It’s been four years since South African Karen started freelancing for Expat Living. Hers is one of those inspirational stories about expat women who – finding it difficult or downright impossible to continue their careers here – successfully reinvent themselves. It takes vision to think outside the box, courage to revise your career path, and a capacity for sheer hard work to make it all happen. Karen has these qualities in buckets.
What brought you to Singapore?
Ten years ago, David came here on a business trip and fell in love with the place at first sight. When he got back to London where we were living, he said: “Karen, we’ve got to move to Singapore.” It took a while, but eventually he got a transfer with his company, and we moved here four and a half years ago.
Tell us about your background.
Though born in Zimbabwe, I grew up in the little coastal town of Mossel Bay on South Africa’s picturesque Garden Route.
I have a technical, IT services background and, at 26, like many South Africans, I went to work in London, ostensibly for a year, but ended up staying for ten. That’s where I met my French husband, David.
After 12 years in IT, I started feeling that I’d outgrown the industry, so I took a year out to do a Master’s in Business Administration. Shortly after, we heard we’d be moving to Singapore. At that stage we weren’t yet married and I was quite uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a “dependant”. We didn’t have children so I began to question what I would do to occupy myself in the event that I didn’t find a job in the corporate world.
I had long been passionate about photography and began to explore the option of developing that passion into a career. I had gone through some intensive digital photography training in London and, after our move, continued my training with American, Singaporean and British photographers both here and abroad.
Initially I looked for a job in the corporate world when we arrived here, but after six months I was still unemployed and starting to climb the walls. That’s when I decided to take the plunge: I launched Baobab Photography in 2007, when I first started doing freelance photography and writing for Expat Living. Over time, I developed a specialty in studio and outdoor portrait photography (mostly families and children) and now I also teach digital photography at the studio.
I remember your being one of our first freelance writers. How did that happen?
I’m so thankful to the wonderful team at EL for giving me a chance – before my first writing commission, I had only done business writing. And doing the accompanying photography for those stories was valuable experience because it was so varied: individual and family portraits, homes and all manner of products.
What does it take to start a photography business?
I have met lots of expats who are trying to get into photography, but it’s not easy. You have to offer something special in order to stand out and you have to have very strong camera and computer skills as well as creative skills and the ability to work well with people. Also, as you’re running your own business, you need good business acumen, lots of self-discipline and the ability to manage your time effectively.
My approach to offering a service is to always ask myself “How would I like this to work if I was the client?” Unlike most other portrait and wedding photographers, I provide my clients with high-resolution digital negatives (JPEGs) as I want them to have something that will last forever, that they can reproduce in any format they choose and that they can conveniently share with family and friends living far away.
How do you divide your time between shooting and teaching digital photography?
I spend about half my time shooting and the other half teaching. When I’m shooting, I’m buzzing with energy, constantly working to create and capture those moments when my clients look their best in a beautiful, natural way. It’s immensely rewarding when a client tells me that my photos prompted “tears of joy from grandparents abroad”, or “captured our daughter as we know her”.
I got into teaching quite by accident three years ago, when Prime Time’s arts group facilitator asked me to run a photography workshop for the members. It was such fun and the feedback was so great, so instantly rewarding. After that, I started running regular beginners’ workshops and then developed the DSLR courses, from Beginners through to Advanced, and now I also run excursions for Canon. Teaching – especially having to keep up with the newest technology – keeps me ahead of the game and makes me a better photographer; and shooting makes me a more grounded and confident teacher.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
David and I are addicted to travel. We’re also crazy about diving – he was a dive master when I met him, so I overcame my fears and took the plunge. He’s a real underwater photography enthusiast: I use my African safari experience to spot the creatures for him, and he goes in to take the pictures. Our favourite dive-spot is in Manado’s Lembeh Strait. We go there for “critter-diving” – it has the most amazing and unusual marine life.
But work and leisure are intertwined. I’ve been to Angkor Wat multiple times, and lead an annual photography excursion there, taking in not only temples but also local villages and the Tonle Sap water communities. And my recent reconnaissance trip to Penang has inspired me to add Georgetown to my list of excursions.
Your message to our readers?
As Marsha Sinetar said, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” It takes courage to follow your passion, but taking that step may be the best thing you ever do. It’s still relatively easy here to start your own business, and the government encourages expat spouses to work. Do your market research and seek out skilled people to guide and advise you along the way.
Your partner’s support is vital: David is so supportive of my work; he keeps me focused and motivated, has loads of ideas to develop the business and gets so excited about each of my small successes.
Karen’s studio is at 46 Ming Teck Park. Call 6402 3802 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.