Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I’m Michelle. I’m a Canadian freelance photographer who recently moved to the UK to pursue grad school in film. Well, I also moved here for a boy (cliché, I know!).
My parents were immigrants who first met in Montreal, where I was born; I’ve also lived in the prairies of Saskatchewan and the suburbs of Toronto. I’m still figuring out how much of this has informed my work. A lot of my personal work is about “home” and I’m most at home doing intimate stories. Along the way, I’ve also developed a love of portraiture.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took?
When I was 16, I was really introverted and I figured out a way to build a darkroom in my parents’ laundry room. I logged many hours developing lame photos of my brother’s feet in a poorly-ventilated room. I’m not sure how my dogs and I didn’t suffocate from the chemical fumes. It took at least a decade for me to seriously pursue photography beyond those walls.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer—when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
It took a while: I think I was shooting regularly for publications for at least 3 years before I called myself a photographer. It was even longer before I got a website. Some of us are wired to be hard on ourselves and I’m ok with that, but only to a certain (i.e. healthy) extent. I’m quite comfortable living in a headspace that knows I have a long way to go. And I definitely still live in that space. I am aware of my imperfections, and on a few occasions it’s been debilitating. On other days, it really drives me to improve. I started using the word photographer around the time I was working on my first longer-form photo essay on Lake St. Martin First Nations reserve, whose entire community was displaced. It was a story I was really proud of, and I became really close to members of the community. It’s a story I followed for several years and one that I continue to care deeply about.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
Right now I’m focused on film projects for grad school and I’m really excited about new ways of telling stories. But I’ve been missing photography: it has been 2 months since I photographed regularly. I am researching for a new portrait series that I can work on in my own backyard, which links back to a story I worked on a few months ago: Before I left Canada, I wrote, photographed, and shot video highlighting the talent of female and LGBTQ rappers in Toronto. I want to continue the project here in the UK.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
I have often found myself in situations in which I self-censor or I otherwise limit myself. Often I’ve not spoken up even if I was capable of doing something. Many of us write ourselves off in situations where we are more than capable—insert prevalent pop psychology and stereotypical societal upbringing here. I’m mindful now of not undermining my abilities and I work towards a healthier sense of self-confidence. It’s improving over the years but something I still need to be mindful of. Perhaps that comes with age?
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
I rely heavily on the tight-knit community I’ve created. The circle of friends I call my photo family are the people I can be most vulnerable with about my work. I entrust them with my semi-formed ideas, show them work in progress, and call them in the middle of nowhere when I feel I’m failing at a project. I respect their advice, which I rely on on a weekly basis. They also play two important roles: they tell me (like it is) how I can improve while also being my biggest fans. Photojournalism can be a pretty lonely and solitary occupation, but this support system and these friendships are how I grow.
Business. Can you talk a bit about the business versus the art of photography?
Oh man! Such an important topic. If only people knew how much time we spend not being creative—dealing with the boring stuff like expenses, lousy clients, budgets, and other mind-numbing admin work. I believe that freelancers are some of the most resourceful people I know: we have to be in order to make ends meet and everyone has a different way of going about it. In Canada, I was shooting full-time—from assignment work, commercial/corporate jobs, NGO work, and maybe 1 or 2 weddings a year. And it has only gotten harder. I’m just starting to figure out how to make a living here in the UK. What I know is that the more organized and on top of it you are on the business side of things, the better you will fare on the art side. I started using a financial coach who enjoys helping Canadian women with small businesses. It’s super nerdy, but she has helped me build some tools that have changed my life: I’m using a much better invoicing and receipt system now, for example.
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
A simple piece of advice that I often return to goes something like this: “create what makes sense to you in your own way, in the way that works best for you, in the way that only you can say it—through your scenes, your best intentions, and your ideas.”
Best 2. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
This might be an uninspiring piece of advice, but I wish I figured this out sooner: when it comes to creative work, especially as a freelancer, it’s a blessing and a curse that there isn’t a road map to guide you. There’s no set or clear process of what to do next or how to manage time on a daily basis. Freelancing gives you the illusion of time and there’s usually very little daily routine and a hell of a lot of uncertainty, financially and mentally. It’s really hard to expect someone to be creative under such uncertain circumstances. I wish the difficulties of managing idle hands were discussed more, because doing creative work without daily structure is difficult. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that building structure in my life really helps me to reach my creative goals. So I’d say: try it. Take a bit of time out of every Sunday evening to plan out the week, or every morning to plan out the day. Trust me: your next project will thank me.
Beyond. Tell us about a future project or challenge that you hope to tackle. (Feel free to answer this question literally or figuratively).
I really struggle with self-promotion. I didn’t realize it would be such a big part of this gig, of being self-employed. It doesn’t come naturally to me, particularly on social media platforms. It’s difficult and counterintuitive for me, and I think this is detrimental to my work. I need to let editors know not only that I exist, but who I am. That’s hard online, but we’re supposed to do it. I’m working on it.