"You're never making your best work."
Based in San Francisco, California
27 years old, Helena Price, a photographer based in San Francisco, California, has fueled her imagery by capturing honest expressions from her subject matter since the age of six. From working for clients such as Dropbox, Google, Nike, and others, Helena has always dedicated to capturing authentic moments that provide the viewer with an insightful frame of those who create great products, to the radiant scenes in her daily life
Talk to me about who you were before you started photography and who you’ve become.
Well, I started taking photos when I was about six. It all started with my dad giving me a disposable camera—as soon as I tried it for the first time, I was hooked. I have been kind of compulsively documenting everything in my life ever since. I always was the girl would bring a camera to school, and took pictures of my friends, parties, and everything. It’s always been a compulsion for me.
Flash forward to my adult life—I actually wasn’t taking any photos for the last few years, until January of 2013. I was busy having a tech career, which I don’t regret, but it totally removed my focus from photography. But by January of last year, I was pretty miserable at my job, so I picked up photography as a hobby because I knew it was something that would make me happy. The hobby started getting attention and next thing I know I’ve become a full-time photographer, which is pretty crazy.
What job did you have before pursuing photography?
I’ve worked on everything from product and branding to media relations and partnerships in the startup world. My last role was technically called Head of Business Development and Communications before I ditched my career to take photos.
And what was the major pushing point to fully pursue photography?
I always loved photography, even when I wasn’t shooting. Even during my tech days, I would sit on Tumblr, look at photos that other people were posting, and think—hypothetically, if I was a photographer, what kind of photographer would I be? For years I’d just sit and speculate on styles and types of photos I’d shoot. Perhaps from those years of studying and admiring others’ photography actually helped me develop a style, without shooting a single photo.
But as for the pushing point—I think it was just quitting my job. I knew I wanted to leave tech and thought that perhaps photography was something I could figure out how to turn into a career. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I just knew I had to quit my job and figure the rest out from there.
When you talked about how your style changed, are you talking about it changing subject-wise or theme-wise?
I was shooting with a the same goal I’ve always had—documenting everything—but in January of 2013, I started shooting portraits and something just clicked. For me, it was the combination of the photographic and the personal challenge—you have a very small amount of time to make someone feel comfortable with you and forget that they’re being photographed, in order to make something feel natural—and then you have to make a technically sound photograph. Something in that combination really appealed to me.
And within your portraiture, how do you grab that natural vibe from people into an image?
If I’m doing a commissioned portrait, I ask the subject to meet where they feel most comfortable or a place that resonates close to their personal story—is it your house, office, or a place where you first came up with a big idea? Its less like an in-and-out photo session and more like a get-to-know-you session. I want to make them feel like it's a personal meetup—I show interest in their story, crack jokes, ask questions, and do what I can so they almost forget that it's a photoshoot.
It’s interesting to note your background in tech, because judging by your work, you’re still involved in the tech scene. Did you deliberately intersect that element in your career into photography?
Well, I’m kind of a believer that to excel in a certain type of photography, you really need to live and breathe that particular subject matter and culture. If you think of notable fashion photographers, it’s taken them a long time, but they’re deeply immersed in the fashion scene as much as the models and designers are. I think that my work reflects a similar scenario.
I didn’t necessarily set out to be a tech photographer—I actually didn’t expect that at all—but it makes sense to me now. I am definitely a techie at heart, and I’m one of the only photographers out here that used to actually be a techie. Tech companies are starting to care more about branding and storytelling, so when they’re developing their first campaign and someone at the table goes “Oh, I know of a photographer who used to be in tech and probably gets what we’re trying to do,” that word of mouth can really help.
And all of this happened in San Francisco, right?
When I started taking photography back up as a hobby, I lived in New York. While I loved New York, I knew trying to build myself up as a photographer in San Francisco would be better, because I had already lived there and was planning to move back at some point anyway. So I moved back shortly after deciding to pursue photography full-time.
How do you think your friends and family influenced you and your thinking?
The encouragement of my family and friends was vital in me making this transition. When I was thinking about quitting my job last year, I went to a lot of friends for advice. I don’t know if being a full-time photographer would have crossed my mind as a career option if it wasn’t for my friends, many of them being professional photographers, telling me they thought I had what it takes and should just give it a shot
So, Helena, how’s 2014 treating you so far?
Man, 2014 so far has been awesome. I mean, It's still a thrill to me that I’m a full-time photographer—it’s such a drastic change from how my life used to be. I have certain days where all I have to do is answer emails and go to the gym, and I have certain days where I get up early, have breakfast meetings, then eight hours of shooting, then eight hours of editing. I love both kinds of days. I’ve been really busy and I’ve traveled more this year than I’ve traveled in my whole life.
And where exactly did you travel?
This year I’ve been all over California, New York, Nevada, Michigan, Georgia, Washington... I took my first real vacation in the Caribbean... I went to Norway, London, Paris, Berlin and a few others places. I’ve been out of town almost 50% of the time this year, mostly in an attempt to find some life balance and focus on making personal work.
I never really had the chance to travel much when I was young, and when I became a working adult I couldn’t really afford to take any vacation days. So, I guess you could say I’m making up for lost time.
How does the rest of the year look like for you? I know there’s only a few months left, though.
[both laughing] Well, I got back from my big two month Europe trip in August. I’ve done little trips here and there, but I’ve tried to put my head down and focus on commissioned work, so I do some tiny trips, but also focus on getting my life on track.
Creative communities can be interactive and powerful, but I don’t think we realise how small they are. I mean, while I was backing Jimmy’s [Marble] project I saw you among a few others I knew. It's something interesting to note.
Everyone’s connected. We’re all following each other, learning from each other’s work and helping each other out when we can. It’s all good karma.
Going back to what you said about being able to do what you love as a full-time thing, do you find it more rewarding than your previous job?
[laughs] Oh man, definitely. For me, since I was a kid, there’s nothing more fulfilling to me than pressing a shutter button. I can’t really explain it, but there’s some very innate compulsion in me to take pictures of everything around me. I’m always happier when I’m taking pictures—that’s how its been my whole entire life. The years I was in tech and not taking photos—those were the saddest years I’ve had yet. Not every shoot I do today is what would be considered a dream shoot, but in a way it kind of is. I’m getting paid to take pictures! Like, every single job to me is the coolest thing in the world.
Maybe we touched based on this earlier, but what’s one of the most fulfilling things for you while working?
Let’s see. It’s different depending on the type of shoot. If you throw me into a tech shoot for instance, I get to use part of my brain that I used while I worked in tech, which is nice. There are things that a company might not consider when going into their first branding campaign or shoot with a photographer. I get to help them make the most of the opportunity, and show them how to make their photos better than what they could have been. In some ways, I get to have a bigger impact on tech as a photographer than when I was actually working in tech, and that is really cool to me.
From a basic, human perspective, we live in a time where we’re always trying to control our image and folks are trusting me to create that image for them. It’s a lot of pressure to get right. it’s nice to make a picture of someone who is normally scared of being photographed and have them say its the best version of themselves they’ve ever seen in a photo—that to me is the most rewarding thing.
Talking about being in control of someones image, how do you control the consistency in your work?
I think that one should always aspire to make the best work that they can, but at the same time you have to let yourself be a little loose with it. If you don’t show your personality, and if you don’t let the things that make you different shine through, then you’re not going to stand out. There are so many people who shoot incredible work on every kind of technology. To make a good photo just isn’t enough now. If you can’t answer the question of what sets you apart, then its probably best to figure that out quickly. Why would a potential client chose you over someone else? I think it's about consistently producing work that feels true to you.
I find it very interesting that everyone has a camera and all these tools accessible to them. But now you have to put in your own vision towards things, because that’s something no one else can replicate.
Yeah. I find it interesting that I work with companies every day who are trying to figure out how to differentiate themselves as a brand. They’re trying to stand out in new ways, every day. Why aren’t we as photographers applying that same concept towards ourselves? We need to constantly pull from our personal history, point-of-view, personality, and passions and question whether those things are showing through in our work. If not, that’s ok. I don't even know if I'm there yet. If we work at it, it’ll come through eventually.
In contrast to us talking about what fulfills you about your work, what scares you in your career?
I get scared all the time. Every job is different—so for me, with every new job, I have a small panic attack and question whether or not I can actually do this. Then I remind myself I’ve done this before and do this every time. Then shoot day comes and I just resolve to do it because I have no choice, and at the end of the day I’m like, “Ok, I did it." It’s good to be scared, most of the time. If you’re not, you may not be pushing yourself hard enough.
That’s paralleled with getting out of your comfort zone to grow as a creative.
I agree. For me, if I ever get to a point where my work feels a bit redundant, then I try to get out of San Francisco and go somewhere else for a while to try and switch it up. I’m always wondering about the things that I can do that I haven’t done. I could continue shooting the same things I’ve been shooting and be fine, but I still have a lot to learn and do.
I remember Scott Belsky touching base on always being in beta; always strive to be better and not wait for perfection, whatever perfect is.
Yeah, I like that concept. I kind of grew up with a sense of perfectionism that haunted me for years—definitely the opposite of being in beta. I grew up a hyper-competitive piano player and developed a perfectionist mentality from classical training that I’ve had to shake off over time. I really had to come to the terms that photography isn’t perfect—it can't be. For me, I had to stop giving a shit about being perfect and just start making stuff. You just have to become comfortable with the fact that you’re never making your best work and you never will. You just have to keep making stuff and improve over time.
If you don’t have that hunger, you’re going to be stuck in a place that you don’t want to be at.
Absolutely. I feel like I’m only a 100th as good as I can be and if I don’t consistently work to improve, then my work is going to get stale.
For people who have to work with the tools that are already in their toolbox, what advice would you offer them?
I feel like these days, our toolboxes are as big as we want them to be. We have a treasure-trove of information available on the Internet; we have tons of people and blogs and websites full of resources; we have people like you doing interviews with photographers, sharing lessons and perspectives. All of those things contribute to your work and what it could be. If you don’t have that dream camera that you want, or the resources to get better gear, at least spend time consuming knowledge—that knowledge and inspiration is just as important. You can have the best gear in the world, but if you’re not taking the time to develop your work and point of view, then you’ll find yourself making mediocre work on really expensive equipment.
How do you fuel your curiosity?
I try to feed myself new things as much as possible. New information, new creative work from other people, new magazines, new blogs, new cities and locations. There’s stuff to learn from all of it.
What are some of the things you see photographers doing over and over again that’s a complete waste of time?
I’m a believer that nothing’s a total waste of time—everything’s a learning experience. But for me in particular, I’d say any time complaining or worrying is time wasted. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or making, don’t worry too much about the Internet, don’t worry about failing miserably as a photographer. Don’t waste time critiquing other people or complaining about why the universe is preventing you from making the work you want. You could just as easily channel that energy into making stuff, improving your own work and building a business.
How did you tackle the issues an aspiring photographer would have—paying bills and such—at such an early point in your career?
I think I was really fortunate by having a business background. I used to be the person on the other side of the table, helping create branding campaigns and commissioning creatives if necessary. So, I had a reference point for how things worked on the business side. From that, I was able to come up with a process that worked for me. For stuff i didn’t know, I’d ask someone or Google it. How do you write a proper invoice? What does a creative brief look like? What does an estimate look like? Stuff like that. Those resources are out there, but at the same time you’ll find yourself having to go with your gut with a lot of things. Test the market and decide what you’re going to charge. If you book a ton of work at that rate, maybe you increase your rate. If you don’t book any work at that rate, maybe you decrease your rate. That sort of thing
With the accessibility from the internet, the excuses we made can be a bit of bullshit. Can we really make any valid excuses to not access these things?
You can make excuses for why you’re not doing what you want, but I’m not going to feel very bad for you because you can use that same energy to make stuff happen. Most complaints I ever hear are time-related—people can’t do creative work because they have a full-time job—stuff like that. There’s always time and there’s always resources, if you want to make it work.
Do you feel like you’re contributing towards something externally bigger than yourself?
Oh I don’t know, it’s a little early to say. I’m definitely working towards a reality where I’m making an impact on the tech industry and how they tell stories. In general, I hope that by sharing photos and snippets from my life is impacting someone out there in a positive way. And I hope that by sharing my story a few times I’ve inspired some folks out there to quit their shitty jobs and do more of what they love.
How do you stay humble and keep perspective?
My mantra since I started has been “stay humble, stay focused.” It’s important for me to constantly remind myself how lucky I’ve been and how far I’ve come, and to really take regular moments to appreciate that. Otherwise it’s just been a regular practice of staying grounded and not getting caught up in the greater photography rat race. I’m just staying focused on my own goals and not letting anything else distract me from that.
What were some of the biggest risks you took to make photography a full-time occupation?
There was the risk of not getting any jobs and being homeless, but I think, for me, it was all just scary. Not knowing where your first shoot was going to come from; not knowing how much you’re even going to make was terrifying, especially while moving from one major city to another. I had to learn to take it day by day and not worry so much about the greater goals and just know that I was going to make it happen, these are the steps for me to get there, and I will take those steps one at a time.
We can’t really judge everything by metrics; we have to go with our instincts. Basing our judgment on what we do and why we do it is important.
Yeah. I think that applies to commercial work and big brands. The concept of branding is very emotional and something hard to tie a metric with. It’s been interesting to see companies starting to embrace branding and know that it’s not this hard, concrete thing that you can a/b test. I think the same thing applies to the creative as an individual. It’s hard to tie metrics to the brand that you make for yourself. You can look at metrics like the amount of likes a photo got, yes. But if you can build your brand and story over time through your work, it’s a hard thing to do and an even harder thing to measure, but very important in the long run.
For me, branding is the relationship between the consumer and creator. What is branding to you?
Branding to me has a lot to do with the stories that a company or product or person are trying to tell. It goes way beyond than what it actually is. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Who and what are important to us? All the stories around that are important in building the audience you want to connect to you. Like you mentioned, the stories people associate with a product through their own experience are just as important.
For companies, there are always more stories to be told. Companies are really starting to grasp the concept of not just shoving a product description down someone’s throat, but instead thinking about the kind of people that they want to be associated with. That is elevating a lot of products—at least in Silicon Valley—to where people are just able to relate to them better.
Within honesty, you’ve said before that people describe your work as honest. Why do you think that?
I still get really excited when I hear people describing my work that way. For me, I’m constantly striving for authenticity. I'm really trying to document whats important to me and not really having an agenda to everything. It comes from a natural place. I think from a commercial perspective, it’s really important to tell stories and create imagery that feels relatable in an industry that sometimes doesn’t feel very human.
How have you seen your work progress from when you started until now?
Well, it definitely changed since I was six years old. There’s the really crappy disposable camera photographs from my childhood and then there’s me touring with bands in college as a photographer—it was sort of similar to the personal work I make now, but it wasn’t as polished, because I didn’t really know how to work my own camera. When I picked photography back up as a hobby last year I felt this real thrill of applying a very polished aesthetic to real moments in my life. Maybe it comes from my perfectionist attitude when I was playing piano as a kid, and my alternative desire to capture things that feel real and authentic. Polished and authentic don’t usually go hand in hand. It’s a weird tension I’ve been really attracted to and want to keep exploring.
Is your youthfulness important for your creativity?
My youthfulness? I’m not that young anymore [I’m 27] but I feel like I will probably always be very adventurous my whole life. So, for me, yeah. I’m so energized by my work that I don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon. I want to peak in my career when I’m 80, not in the next year or two. I’m glad that I have the physical energy to hustle like crazy and work and travel as much as I have been. When you have nothing holding you back to make the work that you want, I just feel unstoppable at that point.
Can you shed more light on figuring out the path you want in your career?
If I could guess, I’d say it’s going to stay roughly the same, with improvements. I want to make a living taking pictures; I want my work to also develop and grow; I want to keep working with bigger and better clients. For me, it’s just about figuring out a work-life balance, being healthy, and maintaining great relationships with people who are close to me. Balancing all of those things while trying to improve my work is a puzzle I’m constantly figuring out.
In terms of a random thing I could see myself doing, I have this not-so-secret obsession with hip-hop. I think it would be really awesome to be a tech/hip-hop photographer, because I love both things so much and its totally random and no one else is doing it.
Anything is possible. How do you balance your work and life?
I figure it out every day, to be honest. There were definitely moments in the last year-and-a-half or two when I was so busy with client work—which is an awesome problem—that I wasn’t making any personal work because I didn’t have time. I was cranking out all of this commercial stuff, which I enjoyed, but I think that personal work is more important because those are the photos that I’m constantly sharing and adding to my book. For me, the easiest way to fix that is to leave town. Going to a random part of the world forces me to get out of my comfort zone for a week or so and make new stuff. Thats been really, really helpful for me.
Working with clients such as Nike and Dropbox, how has that benefited your career exempting the obvious?
It definitely helps to have a client list that people recognize. My first client was Square and I think that was helpful immediately. As soon as I added Dropbox and Rdio, it garnered legitimacy that I didn’t feel like I deserved so early in my career, but it was a great point of pressure to step it up and deliver good work.
At this point, it’s nice to have a portfolio of work I feel proud of for clients people know. That said, expectations are high with new clients. That kind of pressure is terrifying, but it pushes me to get better with every shoot.
And while you’ve had the opportunity to work with these brands, what are a few things you’ve learned from them that you value?
I’ve learned that there’s no one way of doing anything. Everyone has different approaches to how they tell stories, how they create campaigns, how they work with creatives. It gives me a lot of flexibility to present new ideas and get creative in how I collaborate with them.
By living in San Francisco, how has it influenced your imagery and life?
It totally defined my imagery, really. I mostly photograph tech companies and this is the city where I will have that kind of work for the rest of my life. For me, its going back to living and breathing your work. To me, its the perfect city for all of my interests.
Interests such as?
Technology, taking pictures, eating delicious food, going to bed early, and adventuring.
To play devils advocate, do you see yourself migrating towards a different part of the world?
I went to Norway this summer to answer that question for myself since I’m half-Norwegian, and I almost grew up there. Long story short, I definitely feel like I could live there at some point in my life. I have tons of family and friends there, but I really love northern California. If I can continue to travel freely, I can see Northern California being my homebase forever.
How do you stay engaged with maintaining fresh ideas?
I spend a lot of time on the internet for inspiration. I follow photographers and creatives whose work excites me in weird ways. If I see photographs that kind of look like mine or ones that I’m used to looking at, that doesn’t really engage me in the same way. But to see photographs that are totally different than mine helps me evaluate my own work. What about these photographs excites me? What part of it could I see myself integrating into my own work? Things that put me out of my comfort zone are really helpful for me for not only expanding my point of view, but also serving as reference points for evaluating my own work.
Curation is important, especially for creatives. If you keep looking at green, you’re going to shoot green things, but if you take a glimpse at orange—a colour you might not be familiar with—then you start to see things in a different way.
Exactly! There’s actually a really good Radiolab podcast about people who are colorblind vs. tetrachromats—people who see a larger spectrum of color. Regardless if you’re a super-seer or a normal-seer, it all depends on how many colors you expose yourself to. A super-seer who doesn’t really exercise their full range may only see like a normal-seer. Yet, a normal-seer who works around a big range of colors, can perhaps see as much as a super-seer. Similarly, you only look at photographs that look like yours and spend time with photographers who make similar work to yours, your view may be more limited than it could be.
If you look at things with a black and white mindset you lose all the colour in it. For me, I curate and follow things that are way different than what I create. It matters about what and who you surround yourself with. Do you find yourself creatively satisfied?
Much more so than I was two years ago when I was working a day job. I feel like I have a new energy in me that I didn’t have before.
For me, personally, I don’t think I’ll ever be creatively satisfied. I’m constantly nitpicking my work and going through just as many emotional creative roller coasters as anyone else does. There are times when you’re really excited about work and times when you’re really depressed about work. If I didn’t feel that inadequacy, then I wouldn’t feel the pressure to improve it. You have to have that combination of feeling not good enough, but knowing that you can improve your work.
What do you think the purpose of your work is?
That’s a good question! I’m honestly still trying to figure that out. I think right now I’m just following a compulsion and at some point I will figure out what it all means.
Hotspots: In SF, I’m drinking coffee and eating toast at Trouble, having a salad at Salumeria or the Ferry Building, or having a beer at Mikkeller.
In New York, I’m having coffee and a Scandinavian hot dog at Kinfolk, eating meatballs at The Meatball shop, or having drinks on the roof of the Wythe Hotel.
Apps: For getting around: To commute to shoots, I use the Zipcar app a few times a month. If it’s in the city, I use Uber. I couldn’t survive driving in California without Waze. I use Routesy and Hopstop for public transportation in SF and NY.
For photo stuff: I love VSCO and Litely for editing, Dropbox for pulling up any photo file ever on my phone, and Instagram as my everyday photo diary.
For staying healthy: I use Fitstar anytime I want to do a quick workout in my living room, Nike Running to track my terrible running skills, and MyFitnessPal for tracking everything else.
Reads: I’m really into the magazine scene lately. Lots of amazing, beautiful publications have launched in the last year or two, including The California Sunday Magazine, Tiny Atlas Quarterly, Cereal, The Travel Almanac, The Gourmand, Apartamento, Hello Mr., Wilder Quarterly, I could go on.
Setup: I don’t really have a studio setup. I mostly shoot on-site and work with natural light 99% of the time. It’s fun working with what’s there and making stuff happen on the fly.
Food: My fridge is full of smoothie ingredients and tons of weird Norwegian food. In terms of eating out, I’m partial to cheap, legit mom-and-pop restaurants that have been in the city for a while - particularly of the Indian/Pakistani, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese or Chinese variety. I’m obsessed with soup dumplings. I love salads as much as I love fried chicken.
Interview by: Mahmoud Mfinanga
Posted: October 8, 2014