Over the years, there is one question, no matter what direction my career seems to be heading at any particular moment, that remains the biggest and most common.
How do you do what you do?
I figured it would make sense to put my whole story in one place. This post won’t be advice. It’s just my life as it happened, and what I’ve learned so far.
What, exactly, do I do? Today, I am a freelance photographer and blogger focusing on travel, adventure, wildlife and culture. I am concerned with issues of conservation, social issues, and overall encouraging a greater sense of empathy for people, places, and other living things on our planet. In addition to my photography and writing work, I lead adventure trips and workshops that focus on many of these areas.
The main things I get hired for:
• Social media posts or campaigns on behalf of a brand
• Marketing campaigns
• Trip leading, workshops, speaking and teaching
Who are my clients? They can be brands, hotels, tour providers, non-profit organizations, travel boards and destination-based services. Usually, the companies or organizations I work with are aiming to go deep into their story or a message they hope to communicate through their product/service. My job is to either tell that story through my work, or to appropriately figure out how to do so effectively and creatively on their preferred medium or platform.
My job also includes my custom trips, and will evolve from there I’m sure. The direction my work has taken has developed organically, led by a desire to connect people to whatever is outside their comfort zones.
Currently, when confronted with the question, “What do you do?” I would answer that with “travel photographer.” But if you asked me this a couple of years ago, I would have said I was a blogger. If you look at my older photos on social media, most of them were of me, not by me. This is just one example of how creative careers evolve, shift, and change. There is no right answer, and there is no blueprint for how to do it.
Before starting this blog, I worked in outdoor education as a guide and trip leader. And before that, I was a student wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life like many of my peers.
STARTING AT THE BEGINNING
I first found my love for photography in high school. My first camera was my dad’s old Nikon F camera. I shot mostly on black and white film, and loved the creativity and experimentation photography allowed me. I applied for art schools with my photography portfolio, and was accepted to the School of Art + Design at Purchase College. I got there and felt really intimidated. I come from a town where careers in art were not encouraged, and people told me I couldn’t make a living doing photography. I told myself the same. I changed my major to graphic design, thinking it was a more “employable” option.
I got a job at a summer camp after my freshman year. I saw it as an opportunity to do something different, meet new people, and make a positive difference in the life of kids or teenagers. That summer, I found out I loved being outside. I loved hiking, camping and nature. And I loved connecting with young people. I was also working at a mom & pop camping supply store during the school year, which helped me acquire the gear I needed.
The following fall, I got the idea to take my outdoor knowledge to another level entirely by doing a course with NOLS. I got my butt kicked on my 30-day program in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. But the course also challenged me in a big way, and gave me a deep appreciation for the outdoors and everything that getting outside of your comfort zone can teach you. You can read more about my NOLS experience here.
Spending 30 days in the wilderness impacted me so deeply that I got back to college and decided I wanted to study science. This was rather dynamic since I had already taken two years of visual arts classes. I talked with one of my advisors about drafting up a proposal for an unconventional interdisciplinary major that combined art and science. I proposed a course of study that allowed me to focus on both art and environmental studies, specifically in the area of marine ecology. It was approved. For that, I am incredibly grateful to my two advisors, one each in art and science, who advocated for me and believed I could pull it off.
The next summer, I got a job as a canoe guide for the Boy Scouts of America in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It was my first time canoeing at this level, but I was fresh from my NOLS course, and loved learning the new skill set required. I had also come to enjoy spending my summers outside and challenging myself both physically and in my facilitation skills.
Coming back to school, I wanted more hands-on experience in the field with science. I had also never left the country, and was determined to do so. I asked my advisor in the sciences, a marine ecologist, if he had any colleagues abroad who might be interested in mentoring me in an internship. He did–– in Portugal. After significant logistics and planning, I took a leave of absence and spent a semester living in Portugal learning a whole lot about seaweed. You can read about my experience going to Portugal solo here.
LIVING OUT OF A BACKPACK
I got back from Portugal and wrapped up my college career with my interdisciplinary major. That winter, I started thinking about what I wanted to do after graduation. I thought I’d probably work as a guide again, and then apply for advanced programs in marine science.
I had built up enough outdoor experience that I was able to get a job leading adventure trips for teenagers in Europe. It was a step up from my previous guiding job, but had a lot of similarities in terms of leadership and group dynamics. I spent that summer leading trips in Spain, Italy and Greece, and I didn’t make much money, but I realized that this job could be a way for me to travel and do something positive with my time while I figured out the next step.
That summer turned into two years. I met my ex-partner and we traveled and worked as guides together in China, then moved to Australia, where we lived for 11 months. My partner’s goal for our year there was to take advantage of the strong Australian dollar and make a solid amount of money. Over the course of that year, I had many jobs. First I worked as a salesperson in a camping supply store full-time. Next, I worked at an iron ore mine site doing catering–– flying to the site and working 12 hours a day for 14 days straight, then flying home for a week off. My last job in Australia was my favorite one, finally doing something I was passionate about. I led wilderness trips for a company in Southeast Queensland for students from Hong Kong. This was one of my favorite outdoor education jobs to date.
After Australia, we spent four months in New Zealand. We worked on farms and lived outside most of the time. I learned how to budget wisely, and just how far a dollar can stretch if you prioritize your spending and value experiences over things. In Australia, we had each saved a significant 5-digit amount of money, so we were able to enjoy our time (without spending wildly) in New Zealand with that savings and still go home with a decent amount.
By the end of our time in NZ, we both felt it was time to go home. I took a summer job guiding in Alaska, and my partner went home to the UK. I spent a few weeks at my parents’ house before starting my summer gig, and during that time, I bought my first ever smartphone–– a $200 Motorola Moto G. Before that, I was the proud owner of many old Nokias (the kind that required T9). After spending over two years on the road, I had tons of photos (just from a point+ shoot camera) and stories to share. My friends and family asked me all the time about my job, about how I traveled for so long, and about my advice for making it possible financially. I had been feeling like starting a blog would be a smart choice, just to put all my thoughts in one place. Instagram seemed like a good place to start. I brainstormed names and landed on Erin Outdoors because it was catchy and available. I wasn’t sure if my Instagram or blog would ever become something, and I didn’t intend on it or expect it from the start, but I wanted to have a memorable name just in case I decided to pursue it on a larger scale.
I started posting photos on Instagram, and bought ErinOutdoors.com. Though I owned the domain name, it was six months before I did anything with it. After Alaska, I headed to Guatemala to visit a friend and work for a volcano hike company. After a couple of months in Antigua, I realized I was ready to set up a home base, and that I wanted to be in the States. I lined up a job working in the Colorado office of one of the teen adventure companies I had previously guided for. It was going to be my first office job and for once, I was really excited to be in one place.
I got to Colorado, found a place to live, and bought a car with the rest of the money I had saved from Australia. I had a few weeks of free time before my job started, and flew back to my parents’ house to visit for the holidays. I felt very strongly that I needed to start the blog then. I figured out how to install WordPress (you can learn pretty much anything from YouTube videos), got a free theme, and wrote a couple of posts. I didn’t really share that the blog existed far and wide at first. I wasn’t trying to make it big, I just wanted an outlet for my ideas.
I started at my new job and really enjoyed the structure of it. Having a full-time office job (my first) gave me the space and time to have an actual life outside of work. I made friends, I went on hikes by my house, I bought plants and a blender. I was blogging on the side, trying to stay disciplined with it, with the exception of the summer months.
Though I worked in the office, during the summer I led trips for the company. That summer, I led a couple of back-to-back trips in Costa Rica. When I got back to the office in Colorado, I was unexpectedly let go.
BECOMING A “BLOGGER”
Getting fired isn’t really something you plan for. At 25, I felt invincible, and it was a big surprise. In retrospect, it was one of the best things to happen to me, and I was naive to think that it wouldn’t. I had a couple of options: get another full-time job, or try to see if blogging was a potential income source. This was not the start of the blogging world–– there were well-known travel bloggers already making it. I would read and re-read their websites trying to figure out just how they made it possible for themselves. I wanted to know everything. I was reading so many blog posts from the same bloggers that I felt like I knew them in person.
With a few thousand dollars saved, I decided to take my newfound unemployment as an opportunity to go on a road trip both for personal and professional reasons. I had done a good amount of traveling internationally, but hadn’t seen much of the USA. I wanted to explore the National Parks, and had an idea to install a platform bed in my car. Here’s the set-up I ended up building. I put my room on Airbnb and left for about two months. I had bought an iPhone, borrowed a camera from a friend, and tried to take photos and write as much as I could along the way. This was also the first time I started meeting people from Instagram in real life, which still felt a little strange to me.
The experiences I had and the connections I made on that trip were a solid foundation for what my career would become. I didn’t know what I was going to do for work exactly, but I knew what kind of lifestyle I wanted, and I knew what I cared about. I knew I wanted to follow a sense of purpose in my work, and that I wanted to figure out how to make that possible.
When I got home to Colorado, I needed to find a job ASAP. I didn’t just get one job… I got several. I never stopped blogging, but I still wasn’t really sure how to monetize it, so it remained something I did on the side. At the time, I knew I wanted more experience with social media, and I already knew I had some skill in that area from growing my own Instagram account (to about 10k at that point).
I got a job as an intern for filmmaker Aly Nicklas in Boulder, and picked up a few social media accounts to manage for my friend Tiffiny Costello, who is a digital marketer. I was also house-sitting, dog-sitting and babysitting whenever I could. In addition, I picked up a part-time restaurant job, which ended up being the hardest of my jobs to quit when it came time. You can read about my restaurant job here.
While balancing my jobs, I started getting emails from brands inquiring about working with me. They wanted to send me products in exchange for a blog or Instagram post, and I was excited about the opportunity. Outdoor gear is expensive, and it was a huge win for me to get it on a trade basis. Through working with Aly, I was able to see what it was like to be on photo and video shoots for outdoor brands. I started to feel very limited by my camera set-up of my iPhone and a GoPro, so I bought my first Sony camera (Sony a5100). I helped run social media for the Born Wild Project and worked on various photo shoots for brands as a model or blogger. Meanwhile I started getting more inquiries from brands. I was experimenting with vlogging on YouTube and starting to take photography more seriously.
Over time, more emails were coming in and I started spending more of my time on paid blog content. Eventually, I had to quit most of my freelance jobs to focus on my blog and social media channels. I bought my first full-frame camera (Sony a7R ii), and started being more bold in my trip planning. I learned from trial-and-error how to pitch potential trips to brands and how to put together my package offerings. I even developed an trip that my followers could join me on–– a seven day custom adventure in Greece.
I started doing more photography. It felt like coming home. I started learning Lightroom & Photoshop and getting more comfortable with my camera. As my skill set expanded, I looked for jobs that were photography specific. I made more connections, I refined my proposals, I deepened my relationship with my existing clients, and I found a community of incredible people who were pursuing their own creative endeavors in ways I really admire.
I’m not sure if you ever get to a point where you really feel comfortable when you do what I do. If that does happen, then I’m not there yet. It’s still as much of a journey as it has always been.
MY BIGGEST STRUGGLES
With the exception of my 7 months at the 9-5 office job, I never had all of my income coming from one place. I have had extended projects and campaigns, but I always have to figure out what the next project is. I also don’t really know what the next year or five years will look like because I’m creating that future for myself. The uncertainty of all of that can be unnerving at times.
There have been times when I felt completely unqualified. I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing, or that I was not as knowledgeable as my peers. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d feel self-conscious. I would compare myself to other people and wonder if I was doing things right. I even caught myself feeling guilty for getting certain jobs because I felt I was too much of a newcomer in the space. I now know that all of this is normal, but none of it is true–– doubt and imposter syndrome are both very real, especially for those who are trying to do their own thing or start something new.
FEAR OF FAILURE
Once I actually committed to trying to be a blogger and photographer, my fear of failure got loud. I am grateful that I’ve always been able to give myself a reality check that my personal worst-case scenario is not that bad, but fear still shows up. For me, it has revolved around what people will think of me if/when I fail, and that I won’t accomplish the things I want to. I have had to re-frame my fears and assure myself that no failure is worse than not trying in the first place. Every failure I’ve experienced has taught me something valuable.
MY BIGGEST LEARNINGS
IT’S A PROCESS
A career is not something that is given to you in a complete package. It doesn’t appear out of thin air. A career is something that is built slowly and refined over time. It is made up of all the things you learn and re-learn, the mistakes you make, the failures you earn and each moment you get up afterward. Though sometimes I took an indirect route to each point on my journey, it all had a purpose. I think that is true for everyone, no matter how much things make sense (or how much they don’t) at any given point. My journey was not a straight road from point A to point B. It was about following my curiosity where it led me, and continuing to move in the direction that felt most purposeful.
IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE
Another important point that I am always reminded of is that I could never have done this alone, nor would I have wanted to. There were moments early on where I would catch myself being cynical and acting like I could do it all by myself. But there is no way. You need help. Personally I had a lot of it. People shared their expertise and experience with me. They helped me through complicated times. They gave me their time, their advice, their attention, their connections, their support. Along the way, I have met some of the most inspirational people who constantly push me to be the best version of myself. The importance of networking is huge, but prioritizing nourishing and genuine relationships is what is really important. Never get so caught up in the business of it that you forget this!
DON’T TAKE IT TOO SERIOUSLY
You can never take anything too seriously. When I was living in Australia working odd jobs, I stressed out so much because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I was so self-critical, and it prevented me from enjoying the moment. I now know that a tremendous amount of trust is required on this road if you want to, you know, actually enjoy your life. Remember to have friends, make time for them often, get outside, breathe, treat your body well, read, go to the movies, go to concerts, ride a bike. Just make sure you’ve got a life outside of work, and that you do things that have absolutely nothing to do with figuring out your life’s purpose from a career perspective. 😉
To some extent with my life/career-related posts, I feel like they all end the same way. Let go, be open to what happens, learn from your failures and enjoy the ride.
I hope this was helpful.
If you’re looking for practical tips or advice, check out the following posts, as themes are similar:
- How to Become an Adventure Photographer
- Getting Started with Photography
- How to Monetize your Passion
- 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Pursuing my Dream Job
- How to Start a Blog (Or Do Anything)
Feature photo taken by Renee Hahnel.