The Guardian // GQ Magazine // The New York Times // Runner's World Magazine // NPR
Outside Magazine // Bicycling Magazine // VICE Sports // The Washington Post // IRUNFAR.COM // Women's Wear Daily
Photojournalist. It took me a long time to find that word, to claim that identity and to introduce it without qualifiers. I spent a while describing myself as someone who “takes pictures,” or as “a freelancer, working as a photographer, sometimes.” My tongue tripped over a few wordy descriptors of my career before it learned to lay claim to photojournalist.
My career began in 2012 when, during my junior year at the University of Michigan, I studied abroad in Rabat, Morocco. It was a semester spent in a tiny journalism program, and the structure of said semester was as follows: the first half was spent in Rabat, living with host families and taking coursework in Arabic and journalism. The second half: no more host family, no more structure. Go find somewhere to live. Go find a story. Get published somewhere.
At this, Jacqueline Kantor–today a stand-up journalist–and I tag-teamed as a writer-photographer duo. (Throughout our time in college, we’d both worked in sports journalism–Jackie had written for the University of North Carolina newspaper, and I’d photographed sports for the University of Michigan.) We found out about the legendary Marathon des Sables, spent a month begging to be allowed onto the press caravan, and pitching our story ideas. We pitched hard. We did this by way of some serious Google-sleuthing, by Twitter direct messaging, by blind-writing emails to editors by guessing what their email address might be. We went and slept at a girls’ boarding school and covered a small desert marathon to try to interview some Moroccan runners. Actually, looking back, we did a lot of weird things to pull this story together. And in the end, we spent eight days covering the dusty MDS, and landed stories and photos in the New York Times, Runner’s World Magazine, and Outside Magazine.
I had no idea at that point, but I was hooked. At 19 years old, this was the first time I’d ever been published. And damn, it felt good. This pushing, this pitching, this hard hard hard work, lit some sort of fire in my weird, apparently adventure-hungry soul. But most importantly, this experience left me with a realization: I could do this. I was good enough. This could be real.
After MDS, I went back to Michigan to complete my undergraduate degree. I’d been en-route to graduate and jump into a consulting position–I’d interviewed with a few companies, and was considering accepting an offer, when fate stepped in: I was tipped off that GQ Magazine was looking for a photographer to produce work from the upcoming 2013 Marathon des Sables. So, I pitched them. Hard. I remember sitting in my tiny college bedroom, cross-legged on a twin bed, cold-calling Condé Nast editors in New York. Terrified. Trying my best not to sound like a 20 year-old, trying my best to sound like I knew what I was doing. (I didn’t.)
The short version is that I was given the job, and thus found myself heading back to Morocco in the spring of 2013. While shooting during that week in the desert, it became clear that there wasn’t another career option for me. This was what I had to do, this was where I had to be. I owe credit for this realization to Mark Gillett, a great friend and mentor, who passed away last December. Mark was also photographing the MDS in 2013, and we had quite a few conversations about my future plans. One day, over a sand-dusted lunch, I remember he looked at me and asked why the hell I was going into consulting. “You’re a good photographer, Kirsten. You can make this work. Do it.”
I thought long and hard. The desert is a good place for that. And once I was back from the Sahara, back in buzzing Marrakech, I remember sitting on a couch in my cheap-o hostel–siphoning all the wifi connection that the medina could offer–and pulling all my remaining applications for post-graduate positions. There were a lot of other things that happened–and a lot of strong, important people who played a role in my life after that–but the short version is that after I graduated from U of M in the spring of 2013, I moved to Berlin, Germany to see if I could survive as a freelance photographer.
The quick answer: I could. But it took some time, quite a few lows, and a lot of odd jobs. The first year and a half of attempting to freelance was filled, mostly, with…well, almost anything non-journalism related. My three main gigs when I started in Berlin: babysitting, waitressing at a billiards bar, and working as a cleaning lady. There was a lot of changing of diapers, spilling of customers’ beer (carrying those liters is not as easy as the Oktoberfest girls make it look), and scrubbing of other peoples’ toilets. There was a lot of low-budget living, a lot of low-budget eating; way too many dust bunnies around my mattress-on-the-floor bed, way too many frozen pizzas. But throughout all of this, I pitched. I found crazy events, came up with ideas, and wrote to editors…and almost all of them said, “no.”
I’ll be the first to say that freelancing is not for the faint of heart. I read, somewhere, a quote from a journalist saying that she chose this career precisely because she wasn’t thick-skinned, and she wanted to test herself. This was me. This is me. Thin-skinned. Each “no” from an editor stung, and every non-response dragged up self-doubt. But for some reason, I didn’t stop; and slowly, slowly, slowly, editors bit. Or maybe I just eventually upped the quantity of pitches, and the ratio then naturally evened out. I don’t really know. But ultimately, one job gave way to another.
I spent about 2.5 years in Berlin, and throughout that time, I was able to photograph some crazy-awesome stuff. There was everything from shooting the German soccer team during their World Cup trials to jostling for camera space at bright-lights fashion shows, from assignments in the Arctic Circle to covering the lightning-fast Berlin Marathon. There was Portugal, there was Budapest, there was Morocco. There was Norway, there were the Alps. There were big jobs and small jobs. Each job was new and uncomfortable; and thus, each one taught something new.
Then, in July 2016, I left Berlin. There were, largely, two reasons for this: one being that it became increasingly difficult to renew my residence permit, and the other being that I fell in love with someone from the opposite hemisphere and opposite side of the ocean.
So, in the end, I said goodbye to my apartment in the German capital. The city had been a home, my bike my stallion. I loved Berlin, fervently–I loved the anonymity of life there, I loved operating in German, I loved feeling the thudding bass through the night, dancing until the sun glowed dull-orange over the River Spree. But in the end, I walked away from Berlin with peace. Swapping it all because I realized, all at once, that I’d fallen head-over-heels–for my partner, for the freedom of this career, for change. And because I ultimately realized that if I wanted to continue photographing and living on the road, that it was crucial to have a base to return to–and that it’s hard to build said base in a country where your residence isn’t guaranteed.
So, here I am now. Back to my roots...sort of. This–coming back to the U.S. and trying to find my niche in this industry here–is the next step in this unscripted career path.
--Published in "FitWild," August 2016