Changing Careers? How I Went From Social Worker to Photographer
Here’s How I Did it.
Prefer to read about changing careers instead of listening? No problem! The transcript is below:
I’ve been encouraged to make an episode about my story. How I ended up where I’m at now as an entrepreneur. My first reaction was, “Who wants to listen to me yammer on about myself?” But, after talking this through, I realized how there really can be a lot of value hearing about how someone else made changes in their life. I know I’ve benefited from learning about others and their journies with change.
So, here I am as an open book! I’m happy to share with you about how I went from being a burned-out social worker/ therapist to becoming a portrait photographer. I will also tell you how Busy as a Mother came to be.
I went to undergraduate and graduate school for social work. I was a therapist and social worker for 12 years. Volunteering was something I had been doing since I was a kid. I even started my own nonprofit to advocate for kids and adults with autism in developing countries.
What’s interesting is that I started the nonprofit when I initially started to feel burned out from social work. I wanted to do something different. One of my highest values is traveling and learning about other cultures. Something I noticed while traveling to different developing countries was that kids with autism were not getting what they needed. I remember being at a school for kids with special needs in Nepal. I could clearly identify the kids with autism because I taught social skills to kids with autism for years. When I asked the teacher about autism, she wasn’t even sure what I was talking about. So, that’s why I ended up starting the non-profit.
But, what I didn’t quite realize at the time was, that I was doing more of what was burning me out. Through all of this, my identity was completely immersed in helping other people. But, the thing is, the person I really needed to be helping and taking more care of was myself. Truly what I needed was to be focusing on my own happiness.
One day after work in 2012, my husband Dan told me that he noticed some changes in me and he asked me if I was depressed. I’m usually a positive, upbeat person who tries to see the best in things. So, when he asked me this, it was sort of a relief because I had been feeling different and it was scary for me because this was not my normal disposition.
Something I had been thinking a lot about was that I was living for the weekends and I found myself completely dreading walking into the building where I worked 40-50 hours per week. I had an hour-long commute and I remember wishing it was longer so that I didn’t have to arrive at work.
On top of just not wanting to go to work, I was anxious, not sleeping or eating well, and I was super irritable.
I was done. Burned out from being in a profession where there was always a problem to solve for someone. SO. READY. TO. QUIT.
The day that Dan and I had this conversation was the day I decided I needed a way out. I knew this was not AT ALL how I wanted to live my life. I had been watching a friend of mine grow her photography business on Facebook and I’ve always been obsessed with photography. So, not only did I love her work, but I was really interested in how she made a living doing it. I remember thinking to myself, if I can learn to shoot and have beautiful work, I wonder if I can do this like she is. I decided to go for it.
So, there I was, at 34 years old, deciding I needed to consider changing careers. I’ve definitely learned throughout my life that no one is going to make changes for me. I’m a pretty firm believer that if you aren’t happy with something, it’s up to you to change it.
I’m fortunate that Dan was extremely supportive and wanted me to do what it took to be happy again. The money part was what scared me the most. (Which, in hindsight is pretty funny because I was living paycheck to paycheck, I was in debt and I was terrible with money—how much worse could it get?)
Dan is a very hard worker and he’s actually great with money. However, he did not make nearly enough money for me to take time off to start a business. We needed my income so that just wasn’t an option. I had to work full time while starting my business.
I bought a camera and started learning as much as I could about how to shoot in manual. The technical part of photography was definitely really intimidating. I just had to get passed that. So, I kept learning and practicing.
I tried a little bit of every genre of photography. Quickly, I learned that photographing babies was not my thing. I decided I was going to go the wedding, seniors, & family route. I did several family shoots for free while getting some practice in. Then, I started charging something like $75 for everything.
I found myself sweating and needing a nap after photographing families, so I decided that wasn’t really what I wanted to do either. So, that left me with weddings and seniors, both of which I really enjoyed, but I still didn’t really know what I was doing. For my first wedding, I charged right around $700. So, I certainly was not making enough money to quit my job.
I started learning how to run a photography business that was actually profitable. I set a goal for myself. One goal. To spend one more year as a social worker and then I was D.O.N.E. I was changing careers. And, I honestly didn’t have much of a plan, wasn’t sure how I was going to do it yet, I just knew I had a set amount of time to make it happen.
I think people can be so different in that regard. Some people need all of their ducks in a row and everything exactly in place to make a big change, but I’ve found that if people become fixated on having everything perfectly ready, they end up with paralysis analysis and never end up fully moving forward. So, just a side note, if you are considering changing careers, I really encourage you to let go of having everything perfectly done. Just start.
Ok, so I set this goal for myself to quit my social work job after a year. Then, something really amazing happened. A few weeks later, I found myself in Paris with one of my dear friends, Jill, and my mentor, Sue. My friend Jill had breast cancer and I reached out to Sue to try to book a photoshoot for Jill. I was really still in the learning stages and I wanted Jill to experience a photoshoot with Sue.
Sue generously offered to take us to Paris to do a photoshoot of Jill and tell her story with Hailey Barthowlemu. Together they created The Light That Shines, which is about Jill and her experience with breast cancer. This experience was truly life-changing in every way, for both Jill and I. We truly could never thank Sue enough.
Unfortunately, Jill lost her battle to cancer in 2106, but her one-of-a-kind heart and personality will be with us always in spirit. Having the Light that Shines to Share with the world has been such a beautiful way to carry on Jill’s legacy.
After coming home from Paris and having this experience with Sue and Jill, I was just so inspired. So inspired that I ended up setting up a little 6×5 ft shooting corner in the family room of a house that we were renting in Seattle.
I fumbled my way through photoshoots. During each shoot, I learned more and more each time. That little corner is where I shot for 8 months. I was still at my social work job at that point, so I was shooting and editing during evenings and weekends. I built the foundation for my business right there on that crappy old carpet with no assistant while holding a hairdryer and my camera at the same time.
During that 8 months, I began not only learning from Sue how to photograph women, but following her business model. All of my education had been social work and therapy-related.
I had zero idea how to run a business. So, it made sense to me to follow a business model that had already been created. I took the steps one at a time. I did a ton of shoots for free to build my portfolio.
Once I became confident enough, I started charging. Not a whole lot, but I was actually getting paid shoots. I was posting a ton on Facebook and tagging the people I photographed which led to getting more and more inquiries.
Then, after gaining even more confidence from the feedback I was getting, I raised my prices. This was absolutely terrifying to me because the minimum someone could spend was a thousand dollars. I remember half questioning all of it and half feeling so certain that I could do this.
I ended up booking a client and l was like, okay, this is really happening now. But, I knew that I needed a studio space instead of shooting in my little family room.
So, I rented a studio for $150 and did the shoot. When it came time for her photo viewing, I was seriously sweating bullets and I’m sure my face was so red because I was so nervous. You know what? She bought all of the photos. I’ll honestly never forget that feeling! That is when I made the decision to get my own studio.
I got my first leased studio in October 2013 and I was finally able to quit my job. I remember people asked me if it was bittersweet to leave my career as a social worker.
You know what my response was? “Nope, it’s just sweet”. It was definitely sad to be leaving the kids and coworkers who I had spent so much time with, but I knew I was making the right decision.
I have never looked back. I really believe that having the determination that I was changing careers and focusing on that one goal I set for myself helped me continue to grow and grow.
My first studio was $1100 per month, which definitely scared me, but I honestly didn’t think too much about it. I just kept moving forward because I knew I would make it work. I knew failure was NOT an option.
While the studio itself was 700 square feet, I only had a 6×9 feet cubby to shoot in. The studio had slanted walls and the light was minimal in the rest of the studio other than in the cubby.
I won’t sugar coat it. Wrangling around backdrops and maneuvering my clients and everything else in such a small space was challenging. But, the bottom line is that I made it work. I built a successful business in less than desirable spaces and I think one of the most important pieces for me was to go in each day with a positive attitude.
It was hard, but I didn’t think about the limitations. I went in with the attitude of feeling grateful for changing careers and I found a way to push my confidence to the surface when I started freaking out. I brought it back to gratitude that I was able to do this for a living in the first place. And I practiced, practiced, practiced so that I knew how to rock my little space.
Slowly, but surely, my sales average started creeping up and I started booking more shoots. I joined networking groups and had a booth at a local women’s show. I kept sharing on social media. Clients started referring their friends to me. Things were really starting to pick up.
While I was LOVING studio portraits and photographing high school seniors outdoors, weddings were starting to become what I referred to as “Dooms Day”. I started dreading them.
The long days, thousands of photographs to edit, giving up my weekends, the pressure…it wasn’t fun anymore. I knew I could make a great living with portraits, I just had to make the transition and stop taking weddings.
For the next three years, I took fewer and fewer weddings. My last wedding was in October 2016 and it has been only portrait photoshoots since then.
Since my first studio, I have had 4 different studios in Seattle. Two have been big and beautiful. The other two have been tiny and not very glamourous. I have a second studio location in Michigan. I opened it about four years ago since Dan and I were there so often visiting our family (we grew up there). We actually moved back to Michigan at the beginning of 2020 and I travel back to Seattle to do photoshoots there.
I had our first son ,Van, in June 2016 sort of in the middle of significantly growing my business. Then, I had our second son, Dre, in May 2018. So, they are 22 months apart.
Having these two baby boys is ultimately what led me to create Busy as a Mother. Having been away from the traditional helping profession for several years, this made me really start to appreciate it again and actually miss it.
Clearly I was immersed in this mom life. But, I was also still a total workaholic that loved being a photographer so much. I had to really slow down and become aware of how to manage it all so that I didn’t completely lose my mind. Focusing on how I could be the best version of myself as a mother and also the best business owner I could possibly be.
I started documenting different strategies I was using to cope and manage it all. Then, I realized that maybe I could take everything I learned from my career as a social worker and therapist, along with my knowledge of being an entrepreneur, and find a way to help other working moms.
And, that is pretty much how Busy as a Mother was born. I’m not sure how obvious it is, but Busy as a Mother is really sort of a sarcastic title. The goal of this is for us to NOT be so busy, stressed out and overwhelmed all the time. The goal of Busy as a Mother is for you to learn and have fun all while helping you juggle everything in a way that feels good. Ya know?
My story about changing careers and starting Busy as a Mother. There has been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears along the way, but also so much excitement and total happiness. Plus I know that in the end, I worked so hard for this. I feel so proud to say that.
I’m just insanely grateful to you for listening. It can be quite a vulnerable place to put yourself out there and having you here as a listener/reader is what will make this show successful. So thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
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