Photo Business Breakthroughs: A Q&A With Anna Strickland
December 19, 2022
Survivors of abuse, even more than other clients, have reservations about being photographed. Being seen and feeling worthy in front of the camera takes courage. Strickland is a trained coach who encourages discussing these reservations. She and the other teachers in her Workshops for Survivors program train in confidentiality, mandatory reporting, and making referrals for professional services. (Scroll through for examples of Strickland’s work.)
Anna Strickland is a photographer, confidence coach and body image educator. “I have spent most of my life working in the circus and social justice movements, and finding creative ways the arts can help people work with their bodies,” she says. The Portrait System sat down with her recently to ask her about her photo business breakthroughs, her business model, and how to connect with clients.
Anna Strickland’s Photo Business Breakthroughs:
What has been your biggest breakthrough in business?
Realizing that by centering accessibility, the success of my work becomes inevitable. People approach me because they know it is a safe space because they talk about their shoots with me as part of their recovery process and a pivotal point in healing their relationship with their body. And all of that was only possible when I made the biggest breakthrough, which was to fully commit to calling myself a photographer instead of someone who took photographs. I had always been too ashamed to do that because I did not think my technical skills were “acceptable” or “professional” enough. When I finally acknowledged that the people I work with deserve me to get over my insecurities, the world opened up.
What is your current average sale?
I offer my shoots for £250 ($265.60) if people can afford it, £200 ($212.48) if they can’t and free if they identify as survivors. People who pay are offered 10 digitals but given 15 as a nice surprise when they receive the album and are offered the full gallery for £150 ($159.36) and the chance to pay it forward and donate towards someone else having a shoot who may not be able to afford it.
Most artists have a point in their life when they knew this was meant for them. When did you have that moment?
I used to take a lot of photographs of demonstrations, civil disobedience and protests. (There is a gallery of these on my website here🙂 Whilst all the paparazzi would often be big burly men with gigantic lenses, I would slip by unnoticed and often capture an unguarded moment which told the story of the people involved. I was at a demonstration to protect the NHS (our National Health Service) occupying Westminster Bridge outside Parliament. Just as people were beginning to leave, I noticed a little kid standing in front of a discarded placard which read, “Be civil. Disobey.” And she was pulling faces. With our government as the backdrop, this kid perfectly summed up the mood of the people. I shared the image on Twitter, and it got a lot of attention (going viral long before viral was the last thing any of us wanted).
About a week later, I was walking through central London, and I rounded a corner, and my jaw dropped to the floor. Someone had printed the image out the size of a billboard and taped it to the wall with the slogan #SaveOurNHS. It was the gorgeous synchronicity of me being able to interact with the kid enough for her to play up to the camera (with her parent’s permission, of course) and the chance that I happened to walk down that street and see that this image had become a symbol of protecting the very service which had brought me into life (and only weeks before had so gently carried my Mum out of this life). It made me gasp out loud—like they do in films. My Mum had always enjoyed seeing my photos of the world from my adventures, and this felt like a clarifying moment for me that the magic and mischief with which I was taught to see the world tells a story which people want to witness and be a part of.
How did you push past fear when building your business?
I used the cover of “I am not technically a very good photographer” for years. I used to tell people regularly that I had just honed the skill of being in the wrong place at the right time. But it was a mask to hide the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I did not seem to be able to understand any of the settings on the camera. And I tried so hard for so many years. What unfolded later on was that I discovered somewhere in my late 30s that I am dyslexic, and the ways in which I had been trying to learn things were just not framed in a way my brain operates. But I did not know that at the time—I just thought I must be incredibly stupid. And so, there was a lot of shame and embarrassment about my work.
[Read: Goals That Can Lead to Photography Business Success]
Yes, I took pictures people told me they loved, but they did not understand that I was shooting on auto and that I really was no good. When I finally got the courage to look at the thoughts all of this rested on, it was shame and fear. It’s always shame and fear. And in life, you always have a choice; once you have noticed fear is there, you can either allow it to consume you, or you can get curious about what else could be possible, most importantly, where more compassion could be available. The impetus to take that step was the people I work with. Most people I take photographs of are from domestic violence shelters, sexual abuse clinics or homeless shelters. They deserve to be seen. And they deserve to be seen with love. I feel so strongly about people’s right to reclaim their bodies from trauma and abuse that I was willing to force myself out of my comfort zone. I believe in the people I work with’s right to have tangible evidence that the story they may tell themselves in the mirror may not be the only possible option. I was willing to do whatever it took to keep learning and keep improving and growing, hoping that one day my technical (and lighting) skill level will be up to the kind of photographs they deserve. I am willing to feel any level of shame and fear to support these people and open the possibility that there is a space for them where they are seen, valued and welcome. That drive will always be greater than my fear.
How do you make lasting connections with your clients?
I have a comprehensive welcome guide and questionnaire and offer people a coaching session before their shoot and with their reveal should they want them. This enables me to encourage and challenge them to think about whether the stories they are telling themselves about their bodies are useful and, in fact, true. I often also ask people to check in with themselves when that inner critic pops up to ask themselves, “Who is making money from me talking to myself like this?” and there is power in the politicizing of it. Because the way we have been taught to diminish and punish and mistreat our bodies is political. And the more of us who are willing to harness our inner Kali to break through “I couldn’t,” “I shouldn’t,” and “I am not enough / too much,” the more space there is for more of us.
[Read: 10 Ways to Improve How Potential Clients See Your Photo Business]
My true secret weapon for lasting connections with clients is viewing them as the most important person in the world, truly worthy of love, respect, safety, joy, frivolity, wisdom, compassion and gorgeous photographs of themselves. And because that is the way I see them, that is the way I treat them, and people feel that stuff. I think there is nothing more powerful than seeing the person you are photographing as an incredible bundle of cells and mistakes and life and honor and stories—just as we all are—and it is that sparkle of life in all of its glorious, complicated mess that I think shines through in my photos. Each person you see, you are drawn in, you want to know their story, you want to sit with them and share their stories and learn more.
What advice do you have for photographers starting out on their journey?
Find your magic. What do you love most about people? What are the things that light you up about the photographs you love? Why? What do people who love you delight in when you show them the way you see the world? What makes your soul light up? An incredible Irish storyteller called Ken Armstrong once wrote a story about how you tell a tale from your heart to put a drop of blood in it. Why is this work important to you? Why is this person important to you? Who can you allow to be seen? Who does not have a seat at the table? Who is missing from the room? From the conversation? From the presumptions about what is allowed and what is seen to be beautiful? The more you can anchor into your personal spark, the rest will flow from there.
Do you regret any decisions you have made in your business?
I spent years giving myself a hard time about how hard I found it to get my photos in tack-sharp focus, and it is only really recently that I have realized that my eyesight is bad and getting considerably worse. I wasted so much time criticizing my own work in what turned out to be just internalized ableism. And this showed up in so many other areas of my work. I would do five shoots back-to-back in the studio and have to get a taxi home as I could not stand by the end of the day. I was so excited to have a studio and people who wanted to work with me that I ignored my own body’s needs, and I think a lot of that stemmed from thinking it was all too good to be true, and my work was not good enough, and I was going to get found out, and it would all be taken away from me. Part of creating a sustainable business has been in working out what I can do in this body which does not always work in the way most people can, and noticing where my thinking and behavior were replacing some of the things I was trying to take a stand against. As my eyesight deteriorates, I hope technology will allow me to keep correcting things with the lens better than I can see with my eyes.
Tell us about your favorite shoot and why it’s your favorite.
Can I have two? Can you tell I am an over shooter?!
The first one is a glorious street photography shot of two elders sitting outside a hairdresser in their pastel cardigans, looking terribly regal. Behind them are black-and-white images of models looking down on them both, and the sign above the hairdresser says, “Hot Heads.” It’s a magical moment of East London life.
The other was the chance shot of a lifetime, it was taken in Tottenham in London, and I managed to capture the exact moment a magpie tried to steal a man’s diamond earring. The jewel is between its beak. If you ever meet me, ask me to tell you the story behind the shot, as it is as incredible as the image. You can find them both here.
Which artists in this business do you gain the most inspiration from?
Gosh, so many. I love the work of Shoog McDaniel and their love of fat queer bodies underwater. The passion and intimacy of Kayla Ruiz‘s work are delicious—the connection created with and between the subjects is divine. For humanity and opening my heart more every time, Ruddy Roye’s work takes me into other people’s hearts in the palm of his hand. I am obsessed with Kirsty Mitchell’s Wonderland photography creations. My friend Dave Pickens takes brilliant portraits of circus and cabaret entertainers, and my old friend Guy Bellingham takes the most exquisite tintype photographs on his homemade, wet plate large format camera, and the results are astounding. Oh, and Ore Adesina, who immediately sent me a photograph of myself when I mentioned I was going to send you a phone selfie!
How has The Portrait System changed your life and your business for the better?
I love having access to so many step-by-step videos I can access in my own time and watch and rewatch and try and build my skills at my own pace. The wealth of knowledge and expertise and breadth of knowledge of the tutors means I am able to put a little bit of work in every single day to try to improve my work and learn more. It has encouraged me to see what is possible. And it has also enabled me to connect with some friends for life who support each other in the things we do. (And we laugh A LOT.)
Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
I love this question so much. I love a big goal, so I am going to throw it all out to the universe and see who wants to help me make this happen. I would love for some of the photography brands to be able to see the importance of my work and how valuable it is for people who have experienced abuse to be able to regain their confidence and sense of self, how important it is for their mental and emotional health and wellbeing and offer to come and support my work as part of their corporate social responsibility vision. I would love to see more disabled photography ambassadors from a wider variety of bodies championing our different views of the world and being able to tell our stories and be invited into the rooms where people want to listen.
I want to continue to center a variety of bodies to be allowed to be seen and feel welcome. I firmly believe the more of us who see people who look a bit like us, standing in our power, taking up space, the safer the world will feel for us, our bodies, and for future generations. What if we were the last generation to say dreadful things to ourselves, about our bodies and in the mirror? What would a world look like if all that energy we spent being unnecessarily unkind to ourselves was channeled elsewhere? Helping to build that world, that’s my business vision. selfcareschool.co.uk/p/tpspodcast