How to Make It as a Freelancer in NYC
New York City. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But what does it really take to make it in the big apple? And how is the life of a NYC freelancer?
Johanna Siring should know. The young photographer felt the urge to leave both her country and comfort zone, and decided to travel alone to New York City, with zero plans or bookings. Two and a half years later Johanna is still kicking it in NYC and has worked with clients such as i-D, Vice, Universal and Vogue.
"You have to risk some to win some," she says.
Hi Johanna! Please give us an introduction to your world — who are you, what are you doing and where are you right now?
Right now I’m literally on my couch in Brooklyn eating cheese and olives, watching The Office. The glamorous NYC life! Haha. Oh my, these questions are hard. Where to begin? I guess I would summarize myself as a clumsy perfectionist who has a pretty extreme fascination for people and tends to fall into very random social situations.
The reason I even started shooting photography is that I’ve always been very drawn to people. I've always been trying to figure them out—everything from why they choose to act the way they do, their experiences, how they express themselves through clothes, looks and music etc. When I was younger I never knew I could make this my career, but through photography I have found a unique way of exploring my interest for people.
Why did you decide to move to NYC to become a freelance photographer?
I didn’t actually! I was just tired of freelancing in Oslo and wanted to challenge myself by travelling somewhere alone, with no plans and no bookings, which was kind of scary. I'm a strong believer in that you can only grow and get better if you step out of your comfort zone. Which can be really hard.
I basically landed in NYC and was so lucky that a friend of a friend hooked me up with a Brooklyn loft the day after I arrived. It was an incredibly beautiful loft too, like the ones you see in TV shows. One of my roommates worked for Time magazine and the other in a sports magazine. Their friends again worked for The New York Times, Mark Jacobs, productions companies and agencies, Stephen Colbert show etc. I just fell into a world that had previously seemed so out of reach for me in Oslo, and suddenly I was surrounded by people my own age who worked for the biggest companies in the world. That gave me the drive to go all the way. People my age were doing it, so why shouldn’t I try? One can argue that I got extremely lucky with that apartment and the people I met, but then again I never would have gotten lucky if I didn’t put myself into the unsafe position of travelling alone with no plans and nowhere to stay. You have to risk some to win some!
Brooklyn project. A personal project I'm working on with strangers who cross my path.
What’s the best thing about living and working in New York City?
The absolute best thing is the positive attitude and openness of the people. And of course the food! But the openness of the people and their willingness to collaborate and push each other forward is what really blew me away. This is one of the hardest cities in the world to live in, as it is extremely expensive and the competition is hard. But this is also something that seems to bring people together, like “we are all in this shit together so let’s help each other out”. When I meet people randomly from the industry they are almost always eager to connect and very often they say something like, “Oh you’re a photographer! I should connect you with so and so” and then they follow up on their word the same day. Sometimes without even looking at your work! It’s a very what goes around comes around mentality, people seem to have understood that collaborating bears more fruit than sharp elbows.
Coca Cola x Kit. Stills from launch video of the collaboration between Coca Cola and Kith.
And the worst?
It is so expensive! I mean, I come home to Norway and I’m thrilled at how cheap the food in the grocery store is compared to NYC. And people are very flaky with plans! It took a long time to get used to, in Norway you better be sick or in the hospital if you bail on someone the same night. In NYC people usually follow up on their daytime appointments and meetings but at night time it’s like everyone has the mentality that “I will go to the best thing that shows up even though I’ve made other plans and everyone should understand because it’s NYC and you should be thinking the same”. So people shamelessly change their plans on a whim and expect you to understand and in some strange way you are molded into rolling with the flow.
Let’s say someone else is dreaming about fulfilling their dream in NYC — what’s the most important thing to take into consideration before making the big move?
I would definitely save up some money and travel on a tourist visa first to make connections. I’ve found that the best way to make connections in the industry is to go to bars and parties and be open to talk to people. Most people who live in this city work their asses off and they are usually well connected. Believe it or not, but after two and a half years living in NYC it’s actually starting to feel like a small town. Everyone knows everyone and is usually connected in some way. Also, you gotta love the unpredictability of not knowing what you’re doing next week and learn to trust that it will be alright as long as you keep applying yourself and look for opportunities. People will rarely come to you and just hand you stuff, you have to work for it. Make them notice you and keep you fresh in mind. Send people emails to ask for a coffee or just remind them that you’re in town. People in the U.S. can’t afford sitting around making excuses, they are on the ball constantly to be able to to pay for food, housing, health care and education. So you have to step up to their level and remind yourself that you are pretty much competing with the whole world!
Revlon. Collaboration with Harley & Co in relation to promotion of the Live Boldly Campaign.
What’s your best do’s and dont' s when it comes to NYC freelancing?
Be forward! Introduce yourself to people and follow up immediately if they give you their e-mail. I’ve also found that asking for people’s Instagram is an amazing way to connect, as they will see your work right away. Don’t underestimate Instagram, keep it up to date as it is a live portfolio for your clients to follow and create interest around you! But also make sure you have a solid website that quickly communicates the level of work you have and what clients you’ve worked with. Remember that keeping people’s attention is hard, in New York City everything is supposed to have been done yesterday. And don’t give up right away. In slow times I have been frustrated and a lot of the times I’ve felt like everything seems hopeless. But the market swings and it’s all about looking for opportunities and go out and meet people! Always remember that you have to keep marketing your own product, no one is going to do it for you.
Kiss of a Stranger. Personal project exclusively featured in i-D Magazine and Vice worldwide.