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Insights from Another World: Lexie Cole

ASMP members talk about how their previous careers led them to a life behind the lens.

ASMP: Please describe your first career path. In what capacity did you work and for how long did you do this?

Lexie Cole: For 10 years, I worked as a corporate recruiter for various industries both in the San Francisco Bay Area and here in Los Angeles. The companies ranged from finance to IT to video games. I was filling jobs at all levels from receptionist to VP of Finance for companies with locations across the country.

All photographs in this article © Lexie Cole

ASMP: For how long have you had an interest in photography? Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

LC: I have historically always had a point-and-shoot whether it was film or digital. I would shoot during my travels to parts of Africa, Europe and Mexico, but had never thought about photography as a career. Two years ago, I picked up an SLR for the first time and studied for a few semesters at Santa Monica College. I got the basics down in 2007 and left the photography program at the beginning of 2008 to intern, assist and shoot since I realized how much I was learning on the job.

ASMP: What made you decide to take the leap, leave your first career and pursue photography as a business? Did you make any specific business arrangements to address the risk of going out on your own?

LC: In June 2007 I realized I had enough money saved to leave corporate America and go to school full time. I had a great job and was making tons of money but I wasn’t fulfilled, since I was dedicating 40 hours a week (plus up to 8 hours of driving time) to someone else’s goals. As an artist (I am a singer/songwriter as well), I have always been committed to making a difference and knew that no matter how great the job was, I wasn’t living my life to the fullest.

ASMP: What would you say was your strongest attribute in your first career path? What is your strongest attribute as a photographer?

LC: As a recruiter, I stood out because of my work ethic, attention to detail and ability to handle all types of clients with patience and respect. As a photographer, my enthusiasm for the craft rubs off on people while we’re shooting. I have been told that people feel very comfortable with me during the shoot when typically that’s not the case for them.

ASMP: Are there particular skills or contacts from your first career that have been especially helpful or have set you apart in pursuing your photography business?

LC: I just learned from my recent trip to New York that my 10 years in a sales field is an advantage. I spent hours and hours on the phone in my past career making cold calls, interviewing people, making job offers, etc. I became very comfortable on the phone and can see how that skill will serve me in my career as a photographer. I was able to set up six meetings with magazine photo editors by calling them as a follow up to an e-mail I had sent. I was told this was very unusual for an unknown.

I have also had my own businesses for years working as a contract recruiter and a singer. I already know how to handle the tax issues related to non-taxed income, saving receipts, write-offs etc.

ASMP: In your current photography business how much do you depend on the contacts cultivated through your first career? What methods have you used to cultivate new clientele?

LC: I assist an editorial photographer who’s married to a former co-worker of mine. He and I have photographed numerous celebrities in recent months. And, he acts as a mentor on a lot of technical issues/questions I have. Any new client I have found has come through networking. I belong to a network of women in film, tv and music, which has been a huge resource for me. I have also volunteered to photograph events where I’ve met new people who have hired me to photograph their headshots. Networking and referrals are key. All the assisting jobs I’ve booked have come through people I know. They refer me to someone else who refers me to someone else. Also with my contacts in the music industry having worked as a singer, I have photographed musicians, album covers, etc.

ASMP: Did your first career prepare you for negotiating contracts or image licensing? If so, are there particular strategies you learned then that have been helpful in your current business?

LC: What I learned from the business world is to not take things personally. I have also realized that there is a huge learning curve when dealing with clients (consumers) who don’t understand what licensing is. From my work as a recruiter, I know patience is required in order to educate the client.

ASMP: What was the most significant investment you made in setting up your photography business? In hindsight, would you do anything differently in establishing yourself if you had it to do over again?

LC: As we know, this is an expensive business. I am, however, committed to finding money-saving options. When researching portfolios, I quickly learned that most photographers spend hundreds of dollars on their books. With my commercial/lifestyle photography of healthy, wholesome, playful images, I knew I wasn’t going to get the typical book made of metal, plastic or fake leather. I ended up finding a beautiful green linen screwpost book for a fraction of the cost. Then, I discovered a fine art paper made of bamboo and knew this would be an excellent fit for my book since I live a green life. I had the idea of approaching the paper company, Hahnemuhle, to see if they would be interested in sponsoring my book. They agreed and sent me the paper! I have credited them in the book and everyone who sees it comments on how beautiful the paper is and how rich the colors are. You never know unless you ask. So, there are creative ways to save on costs.

ASMP: Were you aware of any particular support services or specialized training from your first career that you have availed yourself of in establishing your photography business?

LC: Having worked as a recruiter, I used my experience recently in New York where I brought my newly printed portfolio to show editors. I remember times where I would get 100 - 200 applicants for the same low-level position. The candidates were all equally qualified but it was only the ones who called me that got my attention. I was buried in resumes, but if someone called, I would re-visit that person’s resume. As a recruiter, there is a balance with the candidates — almost a dance. If they don’t call at all, I would forget about them. If they called too much, they became annoying and I’d rule them out. If they knew what the right balance was, they would get an interview. And, of course, I had to like them on the phone. So, I took this same strategy to New York realizing that the editors get hundreds of calls a week. And, it’s the photographers who call who get the appointments. I met with six editors and was referred to five others. My meeting with Essence Magazine went very well and we have continued talking. The photo editor of Oprah told me persistence is key.

ASMP: Have you taken advantage of real world opportunities for education, mentoring or assisting (distinct from opportunities through academic institutions) in jumpstarting your career?

LC: In 2007, I interned for an editorial photographer in Los Angeles for six months. I learned a ton from him about the business of photography-things they don’t teach in school. For almost all of 2008, I interned for a travel photographer here in Los Angeles. I would work for him two days a week doing everything from research to cold calling, marketing, running errands, pre-production etc. In exchange, he would give me an hour of his time to talk about anything I wanted to address. He was a huge influence on a lot of the major decisions I made this year. I highly recommend interning if possible. I also have assisted numerous photographers this year on all kinds of shoots-giant commercial shoots that lasted two weeks to two-hour editorial shoots.

ASMP: What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition from your first career?

LC: My income level changed dramatically from six figures to virtually no income as a student. As I build my business, I am aware that I may not see that level of income for a while. And, as an emerging documentary photographer soon to be working with nonprofits, I know that earning a lot of money is not my main focus.

ASMP: Is there any one thing you find to be most difficult about running a photography business?

LC: I think working from home in solitude is one of the biggest challenges since in my previous career I was surrounded by people and talking to people non-stop all day. Granted, sometimes I wanted them all to go away but I need to find a balance.

ASMP: Can you identify specific lessons learned from your first career that members who have spent their entire careers as independent photographers might not be aware of or lack?

LC: Creative, strategic thinking is required. There may be something you want from someone else, but you have to start thinking about what you can do for them. For instance, I realized that the Lucie Awards were happening while I was in New York. I decided I wanted to go but instead of buying a ticket, I contacted the producers and offered to volunteer. I ended up photographing the red carpet for them. This not only enabled me to go to the awards show as a trade but also allowed me to meet a lot of new people and begin creating some important connections. Other trades I’ve done include the design of my logo and brand, high-end make-up artists, models, retouching of images, etc. I am now always thinking about how I can serve the other person or entity in furthering their mission. This has started to create a community of artists who support each other.

ASMP: Looking at the photography marketplace through the filter of your experience from the other side of the table, are there any particular skills or behaviors that you feel are most lacking from other independent photographers?

LC: I think the most important thing is to stay completely focused on what we want to do. Our work is so much more interesting and compelling when we’re shooting what we love vs. shooting what we think we ‘should’ shoot. I am a big believer that the universe is always working in our favor — it lines up with us on whatever it is we are thinking about and focusing on. So, if we’re focused on “not enough work,” the universe will deliver more “not enough work.” And, secondly, following your intuition. The success I had in New York came solely because I followed my intuition on everything I prepared: my portfolio, my leave-behind, my branding — logo, business cards, etc. I really don’t know if any of it was typical or not (and I didn’t want to know, so it couldn’t influence me). I just know it all lined up with who I am as a person and an artist. (I learned this from Ian Summers, by the way.) Everyone who saw my work said that who I am is made clear just by looking at one small aspect of the design. It has become abundantly clear to me that following my gut on even the smallest decision really pays off.

ASMP: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a photographer? Where do you see your career in three years time?

LC: After attending Chris Rainier’s seminar at PhotoPlus Expo, I really got what I will be doing as my ‘life’s work’. My vision is to transform the imagery of Africans from famine victims waiting for a handout to dignified men and women working for a better life. In three years, I see a successful career as a documentary photographer working with nonprofits in various parts of Africa. My work is unique because I am committed to showcasing success stories in the developing world. We all know what famine looks like. I am interested in sharing the inspiring stories of people in the developing world improving their own lives. I am starting to write a proposal about the importance of educating women and girls since they are the key to ending hunger and poverty. “Teach a man to fish, he eats. Teach a woman to fish, everyone eats”.

ASMP: Is there anything about your transition to photography from a past career not addressed in the previous questions that you’d like to point out?

LC: As I like to say, “Keep your eyes on the prize,” but first you have to decide what the prize is. I created a mission statement to live from. Or, you could say it is the possibility my life is for. Mine is to be a vehicle for social change by creating images that inspire a sense of global community. I am crystal clear that my job in life is to communicate that we are all in this together. We are 99.9 percent identical as human beings. I believe it is the perfect time for this type of imagery as the world is starved for good news. I have never for a second regretted my decision to leave my job in corporate America. My decision inspired a lot of my clients and co-workers who began taking another look at their own lives and dreams. Life is short and there’s no guarantee. Yes, some might call me a cheerleader, but I truly believe that if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.