Posted 05 September 2019
Introduction by Ayla Angelos

How a five-week course launched photographer Marcella Chan’s career

Accessing the industry can be hard, and even harder still if you’re setting out at a disadvantage. This can include coming from an underrepresented group or not having the money or skills to get ahead; which is where Create Jobs London comes in. Since 2011, the platform has been responding to increasing needs to co-design training programmes, job opportunities and develop networks.

One programme in particular is Creativity Works, an intensive training course delivered by industry experts, from companies including Magnum. During the five weeks of its last Visual Storytelling programme, fifteen Londoners aged between 18 and 24 responded to the photographic brief:‘What is your London?’ The resulting images drew from themes such as identity, belonging home and memories. For attendee Marcella Chan, whose work explores East Asian and British culture, this five-week event was extraordinarily beneficial for the next steps in her career.

Marcella’s project for Creativity Works

Looking back on Creativity Works
Creativity Works condensed all the information required to get yourself started as an artist in the industry into a five week period – it was busy, but you wanted it to be. It was a very safe environment to experiment and all of the group activities were so supportive, especially when everyone did their critique (which was really nerve-wracking).

You had professionals from the industry that you could trust – they were there to help you and to reign you in. I didn’t feel at any time that there was an opinion that I didn’t value. Comparing this experience with my time at university, I felt like there were more opportunities to make important connections.

“You had professionals from the industry that you could trust – to help you and reign you in.”

After the course
After that, the group said that we’d want to continue as a collective, so we combined all of our industry knowledge. During that time it was Christmas – I personally needed money and to find a job, so I found some part-time work in catering. But soon after, an article about the course was published on both Magnum and then the BBC. That was a really big for me, as I started getting messages and emails from people saying how much they like my work and that they wanted to buy prints.

That, in turn, became a source of income and Stephanie, from PR agency Street & Co (which does PR for China Town), reached out to say that they were looking for a new way to represent Chinese ingredients [in an exhibition], highlighting China Town supermarkets and what’s available. They had looked at my work and saw its dual identity – a sort of mix-match of food and really liked that idea.

Marcella’s project for Creativity Works

Hosting a solo exhibition
After Stephanie reached out, we negotiated about what we wanted to feature in the exhibition – how it would be presented and how many images I would produce – and from there they gave me a budget. From there I could collect everything that I needed to make the images and they provided everything, which was insane. Going from Create Jobs to this, to where I’m being commissioned work within less than a year, is really crazy.

“Since then I’ve been getting print requests and people telling me nice things.”

For Dual Heritage, the work took about three weeks to create and was completed by 14 June, before the exhibition opening on 9 July. On the opening evening, they arranged to have Viet Food supplied, we also had some Chinese bao from Bun House and everyone got PR bags too, with postcards, a press release and some of the vegetables (black fungus or Chayote) found in my work.

Since then I’ve been getting print requests, so I’m thinking of setting up with Print Space, since it’s always a big dodgy when you have to run from place-to-place with prints – I’ve accidentally squished them before and I’ve had to buy them again, so I wasn’t really getting any of the profits.

Marcella’s project for Creativity Works

The best and worst bits of the job
I think the worst part of working as a freelance photographer is negotiating fees. I’ve gotten a bit more used to it now, and started to ask for what I would want, because a lot of it is necessity in terms of how I’m going to live and be stable. I also still work part-time on a food truck; I don’t rely on that income because it’s not an everyday thing yet.

Another challenge is when people want something for too little and feel resentful, after realising how much work it would entail. I have to be proud of my work, and if I want to keep making good work I’ve got to set a price that represents that. That’s one of the more difficult aspects. Also, you really need to put yourself out there and market yourself; you are your own PR manager, you’re everything. It gets a bit lonely.

The best bit is the freedom, as I’m not confined to strict hours. If there was something I wanted to do, I could usually slip that into my schedule. I also like being able to make work that I want to make – although that’s not always going to happen if you’re freelance (I recently took someone’s headshot for example), but I’m glad to be doing something I like to do.

“Be prepared to not just do the arty or the creative side, you have to also be a business person as well.”

Advice to up-and-coming photographers
Be prepared not just for the arty or the creative side, you also have to be a business person, and balance the two. You have to learn on the go and have a good mindset for negotiating, but there’s an element of charm in this as well. Keep things fun and, if you’re working with someone else, you have to be professional; respect what you want as well as what the client wants.

Another piece of advice would be: if you’re passionate, you also have to be prepared to do the things you don’t want to do too, in order to get what you want. Not that I hate working in a food truck – I actually find it quite relaxing – it’s more about finding that flexible, part-time niche that will support you as you try to be the best you can be as an artist or a photographer.


Mention Marcella Chan
Introduction by Ayla Angelos