Episode #4: Switching Careers, Finding Clients and Valuing Your Work, with Babita Patel
On this month’s episode of the Creative + Moneywise podcast, humanitarian photographer Babita Patel talks about switching careers, founding a nonprofit, publishing a book and valuing your photography no matter the client.
Babita is a humanitarian photographer currently living in New Jersey in the United States. Her book “Breaking Out in Prison” is about the lives of men who were formerly incarcerated. She recently won a grant from Protagonistic to photograph and write a new version of the book, this time focused on women.
A NOTE FROM LAURA
Today I’m joined by Babita Patel as we discuss why she quit her job in the advertising industry and decided humanitarian photography was her true career path. We discuss all the different ways she makes money with her photography, from publishing a book to starting a nonprofit that teaches photography to girls who then teach it to boys. We talk about her most successful tactics for connecting with potential clients and why she’s starting a magazine for girls around the world. And we also laugh about how we first met. Babita shares all kinds of wonderful stories in this episode. I hope you’ll listen and learn about what it’s like to be a humanitarian photographer and truly value all the creative work you do.
Cinematic Orchestra Cello Loop by Wanderexplore
Happy Upbeat Cello by Audiokraken
Archipelago by Sound of Picture
Swimming by Sound of Picture
Hot Pink by Sound of Picture
Platformer by Sound of Picture
Bright Wish by Kevin MacLeod with a Creative Commons License
Holding Steady by Sound of Picture
FULL TRANSCRIPT from 01:20
Laura Welcome to the show, Babita. Thanks so much for joining me.
Babita Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you.
Laura You have had such an interesting career. So, let’s get started with a very easy question. What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Babita This is going to be a total surprise or non-sequitur to many people but when I was little, I wanted to be a cashier when I grew up.
Laura Ok. Why?
Babita You know, back then, it wasn’t scanning. It was like you had to push in the buttons or whatever on the machine. And I remember being very little and watching every cashier and they always pushed in the certain number like sequence of buttons that would make the drawer pop out and it would be like this big like loud noise and like the drawer would come shooting out and it had money in it. Not that I really cared about the money part. But it was just, like, this big fanfare. I wanted to know the secret of how to make the drawer pop out with like a big noise.
Laura Now, did you ever get a chance to work as a cashier?
Babita Yes. I worked in a clothing store in high school. And, you know, in a clothing store you have different jobs of like, cleaning up the clothes on the racks or cleaning out the dressing room or being on the register, as they called it. And my favorite part was being on the register. Totally. Unfortunately.
Laura A dream come true.
Babita Dream come true except for the fact that a lot of people would pay by credit card and so the drawer wouldn’t pop out as often. But still. Got my fix.
Laura Awesome. That’s really awesome. So ok, obviously, you have not stuck with being a cashier. And there’s nothing wrong with being a cashier. That’s totally fine. But you obviously haven’t stuck with that. So I want to hear a bit about your early career. I know you used to be an art director before moving into photography. So, tell me a little bit about what an art director does and why you were doing that.
Babita It’s funny, I knew I wanted to do that when I was in high school and I watched an awards show for advertising and it was a really great, famous Got Milk ad from the ’90s around Aaron Burr and it won an award and when I saw that ad I was like, Oh my god that was such a brilliant ad. I want to create that.
And so I went to art school and I concentrated on the art direction side but in advertising, in the actual agency world, an art director and a copywriter team up and they’re given creative briefs. And the brief has a message that this one client has a product that has a certain benefit and they think that a consumer with this one particular insight would be really interested or would benefit from this product.
You know, and then it’s a matter of the art director and copywriter to come up with what they would call creative that kind of ties all these messaging ideas together. It’s a lot of fun, you know, throwing out ideas to see what resonates, what doesn’t. And then once the client buys it then it’s a matter or producing it, which is the other half of the fun.
Laura Why did you decide to leave that job? I mean, it sounds very creative. It sounds very exciting.
Babita It is. It was, it was so much fun and especially as like, you know, a 23-year old first job out of school to be flying off to LA in first class for a two-week shoot for a TV commercial campaign.
I just didn’t like the actual practice of it. In the agency world, you know, as with most things it was a white male dominated field, and I’m neither. And I felt that when I was not allowed to work on the so-called sexy accounts, you know, the alcohol or the BMW accounts because I was a girl. And when I asked to be on those brands, I was told I couldn’t because my copywriter was also a woman and we were known as the girl team and we were given the girly products to work on instead. So, I felt like that kind of sexism going on.
I also experienced “Me Too” things, you know, everything from inappropriate comments being said by the men in the department all the way up to an inappropriate encounter with a client that nobody stopped and left me hurt.
Laura I’m sorry those things happened to you. People I know in creative industries have also felt undervalued because we’re women and then also have had our own “Me Too” moments. What happened when you tried to bring that up with anyone?
Babita Oh, I didn’t. You know, this was over 15 years ago, almost 20. More like 15. And I just thought that that’s what I’m there for. I’m a young woman and something, when it happened with my client it happened in front of my boss, my male boss and I thought that if it was wrong, he would have stepped in to stop it. And he didn’t. So, I just … I didn’t do anything.
I mean, now as an adult… an older woman, I know it’s wrong. I also think would have said something a little bit more, especially now that “Me Too” has happened and we’re paying attention to it. But at that time, I didn’t do it and I know a lot of women don’t say anything.
Laura So, it sounds like you were really just kind of fed up with the sexism inside that industry and you decided you wanted something else. How did you make that shift from advertising to photography and then who helped you with that?
Babita So, I made that shift after I took a summer off and spent the summer traveling to Tibet, Nepal and India. And it was just a spiritual trip that really helped me understand exactly what was important to me, how I would be happy in life, how to find purpose in life.
And so I came home and pulled all the things that I was interested in and I knew would make me happy and all those things kind of came under this umbrella idea of humanitarian photography that I found on some deep dark page of the website because about 10 plus years ago that wasn’t really a thing.
Thankfully there’s more humanitarian photographers out there today. But back then, no one was really talking about that as a career option. And so, I reached out to a few people that I thought would be interested. One of them was you, actually, Laura.
Laura I know, I wasn’t trying to fish for you to mention me at all. I realize now when I asked that question it was like, “Oh, please talk about me, Babita!” But no. That’s not what I was trying to get at. I’m sorry.
Babita No, but … You made a really big impression on me. It was one of those things where like you were one of the few people that I found on the Internet that was doing the kind of work that I wanted to do. And frankly, at that point, I also saw you as a safe space for me to come to because you were not a white man. And I felt safety in reaching out to you and asking you questions and seeing if I could find some guidance into this new world of mine.
Laura That is so nice. Thank you. It’s funny because I also remember the first time we talked. I was living in a small apartment on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and I was like squished at this tiny table in my kitchen, talking to you on Skype, I think. And I just remember you were so, like, positive and excited and I was so happy to just talk to you about you know this possible career that you were trying to move into. Yeah, you really made an impression on me, too.
Babita Well, I will say, now that we all live our lives on Zoom, I remember what your background looked like. It didn’t look like you were in squished background.
Laura I was totally squished. I was actually sitting at a table that folded out of the wall.
Babita No. You did a great job. You knew how to compose the shot very well to not make it look like that.
Laura Whew. Awesome. Ok, so, you made this shift. What was the first actual photo job that you had? And how did you manage things financially?
Babita Initially, I think for probably two or three assignments I did pro bono because umm I didn’t have a portfolio at the time to like vouch for me, you know, to say it that way. And I was able to do that because I was still doing some freelancing in art directing in advertising, which helped me bridge that gap. And then umm my first paid job, which is still a client that I have today is Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.
So, I was actually going to turn them down. And then I happened to click on their website before I sent the rejection email. And I saw the work that they did. And they bring college degree programs into prisons in New York state and I saw that their stats were staggering. New York state has a recidivism rate, which is the rate that people return to prison once they’ve been released, like over 40 percent. And Hudson Link, through their alumni that have graduated and been released, at the time they had zero percent of their students returning to prison.
And so, I was like, their program is clearly doing something positive and it’s working, it’s effective, I need to be part of this. And so, I said yes to them. They’ve been my client for the past 10 years.
Laura You just said you were doing quite a bit of pro bono work. How were you finding that work plus all of your paid work? Were you marketing yourself? Was it word of mouth? What was it?
Babita I tried everything. Or a lot of different things. And the only thing that really worked was word of mouth. You know, I would see either postings somewhere and I would, you know, apply for them. I don’t think I ever got one of those kind of assignments. I would also try reaching out to people. You know, organizations whose work that I really liked because that was very important to me. So, that worked a little bit. Like once or twice.
Word of mouth was the best one and it was a lot of like asking friends of friends, repeatedly asking friends of friends, reaching out like doing my research and asking a friend for that specific connection. Or asking a client for a connection. That worked way more than anything else has ever worked.
Laura And how would you do this repeated asking? Cause I can imagine that after a while you feel like, Oh, I’ve already asked them three times to recommend me or… how did you do it?
Babita Yeah, I have that thing of like I don’t want to bother people. But as I get older, the more I realize this, repeatedly asking someone is not necessarily annoying them. It depends on your delivery, of course, but no one is going to keep my life top of mind in their life, you know? And always thinking of like, hey, every day I’m going to wake up and think, hey, how can I help Babita? Like that’s not apparently something that happens. Other than my mother.
Laura No way, Babita, no way!
Babita Like apparently, that’s not how this thing works. And so you know like, occasionally checking in with people and also asking for something very concrete, you know here’s three people that I’m interested in talking to. I see you’re connected to them on LinkedIn. Do you have a strong enough connection with them to introduce me to them? Here is, like, three sentences you could say. And edit this as you wish. You know? Make it very easy for the other person to not do the work that you’re asking them to do for you.
Laura Yeah, that’s such a great idea. To make it easy for you to be connected with a potential client and, you know, like, write the email. I like that.
Babita Mmhmmm… And I’ve also given them the leeway, like, “And you can edit this as you wish. You don’t have to send this as I’ve sent it to you.” Again, giving them, like hey, maybe this is not the way they want to make the introduction so let them have power over that as well.
Laura Yeah. So, these days what are the main ways that you’re making money?
Babita So, pre-pandemic I was a mish-mash of photography work, sometimes I’ll do design work but that’s like a very small percentage and it’s usually for like long-established clients or you know still in the nonprofit world. Like, I’m not doing it for the Fortune 500 companies anymore. And also, I wrote and photographed a book that came out in February of this year, so there’s that aspect to it.
Laura Yes, which I do want to hear more about it in a minute.
Babita Yep, and then also my nonprofit KIOO project, you know, which works on gender equality. So, we teach photography to girls and the girls teach boys. So, I usually run one of those workshops once a year so that’s another chunk of my time. So, that’s pre-pandemic. During the pandemic there’s no photography work at all because I’m not going anywhere. So it’s still a mix-mash of the book kind of stuff happening. Doing some little bit of work on the nonprofit with KIOO project but it’s more like setting up what’s gonna happen after the pandemic is over. And then I’m also launching a new media platform with a co-founder early next year and it’s a print magazine of stories for girls by girls from around the world.
Laura There are so many cool things to talk about in that answer, Babita. Now, a common thread I’m seeing here with the work you do is your interest in helping girls around the world. You have this print magazine that you are going to start putting out next year. I know it’s called Kahani. Please explain.
Babita So, my co-founder Tara Abrahams, she works in the girls space also and really believes in the power of storytelling and hearing from girls directly. You know, KIOO project helped me understand that, like, hearing from the kids directly vs from the adult in the room: me. My part of the story is not important compared to their part of the story.
There is a gap of young girls from the ages of like 12 to 18 in terms of the content that is age-appropriate for them. And girls these days are especially savvy in wanting to hear from other girls from around the world. And so, we decided that we wanted to put together a media platform — a print magazine to go back to a little bit of being old school and would still have a social media digital component to it. But mostly we wanted to put something tangible into the hands of girls around the world where they can hear… and read stories of other girls from around the world to like learn something new, you know, vs… or also see similarities, you know, between a girl’s life in Peru…. an indigenous girl’s life in Peru to a refugee living in a camp in Jordan.
And so, through the networks that Tara and I have, we are sourcing stories from girls in different countries, different cultures, different languages, different backgrounds to write about their experiences or stories that they want to share with others.
All the girl contributors will get copies of the magazine, of course, as a thank you. And the distribution of the magazine’s gonna happen through a subscription-based here in Western countries. The other way we’re doing it is by partnering with NGOs to be kind of like a distribution model where if they buy 100 copies of the magazine, they can distribute it as they want to the girls that they work with in their communities.
Laura So, for this venture I also assume you’re paying yourself, right?
Babita Yes. There is a caveat because it is a start-up and we just… We literally just had a talk about money a couple days ago so I can tell you this. Upfront, because of the start-up kind of aspect of it, probably wouldn’t be like a full paycheck as I’d want it to be. But in our financial plan we have it in place to get paid as we should be.
We’re looking at actually you know also like a corporate sponsor that would be very appropriate to the theme of the issue. Our first full issue that will come out next October is going to be around periods. So, the idea of having a tampon or sanitary napkin company sponsor the issue, something like Lola, which is known for creating organic, healthy products for women who have their periods, would be a great sponsor for the period issue.
Laura I love that you have different ways that you’re trying to bring in income for this venture to make sure that you are not just using your own money to do it.
Babita Oh, yeah. No, and it’s funny because Tara and I have talked about this and because of my nonprofit background with KIOO I know how we need to always diversify our income, like that’s part of my mindset. And also, you know, paying staff is a very important part of the line-item budget.
Laura Mmmhmmm. That sounds really smart. Let’s talk about your book. It’s about men who spent a lot of their life in prison and came out and sort of what their experiences have been in life. How did this come about and mostly how did you just get the book published? That’s like a very big deal.
Babita Yes, thank you. So, the book, Breaking out in Prison, came about because of the work that I did with Hudson Link. I very specifically had a moment with Shaun, the executive director, you know, I’d been working with them for five years or so at this point. And he had mentioned that at the time of his crime, if New York state had the death penalty, he probably would have been eligible for it. And up to that moment, I believed in the death penalty. It was just something I believed in despite my very liberal voting record. And it was just like external forces were feeding this idea.
But I was like, wait, if Shaun got this thing that I believed in, he would not be here with me right now. You know, he would not have gone to school if he was sitting on death row. He would not have come home. He would not have the family he has with his wife, who I love also and also, he wouldn’t be running this organization that helps hundreds of students every year, thousands of their family members, hundreds of thousands of the community members that have returning citizens that are assets to their community and saving New York state, you know, millions in tax dollars.
And so, it was in that moment that I stopped believing in the death penalty. And so I thought that because I have access to these men with these stories, that it’s my purpose to share these stories with more people. And so, I decided that I would write and photograph a book.
Laura What kind of goals did you have for this book and did you meet them all?
Babita The goals of the book were a few things. I wanted people to read this book and hear a story that they had not heard before, especially because of the voice of incarcerated people is not that one that’s heard about because we frankly lock them up and forget about them. I also wanted people to maybe see a little bit of their life reflected in a life that was not similar to their own, simply because of the way they grew up or their life experiences.
There’s very few people who actually make money from selling books. But, the idea of selling books that would lead eventually maybe to speaking gigs or other opportunities because I’m now all of a sudden looked upon as a thought leader in this topic – that appealed to me because also there’s a financial aspect to it, of course, you know. Whether or not I’ve achieved those goals, that’s a different story because the book came out in February, right before the pandemic, which means that my book tour got cancelled and you know that’s the place where you sell books, you know, at live events where you have a talk and then you have a book signing afterwards because people have bought the book.
So, of course, that didn’t happen. So, now I have like a thousand copies of my book sitting in a warehouse in Chicago that one day will hopefully kind of sell a little bit more. So, that was the thinking at the beginning of the pandemic. And then Mr. Floyd was murdered in May and then this country — the U.S. — finally started paying attention to the systemic racism that we’ve had in this country for 400 years and how that has manifested into our current problems of mass incarceration and inequality and a lack of community investment in certain communities in this country.
And it’s ironic because when I first wrote the book I was focusing on education and the importance of education no matter who you are and where you are in life. And then only after George Floyd was murdered and people were picking up the book with a different kind of mindset that my readers were reaching back out to me, telling me, “Oh my god, this book is also about systemic racism and community investment — the things that we’re all talking about today.”
Laura Yeah. It’s, I mean it’s good. Anyone out there, you should read the book. And look at the beautiful pictures, of course, it is a photo book. So, financially then, you said there’s like a thousand books in a warehouse in Chicago. Have you made money with this book?
Babita Right now, I think I have almost broke even. If I sell those remaining thousand copies I would have more money in the bank. Again, not enough to become a millionaire even but it would just be icing or free money at this point.
Laura Can you become a thousandaire?
Babita Yes, pretty much. That’s about it. A thousandaire and then obviously, being a published author credential gives me more opportunities for like speaking engagements and all that stuff and in that way, all those engagements would also pay, obviously.
Laura Yeah. So, Babita, what are some business lessons that you wish you’d had early on?
Babita I wish I …. knew my worth early on and that I was able to stick with it. I was just really bad with knowing my worth and only recently am I able to not only know my worth but feel comfortable asking for it and saying no when people don’t.
Laura Mmmmm. How did you gain that confidence to start saying no?
Babita Part of it is probably age. A lot more of it is just getting tired of feeling taken advantage of, of like after doing the work and then beating myself up as I’m lying there in bed, angry at myself for not doing what I should have done and knowing what I needed to do and not doing it. And then getting mad at myself for not doing it. And so, I just got tired of that feeling.
Laura Do you remember one of the first times you really felt empowered to say no or to push back a little bit?
Babita Oh, it was for a nonprofit that I love the work, their mission and I love the girls that were part of the program. And the executive director just was running the financial part of it badly. And I kind of knew it, the way she kept kind of scamming me out of my paycheck.
Laura Like not paying you at all? Or just taking forever to pay you?
Babita Oh, undercharging… or like any time I would give a budget in going, Oh, that’s too much or can you just do it this one time for free and I’ll pay more next time.
I had actually recommended my friend to work for her, early on, because back when I still thought they were a good organization. And then I hadn’t talked to my friend in a few months. And I happened to run into her on the street. I was like, oh, hey, how’s the job going. And she said that, oh, she’s thinking of quitting. And she’s like, Oh my god, she’s terrible, like the executive director. She’s like, I don’t want to work with her anymore.
And all of a sudden, I was like, Oh, I didn’t know you could say no to that. And yeah, I started turning her down, her assignments. And it felt good and I don’t regret it, turning it down.
Laura Yes. We should all be able to feel good about turning down an assignment when we know it’s going to be just a horrible experience instead of being like, I need the money, I need the money. Although, sometimes you do just need the money.
Babita Totally. There’s been other times when I’ve taken money for assignments that I don’t like. But I don’t feel as terrible as I did when I did it with this woman. She was living in my head and not paying me rent. And that’s not acceptable.
Laura Sorry, I’m laughing but it’s because it’s true and I know how that feels, too. Is there anything else you want to tell me, Babita, about being a photographer, about money, about career? Anything at all?
Babita It’s so funny. I never thought this would be my career, you know, when I was 22 years old and graduated from art school, I never thought 20 years later this is what I would be doing. And it’s been the greatest I’ve ever given myself
Laura Totally a gift. Thanks so much for being on the show, Babita. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today and hopefully our listeners have learned some really great lessons about being a photographer and running a business – and paying yourself no matter what you’re doing, even when you’re running a nonprofit.
Babita Even when you’re running a nonprofit, even when you’re running a for-profit, even when you love what you do or hate what you do — you should still get paid what you’re worth.
Laura Thank you.
Babita Thank you.