A RETURN TO PHOTOGRAPHY &
A CALLING IN SILICON VALLEY
We talked to WNW Member #4973 Helena Price about returning to her passion for photography, finding her niche in Silicon Valley, and what it's like to have over 19k Instagram followers. Helena also shared some of the challenges that came with launching her career. "When you’re just getting started and you’re the only one doing a thing, it’s easy to believe that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re not doing something that will legitimize you as a photographer."
But what excites Helena most is talking about this year's launch of Techies, her first personal project and proudest career moment. "I put over 1000 hours and all of my heart and soul into it. It’s my first personal project ever but I’m incredibly proud of it and I learned so much about myself and what I want my work to be in the future."
P.S. This Tuesday night, we'll be hosting a Drinking Not Drinking happy hour in San Francisco. You'll have the chance to hang out with Helena, as well as some other badass WNW Members and their slightly less badass friends. Check your inboxes for the link.
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Helena and how did she get here?
I got my start making photos when I was six, on disposable cameras from Wal Mart. I shot on them for a solid 10+ years before making the switch to digital. Shooting has always been an obsession of mine, but I never thought of myself as an artist or had plans to do it professionally—I grew up in a small town and was quite sheltered from the creative world so I didn’t know it was an option for me.
I never studied photography formally—I got a PR degree from NC State. Eventually I moved to California on a whim and got a PR job in Silicon Valley (and stopped taking photos). After building my career in startup land for a few years, I eventually became disillusioned and picked photography back up as a distraction on nights and weekends. Next thing I know, I’ve barfed out a few thousand photos, built out a portfolio and quit my tech career to try my hand at being a full-time photographer (with no plan or savings account).
Since then, I’ve managed to build a solid photography business doing editorial, commercial and portrait work, mostly focused on Silicon Valley.
"I’ve also been broke for most of my life and when I took the leap, I didn’t have more than a few hundred dollars in my bank account. But I’ve always viewed not having a safety net as a constraint I could use in a positive way."
What was one of the biggest challenges in launching your career as a full-time photographer?
It was definitely a massive risk. I was essentially throwing away another career I’d invested all of my time, heart and soul in. I’ve also been broke for most of my life and when I took the leap, I didn’t have more than a few hundred dollars in my bank account. But I’ve always viewed not having a safety net as a constraint I could use in a positive way—I knew I would hustle hard enough to find enough jobs to pay my rent because there was no other option. I knew I’d make it work because I had no choice.
Other than that, everything was a challenge in its own way—I had no experience as a professional photographer and I was totally winging it with every new job that would come my way—but I just focused on doing the best job I could, learning everything the Internet would teach me and figuring it out as I went.
I also had a really strong business background from my previous life in tech, and that turned out to be a huge asset for me when building my business, and helped me approach it pragmatically instead of spending all of my time freaking out over the risks and challenges.
One of our favorite projects of yours is the Techies portrait series, covering subjects under-represented in the tech world. What lead to this idea, why is it important to you, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I’ve been wanting to do projects like this for about ten years now, but I didn’t know what my first subject matter would be until December, when I had the idea for Techies.
Tech is in a weird place right now. “Techie” used to be a term people used with pride, and now it’s become a loaded term, almost derogatory. Conversations around diversity and inclusion in the industry have risen to a boil, yet there are many in tech who dismiss the issues and claim that tech is actually a perfect meritocracy.
I worked in Silicon Valley for four years before ditching the industry, so the project stemmed from my own personal experiences in tech. It just felt like the right thing to dig into and explore right now, and I felt like someone uniquely positioned to do it.
How can WNW members get involved?
As far as WNW members getting involved, the best thing you can do is just dig in and get to know more about what it’s like being underrepresented in tech, because these stories are present in every industry. If you’re aware of the issues and want to know how you can make a difference at your company, you can find a huge list of recommendations at projectinclude.org, an initiative created in part by members of my project.
Otherwise, I’m doing a ton of events in San Francisco this summer, including a launch party/photo show on June 22nd, so come hang out and meet folks in the project.
How would you describe your creative style? Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences?
I enjoy toeing the line between categories. Aesthetically, I like the challenge of attaining both polish and authenticity. My biggest influences are the same ones I had years ago, like Annie Leibowitz, Dan Winters, Stephen Shore. I also have huge aesthetic crushes on the work of folks like Carlos Serrao, Bjorn Iooss, JUCO, Ben Toms, Jason Nocito, Geordie Wood, Amy Harrity, Jody Rogac, Julia Noni, Sharif Hamza, I could go on.
"I put over 1000 hours and all of my heart and soul into it. It’s my first personal project ever but I’m incredibly proud of it and I learned so much about myself and what I want my work to be in the future."
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
Launching Techies. I put over 1000 hours and all of my heart and soul into it. It’s my first personal project ever but I’m incredibly proud of it and I learned so much about myself and what I want my work to be in the future.
Biggest career failure?
Hard to say yet. It’s only been three years so I haven’t had a chance to fuck up too bad yet. But if I had to pick something, I’d probably say it was my initial fear of going into tech as a market. Nobody else was shooting tech—no other photographers were remotely interested in it or looking into it. When you’re just getting started and you’re the only one doing a thing, it’s easy to believe that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re not doing something that will legitimize you as a photographer. If I had listened to my fears and gone to do subject matter that everyone else was doing, that would have undoubtedly been my biggest career failure. Sticking with tech as the market to build my career in was the best decision for my business I ever made.
Where do you hope to take your photography career in the next five years? Is there a dream client or project that you hope to make a reality by then?
I generally want to do what I’m doing now, but way way way better. I want to continue doing work in tech, and continue making personal projects that spark conversation, and continue shooting portraits of interesting people. From a business perspective, I historically want to do EVERYTHING, from business to production to post, so I want to figure out what is best for me to continue owning and improving at, and what makes sense to delegate, in terms of scaling and making the best use of my time.
As far as dream clients, I want to shoot Vanity Fair covers. I believe I will do it, it’s just a matter of whether it’s 5 years or 15 years from now. All I can do is make a plan and work towards it, and hope the opportunity comes knocking along the way.
"Most of my subjects didn’t hire me themselves, so they don’t know me or trust me, and I have about 30 seconds to get on the same level as them, make them my bestie, make them feel like a babe, and make them feel like they’re not even in a photoshoot and we’re just hanging out. I had never done this with a president before."
You’ve shot portraits of some very familiar faces. Have any celebrities surprised you? Who’s one person you’d love to do a portrait of?
Probably the most interesting portrait I’ve been hired to do is that of George W. Bush.
Portraiture is an interesting challenge—most of my subjects didn’t hire me themselves (their assistant or comms director did), so they don’t know me or trust me, and I have about 30 seconds to get on the same level as them, make them my bestie, make them feel like a babe, and make them feel like they’re not even in a photoshoot and we’re just hanging out. I had never done this with a president before.
Long story short, we snapped snarky jokes at each other until we had a breakthrough and the tension was gone, I got some great portraits, and then he wanted to stay and hang out with everybody. The secret service was astounded—apparently no one had pulled that off before. Pretty neat.
As far as a dream portrait… Barack or Beyonce.
What are some tips or advice you can offer to photographers who are just getting started? Or established creatives considering a career shift toward photography?
My best advice is 1) Make the work you want to get hired for before someone hires you to do it, and 2) Get to know everyone you can, have a genuine interest in people and do favors with no expectations in return.
You have over 19k followers on Instagram. Are you more strategic with what you post at this stage? Do you feel like you’re suddenly creating work for an audience and ‘likes’, or are you just putting out work that you would put out anyway? Any expert tips on building a massive following?
I’ve changed how I used it over the years. I started off using it as just a mobile journal (before I became a pro photographer), snapping whatever I was doing that day, and I didn’t share any of my actual work on it until recently. A few months ago, I zapped it all and now I use it more of as a news feed—if I have work published, if I’m doing a talk, or occasionally a post about what I’m up to. It just makes more sense with my career now vs. when I started.
I’m actually vehemently against the practice of “posting for the likes” as a successful growth strategy. It may pay off in the short run (if you consider likes payoff), but at the end of the day your work is going to look like everyone else’s if you’re catering to what’s popular. It’s good to ask yourself, why would anyone hire you if they can’t differentiate you from other creatives? What sets you apart? Having a style that’s your own, while it won’t get you as many likes in the short term, will at the end of the day be what makes you stand out and gets you jobs.
As far as tips for building a massive following - there will always be people who have more followers than you, so the sooner you stop caring about it and focusing on the work + building connections that matter, the happier you will be (and ironically, you may then make more interesting work and build a following from that).
If you weren’t a photographer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I think it’d be really cool to host a Vice TV show.
Things you would tell your high school or early twenties self?
To trust my gut and not to care so much about what others think.
What do you do when Not Working?
Sleep and exercise and spend time with close friends.
What cultural and creative venues do you frequent in SF (arthouse theaters, galleries, museums etc)? How does San Francisco influence your creativity?
I enjoy art-hopping when I can, either in biggest museums like the De Young or now SFmoma, or smaller contemporary galleries like CULT. I am finally making time in my life go to see movies, which is a new thing for me, and I get a ton of aesthetic inspiration from cinema - the storytelling, the set design, the lighting, etc.
Otherwise I still get a lot of inspiration from Silicon Valley—the hustle is just as important as the creative side for me, and it’s nice to be surrounded by people who are working just as hard, and understand the fact that you are obsessed with your job and they don’t think it’s weird.
Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
I dabble in a ton of different communities - photography, design, technology, media - and I love being tangentially involved in all of them, and they all inspire me in different ways. Other than that you can usually find me hiding in my apartment focused on my work.
Any album, film, television or book recommendations for your fellow WNW members?
Some really valuable books I’ve read in the last year:
If you’re feeling cluttered - The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
If you want to get better at saying no - Essentialism by Greg McKeown
If you want to get better at meeting people and building relationships - How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
If you want to get some mental clarity - 10% Happier by Dan Harris
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire, and why?
I love the photography of Elizabeth Weinberg, Daniel Seung Lee, Noah Kalina, Gabriela Herman, Cait Oppermann, Damien Maloney, Amanda Jasnowski, and Josh Wool, to name a few. They all happen to be awesome people too.