When it comes to social media, Instagram is definitely our platform of choice. Aside from serving as a beautiful source of visual inspiration, it also helps us discover amazing talents.
Case in point: Small Town Girl. This photography project beautifully documents the lives of teenage girls in small towns around the world. In today’s Design Your Life, creator Elize Strydom shares how the project got started, and why there’s no better time than the present to start your passion project.
I’m a documentary photographer who travels the world meeting ordinary and extraordinary people. I spend my days telling striking and intimate visual stories.
But I don’t get paid for it and no one is sending me out on assignment.
I figured I had nothing to lose by immediately pouring my time and energy into projects that I loved and hoped to one day be paid for.
For five years, I dabbled in all sorts of photography. A wedding photographer took me on as his assistant, a friend’s band played a gig in a dingy bar and I shot that, a cousin opened a cafe and I took his promotional pictures. I worked full time as a radio journalist in Sydney, Australia, and photography was my hobby – the creative thing that I did “on the side.”
In 2011, I decided it was time to take this hobby seriously. I took three months off work and enrolled in a 10-week photojournalism course at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Once the course was complete, I knew that it was time to stop dabbling and devote myself to documentary photography.
But … how does one become a documentary photographer? By getting to work, that’s how. I figured I had nothing to lose by immediately pouring my time and energy into projects that I loved and hoped to one day be paid for. Here’s how I did it, as well as a look at the steps you need to take to pursue your passion project – starting today:
Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Yet)
I still work full time as a radio journalist, but, thankfully, I’m allowed six weeks of annual leave as well as leave without pay. I spend all of my holidays working on my independent documentary photography project, Small Town Girl, something I started a few months after returning from New York. I knew I had to set myself an assignment; otherwise, I’d lose momentum and let my lessons fall by the wayside.
Small Town Girl began as a way to visually revisit my teenage years and think back on adolescence, a typically confusing and intense life stage. The idea was that I’d stay with teenage girls in small towns and photograph their daily lives. I wanted to see what had changed since I was a teenager growing up in Australia and what was still the same.
I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to find or exactly where this self-imposed “assignment” would lead, but I knew I found it interesting, fulfilling and exciting. I wasn’t being paid, but somehow I knew this project would pay off. If you’re toying with starting their own passion project, I recommend sticking with your current job but devoting as much of your free time as possible to your passion project. Chances are it will one day become your job.
Remember: Good Things Take Time
The Small Town Girl project grew slowly in its first two years. I spent two months living with teenage girls and their families in Oregon, Ohio and Maine. The following year I went back for another month and photographed girls in Washington, Georgia and Texas. While photographing these teenage girls, I learned how to bake lobsters, ate my first s’more, attended college classes, hiked, swam in lakes, visited a film set, caught a baseball game, bought firecrackers and met the most hospitable, welcoming folks around.
A year later I traveled to South Africa and spent two and a half months there, living with and photographing six girls all over the country. They were such a diverse bunch. One was an 18-year-old Tswana speaker who lived in a township a few hours from Johannesburg; another was a 13-year-old girl who lived on a farm with nine other families north of Cape Town.
After working on the project for close to three years, I was invited to print, frame and exhibit a collection of Small Town Girl images from Australia, the U.S. and South Africa at a gallery in Sydney as part of the Head On Photo Festival. The project has been featured on BuzzFeed and Vice, as well as Frankie Magazine and The Australian.
A few weeks ago, an Australian television network contacted me to talk about developing the project further. Three years ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined that all of this would transpire.
Weigh the Pros and Cons
So should you embark on that creative project now or wait until someone discovers you and offers big bucks? While the answer will differ for all, I say go for it now.
Yes, it will be a hard slog. Yes, it will take time and perhaps you won’t see any rewards for a while. But if you’re working on something you are completely passionate about and committed to without promise of immediate remuneration, then I can almost guarantee you will create something genuine and special, something that others will be drawn to and want to celebrate and promote.