Episode #2: Embracing Your Winding Career Path, Especially the Non-photo Jobs, with Karen Kasmauski
Photographer Karen Kasmauski talks about her winding career path, from volunteering in Appalachia as a new – and self-described goal-less college graduate to photographing more than two dozen stories for National Geographic.
Karen is the daughter of a Japanese mom and an American Navy veteran who met in Japan just after World War II. It’s this relationship that inspired her to help produce a film about Japanese war brides – including her mother. The film aired on BBC and also screened at numerous film festivals. Her book Impact: From the Frontlines of Global Health, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
She teaches photography and business at many colleges and she photographs and travels for international NGOs – at least she did before the pandemic. Our conversation today touches on sexism and racism, though not in a gratuitous way.
LINKS FROM THIS EPISODE
Karen Kasmauski’s website
Karen Kasmauski’s Instagram
Women Photojournalists of Washington
Impact: On the Frontlines of Global Health
Nurse: A World of Care
Fall Seven Times Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides
Blue Chalk Media
Cinematic Orchestra Cello Loop by Wanderexplore
Happy Upbeat Cello by Audiokraken
The Ascent by Sound of Picture
Fearless First by Kevin MacLeod with a Creative Commons License
Inspired by Kevin MacLeod with a Creative Commons License
Blanks by Sound of Picture
Lola by Sound of Picture
Perspectives by Kevin MacLeod with a Creative Commons License
Freesia by Sound of Picture
Swimming by Sound of Picture
Laura Hi, Karen! Thanks so much for agreeing to be on the show today.
Karen Yeah, thanks, Laura. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
Laura Karen, I can’t believe we met over 10 years ago when I was still living in Washington, D.C. We were mentoring each other through the Women Photojournalists of Washington. And you were helping me with photo editing and sequencing and storytelling and I think I was helping you with audio editing.
Karen Right and I wish I had actually followed through with it more because I love doing audio and you were so great at teaching me how to do audio and I kind of let the ball fall when I went to graduate school and then life just went on. But audio is one of my most favorite tools I guess, because whenever I have time where I don’t need to focus in terms of my mind, I listen to podcasts and I listen to audio books. So, yeah, thank you, Laura, for doing that for me. It was wonderful.
Laura Yeah, and thank you for helping me back then, too. And now you’re on a podcast.
Karen Yeah, wow.
Laura So why don’t we jump right in. Tell me a little bit about your early career and how you got into photography.
Karen My path is very unusual. It’s not a straight path. It went off in a lot of different directions. Probably because I really didn’t have a major focus.
To go way back, to when I was a kid, you know, I always wanted to be an astronaut. And then when my eyes started to fail me. I mean, I even wrote to NASA when I was in elementary school saying, “How do you become an astronaut?” And they actually wrote back. They wrote back to me and they said, “Oh, this is how you do it.” And the thing that sort of caught my attention is you had to have 20/20 at that time. And finally, when I was 15 or 16, and I couldn’t see the board anymore in school. I realized, “Oh my god, my life is a failure. I’m not going to be an astronaut.”
Most of my older life was in Norfolk, Virginia, but my father was career U.S. Navy and so we lived in Michigan, we lived in Chicago, things like that. For some reason that I’ve never understood, he never got Virginia citizenship. So, he was registered in Michigan. I applied to three colleges. And Michigan gave me a full scholarship so I went ahead and went to Michigan.
And that’s where my whole life kind of changed because then I ended up with the equivalent of a major in anthropology and religion. And where I got some photography skills was I was on the Michigan Daily, which was a student paper. And I worked there for four years as a photographer. And I didn’t have actually any skillsets to be a photographer but I had an instinctive sense of you know, composition and light and all that.
I had a small little Rangefinder. It was my father’s. And I remember the guy who was the director of photography for the Daily was a guy named David Margolis, who’s actually a very well-known writer right now. And he was about to fire me and he said, “You know, you just have this little Rangefinder. You can’t take you know sports stuff and everything.” So, I’m writing a letter to my father, who was actually stationed in Vietnam at the time. It was like this weepy letter, “Oh, I’m going to be thrown off the staff, I don’t have a good camera!” Within three weeks I get this box and it’s a Nikon FTN camera that he bought in Saigon.
Karen Yeah! And he sent it to me. So now I have this camera. No lens, but I have a camera. So, I took out a little loan, I had a Navy Relief Loan that was supposed to go to education. I figured, well, that’s education, and I went out and bought all these used lenses and then my career as a college photographer started there and I ended up being, actually, the Directory of Photography there at the end. But you know it wasn’t something I intended on doing. I was more focused on religion and the impact of religion on society.
So anyway, I went from there and had absolutely no goals and I had no direction from my parents. Being a little, kind of like a lost soul in a way, I went down to volunteer down in East Tennessee.
And I think East Tennessee, when I worked for the Morgan Scott Project and Save our Cumberland Mountains as a volunteer — that’s an anti-strip mining group — I think that’s where I kind of got, in some ways, some of the skills that eventually helped me to be a photographer later on.
I did some photography you know just on the side but it wasn’t serious. And you know, what ended up being interesting was I got an oral history project to record and interview the people who were being relocated on the Big South Fork due to the national river and recreation park that was coming in.
And there was about 200 families that were involved. And I literally had to walk up to their doors cold and explain who I was. This was in the days mostly… most of those families had no phones. This was pre-Internet. You know, basically you just showed up. And also, I looked about 12 years old. I was right out of college, I looked like a kid. And I think a lot of these older people, they were mostly older people, they must have thought like God had sent me because here’s this child coming up on their doorsteps, right, and so… It was…
I mean, these were fabulous individuals. I loved them dearly. They treated me so well. And Laura, you have to remember, I am half Asian, I am biracial and I’m showing up in a pure white neighborhood of people who have never seen anyone who looked like me. I mean, the fact that they saw me walking up to the door, here I am, slightly exotic looking, long dark hair. It was weird for them and it was scary for me. Because I had no idea what how I would be accepted. And the stories they told me were amazing. It was mid, late 70s, they were still plowing with you know horse. They had to bring water in through buckets. They had no electricity.
And so that was my first experience in terms of sort of landing cold in an area and trying to convince people to help me, to no benefit to themselves, no cost, no nothing. They were just going to help me. I found it so engaging and so interesting.
It wasn’t even the photography. Over a year and a half period I took exactly 40 rolls of film and I thought I had overshot. You know. Because a roll is only 36 images, right. And most of those images were horrible.
Laura Oh, wow, now we shoot that much like in a day.
Karen Yeah, I know, most people shoot that much in a day. I shot that over a two-year period because I didn’t have a darkroom, I didn’t have anything. I had to borrow everything that I needed and I didn’t even have paper to print things on. I mean, I was a volunteer, I had no money, literally. My parents did not give me any money. You know, I would probably get $20 a month to help pay for some food.
And anyways, so I was able to learn on the job. The point of that was the interviews, it wasn’t the photography. The photography was just secondary. It was just to sort of take pictures of the farm and take pictures of the guys and so I was able to use that portfolio to get a job at a very small newspaper in Tennessee called Citizen Tribune in Morristown, Tenneseee.
Laura So how did you go from there to the Virginian-Pilot?
Karen My father retired and I wanted to go back home. So, I went over to Norfolk. And I tried to find work. I really did not want to go into photography at that time. What I really wanted to do was to go into folklore. And I actually did get offered a job in North Carolina to be like a beginner folklorist. But I turned that down because I’m very close to my father and I wanted to be there for him when he retired.
So, I went back to Norfolk and applied for two different jobs. One was for like a gofer at a TV station and the other was a gofer at the Virginian-Pilot, where I would be a lab tech. And so I actually got both but I took the Virginian-Pilot one. So, I ended up working as a lab tech at the Virginian-Pilot for nine months. And I was very confident that I could shoot as well as the male staff. It was a total male staff.
Laura So, wait. You were the very first woman hired by the Virginian-Pilot on the photo staff?
Karen Well, as a lab tech, yeah. I wasn’t a photographer shooter, but as a lab tech, yeah.
Laura But you were on the staff?
Karen I became on the staff nine months later. And I became on the staff because I took every little horrible assignment, boring, hand-shaking you name it assignment that no other photographer wanted and I just volunteered myself for it. I said I’ll take it, I’ll take it!
And so, Bob Lynn comes in and basically had the directive that, do what you need to do to make this a good paper.
Laura And Bob Lynn is the photo editor who led The Virginian-Pilot through many award-winning years, right?
Karen Yeah. The photo staff were all told to come up with ideas. And I was so good at that that it was ridiculous. Photography I was learning from everybody and Bob brought in a lot of really good shooters, newspaper shooters and we would just learn by watching each other. There was no formal training. It was just by watching. After the first year Bob was there we won best usage of pictures for newspapers in POY.
Laura POY is the Pictures of the Year photography competition, which is a pretty big deal in the photojournalism world.
Karen Yes, so, that just continued for the next five or six years. It seemed like every year we won best usage of photography. So, it was just a real heady sort of experience. So, I was extremely happy. I loved working at the Pilot. It was one of my most exciting and happiest times of my life. And yes, I was the first woman photographer that they hired at that time.
But I was also the lowest-paid person on the Virginian-Pilot staff. And I did go to Bob Lynn and ask him for a raise, and Bob…. I adore Bob, so this is nothing against Bob, but he said, “Karen, there are men out there with children and families. Don’t you think they deserve more money than you?”
Laura Oh my gosh. What did you say?
Karen This is old school, right? This was like, early 80s. You know, so he puts me in this bind. I said, I think I deserve the money. But it ended there. I don’t think I made that much money. I made probably $180 a week or something like that. I made almost no money at all.
It was the times, you know. And this guy hired a lot of women photographers, he’s fabulous. I see him as my second father, you know, so I didn’t hold it against him or I didn’t get mad or anything. It was just… It was the early 80s. You know.
Laura So how did you go from there to National Geographic?
Karen There was an in-house award called the Slover award. And it’s judged anonymously and it’s judged by usually someone very well-known in the industry. So I won it for three years in a row. And the last year that I won it, Bob Gilka, who was the director of photography at National Geographic, was the judge. He referred to me as a man. He said, “This photographer is a friend of the editors. He knows how to come up with stories. He has a great sense of editorial content.”
At that time, again, we’re talking about the mid 80s, most photographers were men. And I didn’t really know much about National Geographic at the time. Because you have to remember, I was raised poor or lower-working class. Geographic, at the time, you had to be a member to get the magazine. So that means you had to buy a membership and we never saw the Geographic. I never grew up with it. It wasn’t my magazine. It didn’t mean anything to me. It was just a magazine. I never really looked at the Geographic as something that I wanted to aspire for. It was just some magazine.
What happened was I got married, my husband wanted me to move up to DC. He was a designer at that time at Geographic. He didn’t make that much money. And if I moved up there I’d have to freelance.
So I called up Bob Gilka’s office.
I made an appointment his secretary, who was Lilian, I forget what Lilian’s last name was because now I’m getting older and my brain is falling apart. But Lilian was this very wonderful proper British woman. And Lilian introduces me as Mrs. Bill Douthitt.
And I looked at Lilian and I looked at Bob and I said, “Bob, my name is Karen Kasmauski.”
And Bob goes, “Everyone is looking for an identity.”
And I said, “Bob, I have an identity and I’m trying to keep it.”
And I thought, “What am I doing here? I mean, why am I talking to him like this?” You know.
But he wasn’t a god to me. He was just some editor I’m trying to get work with. Because I didn’t have that Geographic glory thing. I didn’t have stars in my eyes at the time, right? But I was smart enough to bring him two story proposals.
Laura Do you remember what those two story ideas were?
Karen Yeah, they were the very first two stories I did for National Geographic.
I pitched a story on my hometown of Hampton Roads. So, I’m one of the few photographers who went to National Geographic not wanting to have an excellent adventure. I wanted to actually go back home again because I hated the idea of leaving Virginia and leaving that area. So, my first story was my hometown of Hampton Roads and I gave a good case of why it needed to be done. And then my second story was I wanted to get back to where I volunteered, which was Tennessee. So, I submitted a story on the state of Tennessee.
Laura OK, so how did you feel about all of this? I mean, you didn’t have butterflies in your stomach, obviously. But did you realize this was a great thing?
Karen No. I actually knew it was a chance for me to go to D.C. and be with my husband. After I accepted it, then I put in my resignation at the Virginian-Pilot and it just killed me to do that. I mean, I actually cried for days. It was so horrible. And they were saying, “Oh, this is so great! You’re going to Geographic.” I said, “Yeah, but it’s just one story, you know, and I’ll have to then freelance after that.” I knew kind of what that meant. You had to continually hustle. And that’s not my personality.
Laura Freelancing for National Geographic – that was actually your first freelance assignment.
Karen It was!
Laura What business lessons do you wish you’d known about early in your freelance career?
Karen Well, I think what I wish I had known there was that I am a small business, which I didn’t realize at the time. Because at that time, Laura, it was easy to freelance. There was a ton of work there. I got so mm… I mean, I kept getting work all the time. It wasn’t an issue. This would have been the late 80s into the early 90s.
The big thing that I did not know, and part of it is being part of my Asian background because, you know, in Japan, you know, you don’t want to be the square peg in a round hole because you know, you’re going to get pounded down. You never learn how to brag about yourself or promote yourself or to market yourself, especially if you’re a woman. I mean, that is just something you just didn’t do.
And now that I’m teaching marketing and business that’s it’s the one thing that I really emphasize to my students is how do you put out a marketing program for yourself? How do you do a promotional? How do you set up a business that includes your personal life, including what it takes to buy your equipment and software and all this other stuff as well as making money over and beyond that.
Laura So, how would your freelancer career have looked different without a partner, both like emotionally and financially?
Karen Well, it’s interesting. I don’t think I could have done even the Nat Geo work if I didn’t have a home base, meaning someone that I could go back to. Someone that… Because it’s an incredibly lonely life. And, you know, when you’re young and vital and all this and you’re meeting other people and you think, oh, this is going to be fun. It’s going to go on forever.
And I kind of knew in my heart that, you know, being raised in a military family, being raised where my father was gone a good portion of the time, I knew that, you know, there are stresses of being alone. And my father actually used to say, well, Karen, you travel by yourself. I travel at least with a ship full of men. I was not alone like you were.
And so, I think if I had been without a partner, I probably would have stayed as much as I could in the newspaper world. Having a partner gave me the courage, in a way, to go and freelance because I knew that I was never going to fall down in a homeless shelter.
You know, I did have a contract position with Geographic, which was really nice and it gave me the confidence for about 15 years. But, you know, contract photographers are not staff photographers so they can let you go at any point.
Laura Yeah, what does it actually mean to be a contractor?
Karen What it means is they guarantee you a certain amount of time a year. So, like we got $30,000 a year, which for freelancing is pretty good. And then, if you went over that, you could then, you would get more money. What that allowed me, it allowed me to have children, because I knew I was getting this money in and I knew I could pay for daycare, I knew that, you know, with the $30,000 guaranteed every year with my husband’s salary — and he wasn’t making that much money either – we could then you know buy a house, we could then, you know, have children because I knew I had that guaranteed money coming in. But, of course, it was renewed year to year.
Laura That’s still a nice cushion to have, to know you’re going to have $30,000 a year. Because I think a lot of freelancers now, they don’t even know that.
Karen Right. And that was in the 90s, too. So that was a nice cushion.
Laura Well, you’ve been freelancing for about 30 years now, it sounds like maybe the first half was really a golden period. I mean, you had all these National Geographic covers. You said you didn’t want for work at all. Fantastic. What about now? So what are the main ways that you earn a living from photography?
Karen I’m like a lot of freelancers, jack of all trades. The only thing that I won’t do is weddings. Not because I don’t respect that. I think a wedding photographer is really a hard job. There’s too much pressure because you don’t want to, you know, ruin someone’s most important day, right?
Laura Yep, you can’t go back and do it. Yeah, I’ve shot plenty of weddings myself, I know.
Karen It is an amazing field to be in and there’s a reason why so many photojournalists succeed in it because they’re just practicing their craft, only on a very personal level for someone. But for me, that pressure is too much.
Laura That’s kind of funny because I think shooting for National Geographic would be a lot of pressure. But for you, it just doesn’t compare.
Karen There is a lot of pressure. My husband used to say I would have five levels of fear. You know, fear that I would never work again. Fear that oh my god I got the assignment. Fear that oh my god, how am I going to do this assignment. Fear that the editors are going to hate the assignment. And then once the assignment is accepted, then there’s fear that I’ll never work again.
After I left the Geographic, which was in the mid-2000s I had to really think about how I would get work. So that’s when I started to learn about video and I started to learn about audio and I started to learn about where digital was going.
And so it was tough. It took me a long time to figure it out. But I have to say I was also making a lot of money with stock, too, at that point, because a lot of my work was global health work, that’s what I sort of ended up focusing on in my last few 10 years at National Geographic, was global health.
And my stock had really great value at the time. I was actually making up to $5,000 a month with stock sales from Corbis.
Laura That’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure that would happen now.
Karen It was amazing. It was amazing, yeah, it paid for my mortgage payments for at least two years.
Nowadays I don’t earn any living now period because of Covid. So I do…. There’s some stock sales still. There’s an occasional portrait shot, shoot that I do that is you know a one-day freelance job that’s portrait work. But you know, no one is sending anybody out right now. I mean, everyone is hiring locally maybe for good reasons. I hate to say that because that’s me losing work. But you know maybe we ought to be developing locally.
Laura I agree! I think it’s important to develop locally. I think there’s a place for both – for flying people in and for also developing locally.
Karen In terms of Industry. What I have to do is just keep, you know, reinventing I guess. That’s why we did… When we did the Fall Down Seven, Get Up Eight film, at least two of us were at kind of the low of our career in terms of freelance work. And so we said, OK, let’s just do that. I had no idea how to do a documentary work. But I did know how to do long-form storytelling.
Laura OK, so you just mentioned this documentary you recently worked on for several years. It’s called “Fall Seven Times, Get up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.” And it’s the story of you and two of your Japanese-American friends and your Japanese mothers, who married American men after World War II and settled in the United States. Tell me more about this, especially how you funded it.
Karen When Lucy Craft approached me on this and I asked her that we should also invite Kathryn Tolbert onto this because I knew Kathryn had wanted to write about her mother for years. Kathryn is an editor at Washington Post and Lucy is a freelance producer and reporter for CBS an NPR in in Tokyo.
Our parents and our mothers were always so… trying to survive and our fathers were working to survive. I was raised in the 50s and 60s. There was bullying, there was racism like crazy, I mean. I loved school so much but I hated school because you know there was always some little kid bully who would be out there, you know, whispering ugly things into my ear all the time.
And also, it depended on where you were raised. Kathryn, she was raised in a small town in upstate New York. You know, her family was the only ethnically diverse family there and it was kind of like, once you got accepted and all the neighbors loved you and things like that, there was no bullying going on. And then I know Lucy’s mom, I mean, she, you know, they lived in Louisiana for a while. And, you know, she didn’t even know which side of the bus to sit on.
These are women, you know, that came on their own and oftentimes raised their children on their own because oftentimes, like with my father, he’d be gone for six to nine months at a time, you know on sea duty. And so, it’s a women’s story, it’s a migrant’s story, it’s an American story. And so, it’s certainly about forgiveness and about people, enemies coming together and making a life together, really showing what is really good about the human spirit.
But anyway, we were trying to figure out how to fund it so we were self-funding it initially. I mean, we would do our own filming and our own interviews and we started with our own mothers because it was easier. They’re there! So, it took us a year of struggling along with that for quite a while on how to do this. I mean, we were struggling, struggling, struggling. At one point, when I thought, “OK, I’m going to walk away from this,” I thought, OK, one last thing.
I happened to know Rob Finch, who was the creative director and videographer for a new company called Blue Chalk. They were just starting out and they’re willing to take a chance on this film. We ended up agreeing that they would film the Kickstarter. We would manage the Kickstarter and try to raise about $25,000. And the funny thing about a Kickstarter was we had no idea what it was.
I remember when we got off the phone, I said to my colleague, I said, “What in the world is a Kickstarter?” She goes, “I don’t know. Let me look it up.” And so, we all looked it up and we started thinking, Oh, wow, this is interesting. But it takes a lot of work. Mostly it was just a lot of work to interact with our people – people who donated.
And it ended up being almost addictive because we got so much money in the first two days it was like being addicted to gambling. I mean, actually, my colleague stayed home from work because she could not take her eyes off of the screen. Money was just pouring in.
Laura Like constantly refreshing the page.
Karen Yeah, we’re constantly refreshing the page!
Laura Refresh, refresh.
Karen I mean, it was kind of like, you know, it was a new thing for us! It was literally like being at a slot machine and we just couldn’t figure out…. we couldn’t pull our eyes away from it. And so, we got most…. It was just… It was really funny. And so, within the first two days we got most of what we needed. And then within the next four or five days we actually doubled, I think, what we asked for.
And it ended up being a 26-minute piece, which is enough for a 30-minute broadcast. Blue Chalk did an amazing job. And so I felt very glad that you know we finally had the smarts to hire someone, not us. Because sometimes when you have a very personal story like that it’s good to have a third eye look at it. Because you can get so deep into the weeds, you can bring in your own emotions so deeply. You know, as long as you have control over the editorial content, which we did.
Laura Well I’m so glad you did it. I love your film. And I know sometimes when you work on a personal project you do it without even thinking about any monetary compensation. You just want to do it. You guys were lucky to be able to raise the money for it. So, I’m wondering, did you make any of the money back? You mentioned a BBC licensing deal.
Karen Yeah, we did make some money, but we… it went immediately back into the project because we’re not done with it yet. So, I mean, I think we all pulled out about $3,000. And I’ve been using my money to go photograph more war brides. But then again with Covid coming in we had to stop that. I mean, I just can’t you know risk you know infecting you know these women with Covid or even myself getting infected with Covid.
Laura What’s the response been like to the film?
Karen Every time we’ve shown this film, I’m not joking… We have people coming to us red-eyed, crying. I mean, even white people. We showed it at the World War II conference a couple years back. We showed the film and then we had a round table. And afterwards we sold our DVDs and people were coming up to us afterwards, mostly women, but they were crying. One woman was just really crying heavily. And one man was a 4th-grade school teacher and he just loved it. He said, “This is such a great lesson for us to learn about who’s a migrant, immigrant and what does it mean to be an immigrant in America and what does it mean to be an American.”
Laura Yeah, that sounds, that sounds like a really amazing experience. I think people who don’t have migrants like recent in their family history, they really have no idea what it’s like to have an immigrant parent. You and I have talked about this a lot because we both have immigrant Moms. But you just grow up so differently from all the people around you.
Karen Well, and part of it is, you know, I think a lot of people who are raised with the majority grow up feeling entitled and they feel like life is owed them or that they can get what they want if they just try hard enough.
And I think when you’re an immigrant child… Your parent is an immigrant and you’re born with that person hovering over you, you’re actually told that you have to earn everything. That, you know, you don’t deserve anything. Everything is gotten through hard work. And I think that’s how you develop. And so, you don’t…. I don’t expect anyone to give me anything. This is why I went, you know, to go back to the beginning, this is why I went to Bob Gilka with two proposals in my hands. I did not think, or I was not arrogant enough to think that he would just walk out of there and give me a couple assignments. I had to earn those assignments.
Laura You’ve worked on a lot of personal projects. We already talked about your film you collaborated on with two other people and your mothers. But you also made this book about nurses. So, tell me a little bit about how that came about, where you got the idea and how you got the funding to do this.
Karen My life is always, like I said, open to ideas and thoughts. And I had done a lot of global health work for the National Geographic that eventually became a book that National Geographic published on my work called Impact: On the Frontlines of Global Health. That came out in 2003. But that book won a lot of awards. It actually got nominated for a Pulitzer and all this kind of stuff. It got a lot of attention.
And the dean of nursing at Emory University saw that book. Marla Salmon was the dean of nursing. And she’s an international type thinker and a big thinker and she wanted to do a book like that on nurses. She didn’t know how to do that so she actually got my phone number and called me, just a cold call. This was still the good old days. I got this cold call. And I was actually on my way to a family reunion in Michigan. So, as my husband laughingly said, I talked with Marla all the way through Ohio.
Laura How did you feel when you got that call?
Karen It’s exciting. I mean, it was exciting. I felt like I could take her ideas and I could visualize what she was thinking and think about what she was thinking in terms of how would we tell that as a story. So, we ended up talking multiple times over a period of time.
We ended up deciding to go forward with it and she used some of her company’s money to send me to cover a couple of her nursing students that were out on like spring break, doing good work on spring break. It was a test run.
So we had two stories and then we designed a fake book. And trying to figure out, OK, if we did this book, how much would it take? We had to create a budget. We had to create what kind of stories we would do if we did this. I mean, this is all from talking with Marla and her team, her other nurses. What kind of stories would you want to see? What stories are important? If we did that, where would that be? It was the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on in my entire life because we created an entire book project from, from nothing.
So, we had a team of five people and we worked very quickly. We had a designer on board and everything. We had to raise money. It took about maybe a year, to raise all that money. And then finally once we raised it, we had a very hard deadline because we had a printer we had to hire and that printing press, as you know, do not change. You know, if you’re going to have your books printed on March you know 2005 or 7 or 8, you have to be there ready to go on that date.
We did this coverage of original material. We designed it and got it out there very quickly. I mean, it was less than a year in terms of starting the book and having hard copies of the book. Because it ….
Laura Really? Wait. Even shooting?
Karen I was shooting almost non-stop for almost six months. It was amazing. And I tell you, it was not like we stayed a long time in any one place. These are nurses. They have work to do. I mean, I was lucky if I got a full day with anybody. The prep work was 80% of the project, 10%, 20% was shooting. Because you know….
Laura I think that’s what it is as a photographer in general. Karen, what’s the full name of the book?
Karen It’s called Nurse: A World of Care. So, the agreement was that all profits of the book would go to nurse education. So that’s what we did.
That’s why I asked for a free structure. I knew that it was going to take us some time. They were saying, “Well, why don’t we just pay you uh a lump sum of money for the book itself — the whole book, publishing and everything. And I thought, no, I’m not going to go that way because I know that there’s going to be some time difference issues, that we’re going to be late.
And sure enough, at the end, as we got the whole book done, Marla said, “Well, we’re going to have Jimmy Carter write the introduction again.” So we ended up spending over $40,000 more dollars to get that coverage. Which, you know, if I had to pay for all that, I would have been in the hole.
I kept the copyright. That was part of the deal. I should say, it’s a joint copyright. But then I should also say I have the ability to own the photos myself and do what I want with them. That was part of the deal.
Laura Yeah, that’s smart, because then you can still make money with those photos. I mean, copyright is an important intellectual but also financial concept to understand for photographers. And you actually teach about the photography business to college students. So, what’s your creative and business advice for them?
Karen My creative and business advice is to keep contacts with everyone you know and network. It’s something that I sort of failed to do in some ways when I was younger. The other thing is to make sure that you always have concepts and ideas that you can give to people.
But the other thing, which is what we talked about earlier, is you’ve got to realize you’re a small business person. And small business people have to worry about marketing and promotion. And then you also have to be honest with yourself on what it takes to live. I mean, if you need, you know, $40,000 a year to live, then you need to make sure you can make $40,000 a year plus some – you know, however you run your business.
I remember Chuck O’Rear, who was a really great photographer for National Geographic at one time, he told me, “Why are you always… Why is everyone worried about health insurance when the thing that, as a freelancer, you need to worry about is disability insurance? Because if you become disabled, you’re not going to be able to pay your bills.” And I thought, Oh, wow, I hadn’t even thought about that.
And then if you have children that even adds more to the formula. What do you need to survive? And then you figure out how do you think you can earn that money?
Laura Well, and I think not enough photographers think about what their actual cost of doing business is. And then, something else we don’t talk about enough in this industry is how, if you’re lucky enough to have a partner who also earns a good income and who can possibly provide the health insurance for you — I personally think that makes freelancing, at least in the United States, a lot less of a risky prospect.
Karen Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I don’t have to worry about my health insurance. I am on my husband’s health insurance. If I had to worry to pay $300 or $500 a month for health insurance, which is low, actually, for health insurance, it would be hard. Because then I would have to come home with an extra 5, 6, $7,000 a year just to pay for health insurance.
There’s all kinds of stuff that adds up. And so yeah…. It is…
Laura Well, and you want to do fun things. You want to be able to have a cushion. You want to save money, retirement, etc.
Karen Yeah, I mean, I noticed just recently that there was a woman who’s a freelance photographer in DC who won a Pulitzer. She’s really, really good at what she does. She just accepted a staff job as a photo editor at a newspaper just recently. I mean, I think, you know the reality of trying to freelance…
Laura I understand that! I totally get that.
Karen I get that, too, actually. I’m looking for a staff job myself, so if any listener who has a staff job – look, let me know. Because I’m looking for one myself. I mean, it’s just….
Laura Well, I know that you have actually applied for jobs like in the past several years.
Karen Yeah, a lot of jobs. I want the community. I want community and I want to have a platform to be able to tell the stories that I feel need to be told. You know, I don’t even necessarily need to be a photographer. I just need to be able to get stuff out there.
You know, as a freelancer you’re always just the photographer they hire to send out. And then, you don’t even have the ability to question things when you’re in the field. And I had several experiences where I saw what they wanted me to do was not what was happening. And I would bring that up and they said, well, you know, that’s not what we sent you there for. You’re there to… You’re not a journalist, that’s exactly what they said to me. You’re not a journalist, you know, and that you need to just do what we tell you to do, what the program says is being done. And this…
Laura This is in your work for nonprofits and NGOs?
Karen Yeah. For nonprofits and humanitarian work you’re actually helping this nonprofit tell their story to raise money that they need to support their programs. That’s what you’re doing. And maybe in the end it’s benign. Maybe in the end it does help people. But don’t get it in your brain that you’re saving the world by working for a nonprofit. You’re helping the nonprofit is what you’re doing. And the nonprofit is a corporation, a company that needs to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing evil about that. That’s just the business side of what it is.
Laura Well, Karen, your career obviously has not been a straight line. So, what do you think photographers should really be expecting with their career?
Karen I think you cannot look at anything you do as the end all end all. I mean, you have to look at your needs – your personal needs first. Your family needs mostly. And then say can… what I’m doing, is it going to work? If it means you take a job working at you know Target for a couple years until you can get back on your feet and pay your bills or get your kids through school.
You know, there are other things more important in life than becoming a photographer and it’s your own mental health as well as the health of your family and the people you love.
I think, unfortunately, when people start out they get so manically driven, that you know… The just went, I gotta be a photographer, gotta be a photographer. And that’s it. And they don’t kind of think there are a whole lot of other things out there that they could actually be and maybe make more of a difference. And maybe they come back to photography in the end, you know. Who knows? Life is never permanent, right?
Laura It’s really refreshing to hear this kind of advice. I feel like that’s what your answer turned into is advice. Because I do think a lot of photographers get really stuck on the idea of being like, I am a photographer. I’m calling myself a photographer. But sometimes, for whatever reason, personal reasons, maybe financial reasons, you need to divert your attention elsewhere. And that might mean not taking pictures for a while. That might mean working in an office. That might mean caring for a family member. And I think it’s hard for a lot of photographers to think about doing that.
Karen Oh my gosh! It’s hard for me. I mean, you know I’ve been sitting there thinking, god, when am I going to retire. And then I thought, well, Covid’s going to do that for me. I was sitting there thinking we are so passionate about what we do. I mean, particularly if you’ve been doing this for a while and you’re in the field for a while and you know, you can’t survive unless you’re passionate about your profession in photography. There’s no way. And when I see people who are mediocre about it…. If I hear someone say, “I don’t know whether to be a photographer or be a lawyer,” I’m like, “Go be a lawyer.” Because if you’re that undecisive you’re never going to make it in the field right now, today.
Laura Karen, thank you for all your stories, thank you for spending so much time talking with me. It’s just been such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Karen Thanks, Laura. It was really great fun to talk to you and I hope we can do this again sometime and I mean, I just think what you’re doing is really important because being able to operate in the business of photography is incredibly important to young photographers and I just hope that they learn something from this.