Ellen and I met a few weeks ago on a media trip to Thailand. Though she primarily calls herself a photographer, she’s successfully learned to balance both travel writing and photography (something she says is almost necessary these days). I had a blast hanging out with and learning from Ellen on our trip and thought she had so much to share about the industry that I had to feature her in our interview series. Here she is! Also, check her out on her website here.
Tell us a little bit about your career as a freelance writer and photographer. What kind of writing and photography experience did you have before you got into travel writing and photography?
Freelance writing and photography was not my first career. After I graduated from college, with a BA in Art, I worked as a graphic artist for various magazine publishers in Los Angeles, including Petersen Publishing, which primarily published automotive magazines, like Motor Trend and Hot Rod. After a few years of hopping from company to company, I graduated from being a 9-5 employee to being a freelancer. While I was working as a freelance graphic artist, I also went back to school and got an MA in Art Therapy and completed a 33 unit course in photography. In the early ‘90s I realized I was getting burned out with the graphic arts business, so I decided to try my hand at travel photography. I read every book about travel photography I could get my hands on and quizzed anyone in the travel business who would listen to me about how to get editors to look at my work. The one thing I heard continually was that I should start writing travel pieces to accompany my photographs. Everyone seemed to agree that I’d have a better chance of selling a complete package. So I took a couple of non-fiction writing classes, started writing, and voila.
When I started freelancing, I had a regular gig every other month writing and photographing a soft adventure story for a health and fitness magazine that I had worked for as a graphic artist. I could chose the location and activity, so I’d find adventure companies that did these kind of trips and ask if they’d be willing to sponsor me on a trip, with the guarantee that a story about the trip would appear in the magazine. Over time I began to write for more outlets, gained a good reputation and press trip invitations started coming my way. Unless writer/photographers are independently wealthy, they are going to have to depend on press trips to get them to the places they want to photograph and write about. Unfortunately these trips are not as prevalent as they once were, but there are still opportunities. Often, however, you must have a definite assignment in order to be considered for the trip. For those who are primarily bloggers, some destinations will be delighted to host you and others will not be so enthusiastic, though blogging is gaining credibility by leaps and bounds.
What advice could you give to our readers out there who are just starting their own journey in the travel writing/photography industry and want to “get their feet wet,” so to speak?
It is highly unlikely that any destination is going to offer an unknown writer/photographer a free trip to Somaliland or Provence, so start doing stories and taking photos of places near where you live. Start a blog, check out online markets, get your work out there. And, most importantly, do not give up your day job.
In your opinion, do you see a shift in the connection between travel writers and photographers? Do travel writers have to be photographers now, and do travel photographers have to be writers? Or can they remain independent of each other?
If you can do both you are ahead of the game, especially these days. I have yet to meet anyone who is equally good at both, but I think, with a little work, most people can manage to produce an interesting story with decent photos. I am far from Ernestina Hemingway, but I can write a cohesive and, hopefully, relatively interesting story, though my photography is definitely my stronger suit.
Knowing that digital media, social networking, and a diverse media presence all seem to be must-haves in today’s travel writing world, how do you see your income mix changing in the next five years? Do you see yourself needing to adapt to these changes?
Like it or not–and many of the ‘old guard’ do not–digital media and social networking are here to stay. It’s changed the business enormously, and, while there’s a lot about the changes that I find exciting and fun, so far anyway, the financial rewards are discouraging at best. Hopefully, as the “new” way of presenting words and pictures to the world evolves, the pay for work will increase.
Ellen Clark is a Los Angeles based freelance photographer and writer specializing in travel. Her background in fine art and design give her images a strong graphic quality. She’s been from Telluride to Timbuktu searching for images that capture that special sense of place. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and books and on calendars, websites, greeting cards, postcards and brochures. She has won numerous awards including the prestigious Photographer of the Year award from the Society of American Travel Writers in 2000 and 2009.
Interview conducted in December, 2012 by Kristin Mock. A special thanks to Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand for sponsoring our trip.