MY FIRST TWO YEARS IN NEW YORK CITY
He asked me if I could take my hair down…. and…. he paused for lack of words to describe his discontent at my general appearance, gesturing with his hands to take in my entire face. “Come back tomorrow and try again” – he repeated.
Little Girl. Big City.
I arrived in New York City just over two years ago. I was twenty-four years old. I was on the other side of the world and I knew no one. I still remember catching the subway for the first time and looking down, my hands gripping my dress, the whites of my knuckles giving me away. But I never believed in letting fear stop me from doing anything.
I remember having dinner with my Dad a few days before I left. He told me his work colleagues asked him if he was worried about me. He told them – he never worries about me. Dad believes I have the survival instinct…eventually I’ll float to the surface. I knew that if all else failed…I could always go home.
I’d made the move for what I believed was my dream job. At the time, I approached the opportunity with apprehension. I love working for myself and I was leaving behind a business in Australia I had put my whole being into building. But I was going to NYC to work for one of the leading wedding/portrait photographers in the world. The pay was terrible but I hoped the notoriety of working for the studio would allow me to take my career to the next level. It was like taking ten steps back to take twenty forward.
I’d been in NYC a few days when the studio called me in to have my portrait taken for the website. I’d made an effort, put my favorite work outfit on, taken extra care with my makeup and sculpted my signature messy bun. Riding the elevator on the way up to the studio was nauseating. I’d risked everything I’d worked for to make this happen. My interview was a year previous. A weeklong process that came about after I had emailed the studio and suggested they should hire me. At the time, I was living in Byron Bay, a beach town on the east coast of Australia. The studio had emailed me back and suggested I fly to New York for an interview. Two weeks later, I jumped on a plane to New York. Now a year later, after a successful but testing interview process and a traumatic visa campaign – I was back in NYC, ready to test my fortitude in one of the hardest cities in the world.
…I knocked on the door, smiling broadly in an attempt at hiding my nerves. My new boss took one look at me and suggested I should try again. I stood there awkwardly – confused. He asked me if I could take my hair down…. and…. he paused for lack of words to describe his discontent at my general appearance, gesturing with his hands to take in my entire face. “Come back tomorrow and try again” – he repeated. I turned to leave. Actually…he said- “lets take a couple of test shots now that you are here”. He set up the lights, snapped off a couple of shots – only to confirm his initial reaction. Yes…I was not up to standard. Back on street level…I stood there for a second, taking in the city, letting the lunchtime foot traffic divert around me. I threw my head back and laughed. Crazy laughter. It seemed better than the alternative. My phone buzzed. It was the studio manager. She informed me I had been booked in to get my hair styled at Chris Chase and my makeup at Chanel before my portrait at 2:00pm tomorrow. Ha. Welcome to New York City.
The following day I arrived at the studio. Not a hair out of place…my makeup like a mask – set to hide whatever physical shortcomings he had taken exception to the previous day. “What an improvement!” he exclaimed – circling me to take in his handy work. After the head shot… he once again commented on how good I looked with the makeup and suggested that I might leave it on all weekend. I went home and scrubbed the makeup off. I wasn’t about to forget who I was after only one week.
Three months after I first arrived in NYC – I was named in the Top 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography by Rangefinder Magazine. I had been working hard on my art and I felt like the award justified the move. I clutched on to the success like a life raft. Not long after the award was announced, I met with one of the principal photographers from the studio. They were happy for my success but still wished I would do something about my appearance. To put this into perspective…I had been named in the top 30 emerging wedding photographers in the world but it still all came down to what I looked like. I thanked him for his feedback, got up and walked out. This time I didn’t laugh. This time – I ran through the streets crying.
No one leaves New York by choice. They might tell you they are as a way of saving face but the truth is – they failed. The city chewed them up and spat them out. When this occurs, they throw themselves a going away party…or what New Yorkers refer to as a “pity party”; a party to celebrate the fact they couldn’t hack it in the big city. While I was not enjoying New York and I was unhappy working for the studio…there was still no way in hell I was going to throw myself a pity party and crawl back to Australia. It was obvious that with little room for growth, the studio was at odds with my career goals but at the same time, they were supporting my visa and I didn’t know how I could stay in New York without them. I felt trapped and I was burnt out. I needed time to regroup and formulate a new plan of attack.
After only six months in the city, I flew home to Australia to recover and escape the brutal NYC winter. I got off the plane and Dad took one look at me. “You look terrible” he said. I hung my head – I’d heard plenty of that lately. Dad prescribed sleep, sun and a haircut. Over the next five weeks…I let my country heal me. I surrounded myself with positive people who believed in me and I went on my first press trip along the east coast of Australia with my travel/lifestyle blog – Tempting Alice. I initially launched the blog to track my move to NYC but more importantly as a place I could express freely – uninhibited by the constraints and expectations of the wedding photographic industry. Through the blog, I felt I was finding my voice as an artist. The press trip involved me staying at some of the premier holiday hotspots in the Byron Bay area and sharing my experience with my readers. It was heaven. When it came time to head back to NYC – I felt like a new woman. More importantly, the break had given me clarity. I had a plan.
I realized I needed to build a life for myself in New York. I needed a support network, a NYC family to help me through the highs and lows of the city. I made this a priority. I said yes to everything. I started dating and I made friends who showed me a whole new side to the city. I also organized a month long press trip to the Greek Islands with Tempting Alice. In retrospect, the five weeks I spent exploring the islands became more of a personal pilgrimage – each experience intensified by my solidarity as a solo female traveller. I kayaked through sea caves, went sailing in Santorini, journeyed through the mountains in Crete…it was the summer of my dreams and the knowledge I had created this opportunity using my art as currency felt empowering. As my Greek Islands adventure came to an end…someone asked if I was sad to be going back. While my trip to the Greek Islands had been bliss…I was heading back to NEW YORK CITY! There was no down side to this situation. A couple of days later, I looked out the window of the plane and saw New York come into view and realized that after a rough getting to know you period…I had fallen in love with the city.
I had resolutely decided that my future did not lie with the studio. As a woman – they would never view me as an equal and I wasn’t prepared to compromise my identity to fit someone else’s ideal. With this in mind, I started to explore my industry beyond the studio. I reached out to photographers I idolized. Rock stars of the industry like Bruce Dale; the most prolific National Geographic photographer of all time and Matt Mahurin; a photographer I believe transcends genre with a client list that includes Tracy Chapman, Tom Waits, U2 & The Prodigy. They met with me. They believed in me. I am someone who feels more attractive, more talented by association – like proximity to greatness might be catching. Matt posed the question …if you could remove all obstacles (money, ability, opportunity) what would your dream job be? He wanted me to be specific. The question stayed with me. I didn’t have an answer but I would find one….
It was during this period that I met my future co-founder… Spencer Lum. Before I met with Spencer, an industry friend warned me of Spencer’s crazy brain and suggested I take the time to read his blog Ground Glass so that we might have common points of interest. As it turned out, Spencer’s crazy brain was much like my crazy brain. We were on a similar wavelength. The same but different and I walked away from the meeting feeling invigorated. Looking back on it, I think our common point of interest was that both Spencer and I wanted to create something bigger than ourselves. Over the coming months, Spencer and I continued to meet up for coffee – talking in depth about the industry and how we wanted to shape our careers. It was during these intense coffee sessions that the idea for The Brooklyn Collective was born.
In late 2013 – my discontent with the studio came to a head when they tried to lock me into an exclusivity contract for no extra pay. It was time to leave. I was scared but at the same time – I knew this was my opportunity for a fresh start. To forge the future for myself I had dreamt of.
At the same time, Spencer had been considering giving up his studio space in Dumbo because of the financial drain. I saw the opportunity and pitched him the idea of turning the studio into a co-working space for photographers. We could use the studio as a physical space to officially launch the Brooklyn Collective. Spencer went for it and as the sunset on 2013 – the partnership between ‘Five West Studios and myself was official. The studio would sponsor my visa and I would stay in NYC. I was free.
After the success of my Greek Islands trip…I had begun to contemplate the concept of location freedom. The question Matt Mahurin had asked me – continued to plague me…
If I could remove all obstacles…what would my dream job be?
I believe life is like a jigsaw puzzle. You piece together the clues – always keeping the bigger picture in mind. Although I didn’t have all the answers yet – I did know I wanted to create a business for myself that wasn’t defined by location. Digital nomads all over the world are embracing the idea of an office with an ever-changing backdrop. Living between borders, seeing the world and advancing their careers. I decided to use the momentum I had generated, to build a business that allowed me to live as a location freedom professional. I gave up my apartment, downsized my possessions to a bare minimum and took my business paperless. Over the next three months, I was on the move continuously. From Vegas to Adelaide to Sydney, Byron Bay, Melbourne, Cairns, Darwin, Singapore and back to New York City. I was healthier, happier, more productive and more successful. Spencer and I continued to refine our concept for The Brooklyn Collective and create an action plan that would allow us to hit the ground running when I returned on April 1st. Although I cherished my time in Australia with family and friends I became increasingly anxious to reignite my life in New York City and embark on the next stage of my journey.
Spring is a glorious time to be in New York. My arrival back to NYC felt like a triumph. I had worked so hard just to be here. Spencer and I met to finalize our game plan and prepare our pitch to a group of photographers we had selected to be the founding members. Spencer and I wanted to develop a creative incubator designed to promote and support a community of photo-based artists. It was a big idea and we had big dreams but we needed to be able to show our members how as a collective, we could empower them as thought leaders within the industry. At this stage it was conceptual, in order to build it – we needed people to first believe in it.
I am an ideas person. But so many ideas never gain the traction needed to see them prosper. The Brooklyn Collective wasn’t one of these. After that first meeting, when everyone left – I turned to Spencer and could tell he was thinking the same thing. This might just work. Not only had people actually turned up but they seemed excited by the concept, they felt there was a need for it and wanted to work together. It was exciting to be working on something that felt right. We made plans for our first group show – aiming for the start of August. That gave us almost three months to plan, promote and shoot the content.
The theme for our group show was Modern Romance. For my exhibition piece, I wanted to take more of a personal approach and inject myself into the project. I decided to document my experience with the online dating app – Tinder. An application where users can select or dismiss partners based on physical appearance. The final body of work would be a collection of black and white portraits taken on my first dates. To be honest…I dived head first into the project without considering the repercussions. How it would be received, how it would affect my state of mind and how it would influence my personal relationships. I was worried about how I portrayed others within the body of work but never considered I could be the casualty of my own project. Some days I was booking lunchtime and dinnertime dates in the one day. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally but I was determined to see it through.
At the same time, Spencer and I were struggling to find an exhibition space that would agree to show us. Looking back – it seems like an impossible challenge; we had no budget, no experience and no work to show. Regardless of the challenges we faced- as a co-founder, I felt I was failing to deliver on my end of the partnership. We discussed a few alternatives but ultimately we wanted a gallery space that would confirm our legitimacy as a group. As the weeks passed by, the pressure continued to mount, then one day I walked into the studio and Spencer told me we had a gallery. Spencer had drawn on his contacts and struck a deal. Relief washed over me. A few days later we signed the contract and toured the space in person for the first time. It was better than I had ever dreamt. It was large enough to showcase a group show with beautiful white washed walls and an outdoor area where we could set up a bar. Spencer and I felt invincible.
I had also moved into the studio space in Dumbo. We had established it as a small but tight knit co-working space and it had become my happy place. The project…or Tinderella as it had become known was dominating my every spare moment. I hadn’t seen my friends in weeks and I know viewed dating as work. I felt I was essentially pimping myself out for my art. I questioned my ethics continuously and was called a predator on more than one occasion. If it wasn’t for the studio, which acted as my sanctuary…I might not have seen the project to its conclusion.
I was also attempting to promote the exhibition. Having never promoted an event I was only really guessing as to what might work. We decided to pool our collective audience and devise a systematic marketing calendar for the Collective members to follow. We were relying on the power of social media and hoping that our following would prove dedicated and turn up to show their support. I was terrified no one would show up and the entire Collective and my co-founder would blame me. I reached out to almost everyone I had ever come into contact with and urged them to spread the word. Two weeks out – I realized people were actually coming and started to panic for entirely the opposite reason. Everyone would see my project. I felt I hadn’t allowed myself enough time to evolve the concept. I wavered between feeling overly proud that the exhibition was actually going to happen and totally terrified that it was. During this time, my productivity slowed to a halt. I felt crippled by fear and reached out to my support network for help. It felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff knowing I had to jump and just praying I would fly. Eventually, I pushed myself over the edge and just got on with it, managing to pull all the elements together in the final week. Spencer and I had succeeded in orchestrating almost the entire night for free. We had sold our souls in the process but all in the name of art.
On the day of the exhibition – I had decided to let go of all fear, all anxiety and enjoy the moment. I arrived at the gallery that morning to find everyone preparing to hang their work. I was so proud of ‘us’ – we were really a team, a community of artists working together to produce something special. Again…I had that feeling that I was on the right path and realized this was the answer to Matt’s question. If I could remove all obstacles…THIS is what I would do. It had taken me over a year but I had finally found my answer.
That night, I put on my new dress and arrived at the gallery. I felt emotional. Not just for the night but for my entire journey that had led to this point. We thought people would turn up later in the night but as soon as the doors opened, people started arriving. By 7:30pm – the gallery was at capacity. We estimate we had around 400 people roll through. The night had exceeded all our expectations.
I invited almost all of my dates from Tinderella to the opening exhibition. Over the course of two months – I had gone on 17 first dates – 11 of which had allowed me to photograph them. I had no idea who was actually going to turn up. Those that did were like rock stars. People obviously recognized them from their photos and wanted to meet them in person. I had great fun introducing them to people and watching them take the situation in their stride. One of my favorite moments from the evening was observing two of my dates standing in front of my body of work, discussing the concept. Any questions about how my project would be received – were answered.
In the coming weeks…I took some time to reflect on my first two years in New York. I have learnt that life in NYC is full of extreme highs and lows. I guess the happy medium can be found in the certainty of change. To live here permanently is to go to battle as warriors of life. To live here successfully is to crave the change and relish the fight. After such a challenging and tumultuous introduction to the city…I felt I had won the battle and forged a future for myself in New York City. The exhibition marked the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. The little girl who was scared of catching the subway is long gone. I evolved to meet the needs of the city and survived with my integrity intact. I look forward to the next chapter and the challenges that await me….