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What You Need to Start Your Career as a Visual Artist

In this article, photographer and educator Gaia Squarci gives her precious advice and tells about her various experiences to get you started in an artistic career.

The field of photography is a busy world in fast evolution, and its unwritten rules might not be intuitive if you’re trying to decipher them from outside. Whether you’re interested in shooting documentary work, fashion, food or weddings, you need some knowledge about the way the market works in order to find your place in it.

Get inspired, and get to know yourself as a photographer

From a cultural point of view, cities like London, Paris, New York or Amsterdam are places where photography is highly valued as an art form. Sometimes it can be worth a trip even just to visit a festival or a fair, situations that attract a number of satellite events like artist talks and off-circuit shows.

This kind of environment is stimulating and useful to expand your knowledge of photography, which helps refining your taste, which in turn gives you a sharper direction in the moment you’re producing work.

Projection at Rencontres d’Arles festival © Gaia Squarci

A festival I love dearly which bridges fine art and documentary photography is Rencontres d’Arles, in the south of France. Going to festivals during the opening week can be a chaotic but insightful experience, as curators, editors and publishers come from all over the world to take part to panels, promote books, organize screenings, visit the exhibits, and party. The scene is eye-opening if you’re starting in the field.

The dialogues often revolve around photography work, and you’ll soon notice how important it is to talk effectively about your own. Not all conversations are elevator-pitches, but as you enjoy listening some of your acquaintances talking about a topic in an inspiring and competent way, others will expect the same from you.

Developing this skill requires you to do some analysis on your work and it will take time to get comfortable with, but it will be essential throughout your career. Thinking that the photos should speak for themselves now that photographers pop up from every corner and we see thousands of images a day, often decontextualized or for a couple of seconds, is lazy rather than naive.   

If you read interviews with photographers or articles about their work you’ll understand the role of words in the presentation and promotion of any project. Online and paper publications like the one you’re reading, Aperture, American Suburb X, The British Journal of Photography, Ph Museum or Conscentious feature pieces written by photographers or photography critics which do not only tell you what the project is about, but raise questions about the reasons for working on a certain theme or with a certain approach, explaining the difficulties and the breakthroughs of the projects.     

There’s a lot to learn from this, and the more you pay attention to what goes on in the photography world the more you’ll notice how the choice of the topics, the framing of the photos and the way the work is presented often becomes redundant. Identifying the repetition and getting tired of it is essential to build your taste and produce unique work, moving away from the aspects of the industry that became cliché and self-referential. 

An installation by Damien Hirst, at Prada Foundation, in Milan © Gaia Squarci

In addition to this you’ll probably discover that the photographers you admire the most got inspired not by photography itself but by a book they’ve read, a performance they’ve seen, a place they traveled to when they were kids. The best exhibition I’ve seen this year didn’t include a single photograph. It was curated by film director Wes Anderson and illustrator, designer and writer Juman Malouf, at Fondazione Prada in Milan. It featured artwork and objects from wildly different times in history and geographic areas, organized according to unusual criteria to challenge our perception of the objects exposed in a museum. Expanding the boundaries of our inspiration outside of the photography world is fundamental because sometimes we need to be influenced by work that we can’t be tempted to copy, and that shatters our way of thinking in boxes.

Build your network and cultivate it

Building a network is essential to survive in the industry, and it can end up being an incredibly enriching experience. This process started for me intuitively at a time when I was clueless about its importance, but  I can now clearly trace back its steps. When I was studying Art History in college I started collaborating with a photography association in Bologna, Italy, then I took up an internship at Grazia Neri Photo Agency in Milan and the following year I attended the full-time documentary program at ICP, the International Center of Photography in New York. At the end of the school year I interned at the New Yorker for a couple of months. Throughout this journey and later, when I started working as a freelancer, I met a lot of peers and mentors whose help has been, and still is, invaluable.

Photographers David Kasnic, Mark Abramson and Sarah Blesener at portfolio Reviews in New York © Gaia Squarci

Thinking that the contact of an agent, producer, editor or gallerist can be right away the gateway to a successful career  usually leads to disappointments. What helped me in the long run is the friendship with other photographers with whom I have a relationship of mutual support, writers who became trusted collaborators, mentors who were my teachers, editors, curators or more experienced photographers and have offered guidance during the development of my projects in the course of the years.

Mentorships can be especially productive because you as a photographer are not trying to sell work but improve it, and the mentor on the other end is interested in you and your work because of the potential they see, not because the photos fit a certain editorial line. This means more freedom to think creatively, and the creation of a safe space where you can be completely honest about your doubts and weaknesses.

Talks between photographers and editors, Magnum Photos workshop, Mana Contemporary, New Jersey © Gaia Squarci

Exhibition openings, artist talks, festivals and portfolio reviews are all occasions to meet people in a friendly way. In most festivals for instance you can sign-up for paid portfolio reviews with experts in the industry to get feedback on your photography, or if you know someone you’d like to meet you can try to send an email beforehand and set up an appointment.

Get a website and a printed portfolio

When you meet people and talk about your work they’ll likely be curious to see it, and you need to provide the quickest and most efficient way for them to do it. If your photos have been published online and I google your name I’ll definitely find links to them, but those might be the first pictures you took for an amateur photography group five years ago, or your flicker account that you haven’t updated since you stopped photographing wet flowers with a macro lens. 

Workshop at the International Center of Photography, New York © Gaia Squarci

You want your work to get around, but you want to be in control, and the best way to direct how people will experience your photos is having a website, with carefully selected galleries. Short edits of maximum 20 pictures for every project, and less than 10 galleries total will help you show only the best of your work. If you earn a living shooting weddings alongside documentary work, I’d advise to have two separate websites for the two kinds of photography. 

The website identifies you as an author, it needs to be coherent in its content and design, and periodically updated. Among others, Squarespace is a well-known company that provides a software for hosting and building websites. The one I use is, a platform for visual storytelling which includes photographers in a network of peers and industry experts, offers templates with a clean design and counseling over the editing of the galleries. In case you don’t have the resources to pay for these kinds of hosts you can opt for a free platform like WordPress, which is allows you, with some autonomous effort, to build an online portfolio.  

Printing your best photography is not an alternative to having it on a website, but it adds quality to your presentation when you sit down for meetings to have it reviewed. If you work in the editorial market you can print a project or two, if you shoot fashion it could be your best 20 photos. It’s a pleasure to have something tangible to look at, and it’s so rare today that it becomes something people remember.

International Center of Photography workshop with book designer Teun van der Heijden, Minny Lee Fine Art Studio, Honolulu © Gaia Squarci

The way you print and present your photos speaks about you and your taste. Does matte or glossy paper highlight the quality of your work and represent it best? As a container you can choose a box or a binder, whichever size you consider appropriate and doesn’t make your life impossible. I’d stay away from plastic folders, and if you want to protect the paper from scratching I’d suggest not to use one that is too delicate if handled. You can easily buy a pair of white gloves in a store for art supplies, and if you hand it to the reviewers they won’t be surprised. 

Write to an editor, producer or an agent

The photo editor is the person who chooses and sequences the photos related to the articles in editorial publications, and assigns photographers to cover the stories. A number of different photo editors work on different sections of a given publication (politics, science, arts, travel..). 

If you’re trying to contact an editor by email, look at the masthead of the outlet to discover who is the right person to write to. Once you know who you’re looking for I’d suggest to ask for the contact to any of your acquaintances who work in the photography industry. This is a kind of help we all offer each other, and you’ll have the chance to return the favor.

Editor Paul Moakley, from TIME magazine © Gaia Squarci

Editors are exceptionally busy and they receive hundreds of emails every day. In the best circumstances you have a short glimpse of their attention and you have to make it count. The way you write an email to propose a meeting or pitch a story will determine your chances to receive an answer. 

This is true also for producers or agents. You’ll have to look at the credits of projects that fit in with your style and level of experience. Find out which producer worked on them and look for a direct contact. Agencies often have a general email you can write to, but you never know who looks at it and how how often. Knowing someone who knows someone goes a long way, and writing in facebook groups where photographers support each other with suggestions can be another solution. Some photographers try on Linkedin or Instagram, but I’d first ask around and try to understand if the specific person you’re trying to connect with uses these tools for professional communications, because if it’s not the case your message might be ignored.

Here are some basic advices on how to write a professional email:

1. Choose a publication or agency that suits your work, then write right to the appropriate person.

2. Carefully choose the Subject of the email, which should contain your name and all of the information the client needs to understand what’s the topic of your pitch. It should be concise, and possibly intriguing. A few years ago I worked with journalist Laurence Cornet on a story about a research center in San Diego that freezes cells and DNA of animals endangered with extinction, with the intent to preserve biodiversity. 

The Subject of my email was the following:

Pitch – San Diego, Frozen Zoo – Gaia Squarci and Laurence Cornet 

If you’re writing to ask for a meeting, then the word “meeting” should be in the Subject, together with anything else that would help the reader identify and remember your email. 

Example: Meeting – Fashion Week assignment work – Gaia Squarci

3. Briefly Introduce yourself including any details that might resonate with the reader, like clients you worked with, people who introduced you in case you briefly met, and grants or prizes you got only if they’re pertinent to the theme you’re writing about. Hint at the topic you’ve worked on or you intend to cover. 

4. If you’re writing a pitch to a photo editor, add your project statement. This is a paragraph or two explaining specifically what the project is about (See the article How to build a Photography Project for more details – link).

5. Add a link to a photo gallery. In case you’re proposing a project to be sold upon completion, create a password-protected gallery on your website and add a link to it in your email. In case you’re pitching an idea or proposing yourself for shoots, add a link to any work (better if published) you previously did which focuses on a similar topic, or a story that can give an idea of your visual style. Don’t send anything the editor or producer needs to download.

6. Signature

Below the greetings at the end of the email you should have all of the contacts the client might need. In Gmail, Yahoo or whichever service you have, preset a signature that includes your website, your email, phone number and the handle of any social media you use primarily for work. 



Instagram: @gaiasquarci

+1 ——————USA

+39 —————-ITALY

Journalist and curator Laurence Cornet © Gaia Squarci

I’d suggest not to get discouraged or take it personally if you don’t receive an answer at your first attempt. Sometimes I’ve been in contact with possible clients for years before there was a chance to work together, and when they called me for the first assignment it was because they saw good work being produced consistently overtime. I suggest to stay in contact with them updating them every few months, each time you have some new and substantial work to share. 

How to approach a gallerist

The way to a first solo show is usually long and it requires the photographer to have a good amount of experience in the field. Gallerists are businessmen as much as connoisseurs of visual arts, and their interest is not only promoting good work, it’s selling it. 

A photographer who has recently started a career and is getting to know oneself would hardly ever be a good option for a gallerists. When we start taking pictures, the identity and direction of our work can quickly evolve, and our taste might completely change overtime. That is a risk for a gallery, which proposes photography as a form of art to a public of collectors with a very specific taste, interested in investing in the name of an author almost as a brand, with a very specific identity and a track record that can roughly suggest what comes next. 

Whenever a gallery sells a print, it pays the photographer withholding a percentage, which varies according to the agreement between the photographer and the gallerist. The percentage typically ranges from a 20 to 50% of the earnings, and I’d suggest to seek information about the standard agreement a certain gallery offers before getting to sit and negotiate with the gallerist.  

If you don’t have many years of work behind you and are interested in having your photos exhibited I’d suggest starting by sending your work to festivals or prizes, which could get you into group exhibitions and help you get noticed by curators or gallerists.

If you already have made a trusted name for yourself in the industry, start doing some research on the galleries that show photography with a similar style as yours, and feature artists in a similar phase of career. 

Attending openings and events at the gallery can be a way to get to know the gallerist or be introduced, as it’s hard to get through the door as a complete stranger.

Broken Screen exhibition, by Gaia Squarci, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne © Gaia Squarci

Think of the clients you can bring to the gallery, because a relationship between a photographer and a gallerist is a partnership that both people aim at getting something from. When you meet with the gallerist I’d recommend to show one, maximum two projects, representative of your current work and the path you want to undertake. You also need to have a vision for your project in the shape of an exhibition. The size of the photos, the paper you want to use, the framing, the limited editions of prints are topics that inevitably will come up in conversation if the gallerist is interested in exhibiting your work, and finding you completely clueless would give the impression that you’re unprepared for this step. 

Gallerists and collectors are interested in the uniqueness of the work, so I’d suggest to carefully plan the way you’re going to show it. If digital files are the only option because the work is impossible to carry around so be it, but usually gallerists are detail-oriented and they want to get a feeling of your clarity of vision from your presentation. I’d advise to print the photos, choose the paper and present the work in a way that helps them see what you have in mind for the exhibition.

As it happens with editors and producers, you’ll probably have to develop a relationship with a gallerist overtime, and wait for the right moment to collaborate. A combination of determination and patience is usually needed to get to that point.

How to prepare to the financial aspect of the job

Conference at Mana Contemporary, Magnum Photos workshop, New Jersey © Gaia Squarci

Because of the progressive shrinking of budgets in just about every sector of the photography field, most freelance photographers need to diversify the sources of their income. 

Photography is today the main medium of communication and there’s a wide range of needs we can satisfy to get to earn a relatively stable living in an unstable industry. According to your personality and the type of work that comes to you most naturally, you’ll develop a skillset that fits one kind of job more than the other. 

The idea is that the additional work you do to increase your earnings needs to be well paid and take up as little of your time as possible, enabling you to concentrate with more peace of mind on what you really like to do.

In my case for instance, I work on long-term projects I seek distribution for after completion, shoot assignments for editorial publications, shoot on commission for dance and theater performers, cover design-related events, and I teach at ICP. Shooting video alongside with photography, for projects on documentary themes or related to fashion, has been a stimulating part of my work for years and it has helped me financially as well.

Other photographers shoot advertising, corporate work, food, weddings, they work as printers or retouchers, they run spaces dedicated of photography, or others spend part of their time doing an entirely different job, so that when they dedicate themselves to photography they can do it without making any compromises. 

However you’re dividing your time and energy I’d suggest to work hard on having, at any time, something to look forward to. It can be a meeting with someone you admire, a workshop you decided to gift to yourself, an application for a grant or a prize, a public talk or a show of your work. It has to be something that tears you away from the day-to-day shenanigans, reminding you the reason you decided to do what you do. 

It can be a challenge to find a balance among different kinds of assignments, and my advice is to run a lucid self-check once in a while, dropping any job if you feel it’s causing your passion for photography to fade. As you might have figured out already, passion is the one and only reason to stay in this business.

Eddie Adams workshop, Jeffersonville, NY © Gaia Squarci
Cover photo: Photographer Gaia Squarci is photographying two Honduran migrants walking the road to Palenque just a day after having been deported back to their home country © Patrick Tombola

By Gaia Squarci

Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at ICP (International Center of Photography). She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland or in the UK.

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