Started with free gigs - Now I choose my clients

Photographer Emmanuel Jambo.
Back when Emmanuel Jambo was young and watching his elder sister do photography, it wasn’t the camera itself that fascinated him.

“It was the dark room, the transformation of having photos appear on paper and the black and white print,” he says. He later quit a well-paying job in the United States about 12 years ago to pursue his photography passion full-time.

He has come a long way since then: from dealing with payment delays, non-paying clients, visiting his sister here in Kenya and deciding to stay, getting gigs from local magazines to taking President Uhuru Kenyatta’s official portrait and pictures of other and heads of state.

He shares how he managed to turn his passion into a business.

You quit a well-paying job to pursue your passion. At what point did you become confident enough to quit?

Everything in life is a risk. I had to take the risk to do something I loved. Granted, it was a well-paying job -  12 years ago I was making an equivalent of Sh300,000 monthly. It was a lot back then. But I started getting photography jobs here and there. Photography was what I did for fun.

One day I had a photo session with a co-worker and framed the picture for her. When my then manager saw the picture, he said, “I don’t think you’re going to be here with us anymore. We’re going to lose you.”

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He was an older guy, and I figured he knew things and so it felt like I was doing the right thing. At the time, I also had an older mentor, an African-American man who has been doing photography for 30 plus years and had worked with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.

He saluted me on one of my photos. That was affirming. All that gave me confidence.

What financial preparations did you make before quitting?

I started by setting up a studio in my apartment, but I didn’t prepare in terms of setting aside some money to tide me over.

When you’re young you don’t worry about finances a lot, or look that far ahead. I was just taking a risk. From the few jobs I was getting, I just believed I was going to be all right.

How did you know how to charge for your work?

You read about it, and you ask around. I asked my mentors and people who came before me, people who were in the game. I am thankful we had internet and you could research.

I don’t know how people did it before that. With time you keep on adding to it, as you start knowing your value. 

What mistakes did you make when starting out?

Not invoicing on time. It is important to do it early because the business might shut down, or they might move – anything can happen.

They say one should do something they’re passionate about because it’s the passion that will help carry you through during the hard times. What were those times like for you?

Jobs not coming through and barely making ends meet. But I didn’t care much. People have different personalities and different lifestyles. I am a free-spirited person.

A lot of my friends make fun of me and say I am a hippie. I didn’t care that I slept on my sister’s couch – I was happy. I was comfortable to just keep going. I wanted to put out good images, express myself, make people smile – that’s what kept me going.

One challenge most creatives face is when clients want them to do things for free and get exposure in return. Did you face this?

I think everyone does. Once I decided to do photography, I read a lot on it and basically the general advice was at first you’ll have to do things for free, but within your limits.

It’s a good way of creating a portfolio because people will want to see what you’ve done before they hire you. The first wedding I did was for free. The guy was so happy with what I’d done he paid me US$ 800 (Sh80,000).

That was a lot of money 12 years ago. But then you reach a point when you follow your guts in knowing if you’re being exploited. That’s part of knowing your value too. Even if you’re doing it for free, who are you doing it for and is it real exposure?

Would you do work for ‘exposure’ now?

I don’t need exposure now. I do collaborations that I know will benefit me. The photography I do for free is for charity. It is my part of giving back. When you earn something, you feel blessed and give back, just like I do mentorship and workshops for free.  

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?

You need to be firm. I’m a very laid back person. I joke a lot and sometimes people take you for granted. I wouldn’t change it for the world because that is who I am, but you need to be firm and hands-on when running a business, and remember that not everyone coming through the door is a good person.

Take time to understand the people that work for you and try to find out the bad apple from the good apple way before. I would also not burn myself doing too much work. I used to do three shoots a day. Rest is very important.

But then when you’re first starting out, you say yes to every assignment because you want to put your name out there and you want to put food on the table. It took me seven years to start choosing who I wanted to work with. It took me that long to believe in energy and chemistry.

For instance, before I say yes to wedding assignments, I interview the couple. I want to see if theirs is energy I want to be around the whole day and for the next four days when I’m editing the images.

If I feel funny being around a couple, I don’t do it, even if the money is good. But you can’t be picky when you’re new in the game.

What advice would you give people who want to turn their passion into a business?

It is not easy, but go for it. You don’t want to look back and regret not trying.

[email protected]   

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