Friday, November 1, 2013

Expat fantasy: David Hagerman on becoming a photographer

International Living, November 2013

When David Hagerman went on business trips, he always kept a camera stashed in his briefcase. Early in the morning, well before his day's round of meetings started, he would leave his hotel to take photos of local people and places, from women preparing bowls of noodles in busy street-side stalls to piles of brightly colored spices in bustling morning markets. But it was only after decades of being a hobbyist that David decided to take the plunge, leave his corporate job and make photography his full-time career.

"Try to learn something new every time you pick up the camera or get behind the computer. It will show in your photos."

Originally from Michigan, David took his first trip abroad as a college student in the early 1980s when his father was working in the Philippines. David visited, and brought a camera along. That trip started a lifelong love of photography and of Asia. "I didn't see photography as a ‘real job,'" David says. "But I was intrigued by the possibilities of documenting my travels with the camera."

For 16 years David managed foreign branches of a U.S.-based multinational that traded in industrial raw materials. He didn't become a professional photographer until he was in his mid-forties, and he admits that giving up the financial security of corporate life was a bit nerve-wracking. But he started off step by step, launching his new career while he still had one foot in the corporate world.

Living in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, David began working with his wife, Robyn Eckhardt who had started freelance writing and the couple created a blog chronicling their shared love of street food.

It took a few years, but David eventually began getting enough freelance photography assignments to leave his job and devote himself to taking pictures full time. "I started out like many people shooting for free for local publications," David says. "Once I got to know a few paying publications I hooked up with writers and proposed text/photo stories."

One of David's first paying gigs was for a major U.S. food magazine, and the assignment was done on spec, meaning he had no contract, just a promise that the magazine would review his images and possibly buy a few. He ended up spending more in film than he made on the project. "The exposure was great but the economics certainly were not. But what I was able to do is to then say that I shot for this publication, which came in handy when speaking with other editors."

“Try to learn something new every time you pick up the camera.” 

Although much of his work features international locations—David and Robyn are working on a cookbook about Turkey— some of his most powerful pictures are of subjects closer to home. Two years ago David and Robyn decided to relocate from Kuala Lumpur to George Town, on the island of Penang. "I fell in love with Penang on one of my earliest visits to Malaysia. There was something about the combination of the heritage, architecture, food and the laid-back attitude that made me want to explore it more," David says. "For a photographer, George Town is just a great visual place full of character and characters."

 As a personal project, David has been working on an ongoing photo series that features Penang's crumbling, colorful heritage architecture and his neighbors going about their daily lives. Photography walks are a way he shares his passion for his adopted hometown and for photography with aspiring amateurs. He offers customized photography walks and tours around Penang (and occasionally Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur or even Turkey, depending on his schedule). The walks cover topics such as how to use natural light, how to become comfortable photographing people, and techniques for taking portraits and capturing street scenes. 

Each walk is preceded by a consultation by phone or email, so that David can assess the client's goals and skill level. Tours, which start at $250 for one or two people, last three hours and include a critique of the day's shoot. This fall David is also conducting a week-long food photography workshop outside of Istanbul and has plans for a similar workshop in spring of 2014, also in Turkey. "The workshops pay for me to travel (or at least pay for me to get to Turkey in this case)," David says.

"You need to put all the pieces of the business together—editorial, commercial, stock, tours and workshops to make it work and to balance out the income stream. Relying on a single source of income is risky with so many variables in the industry. At times I am either fully booked months out or have nothing on the near-term horizon."

For those who are looking to break into photography, David advises starting a blog or finding other means of publishing your pictures. And even if you aren't a professional, David suggests that you try to perform like one. "Work to tell stories and improve your craft," he says. "Treat every time you have a camera in your hands as if it were an assignment. It's challenging but I think the key is to follow your vision and keep pushing yourself. Try to learn something new every time you pick up the camera or get behind the computer. It will show in your photos."

 For David's photographs, see: