Best Advice from Michelle Valberg

—“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry—

This week Best Advice talks with acclaimed photographer Michelle Valberg. She has a reputation for capturing unnoticed details that change our perception, and extraordinary moments that alter our perspective.

Internationally renowned and sought after as a wildlife, landscape and portrait photographer, Valberg’s images have been showcased in exhibits across North America. Her work was the subject of a critically acclaimed three-month solo exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and has been featured in magazines including National Geographic, The London Tribune, Travel Life, and Canadian Geographic.

Valberg is one of five Canadian Nikon Ambassadors and the first Canadian Geographic Photographer-in-Residence. Her iconic image of an Inuk drum dancer appears on a Royal Canadian Mint coin and she will have a booklet of Canada Post stamps coming out in 2019.

What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome at the start of your career?

The biggest hurdle was being taken seriously as a female photographer. I started my business when I was 18. [Being] a young female photographer in a male-dominated industry at that time was difficult.

Even dealing with a bank to get a loan for equipment was really tough because I was an unknown. And young female entrepreneurs without any collateral weren’t able to borrow any money at all. But then I got married, so I had someone in my life who I could stand with, and the banks started to look at me differently. Because I had a man in my life.

The other thing I learned was that just because I had studied photography at college didn’t mean I was going to be a good business person. I had to learn a lot about business.

So what was the most valuable early career lesson?

Sometimes you’ll hit some blips along the way, but you can survive those blips knowing that there are a lot more ups coming. I like what Lady Gaga says, about it not being so much about how many times you succeed, but how many times you will fail along the way.

And when you fall down, pick yourself back up. It’s your ability to bounce back. We are so afraid of failure that we fear it, and that might stop us from diving in. You can overcome this fear by knowing that failure is [something] to be learned from, and that is what’s going to propel you to success. Don’t let fear paralyze you.

What’s your best advice to young aspiring photographers?

One of the things I probably would have done differently was to have worked in someone else’s business. That would have allowed me to watch more experienced people work in different genres and maybe got myself a little more familiar with what it’s like to be an entrepreneurial photographer. I could have learned from others more easily. [I would recommend becoming] an indispensable photographic assistant—nobody likes that word—but get involved with more experienced people by helping them. It’s valuable learning to discover what it is you don’t want to do later on.

Did you ever make any important missteps and, if so, how did you recover?

I’d rather highlight my greatest achievements, but a misstep was probably trying to be all things to everyone, and not looking after myself. I’m one of those people you call a giver, or a supporter, [but] I’m also a leader because I had employees.

I was always trying to develop my career, but I was also really focused on the people who worked for me. So I was always trying to make people happy and give them opportunity. I felt that if I gave them opportunities, they would do the same for me and we would grow together. It was always about the team. [Then] the business started to come in, my name started to grow, and my popularity expanded and I became fearful to turn away business. But the more employees I had, the more costs I had, more taxes, and I had to get bigger space. Every time you grow you have these growing pains.

In all that, I kind of forgot about Michelle Valberg. Instead I was looking out for Valberg Imaging and ways I could make everybody happy, including my clients. That was number one, my customers. And second was keeping opportunities available for the people that worked for me, for the sake of their career.

I reached a crossroads. Things weren’t making sense to me, and a coach told me, “Start branding you. You can have a company and you can help others but that’s not going to do you any good, you need to brand yourself, to take care of yourself.”

Beyond technical advancements, how has photography changed since you started?

The art of it has changed in post-production and having more control over our finished product. Taking your work to that next level through enhancements is so much more.

But the whole social media world is likely the biggest change. Not only are you able to put yourself out there in a much bigger way and expose yourself around the world, but it also gives you a learning experience we never had. Whether it’s shared on Instagram or you’re following your favourite photographers to see trends and to be inspired, the learning we gain from social media is so much more than we ever could have imagined.

What’s your one golden rule for someone planning a career in photography today?

Just one? Face your fear, work hard, be passionate and don’t give up on reaching your goals. Success isn’t delivered to you. You have to go after it. And one last thing: give back.