The Plunge: a conversation with Emma Freeman

I met Emma in 2005, when we were both working at the Birchwood Cafe.  It has been such a pleasure to watch her grow her business, and I completely admire her self-employment smarts (not to mention her style and her photography).  Emma shot our wedding last May, and I really can’t say enough good things about working with her.  She’s a complete camera geek, a delight to share a beer with, and has a studio that is full of lovely things and images.  I love Emma’s description of her journey through her artistic and business fears.   And, I love what Emma shares about making her business fit into her life and the work she wants to keep doing.  {Also: actors, she takes gorgeous and affordable headshots!}

Photo by Melissa Oholendt

L: How did you get interested in photography, and where did you start with that?

E:  In grade school, I decided that art wasn’t for me because I couldn’t draw a perfect tree.  My art teacher disagreed with me, but I was convinced I wasn’t an artist. In high school (in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin) I took black and white photography and loved it.  After high school I wasn’t sure of my direction, even though it’s now obvious to me that photography was always a huge calling.   I debated going to art school to study photography, but ended up at Alverno College in Milwaukee.  Eventually I decided to study Philosophy.  My decision to double major in Art was a huge surprise: I was dating this woman at the time who was an art major.  She wanted me to go on an art retreat with her, but I said I wasn’t an artist.  She convinced me to come anyway.  So, I went. We were given an assignment to go into the woods and create-most people drew or painted-I photographed. My girlfriend convinced me to try sketching and not to worry, nobody would see it.  But in our group critique she told everyone that I had sketched-my face went bright red. I mean, these were REAL artists, they were going to think my work was terrible! I shared my sketches-everyone was so encouraging. It broke through whatever artistic block I had formed.  After that, I took every art class I could.

L:  How did you learn the business side of things?

E:  My second year of college I got a job with a wedding & portrait photographer working as a studio assistant.  I did administrative work, order prints, designed albums and printed in the darkroom. It was the perfect way to learn how to run a photography studio. I worked my way up to being her full time assistant, and then she hired me as an associate photographer. In 2004 when I finished school I didn’t know what to do, but my brother and sister lived in Minneapolis, so I decided to give it a whirl.  6 months after moving to the Twin Cities I moved to China to teach 3rd grade. I knew by the end that I wanted to return to Minneapolis.  Once home, I remember being in my apartment and opening the phonebook to photographers, and starting from A, and calling people to ask them if I could assist.  I talked to 3 or 4 people, and nobody hired me.  So I kept trying.  Eventually I landed an internship at the Minnesota Center For Photography.   Their office manager went on maternity leave and so I had her job for a while, and then I moved into the position of Gallery Director. Through MCP I met photographer Doug Beasley and was hired as his Studio Manager.  I  worked with him for 2 years, during which I was shooting a couple of weddings on the side, a ton of bands, and some family portraits.  I started building my client base.  And, working with Doug, I got to see the commercial and fine art side of photography.  These companies would have him shoot their annual reports, and they’d fly him all over the world.  I was amazed that there was yet another way of making a living with photography.  Doug also teaches these fantastic workshops.  I traveled with him to Vancouver and Thailand to assist on jobs, and took workshops with him in the Badlands and in Guatemala.  He’s the most generous, open person about everything in his life and his business. He completely changed my world.

The only reason I left working with him was because he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore.  So that was the push.  I thought: here goes nothing.  Here’s hoping I can pay my rent this month!  That was in 2008.  Since then I’ve been on my own.

L:  So the push partially came from necessity?

E:  Yes.  At that point I almost felt like I was doing two full-time jobs.  I’ve always been told by photographers that you just have to try it and put your whole self into it before you know if it’s going to work.  And it’s worked out so far.

L:  What were the biggest hurdles in starting a business?

E:  First, figuring out the legal stuff.  I figured that out because a client wrote me a check to Emma Freeman Photography before I had a business account, and I couldn’t cash the check.  So I researched how to start a small business in Minnesota and laid the foundation for my business right away.

Also, figuring out how to balance all of the aspects of a business was a challenge.  I’m in charge of it all- development, shooting, marketing, accounting, hiring staff, cleaning, editing, designing…I’m always making sure that I’m not letting any of the balls drop.I think you have to love multi-tasking- otherwise, you’re not going to make it.  You have to have your mind on many different things, while still focusing on the task at hand.

The thing about a creative business is that it’s all about relationships with people, that’s how I get 100% of my business.  That’s what I love about it.   Another challenge is that a lot of my business ebbs and flows with wedding season, which runs April-November normally.  So, I’ve had to figure out the off-season.

L:  What do you do in the off season?

E:  I do a lot of portraits.  I’ve been trying to do more of those- families, kids, burlesque, headshots.  I also do a lot of planning for the next year.  I’m sending out sample books to vendors, re-doing my pricing, submitting images to blogs and magazines- all of those things that don’t happen over the busy time.  I also do a lot of personal work and have plans to do some big projects this year, one of which is being the artist in residence at Chakra Khan Asian Bodywork & Massage studio. I’m going to have rotating gallery shows of personal work throughout 2012-I’m so excited!

L:  So, why weddings?

E:  To start, I was trained in them.  I’ve never wanted to be only a wedding photographer, but I like them because of the people aspect – because its about relationships and this really amazing, intimate thing that happens on one day.  I never know what I’m going to see.  There’s a structure for weddings, but I never know what I’m going to walk into.  I love that- it keeps me on my toes. I love the emotional side of weddings. I find it really fascinating, because I am interested in the power of images and the meaning of them in our lives- in how they construct identity, purpose and gender roles. Weddings can be almost too intense, especially doing 30 of them in a year.  But I love that every weekend I have these experiences that make me think about the world in a critical way and celebrate life at the same time.

L:  Being behind the scenes at 30 weddings sounds intense.  

E:  It’s pretty amazing.  I think that marriage is a really complicated issue, especially being gay and not having access to the institution. A lot of people don’t see marriage as political, but it is.  But I’m a professional, and I’m there to do a job too…it’s complicated.

L:  It’s backward.

E:  It is.  Part of why I like being in the wedding industry is because I feel like I can do something about that.  It was a big step for me to put on my website that Libby is my partner. I went back and forth on it.  Photography is a unique profession in that way- most photographers I know share personal details about their lives on their website as a way to promote themselves and connect with clients. It felt strange not to mention Libby for that reason.

L:  How do you find your ideal client?

E:  My ideal clients are people like you and Ben- artistically minded people who I want to have a beer with, who care about aesthetics.  However, its hard to market or figure out how to just draw those people in.  I try to make connections wherever I can – You can be strategic about marketing, but it’s a saturated field.  This is a big reason why I did the re-brand [this past October].  The old one was attracting too broad of an audience.  This time around I wanted to be more specific.  I wanted to show the kind of work that I love to shoot and include more of my personality too.

Emma in her studio

L:  How do you work at balancing your personal life with being self-employed?  

E:  Last year this did not go well.  It was the first year that I was completely committed to shooting weddings, so there was a lot of work to be done.  I was trying to figure out what my style was, how to expand, and working out of running and sharing a studio space with other photographers.  My personal life was on the back burner, and I didn’t even realize it at the time.  I was constantly overwhelmed, and woke up with an anxious feeling in my stomach most days.  I got to the end of last year, and contemplated quitting.  I was out of touch with the reason I was doing this in the first place.  Then I went to a photo workshop that changed everything for me.  They shot everything on film and they were so excited about what they were doing. They even had balanced lives!  And I thought, oh my god, how do I get this?  That’s what I want!  I realized that I was feeling very disconnected by shooting everything digitally, and that I needed to get back to film.

So, in the off season last year I took a big step back and evaluated what needed to be changed.  A big step was getting my own studio, and no longer sharing a space with other photographers.  Then I decided to re-brand.  Then I knew I wanted to shoot more film, so I bought a film camera that I really loved, and started using it.  About half way through this year I woke up and realized that the anxious feeling was gone.  I feel calm, mostly. I show up; I do my work.  I think a huge part is that I figured out what kind of work I want to do. I’m more confident in it than ever before.  I used to feel like there was some deep secret to running a business that I didn’t know-turns out you just have to keep learning and growing.

L:  Do you just set specific parameters around what’s on and off time?

E:  Most days I work from 9-5 or 9-6.  I get up and work an hour or two at home and then I go to my studio.  I try to leave at 5 or 6 most days, and I always go to the gym afterwards, which is a big thing.  It’s amazing how much that helps.  And then I go home and eat dinner.  I just realized that I didn’t want to work 12 hour days anymore because I want other things in my life.  I want to have a good partnership with Libby, and I want to play scrabble and go to yoga and drink beer and watch The West Wing.  There’s always an email that you can respond to, but you can wait on it until the morning.  I worried too much about that before- that I would drop a ball and it would be the end of my career.

L:  What’s next?

E:  I want to craft with my photos! I’ve always wanted to make things with my pictures that are wearable, especially jewelry. I love detail, and getting that close and meticulous with something.  So I’m playing around with that. There is so much that I find inspiring- I look at other people’s work all the time, I listen to the etsy podcasts, and I love pinterest.  I watch a lot of TED.  It keeps my mind fresh and inspired.  And, of course, I want to continue to shoot more film.  That picture of you and Ben that I shot on my Holga?  I just love that moment.  There’s soul to it.  It’s slow and purposeful and full of wonder.

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