Starting a Career as a Freelancer (all over again)

As of today I’ve lived in New York City for three weeks. Our apartment no longer bears any resemblance to the packed Uhaul that brought us here. Everyday this place feels more like home. …except for one thing:

I don’t have a job.

Technically, I never have. I’ve never been an employee; never gotten a tax return or had benefits or a boss. I’ve been a freelancer since I was 17, so really this is nothing new. The difference here is that I’m the new guy in town. Essentially I’m starting over. I have no client base here, and I didn’t move because of a job opportunity. What awaits for me is wide open potential drenched with excitement and insecurity. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous, but the alternative is boredom.

Three weeks ago I could count on one hand the number of people I knew in this town. Freelancing is all about who you know, and word of mouth is the heartbeat of marketing. The problem is no one in New York is talking about me yet. I feel like I’m back to square one. I have to pound the pavement and practice what I preach. I have to test my own advice and live with the consequences. In a sense I’ve left the security of my former “job” in hopes of making it as a freelancer in one of the most competitive cities in the world. No sweat, right?

To be fair, there are a few significant differences between me and those exploring this territory for the first time. My first foray into the freelancing world was with videography before I shifted into photography, but the principles here are the same for any type of freelancer.

  1. When I first started freelancing I was living at home. I didn’t have to pay rent or put food on the table. Pretty much all I was concerned about was paying for my camera, computer, and software. A few years later I was making a decent living, so I moved into my own place. Then I got married. We moved to NYC, and now she’s going to school full-time. Needless to say I’ve got a lot more responsibility on my shoulders than I did when I first started.
  2. New York and Washington D.C., while relatively close together on a map, might as well be located on different planets. Being a photographer in DC makes you the anomaly; you’re different, creative, and fun –all of which are attributes not usually associated with government workers. NYC is a different story entirely. Cameras and film crews are the new motorcades. Creativity is king, and competition is palpable.
  3. Unlike someone just starting out I have considerable experience and a portfolio under my belt. The awesome thing about art and business is that there are so many transferable skills. Leverage whatever experience you already have. Start with what and who you know. Step out from there.
  4. A decade is an eternity in technological terms. I’ve gone through five cameras, three computers, and a handful of cell phones since I first started, not to mention we now have “indispensable” things like iPads and Instagram that didn’t even exist ten years ago. Changes in technology mean changes in distribution. What worked ten years ago might not work now, and what works today might not have been possible then. Creativity and ingenuity are always an asset here.
  5. I’ve had the privilege of working on a huge variety of projects. I’ve shot everything from weddings to catheters; I’ve photographed the homeless and the President alike. I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I’ve had, but I’ve decided to narrow my focus and really pursue the work that I love. I suspect there will always be some tension between paying the rent and following your passion.
  6. Lastly, I’m in a better place financially. I have been padding our savings account for a year, so that we can breathe a little easier here. Besides, DC is only a short bus ride away if I need to pick up some more work back there. Moral of the story, if you’re planning to jump into a career as a freelancer make sure you’ve got a backup plan or cushion to fall back on.

That’s my story so far. I’m at the beginning of a new chapter, and I hope it encourages those who are thinking about writing a new one for themselves. Carpe diem, my friends!

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