk I hoped would boost my career and pull me out of my depression: I scraped together enough money to move to Nepal for three months. I worked on a couple personal projects, published a couple stories and earned the equivalent of half the cost of my plane ticket. I felt less depressed, but my career was the same when I returned.

And yet, slowly, things changed. I attended an inexpensive photo workshop in my area. One of my pictures won best of the workshop and I picked up regular freelance work for the excellent local paper, where a couple editors helped me when they could. A two-year college asked me to teach a photo course. I still relied on non-photo jobs to pay my bills, but my confidence grew in my career prospects.

When I was living through those two years, especially the first year, I felt awful. I wish I could say I was grateful for what I had. I wasn’t.

But now I’m grateful for how much I learned, like how terrible receptionists get treated and how hard teachers work. I’d always thought of myself as an empathetic person, but my reserves of empathy and humility permanently swelled while working these non-photo jobs. I think that’s served me well as a photographer and as a human being. Also, I grew faster as a photographer during that time than any other, maybe because I was so desperate. I learned to separate my identity from my career. I learned how nice it could be living near my family, which I hadn’t in years. I learned comparing myself to others is no good. Every career has its own progression, ups and downs. I’m OK with that.