Karen van Gilst | photographer from Rotterdam, NL

Star Sign: Gemini
Currently reading: Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Conner, Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast by Oscar Wilde & A Book of Sewing Tips to help with my campervan creations
Hopes her last meal will be: One outside, in the sun, preferably with a lot of veggies.

Karen is a 32 year old portrait photographer and communications specialist from Rotterdam.

When did you first know that this was your calling?

After I graduated from the art academy as an art-directer I started working at an ad agency. However, working 9 to 5 – thinking of concepts, creating web designs, making flyers and directing mail for brands – didn’t feel right. But because I had just got my degree, I didn’t want to change careers immediately. As I noticed our visual culture growing bigger, I thought I could shoot some of the images I was working with better myself. That’s why I started attending the Photoacademy during my evening hours.

Little did I know it would mean a lot for my personal development. At the Photoacademy I learned about myself and gradually became less shy. My self-esteem grew. I started working with a lot of different people and received loads of positive feedback.

But the first time I really knew this was what I wanted to do was when I was working on the umpteenth photo project with a very good friend of mine. She modeled a lot for me and also helped by brainstorming ideas with me. That’s when the NSO (Dutch Student Orchestra) came along. We created a strong concept idea for the 2012 concert season. The posters hung in all major music theaters. That was it for me. I knew then that my work could contribute to something good – promoting the arts – and I could combine it with my education as an art-director to ultimately work as a freelancer.

How did you get your business off the ground?

There are two things that changed a lot at the beginning of my career. The first was my own doing. In order to get some more exposure, I created a content concept for my social media channels. I challenged myself to produce a musical interview series some people may still know as #5xtypical. I combined everything that fascinated me in one free work project: Music (jazz), sharing of inspiration, photography and personal stories. It cost me way too much time interviewing a lot of musicians, but with every interview, my confidence grew and so did the followers of my accounts.

However, I didn’t do it all alone. I have to give credit to a few others as well – Around the same time, I shared an office with two people; an old classmate (and friend) who started his own ad agency and our copywriting teacher from the Willem de Kooning Academy. Both gave me work as a portrait photographer on a regular basis. I don’t know if they know how much I appreciate them for taking a chance on me at the time, but I really, really do.


What makes your company unique?

My work as a photographer, now, is about offering a counterbalance in a screaming visual communication culture. I want my work to create peace and quiet – at least for a moment. Creating powerful images with as few props as possible. This is also one of the reasons I mainly shoot in black and white.


What is the biggest challenge for you as an entrepreneur?

I would have to say acquisition. Not only because my inner shyness will always be part of me but also because a lot of my clients don’t need 2 or 3 portraits a year. The acquisition is demanding a lot of my time and energy. What I am looking for now is to build long term relationships with a couple of bigger companies I really believe in. Shooting portraits and content for their social media or internal communication gives me more space for growth and creativity.

My work as a photographer, now, is about offering a counterbalance in a screaming visual communication culture. I want my work to create peace and quiet – at least for a moment.

What inspires you to continue?

I don’t know if photography will always be my main business. The world of communication changes a lot and as a freelance photographer you have to adapt. But as long as I can make people happy with my portraits and I can help great companies visualize their story, I will keep going. 90% of my clients open the conversation with “I am not photogenic, so good luck!” I love surprising them by proving the opposite. If my clients are happy, I’m happy too.


What is your life motto / what mantra do you live?

I really don’t have one. But if I had to choose one it would be something like make sure you give all the love you have to give.


How do you ensure a good work-life balance?

Personally, I can’t close the door behind me when it’s 18:00. My customers work different hours and days so I have to adapt. A hard separation of time for work and private life is not possible. Luckily I’m not one for having a repetitive week schedule. But everyone needs time to blow off steam and take some rest. There are two things I discovered that make it manageable:

First, if you are a creative: people can wait. The world (and your business) won’t end if you don’t immediately answer your emails, WhatsApp messages or phone calls. Try it sometime.

Secondly, another thing I discovered is the pleasure of having a hobby again. About two years ago I bought an old A Renault Estafette from 1976 with my boyfriend. They used to use it to transport wine barrels through France. We are turning it into a campervan. Doing manual labor is really good for emptying your mind and going into private-time mode! Most of the time I even forget I have a phone or business.

How has the Corona virus affected your work?

As a portrait (and event) photographer, I work with people. As long as we all have to stay at home – and I wholeheartedly support it – I won’t have any work. Luckily I’ve got a lot of marketing and communication skills as well, so for now I’m refocussing.


What can people do to support you and others in your field?

You can book a photoshoot with any photographer in advance – of course. We would much appreciate your support. But I’d love to keep shooting and creating right now as well.

So here are a couple of things you can hire me for right now:

1. For companies: Are you in need of some social media content? There is a lot I can create in my home studio. I’m never out of creative ideas and photoshop has little to no secrets from me.

2. For everyone: Do you have tons of holiday pictures and finally want to start creating that photo album? Online or the old fashioned way? I can give you some photo advice via Skype, helping you make the best selection and/or give you a tutorial on how to enhance your photos in photoshop. Would you like me to take on the whole project to ensure you receive a beautiful photo album? Bring it on!

3. Join my Skype photo club! I want to set up a weekly online meeting with a minimum of 4 photo-enthusiasts. I know there are a lot of people with photography as their hobby. I would love to help them get to the next level with their photos by giving weekly assignments and discussing the results. I’d like to coach via Skype and eventually work towards a big photoshoot with models and props on a special location when it’s possible to do so again.

4. And last but not least; if you do have an event but can’t invite everyone you would like to due to the coronavirus, I would be honored to shoot some photos from 2 or more meters distance (with a silent camera and zoom lenses) to give you the opportunity of sharing the special moments at a later time with the people you wish could have attended.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope our time in quarantine will show people how much the arts really mean to them. I hope everyone will realize concerts, exhibitions, movies, and theater are not a given. I hope every artist will receive a good income one day because they help shape a more beautiful, healthy, compassionate, social and loving world for everyone.

As for photography, it won’t be getting easier to make a living from it. But we have to be resourceful, creative and stop working for free. Collectively. It will do loads for the quality of our art form.


Do you have tips for people who want to start a business (in this field)?

Believe in yourself. Don’t stop making your own work as it is the best way to discover new things and keep on learning. If you want to play it safe – make sure you have more skills. Skills that compliment your photography. And I can’t stress this enough: don’t work for free, your work has value too.

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