The Professionals: Lawyer Turned Photographer, Monica Shulman
If any of you have considered changing majors, or foresee a possible career shift in your future, pay close attention to this interview. Photographer Monica Shulman started out as a lawyer. She has now been featured in several gallery shows and holds a strong commercial following on the web. Here she is for a virtual career's day, otherwise known as The Professionals.
You clearly have an eye for beauty and form, for seizing the perfect photographic moment. Was a career in photography ever a consideration before law? A hobby growing up?
Thank you! I've always been an artist. I painted with oils and drew with charcoal when I was growing up - mostly in high school. I loved the idea of getting my hands dirty and making things. I liked to paint from photographs mostly. I always loved photography too because I loved the concept of freezing a moment - something that actually happened that you could never get back because one second later, it was gone. My dad is an amateur photographer and our laundry room doubled as a "black room" as I called it. I loved that little dark room and the red light and the smell of the chemicals. So, photography was definitely a hobby that I picked up while I was painting and drawing and eventually it became a passion that just keeps growing. I never really considered it as a career or profession since once I started law school it definitely fell to the side. Of course I took my camera on vacations but I just didn't have time for it beyond that. When I started practicing law I found that I was desperate for a creative outlet and with the growth of digital photography, it was so easy to pick it up again. I fell in love with it all over again.
How was the transition to a career in photography? And how did you know it was time for a change?
The transition was not easy mostly because I couldn't get myself to make the final decision to let go of the career that I was starting to build for myself. Mostly I was terrified of making a mistake. I worried that I wasn't doing the right thing. Part of the problem was that I liked what I was doing. It challenged me. The real problem was mostly the time commitment. I worked very long hours and I felt like I didn't really have that much outside of work. I feel lucky because I have the support of my amazing (and very patient) husband, parents and sister and good friends who encouraged me to do what felt right...and, I realized that what felt right was to leave what was making me unhappy and to take a risk.
I convinced myself that if things did not go well with a photography career, I could always go back to the law. I took a job working for my family in their business so that I could do something else part-time and photography part-time and that really helped me. Since I've left that life I have met so many other recovering lawyers and corporate dropouts who went to look for something else. I never regret my decision to go to law school or working where I worked. My career as an attorney, although brief, really informs my career as a photographer. Certainly in the business and organization sense - I know how to read a contract and can negotiate well for myself when I take a freelance job. In the creative sense, I obsess over details and nuance...something that any lawyer (at least the lawyers I know) will tell you is infinitely important to a successful legal career. I like to look beyond the surface of something and this helped me in my previous career and certainly now when I'm working with clients on commissioned shoots or when I'm working on personal projects. My new career challenges me in ways that I never thought possible and in hindsight, the risk is always worth taking if you just find the strength to jump in the first place. I don't like to ask myself "what if" and in my view, the regret of actually taking a chance and maybe making a mistake is better than the regret of not knowing what could have been.
What is your day-to-day like?
My day-to-day really varies and my schedule is very flexible depending on what I'm working on. The biggest challenge for me has been organizing myself and using my time wisely because I work best when I have a set schedule. I make a list every Sunday of what I want to/need to get done during the week. I do a lot of freelance work and when I'm not working with clients, I usually start my day by catching up on blogs and researching things like contests and juried competitions. I do A LOT of social networking on facebook, twitter, flickr and the blogosphere. I've gotten a lot of jobs and exposure that way and I've met some tremendously talented and interesting people.
In the afternoon I go out to run errands, go to the gym and go out with my camera. That "me time" in the afternoon really helps to motivate me and inspire me.
I also process photos throughout the day - I work it in to my schedule at the beginning of every week. I have to spread it out throughout the day because I have so much work that I need to go through and it helps me to break it up. When I work on client work I try to sit and do it all at once but that depends on what the project is. For things like wedding photography or child portraiture, I already have a promised due date for the client, so I split up the images by day depending on how many images I shot and I can work with. For other commissioned shoots (for example, I do some freelance work for a travel company) I just work on the images right up to the deadline. Processing eats up a lot of my time but I really do enjoy it...it's just a matter of spreading it out and working it in with the other daily to-do.
For your portraits: How do you capture the moment? Do you interfere and approach your subjects? Talk with them afterwards? Talk with them at all?
When I'm commissioned for a shoot, either with children or with adults, I like to spend some time talking with the person to get to know them and also to help them relax. When a parent hires me to take their child's photo I spend some time playing with them and getting to know them before I take my camera out - most kids are shy around someone they don't know and I want them to feel comfortable and to have fun. I want all of my clients to enjoy themselves and I want to see them through my camera in the same way that I capture strangers in their element on the street. When I'm out shooting photographs on the street my choice of subject is completely intuitive. I want to be a part of the stories that are being told around me and when I'm traveling, or even when I'm at home in New York, I'm most interested in the people. I usually make myself hidden so that I can capture a person being natural and unaware of themselves. I don't want a person to feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Having said that, I respect people and their privacy. I prefer candid shots but if the person notices me and puts their hand up or looks away or shakes their head, then I put my camera down. Sometimes they catch me taking their photo and they are really open about it and they enjoy it. Whether or not I decide to talk to them depends on the person but usually I don't. I like to move on and when I do I feel like I've just shared something very personal with a perfect stranger.
Do you feel it's more important to diversify or to nail down your vision? To be known for something in particular or show you have range?
I think it's important to constantly grow and to be open to learning new things. I think that everyone has a vision and I think it is always evolving. I have a lot of different interests and I work to hone my skills. I love street photography and street portraiture so I go out with my camera every single day. I have become more and more bold when I'm out in public shooting. And, I think that getting myself out there in that environment for my personal work informs my work as a freelance portrait photographer and travel photographer. I also love landscape photography and I find that I work similarly when I am out in the country shooting landscapes or when I'm in an urban environment shooting cityscapes. I look for details in every thing I see through my viewfinder.