Rachel Holland met her husband on a photo shoot. She also met Hillary Clinton, Kid Rock, Eminem and Roger Penske.
During her nearly 20 years as a photographer, “I got to meet a lot of interesting people and got to go places people don’t normally have access to. You get into manufacturing facilities and see how things get made. I got to travel to Germany and Japan and Brazil on photo shoots. It was a lot of work, but exciting. I was a photographer. That was my identity.”
Eventually though, the business model changed and her once-stimulating career began feeling a lot like labor, prompting her to refocus her efforts elsewhere. Now, the 50-year-old is struggling with identity issues.
Holland’s “love affair” with photography began in high school after her father, then stationed on an Army base in Germany, gifted her with an old Voigtländer camera.
However, she also liked science. So she entered the pre-med program at Wayne State University in Detroit. That didn’t last.
“The idea of photography kept creeping back up and I applied to CCS (now called the College for Creative Studies) and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in commercial photography.” She learned the ropes in college and left to start her own business.
Her career started as a generalist, doing industrial and automotive photography, some for AutoWeek, eventually gravitating toward shooting people. “To get the bigger jobs, you have to specialize,” Holland says. “I started commercial portraiture, graphic and traditional composition along with some lifestyle things as well. And I would get hired by magazines and ad agencies.”
Popular Science, Self, The Source, Motor Trend, Discovery Channel, Chevrolet, Campbell Ewald and Owens Corning are among her list of former clients. The best part of each job was getting in the zone and losing herself in the work.
“You can be going and going and look at the clock and hours have gone by. It gets you in that creative flow state and you get energized by,” she says.
Holland had a particular love for working with film. “There’s something magical about trying to capture something in your own way and trying to see how it works out,” she says. “I loved working in a dark room and the chemistry of getting a special effect.”
Everybody’s an “expert”
The advent of digital photography changed everything.
“There were a lot more steps in getting images to the client. A lot of retouching and the nature of what I was doing changed as well,” Holland says, her voice rising. “Clients started wanting video too, which has a different skill set.”
Digital photography made breaking into the business simpler, which was great for novices. Not so for many professional photographers. Holland says, “Prices started coming down because a lot of advanced amateurs were OK with making something for $50 or $100. There was a real science to film. You had to know how to light things. Now you just push a button and it takes a lot of the skill away. It’s become more of a commodity.”
The changes were making Holland uncomfortable about her long-term future. “What if I’m 60 and I just can’t make a living at it?” she asks. “It’s the same thing with web designers and graphic designers. People will do their own work even if it’s terrible rather than hiring professionals to do it.”
Switching lenses for better outcomes
Rather than let her career fizzle out, Holland went to Plan B. She would get a second degree as a fall back.
When a friend mentioned forensic photography, saying there were jobs for nurses as death investigators and photographers, Holland took an internship at the Medical Examiners Office in Wayne County. “I thought that would be really cool,” she says. “I could take nursing as my second degree with a specialty in forensic photography.”
Now Holland is an operating room nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “I think I have an attraction to it because it runs very much like a photo shoot,” she says.
She explains that like a photo shoot, surgeries have a beginning, middle and end, along with a team. The hospital team is comprised of a surgeon, techs, nurses, anesthesiologist, and so on while an ad photo shoot might need an art director, creative director, buyer, make-up person…
“I like the interaction with the team. I like the immediacy and the pressure. The operating room is the same way. You have to get them in, get them done and get them out. The less time in the operating room the better outcome for the patient.”
Whether a photo team or surgical team, you have to advise without overstepping your boundaries. A photographer is advocating for the client. Her role now is to advocate for the patient, who is at risk for injuries and infection.
“I make sure no one unintentionally does anything incorrectly. I plan for the worst and hope for the best. It’s pretty cool. There’s a lot to it.”
While Holland enjoys what she does, she doesn’t yet identify with the title of nurse. On off days, she tries to be creative by experimenting with painting and taking photos, for herself.
“If the business hadn’t changed, I’d still be doing it,” she admits. “It’s disappointing. I used to say, ‘I am a commercial photographer. I shoot images of people for ad agencies and magazines.’ It was an ice breaker. Now I say, ‘I am nurse’ and people say, ‘Oh.’”
IDENTITY: A SERIES
Story 1: Two artists uncomfortable with the “actor” label share their views on identity because they are both so much more.
Story 2: Authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address notions of identity in “The Underground Railroad” and “Small Great Things,” painfully convincing novels focused on race and racial injustice.
Story 3: Years after suffering a debilitating accident, a photographer finds new passion.
Story 4: Life not production makes an artist.