Starting from the Bottom: Tips on First Career Steps

When I sat down to chat with acclaimed food, travel, and lifestyle photographer Sara Remington, who also happens to be a good friend from our days at Syracuse University, we talked all about her early love for photography at age 13, her initial hesitation at going all in as a photo major at school (due to those pesky “real world” concerns), and some of her recent projects—shooting for Häagen-Dazs and juicing startup Juicero. You can check out the full conversation at Making Ways. During our talk, Sara shared some great stories about her first mentor and the kinds of advice she gives to up-and-coming photographers today. Read on for quick but powerful lessons on the value of being kind, rolling up your sleeves, and starting from the bottom.

Do the (grunt) work

When I was in college, studying art alongside Sara at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, I was so into music (still am today) that I would have done anything to work in the music business. So I did. My first breakthrough was an internship at Rolling Stone. From there, I went to Arista Records and MTV Animation. And you know what I did there? A hell of a lot of office grunt work, otherwise known as “paying them dues.” Sure, it’s not glamorous and can sometimes feel like a demeaning misuse of skills, but it’s often critical to getting some initial experience in a profession and building the ever-so-pivotal network that will likely lead to your next job opportunity.

Sara recalled how she paid her dues and explains how it’s paid off over time: “I was like, ‘Whatever, yeah, I’ll clean up the toilet,’ and just did five different jobs, five days a week, with five different photographers, in five different labs or galleries. I did everything I possible could do, not only to get my foot in the door but to understand from the ground up what I could be doing and who these people are that are involved in the process. Because even if you are doing something on a very low rung of the photography ladder, like fetching coffee or schlepping stuff, everybody knows everyone, and you’ll meet someone along the path that you’ll eventually meet again later. And it’s totally proven to be true. All these people that I met in LA in my early 20s I’ve come full circle and met again, and we all know the same people, and we all help each other. It’s a very beautiful thing.”

Earn experience by contributing

There’s a lot to be said for just getting out there and making it happen. Start drawing if you want to be an illustrator, start cooking if you want to be a chef, and start shooting photos if you want to get paid as a professional one day. But alongside the grind of gaining raw experience is the kind of lesson that only comes by working alongside someone who has been at it for years. One of Sara’s most formative professional relationships was with National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow. In addition to teaching Sara about the art of photography, Karnow offered a real-world lesson in the critical (especially if you want to be a freelancer) business of photography. Sara explains, “[When] I was working. . .in [Catherine Karnow’s] studio, [I was] learning how the business ran. Invoicing, dealing with clients, dealing with her studio, making sure it was running while she was away at these fabulous shoots.” Sure, the job wasn’t always exciting, and running an office was a lot of work, but Sara gained experience nearly impossible to secure in any other setting. And she did it by seeking out the mentorship of a seasoned pro.

Get started by being kind

“It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice.” Although this aphorism sounds like something a grandparent would holler, it’s also happens to be true. The more work life I’ve experienced, the more I’ve realized that kind, generous, passionate people can make a project worthwhile and take a job from impossible to life affirming in a heartbeat. (The inverse is also true.) So remember to be nice. It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s best to get started during the first steps of your career. Sara said, “In the beginning. . .you have to be nice to everybody and really understand where they are coming from—and try everything.” Building your network by breeding honest connection, getting to know people, and offering help first, requests second is a surefire way to build long-lasting relationships. Sara said she still sees some of this attitude in recent graduates who ask to assist her, but not as often. “[My studio is] not like a cool, fun set where I’m a cool photographer and I’m doing cool stuff [like shooting] this Instagram beauty in the coolest space imaginable. 80% of the time I’m behind my computer, and I’m marketing.” While for some, exposure to the reality of the business can be deflating, as Sara notes, “When you do find somebody that wants to work hard from the ground up—and I have a couple of people I work with like that—it’s really special.”

There is no blueprint for a creative career, but finding mentors early on and connecting with peers who are hustling along the same route beside you will ultimately pay off in the best ways possible––arming you with tangible work experience and a support network that has your best career interests at heart. So get out there, meet people, and start contributing; soon enough, the which-job-is-right-for-me fog will begin to lift.

For inspiration of the visual kind, be sure to check out Sara’s photography at sararemington.com.

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