Laura Watilo Blake has forged a career as an internationally published, award-winning travel photographer and writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, New Mexico Magazine, national trade publications and local consumer magazines, such as Lake Erie Living, Cleveland Magazine and Cleveland Business Connects. We caught up with Laura to talk about what inspired her to pursue this career, how she got her start and what advice she has for those starting out.
What initially inspired you to become a photojournalist and how did you begin your career?
I inherited the love of photography from my dad. He always had a camera in hand, plus a natural curiosity and interest in people. Academically, I became interested in anthropology, but after realizing there would be a lot of schooling involved, I gravitated toward photojournalism — after all, it’s basically an anthropological study of human behavior, but without all the data crunching. By the time I graduated, I knew hard news wasn’t for me (I didn’t want to chase ambulances or go to war zones). While I figured out what my path was going to be, I started working in a commercial photography lab, where I did high-resolution drum scans and then moved into digital layout for large-format graphics. That led to a graphic design job at a publishing company, where I worked on a travel magazine. And just like that, I knew what I really wanted to do. That same year, I had my first travel piece published in The State, a newspaper based in Columbia, South Carolina.
As a designer, photographer and travel writer, you wear many hats. Does one of these appeal to you more than another? How has this multi-platform of talents helped you in your career?
Photography is my first love, but knowing how to write is crucial for being marketable in an era where shrinking budgets are the norm. I definitely get more work because I can do both. The design skills also help since I understand what art directors are looking for.
Laura at Work on the Water, Photo by Gary Wolf
I read that you took home five of the photography awards at SATWin 2011 – wow! You’ve also won many other awards for your photography and writing in subsequent years. Which of these means the most to you and why?
I love being recognized for the work I do — I mean, who doesn’t? I think winning awards in the Muster Photo Competition is pretty incredible, considering the number of incredibly talented photographers who enter. Going up against someone who shoots for National Geographic fires me up and challenges me to shoot better every year.
If someone close to you wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?
I’m on the Professional Advisory Board for the Kent State University School of Journalism and I hear the same thing from all of the professors: students can’t go into the journalism program today and expect to get out with a full-time job since so many staff positions have gone away. However, photography is still very much in high demand, so if someone really wants to pursue it, I say ‘Go for it!’ They just have to be prepared to say yes to everything that comes their way, even if it’s not exactly what they really want to do. I know many freelance photojournalists that do wedding photography to supplement their income.
But the best advice — by far — is never give your work away for free because it devalues the photography profession. Many companies, organization and media outlets might ask me for images in exchange for photo credit, but credit alone won’t allow photographers to continue to work in this profession. I appreciate them asking, but I do try to educate them (in a nice way) about what goes into taking a photo (time, expense, equipment costs, etc.).
What aspect of travel appeals to you most?
Travel is a lot like having a surprise party every day. I never know what’s in store. Many of the best experiences I have had were not planned or listed on any itinerary or found in a museum. They have had more to do with the random encounters with people from all over the world, who have invited me into their lives for a brief time, giving me the opportunity to indulge my never-ending curiosity about other cultures.
Laura tell stories, both visually and in written form. As a media-versatile journalist and visual artist, she produces content for both traditional and online media. And as an experienced magazine editor, she is adept at conceptualizing and implementing story ideas that are told on multiple levels over multiple platforms. When she’s not at work, Laura is exploring the world, which always helps to reinvigorate her creative juices. Some of her adventures have included hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro, traversing the Sahara Desert by camel, sand boarding at the Huacachina oasis in Peru, and flying through the air with the greatest of ease at Trapeze School in New York City. You can connect with Laura on her website www.farflungtravels.com and on Twitter @farflungtravels
Photos by Laura Watilo Blake unless noted otherwise.