Today, I continue my series of interviews with people I admire—individuals who by changing career path or country, have their own winding narrative. Karen Quist transitioned from beauty therapist to copywriter/photographer and has now runs Lens and Pens Group, a successful web content company. Her enthusiasm and vitality come across as clearly on the page as in person.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I don’t remember having any clear ambitions as a kid. I enjoyed writing and was good at, but it never occurred to me that I could make a living from it. I hated school, and further study was the last thing on my mind by the time I left.
What did you do after you left high school?
A beauty therapy course! I have no idea what possessed me – it probably seemed like a quick route to paid work. But it was so far removed from who I am that my career in that industry lasted less than a year.
How did you become a photographer/writer?
It was a long and winding narrative that went full-circle. My parents gave me an SLR [camera] for my 18th birthday. I had always been interested in photography. I was obsessed with Cartier-Bresson, but it was a National Geographic photo essay on the pilgrimage to Mecca that finally lit the spark. After my ill-fated beauty career, I enrolled in a photography course.
When I finished, I went to London for a belated gap year that stretched into two. I worked as a photographer’s assistant at Sotheby’s, as a darkroom assistant at a professional photo lab, and as a general dogsbody for a commercial photographer. In between, I worked in bars, where often I’d pick up my next job lead.
Back in Melbourne, I continued to work in the industry until my first child was born. Photography was then in its transitional phase between analogue and digital. Disillusioned with where the industry was headed, I walked away.
The urge to write had grown stronger over the years, and I returned to university to study professional writing. During the seven years it took me to complete my degree, I had a second baby and started copywriting on a freelance basis—something I fell into through my husband’s marketing business.
In 2010, I took up photography again, and learnt a whole new set of skills in the digital space. I embraced it and, before long, started a side business in family portraiture.
What are you doing now?
As my kids grew more independent, I was able to focus on a direction for my business rather than stumbling blindly. I’d always struggled with this writer-photographer duality, and wondered how I could combine the two skills in a marketable way.
I traded family portraiture for headshots and commercial photography – a better match for my content writing services. I conducted in-depth consultations with clients to uncover the essence of their brand identity, enabling me to offer both written and visual content fully aligned with their brand. I produce content for websites and social media platforms, but I also write bios, media releases and editorials, and offer headshots, folios for actors, musicians and entertainers, and product photography.
What is the highlight of your writing/photography career? What do you love about it the most? What do you dislike?
I love portrait photography. So many people tell me they’re uncomfortable in front of the camera – that they’re too heavy, too old, too awkward and so on. I see beauty in everyone. I look at a person and think about how I’ll dress them, pose them and light them to help them see what I see, and make them feel good about themselves. A kind of magic happens when I connect with them through the lens and I know I’ve got the shot. It’s like a drug to me.
I like the variety in my work. I could be location scouting in the CBD one day, photographing a 4X4 in a rural paddock the next, or shooting a folio for a young actor at the beach. Most of the time, I’m at my desk either editing photos, writing, or working on the business.
If there’s an aspect I dislike, it’s the business side of things. Marketing, negotiating, following up new leads and the endless admin – none of it comes naturally to me.
What is your current career objective?
My number one goal over the next five years is to master glamour photography, with an emphasis on women over forty. It’s such a neglected market and one I can relate to at my age. I want to keep learning about portrait photography, improving my skills in posing, lighting, modifiers, wardrobe, backdrops, and post-production. I’d also like to learn videography.
Once the pressure to earn an income from writing eases, I’ll put that energy into writing for pleasure. That probably means fiction, but I also toy with the idea of blogging and other forms of creative non-fiction.
What advice do you have for people facing career choices of passion versus financial security?
I advise people to follow their passion, but there is a caveat. The creative fields – music, writing, art, acting – are notoriously unreliable sources of income. Making an income from your art means treating it as a business, so be prepared to learn as much about business as you do about your chosen art, and be willing to diversify.
If not, have a back-up plan. If I were leaving school now, I’d probably get an apprenticeship first. That way, I’d have a decent job and income to fall back on in lean times, rather than having to rely on casual jobs in hospitality or retail.
You can find Karen at: