‘You what, now?’

I nearly dropped my hot chocolate.

In front of me, a quiet, people-nervous final-year marketing student had just told me that she’d be excited to ask strangers if she could take their photographs.

The conversation had taken a bizarre turn after I’d suggested – half-jokingly – that this young woman could stand in Rundle Mall for an hour and ask every person she saw if she could take them out for coffee.

You see, I’m a mentor in the UniSA Business Career Mentoring Program. The young woman – Chelsey – is the person I am mentoring in 2019. We’d been having loads of conversations about networking, making connections, and the barriers she perceived to be in front of her.

Like many young adults who are in their final year at uni, Chelsey wasn’t sure on her feet. She’d spent years studying, but didn’t really understand what was out in the market in terms of work. She, like many others in her position, when asked what she’d like to learn, put down ‘networking’ as a skill. As a mentor, I always suspect that people say they want to learn networking, but nobody actually wants to learn it. Nobody even really knows what it is, or why it’s a good skill to have. It just sounds business-y, and important.

This young woman wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a marketer. Her internship made her despair of having to do this kind of work for the next forty years.

That’s how we circled back to photography.

Chelsey Law is a talented, and skilled, portrait photographer. She was unable to combine her love of photography with her marketing degree, because that’s not how universities work these days. So, feeling that she needed to get a degree worth having—in terms of employability—she went down the marketing rabbit hole.

And now she was sitting in front of me, eyes sparkling at the idea of asking random strangers if she could take their photographs.

If you’re wondering why I was so stunned, it’s this:

In a networking event, everybody is there for roughly the same reason. If you go up to a stranger and introduce yourself, that’s not weird at all. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but it isn’t weird.

What is weird is walking up to a stranger who is going about his or her business and interrupting them.

And yet, here we were.

By the time we’d both finished our drinks, Chelsey had agreed to spend two hours on a Friday afternoon in Rundle Mall, photographing strangers. In between times, she was going to ‘warm up’ by taking her camera to uni, and practising her walk-up, her spoken blurb, and her method.

The warm-ups were successful. Without any knock-backs, Chelsey was raring to go.

We met at the Mall’s Balls. The nervous excitement was streaking out of Chelsey as she walked up and said hi. One of her friends joined us, and I learned later that this is something that Chelsey had been talking about doing ever since she first saw that iconic project, Humans of New York. It also turned out that, as a fashion photographer, Chelsey’s sharp eye for style, and strong ideas about what she is keen to produce, meant that she wasn’t willing to photograph just anyone.

Sitting on the sidelines as her cheerleader and accountability buddy, my role was to keep her on task. Chelsey had two hours to photograph as many people as she could. That meant being the Nasty Person who pulled her back from talking with friends, the one who pushed her out in front of people, the one who wouldn’t let her hang back and watch.

So was it a success?

You bet it was.

Chelsey approached about 20 people (individuals and strangers) in her two-hour window, from 3pm until 5pm on a Friday afternoon. Of all those people she had:

  • 16 people say Yes
  • 4 people say No

Of those who said yes, Chelsey photographed a cute European couple; a dance crew; a whole lot of enthusiastic individuals; a woman who really didn’t want to say yes, but did anyway. She photographed the lads in the crepe stand, and they gave her a Nutella crepe for her efforts – for free.

Of those who said no, two asked to be paid; one was a Big Issue seller who didn’t want to be photographed in uniform; and one was a bystander more interested in the dance crew.

This meant that Chelsey’s success rate was about 80%.

At the end of the day, she was beaming. Not only had she finally done the one thing that she’d been talking about to her friends for years, she’d learned some valuable lessons.

Here’s what they were:

  1. Be concise. This is true in approaching strangers, but it’s applicable to networking, too. When you have a convoluted story, nobody is going to listen. If you’ve got your story right, and it’s short and clear, you’re almost irresistible.
  2. Allow people to say no. Giving people the option to say ‘no’ is what makes them feel safe. It’s the hardest lesson to learn in sales of any kind, but especially when what you’re selling is yourself.
  3. Trust your instinct. For all of the people who said ‘no’, Chelsey reported back that she felt that they were going to refuse before she’d even asked them. This may have been because of facial expressions, body language, or other cues. The trick is feeling it and asking anyway, just in case you’re wrong.
  4. Gaining agreement isn’t always comfortable. When the woman who didn’t want to say yes agreed anyway, Chelsey reported back that the entire interaction made her feel gross. She learned that she has a responsibility as a photographer (and as a person) to help people feel ok. Simply saying, ‘no let’s not’ is often not the answer once someone has already said ‘yes’. The answer is learning to create warm, relatable interactions as fast as you can.
  5. You might not think you’re valuable, but others do. In Chelsey’s case, if what she was doing wasn’t valuable, then she would not have gotten anything in exchange. But she did: Actual product (the Nutella crepe). It blew her away at the time, but the truth is: This free photography became free publicity, and the business Chelsey photographed recognised that by ‘paying’ her with their product. In the same way, your own ideas can get in your way, especially when it comes to networking.
  6. After the discomfort comes fun. This is the hardest lesson to learn, of all lessons. Because Chelsey took a chunk out of her day, and had people repeatedly say ‘yes’ to her, she started to enjoy herself. It’s harder to do this at a networking event, but the principle is the same: To get past the discomfort, you have to move through it. So even if you don’t like it, do it anyway!

Since that afternoon back in early August, Chelsey has been itching to get out and take more photographs of stylish strangers. However, the final run in a marketing degree is demanding, and our young woman has her priorities in the right order.

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Photography might not be the ‘right’ thing for Chelsey to be doing. It may not make her parents happy. It might even make the folk running the mentoring program annoyed with me.

But this is where great careers begin.

It’s not in going ‘where the jobs are’. It’s not even in studying your butt off to be the best at what you do (though it helps). It’s having the courage to do what lights you up, and then doing over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.

So if, sometime, you see a young woman with a camera out on the street, asking people if she can take their photographs, go up to her and say yes. One day, she’ll be famous and you’ll wish you had.

By Leticia Mooney

Photos by Chelsey Law