by Kate sZatmari
(If you haven’t read Part 1 of this article yet, you check it out here.)
From Toronto to LA – When Shit Gets Real
I love to read biographies. I find it inspiring to learn about people’s dreams, their obstacles, their strategies to overcome them and especially when things turned out as they planned. I love nothing more than a great success story, especially from an underdog.
As mentioned in part one of this article, people ask me all the time: “How did you become a photographer, of all things?” And the simple truth is, it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t completely make sense.
Here’s how I finally made it to Los Angeles
I never wanted to live and work in Toronto for the rest of my life. I kept telling friends that I’d definitely leave. They’d heard it since I was 19 years old. It got to the point where it was a joke and they taunted me constantly:
“When are you moving? You should move already!”
All I could say was, “I will do so when I’m ready. I’ll know when I’m ready.”
It just hadn’t happened yet.
(Side note – I just have to point this out. When you’re not making a move, people criticize you for it. But it seems like when you make a move and endure hardship, those same people will tell you to give up. Have you noticed that?)
I was having coffee with a client and talking about work when it happened. Of course, I was sharing my LA dream when he just said to me “Kate sZatmari, what are you waiting for? You’re so talented. Take your car and drive to LA this summer and look around!”
Somehow, it was like someone hit me over the head and the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. I went home, sat on the edge of the living room couch and said to my mother “I am going to move to LA at the end of the year.”
She said, “Ok. What do you need?”
(Best mom ever, isn’t she?)
This was February of 2007.
On December 19th, 2007, I left Toronto and got on a plane to Los Angeles.
I didn’t know a single person. I had no clue about the Los Angeles scene besides the fact that it’s celebrity central.
I booked my extremely expensive apartment online and, upon arrival, reached out to various artist agencies, wanting to begin building relationships and test. I also naively emailed over 100 photography agents both in LA and NY without a single response.
I won’t lie, I didn’t think the grass was going to be greener but I was so successful in Toronto that I really didn’t anticipate how difficult it was going to be. I was going to have to rebuild my company, literally from the ground up.
I wasn’t fooling anyone, anymore.
I wasn’t able to fool the seasoned agents with my “celebrity portraits” I snapped waiting in line with screaming fans.
I had to meet people. I began to shoot for an online magazine that gave me a press pass to attend all the minor red carpet events. Once again I did what I knew best, research. I made business cards and added myself to every event I could possibly attend.
Anyone and everyone that walked that carpet got a business card from me and I asked for theirs. The next day I’d followed up with all of them. No results.
I had to do something differently.
I kept coming across the same manager at every event. He was a familiar face, so I really wanted a chance to work with him. I suddenly got it into my head that I was going to photograph and interview the two “actors” he represented.
Now when I say actors, I literally mean people who barely uttered a word in a movie and themselves were really just trying to make it. Either way, that was my break.
I interviewed these actors, put together a great shoot, wrote it up and it was featured in the online magazine. I built a great relationship with the manager and didn’t even realize he was one of the video producers at Cash Money Records.
Before you get excited and I get ahead of myself, this didn’t mean I “made it”. I was burning through my savings like I was a forest fire, and I had no jobs.
These were all spec shoots, funded by me.
When I finally did get a job… I was shooting jewelry. Next thing I knew, I came up on the first page of google under Los Angeles jewelry photographers.
Here’s the entertaining part. I had no idea how to do the job other than what I remembered being taught in school and jewelry is not easy. It’s like shooting into a mirror. Either way, I spent an entire frustrated weekend frustrated figuring it out.
Next thing you know, I was a jewelry photographer.
Which was the total opposite of what I wanted to be doing. But I kept doing it.
I was shooting small jobs here and there. I never made enough to even cover rent. But I just kept shooting jewelry anyway.
I shot more and more jewelry until, towards the end of 2008, I was interviewed and hired by Robbins Bros as a freelance jewelry photographer and retoucher. They were shooting their entire inventory and I received so much work that I couldn’t keep up even with pulling 15 hour days.
I hired 6 other retouchers to work for me. I thought to myself “this is great! I’m making money, can finally pay bills properly”. By this time, my very hefty savings was non-existent.
Once again, things didn’t go as planned.
Like most of us, I didn’t see the shit storm coming straight at me called “hurricane recession.”
Robbins Bros just stopped paying after the third check or so.
I kept following up with accounting and frankly, they were rude. They made me feel like I should be thankful for being given work by them as they assured me, payment was on the way.
What was actually happening is everyone at the company knew they were about to file for Chapter 11 and they were delaying all their unsecured creditors (like me) so they wouldn’t have to pay and couldn’t get sued. I was f***ed, to put it nicely.
I went into complete debt, couldn’t pay the retouchers I hired, got sued 3 times, and ended up settling 2 out of the 3 small claims suit out of court. Robbins Bros never paid and continued using my images afterward for quite some time.
I know what you’re thinking. This is the part of the story where things get better.
Things didn’t get any better. During the recession, no one was working, especially not creatives. The fact is, we’re a luxury, not a necessity and, worse, hardly anyone knew me because all this time I’d been shooting jewelry.
I managed to get a part-time job, and this is actually funny, I was retouching jewelry for $9/hr.
Needless to say, my big Kate sZatmari from Toronto ego took a pretty big hit but, so much more than that, it hurt that all my schooling and experience led to this. I still couldn’t make rent. I actually ended up selling some of my small jewelry to fill the gap here and there. I searched for jobs on craigslist, tried to get my hands on anything from assisting wedding photographers to shooting products; I even retouched for e-commerce sites for $1 per image. YES, $1. I needed that money.
Don’t worry. It doesn’t end here. But you’ll have to wait for Part 3 to hear how it all worked out. This part of the story is just to prove… I was the underdog.
What about you? Did you go through anything like this to get to where you are in your career? Would love to hear your story in the comments section below.