By Declan Kerlett
As a Bachelor of Writing student in my last semester at the University of Canberra, I was recently paid for my creative work for the first time. However, in an ironic twist: I wasn’t paid for my writing, the discipline I have spent three years studying, but for my photography, a part-time hobby I fumble around with on winter weekends.
So, how did this happen? And have I selected the wrong career path? Well, maybe. But there’s another reason why I’ve had more accidental success in starting a photography career from a hobby than I’ve had in starting a writing career through my degree.
It happened because I was doing the thing.
I was taking photos, editing them, and posting them on Instagram publicly where people could see them.
I didn’t set out to get paid for my photography, it started because my partner had taken up Aussie Rules. After the first season of supportive watching from frozen concrete seats in as many layers of clothing as I could wear, I was restless for something to do. So, starting in her second season, I watched the matches through the viewfinder of her old Canon camera.
I had no experience with photography, so my early attempts were pretty flukey. It was some hit and a lot of miss. And when I did get a halfway decent shot, I didn’t know how to edit them. When I look back at my earliest shots, with their comically large watermarks, inconsistent white balance, and skewed angles, I feel a bit embarrassed. It’s obvious that I didn’t know what I was doing.
But it doesn’t matter how bad I was when I started, because I was doing the thing. And even though my early attempts might kindly be described as amateurish, the players on the team at least appreciated having someone to take photos of them. The AFL Canberra Women’s Division II doesn’t attract a lot of media attention, so players don’t often see photos of themselves in action.
I spent nearly every Saturday of winter taking photos, learning, and improving. Each week I’d share the decent shots with the players and the very best ones I would edit to post on Instagram. My very modest following comprised mostly of the players themselves.
However, recently, and ironically, I was presented with an opportunity to work as a photographer covering some finals matches after the professional photographer had pulled out at the last minute. I was scared. I’d never charged for my photography before and I’d never done three matches in a day either.
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to produce work that was worth paying for, so I rang the person who had offered me the job. I told them I was an amateur, and I couldn’t guarantee all my shots would be professional quality. They understood completely and wanted me to do it anyway. They’d seen my work and trusted me to do a good enough job.
They had seen me doing the thing.
And that’s the secret, you need to do the thing. The truth is that this ironic little twist shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I was never likely to have a writing opportunity land in my lap because I only ever wrote for university assignments. And that’s why I was paid for my photography before I was paid for my writing.
My little experience is far from being a unique case study either. Consider Fifty Shades of Grey, which you may not have read but I’m sure you will know was both incredibly popular and widely criticised for its quality. You may also know that it started from a story that was posted on a forum for Twilight fan fiction. That’s right, E.L. James got her start because she was doing the thing. This opportunity was only created because James was willing to put her work out there in public. She did the thing.
You might feel that you’re not good enough to do the thing yet, that you’ve still got too much to learn before you can put your work out there. I say you should go do your thing, whether you feel ready or not. You don’t have to be producing work at a professional standard, you don’t even have to be close.
Let’s take a look at my favourite webcomic artist, Jeph Jacques, as an example.
Jeph started his webcomic, Questionable Content, in 2003 and I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but his first strip is a good example of not waiting until you’re ‘ready.’ However, he did the thing and kept doing it.
Today, the comic has been going for over 17 years and in the 4,000+ strips published in that time, Jeph’s artwork has evolved to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a different webcomic. He was an amateur with a lot to learn when he published the first strip and he was a professional with a lot of improvement left when he published the 179th strip, but he never would have made it to this 4,372nd strip if he hadn’t started doing the thing. While it would have been great if he had been that good from the first strip, it didn’t matter. He did the thing.
If you’re a creative student who, like me, has only been creating work for assignments, then I hope I’ve convinced you to do the thing, your thing. You will learn, you will improve, and by doing the thing where people can see it, you’re giving yourself the best chance for an opportunity to come your way.
Now get out there and do the thing!