My Path to a Humanitarian Photography Career (or What I Did When Photography Couldn’t Pay the Bills)

Posted by | · · · · · · | Inspiration · Nonprofits · Photography

(Writer’s note: A version of this post first appeared on my personal blog.)

Like most humanitarian photographers, I haven’t always had steady work. In fact, I’ve worked all kinds of jobs to support myself while trying to build a business and confidence that I could make it as a photographer. 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
  • 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 mid-sized newspaper
  • Part-time substitute teacher
  • Adjunct photography instructor at a community college
  • Waitress (fired after two weeks)
  • Freelance photographer for a couple NGOs

I wrote this list to show that sometimes you have to take work outside your field to pay your bills – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a luxury to even have the choice of working in a job you love.

But when I held many of 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’d been a successful business reporter before pursuing photography, and now 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 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. I began to feel pulled toward being more of an advocate for issues I cared about rather than an objective journalist, so I cold-called a local charity working with homeless mothers and children to get them back on their feet. I volunteered to shoot family portraits. Through the charity I met Aasima, a young mother who allowed me to document her life for a week as part of a photo workshop. One of my pictures won best of the workshop, which led to regular freelance work for the excellent local paper. A two-year college asked me to teach a photo course. My confidence grew, and after I saved a couple thousand dollars, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I knew I’d have more opportunities for nonprofit photography.

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 grew 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 comparing myself to others is no good. Every career has its ups and downs. I’m OK with that.

Photo caption: Aasima Hajja Spruill rides the bus with her children Avemaria, 4, and Zaheir, 2, in Norfolk, Va. © Laura Elizabeth Pohl


Cole Howard says:

March 13, 2017 at 8:54 am

Thank you for this piece. It’s nice to hear about other successful photographers’ struggle to make it in their career. I too have taken many jobs outside of the photography realm. It is hard to keep faith at times as you continue to wake up every day and push forward but are financially unable to stay afloat. And similar to you, returning home to live with your parents after hitting an adult age, is no doubt a luxury that many are not so lucky to have, but it does not help with self confidence. I hope that your career is now blossoming, and I hope that you know of my own someday.


Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

March 16, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for reading this post and for reaching out! It is indeed hard to keep the faith when you’re struggling. So hard. Hang in there, keep shooting, and know that this is likely a temporary phase in your life.


Vera says:

March 16, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Thanks, Laura, for that sincere and gut-wrenching article. Good to hear that others also struggle. Nice to have the Internet today where we can reach out and encourage one another, as you’ve done.


Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

March 30, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Thanks, Vera. I’m glad you appreciated the article. We all struggle. sometimes we’re afraid to talk about it, especially when we’re going through it.


waiswa nathan says:

December 20, 2017 at 4:11 am

Please visit Uganda and we do a refugee humanitarian photography project,am sure this will change both my and your career shapes.I am passionate about humanitarian causes. We have so many refugees and life is hard for them.we can develop a picture book and use that to influence the world into helping them.


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