Five tips for breaking into fashion photography

I get asked a lot by aspiring photographers or people who want to work in fashion about my route into the industry. As with any unknown entity, the fashion industry can seem like an impenetrable fortress from the outside. But if you just chip, chip, chip away the fortress with crumble and before long you’ll be making a dramatic Shawshank-Redemption-style tunnel into the fashion industry (as opposed to out of prison - ideally). 

A small part of me thinks the expected thing is for me to preface this post by saying I’m not an expert, these are just my personal experiences. But really I think ‘feck THAT’ I have broken into a hard industry to crack so why shouldn’t I speak to that subject with a voice of experience. Too often women apologise unnecessarily, don’t take full credit for their achievements or qualify their concerns. See this wonderful ad by Pantene and this incisive sketch by Amy Schumer if you don’t believe me. I always endeavour to fight against this and actively encourage other women to do the same. Incidentally, being Irish, this also goes against everything I have imbibed culturally from the Motherland. Never were there people more humble, modest and reluctant to take a compliment.

I digress. 

Soapbox moment aside, I must say that these are only 5 tips out of countless ones that would be useful for breaking into fashion. I’m a photographer so it’s told from that vantage point but the tips would be relevant to any job in fashion.

1. Don’t take no for an answer

You will need a rhino hide to work in fashion or photography so start cultivating one now. I have lost count of the times I have heard the word ‘no’, or worse, been completely ignored. People are busy and usually will already have a photographer they’re happy with so why should they reply to you? You have to be relentless. I think I have relentlessness written in my DNA. I have convinced nightclubs to waive my entrance fee because ‘I work here!! Don’t you recognise me??’ and long before I ever saw Cher Horowitz in Clueless I was reasoning with teachers to give me a better grade than they originally thought I deserved; something I only recently told my somewhat taken-aback but (I think) nonetheless impressed mother.

I don’t mean badger someone who clearly doesn’t want to work with you. That is actually extremely detrimental to your career. What I do mean is politely thank someone for their feedback and in a couple of months when you have a new body of work or idea share it with them. Do this until they bite. I have clients who I emailed for 2 years before they said, ‘Ok, this idea I like. Let’s give you a shot’. You never know, your email might land in their inbox seconds after an email from their current photographer saying ‘I quit’. My dear friend and fellow #girlboss Jess Indeedy puts it rather eloquently: ‘No doesn’t mean ‘no’, it means ‘not now’. 

2. A smile and a wink gets your further than you think

This is my LYF motto and it is essential that you use it alongside tip #1. You can’t persistently email or phone someone without being polite and charming. The best lesson my parents taught me was the importance of good manners. They’re essential in business and will be your greatest asset when you pick up the phone and ask to speak to, say, the commissioning editor at Vogue. It’s harder to say no to someone who is polite and charming. You want to give them as few reasons as possible not to hear you out. You want to make it as difficult as possible to say no to you. 

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one of the most interesting and useful lessons I learned was at a talk organised by Lisa Pritchard Agency. An art buyer was on the panel and took an audience question. I don’t remember the question but his answer was along the lines of ‘pick up the phone and speak to X’. The audience member mumbled something about ‘not wanting to annoy anyone’. The art buyer shook his head and laughed and said these words, which I will take to my grave: ‘Do you think Rankin ever gave a fuck about being polite? No. And now he’s running an empire’. I channel this any time I’m feeling self-conscious about selling myself or chasing new business. 

I’ve never met Rankin but my interpretation was this art buyer didn’t mean Rankin was rude. (I’d bet money he’s charm personified) He meant he chased down his career and success without fear of what people thought of him and without taking no for an answer.  

3. Be hungry, say yes

You know as well as I do how competitive the fashion industry is. People are desperate for the opportunity to prove themselves and to be successful at something they’re truly passionate about. They’re smart, talented and ambitious. This means there is no room for half measures. In the past, I have had people tell me how much they’d love to assist me but when I had an opportunity to offer them, I got excuses: 'it's difficult to get into London that day' or 'I have a shift doing bar work'. Ok, BUT clearly you’re not as passionate about photography as you made out otherwise you would be there come hell or high water. These opportunities aren’t ten a penny, you’ve got to take them and run for the hills. Nobody wants to work with someone unenthusiastic anyway. It drags standards down.

It still makes me laugh when I think about when I temped in an office alongside establishing myself as a photographer. I got a call about a photography job on a day I was working in the office. I was really stressed because I wanted to take the opportunity but I couldn’t walk out of the office in the middle of the day. I phoned my mum. Without missing a beat she told me to make myself sick in front of everyone and walk out of there. I think a lot of people would benefit from some straight talk from Gretta. From that day forward I took every single opportunity that came my way. I missed birthdays, I worked every weekend for about 2 years, I didn’t have a day off for 60 consecutive days, I stayed up late editing photos and got up early to double job. Yes, it’s hard work, make no mistake. But you haven’t a hope unless you're prepared to put it in. 

Whether or not I vomited in front of an office full of people will remain between me and my mum.    

4. Create opportunities for yourself

So you’ve been grinding, you’ve been charming, you’ve been passionate and you haven’t taken no for an answer. Finally, someone is going to give you a chance. Hurrah! Turns out, your big chance isn’t the inspiring and glamorous career you were hoping for. It doesn’t matter. Smile, show your gratitude for the opportunity, commit and deliver the job to the utmost of your ability. Rinse and repeat. You have to show enthusiasm for the less exciting opportunities or no-one will take you seriously. 

Meanwhile, in your free time, put together a creative team and start making the kind of work you want to be commissioned for. If you’re a writer, start writing the kind of articles you want to have published. Creating work that inspires you is a double edged sword. You’re creatively stimulated and satisfied, which will bring energy to your commissioned work AND people will start to see your potential for bigger responsibility. Once you’ve earned your stripes, you'll start to get those commissions you really want. On this note, I would advise everyone to read 'Big Magic' by Elizabeth Gilbert. Inspiring stuff. 

5. Learn

Never stop learning, improving and striving to be better. Find someone in your field whose career you aspire to and look to that for inspiration. Find a mentor who can guide you. Seek 360 feedback. I ask my assistants after every shoot if they have any feedback, constructive or otherwise. I ask my clients if there is anything they would like to do differently next time. As soon as you think you know it all, you’re dead in the water.

A regular day on set!

I'd love to hear any tips you have about how you got into your field, leave comments below.  And in the spirit of practising what I preach, if you have any feedback on this post, let me know!