Before life as we know it changed, I’d already decided to start sharing chats with New Zealand creatives on The New – I want to shine a light on their work, and let them share their story in their own words. It’s also my hope that you’ll be inspired or encouraged in some small way in your own life, too. Being an independent creative or a solopreneur demands constant courage, faith and discipline. Following the path of your passion requires you to outgrow yourself over and over again. When all we see is someone’s highlights reel, it’s easy to ‘but they’ them. When the truth is, mostly they’re just ordinary people who’ve decided that the chance to live their dream is worth the long game of learning curves, sacrifice and self-mastery.
I’m excited to introduce you to 28 year old NZ photographer Brijana Cato. She shoots a mix of commercial (lifestyle and fashion) and weddings and has recently set up an online store selling her travel and coastal photographic prints. Brijana lives in the small seaside town of Snells Beach (about an hour north of Auckland).
Tell us the story of how you came to do photography full-time?
As a kid and teen I loved to draw and create, I was really into graphic design through college, and I also had photography as a subject, but at the time I didn’t see it as a career option at all – my teacher even said I probably wouldn’t pass that year (I ended up passing with Excellence – ha!). I loved doing photoshoots with friends and family and used to make my cousin dress up and do fashion shoots, which is hilarious looking back at it now. A year or so after school finished, I decided I should maybe do something with my life and decided to go to Uni to try out a few different creative areas. I practiced my photography a lot, constantly taking photos, especially with my niece and nephew as models. During this time, my sister made me a Facebook page and she forced me to advertise – I didn’t have a lot of confidence in anyone actually wanting to pay me anything for my services at the time. From this, I actually booked a solid amount of family photoshoots before Christmas which was a bit of a hit! I kept getting more requests for this kind of work and eventually, at the age of 23, I got asked to do my sister’s friend’s wedding (Thanks Chloe! She obviously had a lot of faith in my work!). It was amazing for me to be able to add a wedding to my portfolio, and after that I got more and more wedding referrals. It got to the stage in 2015 where I was asking for too much time off work (I was supporting myself by working as a barista at the time) so I just decided to try full-time freelancing, and I’ve been full-time ever since!
What have been the most valuable ways you’ve honed your craft – that you’d recommend others to do?
I think with whatever creative field you’re in or passionate about it’s important to practise, practise and practise some more. I took photos constantly, photographing in as many different lighting scenarios I could, and with different models or collaborating with others like makeup artists and/or stylists. Loads of unpaid projects to practise. Trying things, being creative and making sure I was also following people that inspired me. I’m so glad I made that time for trial and error (while working full-time as a barista) before booking paid work, because it meant I had a bit more experience to back me.
Also, find some other creatives that you can bounce off as peers – I’ve learnt so much in the past few years from all my super-talented photographer friends that I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise…
What was your first big commercial job – how did you get that break?
I had never thought of shooting fashion at the beginning (even though I love fashion) as all of my enquiries were for weddings, family shoots and small business shoots. I didn’t really know how that industry all worked, but within my first year of freelancing I got an email from the Creative Director of RPM (Ben) who had found me via Instagram – which was a pretty exciting moment! I’ve been shooting their campaigns each season since that first time he asked me back in 2015.
That’s been an awesome connection that resulted in years of work, and has also helped open up other opportunities. I love working with professional models and being able to be creative with them. Over the years I have also been super lucky to work with NZ brand Neon Gypsy. They have flown me to various locations (such as Australia, Fiji and Bali) and I’ve worked with well-known models which has been a real buzz.
Recent work for RPM (Autumn 2020)
How has your work evolved in the past couple of years?
I started doing everything the long and hard way (as you do in the beginning of everything) but I’ve learnt some shortcuts and photography hacks.
I also found my style in terms of grading is always evolving and I’ve learnt that less is more! My style has become a lot more natural and simple – natural light and coastal scenes are what I’m all about.
Tell us about a couple of career highlights of the past two years?
Nothing can beat the feeling of your first call-up from a known brand, bit of an honour to be recognised! Those first shoots caused a bit of a knock-on effect, then being booked by lifestyle brands I’d been a massive fan of for a long time. Those felt like ‘pinch me’ moments! Getting my first overseas job was also a dream come true. I love travel, so being able to do that and shoot overseas has been amazing.
Shoots for Neon Gypsy around NZ, and in Bali, Fiji and Byron Bay
Not being tied down to an office meant I could travel Europe last year, which was also a huge highlight for me! I was able to travel to places I’ve dreamed of visiting (I’m still dreaming about them now!), all while adding to my portfolio.
Also being asked by businesses to stock my prints has been very cool. I often have messages asking if I sell my work, so opening my print shop late last year was a big highlight also. It’s so flattering to know that somewhere, in someone’s home, my work is sitting or hanging in their space.
Some of the prints available now on Brijana’s online print shop, taken in Europe last year
What sacrifices have you made to work for yourself and follow your passion?
Well, deciding to quit a full time job was a risky leap, but it had to be done so that I could give my all to photography. I’ve also invested a lot of money into expensive equipment and in getting the best gear, definitely not easy on the wallet. This job does give me freedom, but I do miss out on a lot of social things because of the hours (especially over wedding season – the NZ Summer). I get a lot of FOMO especially as some of my work is booked well in advance, and a lot of friends’ plans are spur-of-the-moment.
No one captures summer quite like Brijana. These shots are from a personal series, taken in Waipu a few weeks back
What are the key challenges?
Taxes, GST, admin – all that business stuff I never thought I would have to think about. I’ve never been into writing or math, and didn’t think my job would ever include it, but here I am – ha!
A big one for myself and maybe a lot of other creatives is comparison. Social media is the main reason for this, I often feel like you can’t keep up with what everyone else is doing. I think it’s good to remember that ‘comparison is the thief of joy‘ – and as long as you know your work is authentically yours, then it’s all good!
While I’m writing this it’s the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown and like for a lot of kiwis and small business owners it will probably be the biggest challenge of the year. For me, not knowing when I’ll be able to work (and have an income again!) is pretty darn difficult, but that’s also just part of the freelance life. Planning the remainder of my year will be a challenge now, as I had a few overseas plans so that’s all come to a halt due to Covid-19. But I have faith that it will happen one day!
Do you have a morning ritual?
Usually I try and get to a morning spin class, grab a coffee, check emails, write a list of goals for the day, then crack into the editing or head off to a shoot. I love a list – there’s nothing more satisfying then crossing something off a list!
How do you organise your workload and manage your time?
Its definitely a work in progress! I try get to the gym whenever I can (which can be very sporadic), a lot of my time is spent sitting so getting out and moving is important.
I’m also easily distracted by the admin/comms side of my job – so having chunks of the day where I turn off the internet and tune out really helps me stay focused. Editing can take a lot of time, and I want to do my best, so I try to do as much work/editing as possible during the weekdays and then have weekends off wherever I can, to balance my life a little.
We love a good recco – What’s your fave music / podcast / series / food or drink to edit to?
I find I need something light and comedic to have running in the background when I have a long day at the desk. The Office (personal fave) and Brooklyn Nine Nine are my favourite shows to watch and I also love listening to the Hamish and Andy podcast for a good laugh! My cousin got me into this YouTube channel called PAQ, they’re a group of English dudes who do fashion styling challenges, thrifting finds and photoshoots – they’re super fun and hilarious, even though its not totally my type of fashion it’s quite addictive. I love all kinds of music, I guess you could say I have quite eclectic taste! I don’t have a favourite artist as such but I find my jazzy chill music I’ve curated in the past years is quite a goodie to have on in the background.
Looking back at yourself, what things have been instrumental in your success in your career?
My sister for starting my Facebook page because that’s where it all began really and my supportive family who have helped me with the business side, that’s the tricky stuff they don’t tell you about! I’m super thankful to have a very solid crew of photography friends, I don’t think I’d be here without all of those people!
What’s a dream project for you?
I have a dream of basing myself abroad for a few months each year….eep! Watch this space!
Personal shots from Brijana’s travels around Europe
What do you want to achieve in this next decade?
I’d love to build a house of my own. My dad is a builder of 45 or so years so I’d love to have him build something for me – I’m quite into interiors and architecture so I think this would be very fun! Also I’d love to work with more international brands, there are a few in particular that would be amazing.
What are a couple of more deeper-rooted lessons you’ve learned that you could pass onto someone else who wants to follow their passion?
Some people think being a photographer is one of those dream jobs where everything looks all easy and idyllic. Sometimes it is, but at the start and throughout certain seasons it can actually be pretty darn hard and not always a breeze – especially when you’re one of thousands in the industry. I’ve done hospo work on the side at certain slow times, and definitely taken jobs that I wasn’t extremely passionate about – but you’ve got to pay the bills and know that every job is an opportunity to grow and learn.
I guess what I’m saying is if it’s something that you’re passionate about and you want it to be your sole work/income, you have to realise that it’s not instantly handed to you! In this industry you’ve gotta work to put in the hard yards, and not turn your nose up at those small jobs that come your way! If I did that, I don’t think I’d be writing this right now.