5 Lessons I've Learned as a Freelancer

It’s a constant dance to balance the value of your time and investments.
— Andrew Hida, 2014

A year ago I dropped into a profession that I knew little about: video production. Don’t get me wrong, I came well prepared with skills to shoot, edit, and tell a story. I had a great internship and spent nearly a year at a production studio honing those skills. But, what I failed to prepare for was navigating a freelance career in one of the most competitive industries and markets.

The past 12 months have been a tumultuous journey defined by complete failures and tremendous successes. From these experiences, I’ve learned five simple lessons during my young career as a modern freelancer.

Lesson Number 1

Be your best advocate. Your reputation always precedes you, so never get too comfortable where you stop running checks and balances on yourself. Remain self-aware and keep your nose down. Being your best advocate also means demanding what your talent and your time are worth. This is always a complicated path to navigate. I try to always weigh the costs and benefits. In my mind, a personally unsatisfying high-paying commercial job is a great short-term investment. Likewise, lower-paying editorial projects are a great long-term opportunity that results in meaningful work. It’s a constant dance to balance the value of your time and investments.

Lesson Number 2

Advertise yourself. I’m not saying you should start taking out Facebook ads or billboard advertisements with an 800-number. Rather, broadcast to your network—friends, colleagues, editors, professors, family—that you are going freelance, and that you are available and ready to work. Most jobs are secured by referrals at various levels of your network. So shout as loud as you can without an annoying or abrasive screech.

Lesson Number 3

Organization and record keeping are a must. Spreadsheets are my hobby. Manila folders and filing cabinets are my best friends. And workflows are my lifestyle. I’m already an overly anal retentive person, but becoming a freelancer has taught me to be even more organized. Use slugs for every project, job, or client mirrored across your internal workflow and archive. Save all your receipts, flip them over, and write a note on the back to remind you of the expense on tax day. The point of detailed organization and documented workflow is so that anyone, whether it’s an assistant editor, your accountant, or you, can jump in at any point and know exactly what actions preceded and what tasks come next.

Lesson Number 4

Brand yourself. I’ve asked myself repeatedly, “What do you want to do? How do you want your potential clients to perceive you?” Scrutinize how you define your business and distinguish yourself from the competition. Identify your strengths and where your weaknesses lie. Brand yourself based on your strengths and passions. Your weaknesses are an opportunity to leverage the skills of other creatives to complement your skill set. This directly leads to Lesson Number 5.

Lesson Number 5

Be open to collaboration. Coming from a photography background like myself, you become trained to think and work as an independent and solitary creative. We bask in our own glory, and fail in our own misery. However, as clients and publications demand more deliverables in the form of video, images, graphics packages, and interactives, so too must we demand more from ourselves. It’s possible to hammer out brilliant video storytelling and supporting photography, all delivered in a branded interactive package, but it will take a long time, and inevitably something will suffer. And what usually suffers is the quality.

Brian Storm, Executive Producer of MediaStorm, once told me to identify one thing you want to be really good at, and then become an expert at it. I have identified where my strengths are, and where my weaknesses lie. In fact, I have co-founded Spēk Pictures--a video and multimedia production company--on this principle. My partners offer complementary talent and expertise. Together we can create and build a higher quality product that we might otherwise fail at individually.

This new (shared) journey will be scary, but if we follow these lessons, I know we will succeed—individually and collaboratively.

Thank you for reading.


*This blog entry was cross-posted on the Spēk Pictures blog.

The Fall Workshop 2013

Last month I returned to my alma mater to help out at The Fall Workshop. Every year for 12 years, graduate and undergraduate students from the Multimedia, Photography & Design department at Syracuse University dedicate 4 days to intense, hands-on production work. For the past two years, the workshop has been based around the theme of "Families," with this year specifically focused on the idea of "New Families." Returning for the second year as a coach, I had the unique opportunity to return the instruction and knowledge that I walked away with during the two workshops I participated in as a graduate student. The Fall Workshop is a fundamental component of the curriculum. Coming only a few weeks into the beginning of the semester, students learn shooting, editing, and storytelling from professionals (mostly Syracuse alumni).

This year I worked with Maura Lisson and Ethan Backer (graduate students), Chris Janjic (a senior undergraduate), and Chase Walker (a visiting fellow from Liberia). Coming from a diverse set of backgrounds each student set off to tell a story about a "new family" in Syracuse, in their own way. 

Ethan Backer was a former freelance photographer in Massachusetts who returned to graduate school to learn the necessary skills for multimedia storytelling. Video was still very new to him where the mechanics and technique were not yet familiar. However, as the weekend progressed, his comfort with the camera grew. He was able to focus (literally), started to see light again, and was able to be more deliberate about his composition and framing. Unconditional is a wonderful story about a family whose love far outweighs its needs. The storytelling is elegant as he slowly reveals the story through deliberate pacing. 

Chris Janjic, a senior undergraduate, began his project on Friday. Typically most students begin the workshop with having shot some of their story, but Chris had the added challenge of starting from scratch on day one. Having just gained access to a halfway house, his greatest hurdle would be to develop and nurture relationships with the female residents in a compressed timeline. Putting away his camera and simply hanging out was a test of patience that ultimately rewarded Chris with an open door into the lives of these women. Halfway There is a sensitive look into three women's lives looking to start over, shared through poetry and deeply personal experiences. 

Maura Lisson, who holds a bachelor's degree from SU's school of Visual and Performing Arts, focused on a middle school cross country team. With a background in fine art photography, Maura wanted to take a non-traditional approach to storytelling. Her portrait of these young girls is both reflective, and active. It is a universal story that we can all relate to: a vignette of the adolescent experience through the lens of team, sport, and family. 

Finally, Chase Walker, a visiting fellow from Liberia and extremely talented artist, hunkered down to explore the story of a Liberian family who have been refugees in Syracuse since 2006. Contrasting the themes of the "American Dream" and the "Liberian Dream," Chase tells the story of a family seeking a better life in America in hopes of returning to their country with this. Through the eyes of the eldest brother of four, Lawson Townsend pursues this dream through soccer for his entire family. 

Just Good Storytelling #1

Over the past couple months, I've started to listen to podcasts when I'm at the gym. I found that although storytelling doesn't necessarily pump you up to exercise, it has given me an undisturbed hour or so of time to really immerse myself in radio. Although late to the game, I've become a big fan of This American LifeRadiolab, and most recently, The Moth, based out of New York City. It got me thinking, why not start compiling a list of really great storytelling that's not just confined my realm of video and photography. So over the past few weeks I've compiled a list of just really great stories that I've come across in various mediums from a variety of publications. 

This is just the beginning of what I hope to be a continuing series of "Just Good Storytelling." 


Starting at the New York Times comes a fantastic short video and photo essay from Josh Haner, Cath Spangler, and Tim Rohan. "Beyond the Finish Line" features Jeff Bauman's story of survival and recovery after losing both of his legs to the explosions that rocked Boston earlier this April during the Boston Marathon. 

Additionally, the New York Times surprised me with an interactive project, similar in format to the infamous "Snowfall" from 2012 that left our industry drooling. From Barry Bearak and Chang W. Lee comes "The Jockey," a story about Russell Baze, "the winningest jockey in American history." Incredible, truly multi-media storytelling.

Speaking of interactives, National Geographic magazine released "The Serengeti Lion," a multimedia package to accompany the August 2013 article, "The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion" by David Quammen and photographer, Michael Nichols. The stark black and white images from the article are an intimate look into this species' life, which is augmented by an immersive experience online through the seemingly iPad inspired platform. Included in the project is testimony and images from photographer Brent Stirton to accompany his sidebar story, "Living with Lions." Really powerful stuff and so interesting to see how NG has fused the two platforms. It's like you're actually there.

Next up are cable cars in Chiatura, Georgia. Photographer Amos Chapelle tells us a story of a town caught in a network of criss-crossing cables of its mining past during the soviet era. Featured in the Atlantic, this story reminded me so much of a place I've always dreamed of visiting. I've had somewhat of an obsessive fascination with post-Soviet Russia since the first time I'd ever seen "Satellites," a project by Magnum photographer, Jonas Bendicksen. Chapelle's essay from Georgia is beautiful and very unexpected.  

Finally, I leave you with a story from This American Life, "Episode #502: This Call May Be Recorded." I am telling you. If there is one of these recommendations that you should actually listen to, then this is the one. This story from Ira Glass will rock your world. I literally had to stop exercising at the gym for the last 15 minutes of the story for fear of hurting myself because I was so immersed in the story. The synopsis from This American Life goes,

"A journalist named Meron Estefanos gets a disturbing tip. She's given a phone number that supposedly belongs to a group of refugees being held hostage in the Sinai desert. She dials the number, and soon dozens of strangers are begging her to rescue them. How can she ignore them?"

Seriously. How could you not be listening already? Stop reading this dumb blog post and listen now!  

Thanks for reading!