Every week I receive emails from young aspiring journalists or photographers in the U.S., asking me to offer tips and advice on "how I made it" in Africa.
First of all, I definitely wouldn't say I've "made it." Yes, perhaps I'm slowly on my way -- I write a column for BBC, recently had a front page photo on a major newspaper, and have published work in some well-known publications. But seriously guys, I'm still 25. I earn an unexpectedly decent living freelancing in Africa, but I still don't think I've really made it.
But their questions are not pointless, and the curiosity and drive of these hopeful freelancers is not lost on me. I didn't land in Africa and establish myself overnight. Where I stand today has been the result of a heady mix of a tremendous luck, hustling, and incessant networking -- an experience probably worth sharing, if for any reason other than so that I stop getting these emails.
The initial question I receive, "how did you get there?" is most easily answered by a rather feathery, in-the-clouds, and occasionally self-indulgent piece I wrote for Revolution.is, titled "Open up to the endless possibilities of the world," which chronicles a series of random twists, turns, and chance encounters that shaped my life and eventually brought me to East Africa.
But the more specific question of "how did you make it?" takes a bit more explaining. I left America at 22 with a little over $5,000, stretched it as far as I could, and now I'm doing pretty well. So let me attempt to enlighten all you all with some of my experiences and lessons learned.
Here's my unsolicited advice. There's no money-back guarantee -- and it's free anyways -- so consume at your own risk:
The photo/journalism market in the U.S. seems impossible to break into. That's because it probably is, unless you're really, really good. Or have good connections. Think of how many others there are like you, hoping for a big break in Los Angeles or Brooklyn or Austin. Staff jobs at papers are vanishing quicker than the arctic polar bears, and supporting yourself as a freelancer takes a hell of a lot of hustling. I didn't even bother to try -- I moonlighted shooting for a public radio station and with various local publications for free, while working a demanding job at a technology startup in L.A. It was fun, kept me shooting, and allowed me to (barely) save a bit of money to eventually get out.
News is breaking around the world, and going to places where 90 percent of the others wont is what will give you a shot at making a name for yourself. Sure, you've got to leave friends and family, and occasionally certain comforts (EZ Mac, constant electricity -- things that are overrated anyways), but nobody said this would be easy. And, take it from me, you can get pretty much anything in a globalized world now. I live in Nairobi, and there's nothing I really miss about the U.S.
2.) But go with a plan...
You can't just bounce from the continent without any plans at all. When I left the U.S., I had a set up semi-legit job doing business development for a small social enterprise in Tanzania. It gave me flexibility (kind of like a consultant) to work at my own pace, travel when I wanted to, and work on side projects. It was also unpaid -- but I had free housing. Granted, that free housing was four people stacked in bunk beds (and even sharing a bed for four months) in a sweltering one bedroom flat with no running water and a hacked electricity system. But, it was a roof over my head. Even if that roof was also home to a pack of rats and cockroaches with serious family planning issues.
From there, I was able to launch my freelancer career, and do stories across the region at my own pace. If things went badly, in a job interview down the road I could still say "I went to Africa as a director of business development for a small social enterprise," and skip the failed photojournalism story.
Which brings me to another point -- even if you still want to be a journalist or photographer when you're 50, you've always got to be thinking three steps into the future. Where will this gig, this story, this shoot, put you in a few years? Are you working towards something? Are you building an area of expertise or a solid portfolio? You can think about the "now" for a short time, but you aren't getting any younger. Have a vision. Set some goals and work to hit them as you go.
3.) Find a niche.
Breaking news is incredibly tough to cover as a freelancer. Unless you've got something really groundbreaking, a first scoop, or a truly powerful inside story, you'll have trouble reaching editors with it. They have staff for that kind of stuff.
Find yourself a niche, a specialty, something that no one is covering in an area that needs more exposure, and something that you're passionate about. I have an impossible time writing articles I don't care about, but excel on pieces that I have a genuine interest in covering. When the times are tough, it's more fun covering something that excites you. This won't always be the case, but try your best.
For me, I began documenting social enterprises and innovative approaches to development, which I pushed content out for through something I founded called "The (BoP) Project." Then, I migrated into covering technology, innovation, and startups in emerging economies. East Africa is booming when it comes to technology and innovation -- from Kenya to Rwanda to even Somalia -- yet all you read in the headlines is conflict, war, famine, etc. I carved out a name for myself by focusing on the stories emerging between the headlines, the "emerging Africa" that the media was just finally getting tuned into. I got lucky with my timing, but I realized that there was an enormous opportunity for more content on how Africa is rapidly transforming in a good way, and I found stories to reflect it. I do plenty of other work, but I have my niche.
4.) Expect to be really uncomfortable.
When you're starting off freelancing in Africa, or wherever you end up, you cannot afford plane tickets or fancy hotels. If you think you can, you're a fool. In my first two years, I traveled over 15,000 km by bus across east Africa -- usually on things that could hardly be described as roads, in vehicles that were on the verge of self-combustion any minute. I slept on couches, in tents and on floors. It was fun. It was adventurous. It hurt. I now have a serious back problem, probably from too many hours riding motorcycles with heavy equipment on shit roads, or from spending half of my bus trips airborne in a backseat.
For me, it all came down to a simple cost benefit analysis (don't be scared by economics). A two hour flight from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Kigali, Rwanda, costs around $450 return. A bus, which takes 38 grueling hours, costs less than $100 return. You do the math. It's how I saved loads of money, and stretched $5,000 to last me a year. That, and a lot of rice and beans.
Even when I started making decent money, I still lived in a 6x3 ft kitchen cupboard under the stairs, because it cost me $50 a month instead of $300 a month. I've since moved into the more spacious servant's quarters of the house, putting a final end to my "Harry Potter" nickname. These are the kinds of comforts you've got to give up if you want to spend the time and make your experience worth it.
5.) Network, network network.
No one is just going to give you a story, or connect you to an editor. You've got to put yourself out there -- go to events, parties, work at cafes, do anything and everything to get you and your name out there and find stories. Email random people who do interesting things and ask to meet them. Pitch editors repeatedly, even if they don't respond. They probably won't, but maybe on your fifth pitch you'll get lucky. It's not that they don't like you or don't read your emails, it's that your pitch might suck and they don't have time to respond to you and the hundred other emails they are getting that day. But suddenly, when you've spent enough time pitching to get decent at it, and you have a good story, you'll get a response.
6.) NOTHING is below you.
Want to eat? Then write or shoot anything. I've written for airline magazines, photographed a 1-year-old's birthday party (which paid $100 and came with a free shot of tequila, rum and breast milk. It wasn't half bad), and have done very random jobs to make a few extra bucks. It's fine. It helps you practice your profession. If you think it's below you, than get out of the business. It's probably better than shooting a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn anyways, unless you're into that kind of thing.
7.) Don't be afraid.
Lastly, if you don't make it, who cares? You can always go back home. Attempting freelancing and living like a nomadic bum in developing countries is remarkably fun in your 20s, will probably get tiring in your mid to late 30s, and is no life to be living in your 40s. You've got to get out there early and make a name for yourself.
I probably shouldn't be saying any of this -- given that I'd rather not have 1,000 freelancers suddenly drop into east Africa hoping to steal my contacts and stories. While there is a certain bond among freelancers (being broke, a strong affinity for hard drinking, and a serious addiction to risk), it is still a competitive industry. You've got to know your facts, get things right the first time, and not screw up. So if you happen follow any of my advice, I kindly ask that you do it somewhere else. Thanks.