My first job after college was at Celebrity Kids (CK) Portrait Studio. Go ahead and laugh at the name; it is misleading though. Our clients were not the children of celebrities. Our clients were children, families, and babies – all in high volume. High volume meant short session times, and short session times meant you had to think quickly and constantly be on your toes. I had to learn about early childhood development (something that I did not expect to learn as a photographer). I had to learn how a 6 month old is likely to react to a studio shoot, and how different a two year old is from a one year old. I had to adapt and react quickly or else I would have been left in the dust.

I also learned a lot about photographing in a short amount of time. Daily use of studio lighting and Photoshop brought me experience and confidence. The talented people I worked with were great teachers as well. It was a sad day when bankruptcy made CK close its doors forever. I was there for 3 ½ years, almost as long as I had been in school. I formed some lifelong relationships with both coworkers and clients. When CK closed, I didn’t know what to do next. I worked my way through school as a waitress; should I go back to that? Should I look for mall Portrait Studio work, i.e., Sears? Portrait Innovations? Picture People? Should I start my own business? Should I go live in my parents’ basement? Opening my own studio had always been a dream of mine. My secret plan of myself as a business owner, older, wiser, and well-dressed was somewhere down the road, not today, not even this month, this year. I knew that I wasn’t that person just yet; I still had a lot to learn. Celebrity Kids had taught me many things, but how to open my own business was not one of them. I was, however, still getting sporadic inquires from CK clients. Would I continue taking pictures of their children? Could I do a wedding? These requests would come in inconsistent spurts, encouraging, but not enough to sustain a business. Besides, I didn’t know what to charge. I had no studio. My personal camera was not as good as the old CK camera. It was exciting and scary. What was next?  So many unknowns. But there were two things I was about to learn about becoming a professional photographer. One: I was a photographer – there was nothing else I wanted to do. And two: I didn’t know the business.

I learned them in reverse. Here was my first clue to how clueless I was: I was chatting with my hairstylist and she was telling me about withholding her own taxes. Didn’t I do that? I told her that I wasn’t. She looked at me like she had just accidentally shaved a patch of hair off my head. ‘You know you have a paper trail, right?’ I really didn’t get it. She explained that when she does a wedding (the hair), she has to pay taxes on the money she gets. And when I did a wedding (the photos), I had to do the same. I never thought of that. Of course, I had never had a job that didn’t just give me a W2.  

That haircut really opened my eyes. I realized that I couldn’t use ignorance as an excuse anymore. I needed to educate myself. One can only play dumb for so long. God bless my sister, Amy, who bought a book for me, a book with a really long name that really helped me to gain some perspective. The book is called  The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-timers and the Self-Employed; The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not So Regular Jobs, by Joseph D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan. I’m sure there are other books of this ilk, but this one helped me (and continues to help me) to be the best boss that I can possibly be to myself. It taught me a lot of very basic knowledge about the business of being a photographer.

The second clue to my enlightenment came from my favorite restaurant. Since my occasional weddings and sessions didn’t pay the bills, I decided that I needed a ‘real job’ for some steady income. I went downtown to my favorite restaurant and got a job (they hired me on the spot!) as a server. But I realized, as soon as I got the job, I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to do anything other than photography. I went home and thought about it. Sometimes it takes the possibility of not doing what you love the most to realize your direction. I called the restaurant and told them no.

That’s when I began looking for jobs in creative environments, photography studios in particular. One day I noticed something new on one of the photography blogs that I followed, Tamara Lackey Photography.  Tamara’s studio was looking to hire an associate photographer; I promptly updated my resume, wrote a cover letter, and sent it in. 

I was hopeful. The studio is located in Durham, NC, and she had opened her studio the year that I left Durham (my home town) for college. I exchanged emails with the studio manager, but no job materialized. That could discourage a person, but I was very persistent, following up once a month with the studio manager, for five months. One weekend when I was going to be in Durham, I emailed Tamara and let her know I would be in town and could stop by her studio (I put a link to my website so she could see my portfolio). Tamara and I met face to face, chatted about photography, life, business and coffee. It felt like a great fit. Tamara called a few days later to offer me the position, and I made the move back to Durham.

Suddenly I was working for an internationally known photographer. How did I get here? By being persistent, not giving up when I felt discouraged, being prepared, and having my portfolio readily available online.

Now I work as an independent contractor for Tamara Lackey Photography (that means I have to withhold my own taxes, document my expenses and so on). Tamara has so much to offer. She is inspirational and motivating. She gives me great feedback. I have new opportunities, new adventures. I have had my first magazine cover, my photographs on national television. I have met and worked with incredible talented people. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to grow. I am constantly inspired and challenged. 

I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I can see that I have come a long way. I am grateful for my photography schooling. All my teachers/mentors helped me find the artist inside me, helped me be the creative person I am today. Now I have new mentors helping me to refine my vision, helping me to figure out how to be a working artist, helping me to make a living as a photographer.

My advice for other photographers looking to assist or work in a group studio is to stay active in your photo community, go to seminars and workshops, and follow blogs. Also, look up local photographers/studios, and try and meet for coffee or lunch. Personal connections are so important. And sometimes they can also lead to great opportunities!  

Bio: Jessi Blakely is the Senior Associate Photographer for Tamara Lackey Photography. Jessi’s passion for photography started at a young age as a student at the Durham School of the Arts. Her experience and education in photography began in the darkroom and continued on into the digital age at Appalachian State University, where she received a Bachelors of Science in Technical Photography.

Jessi’s work has appeared in Carolina Parent, Our State Magazine, Chapel Hill Magazine, Metro Magazine and Endurance. Her photography has also been featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Her fine art photography has been featured in solo shows in North Carolina, Maryland, and Oklahoma. 


all photos © Jessi Blakely