Building a career in photography: through the lens of Serena Brown
12 August 2021
Persistence pays off for Photography graduate who’s worked for the likes of Nike, Levi’s and Rolling Stone.
Serena Brown arrived at Falmouth University in 2015 having never shot a photograph on film. Now, three years after her graduation, she works almost exclusively in the form and has completed projects for iconic global brands such as Rolling Stone, Nike, Converse and Levi’s.
My experience was sick because of the facilities. I’d never been in a dark room before coming to university – it’s mad how just being exposed to that sort of thing can accelerate your development.
As an artist who takes inspiration from her culturally diverse upbringing in London, heading to Cornwall for university marked a clear change of pace for Serena. But that was exactly what she wanted.
“There was definitely a little bit of culture shock”, Serena tells us, “but I knew I was at the perfect place to study photography.”
Keen to get away from the frantic pace of life in London, Serena found Falmouth’s calm coastal surroundings the perfect tonic to the capital’s busy streets and high-rise buildings. Casting her mind back to her arrival in Cornwall, Serena recalls a strong desire to focus on her studies and build her skills; “being able to focus on my subject for three years in a scenic, relaxed environment was exactly what I needed.”
Serena’s determination to build her expertise was cemented in her very first tutorial. It was a moment that initially filled her with anxiety but would eventually come to define her as an artist.
“I remember my first lesson was about film photography. The lecturer was passing the cameras around and asking us what experience we had with the equipment – everyone else knew how to use them and I had no idea!”
But Serena’s worries were quickly put to rest by her tutors, who she credits for creating a nurturing environment for her and her course mates.
“The Photography BA course put everyone on a level playing field. If you needed extra help, it felt easy to ask. Everyone made me feel comfortable, which I really appreciated.”
And it was only weeks later that Serena’s creative potential began to be unlocked by the facilities she had at her disposal. “My experience was sick because of the facilities. I’d never been in a dark room before coming to university – it’s mad how just being exposed to that sort of thing can accelerate your development.”
Life after graduation
After equipping herself with the skills needed to break into the photography industry, Serena began mapping out her career plans. Success didn’t arrive overnight.
“The summer after graduation, I just kept taking photos and putting them on Instagram; you need to make yourself seem busy! Faking it until you make it, basically.”
In tandem with her photography, Serena was also sending out applications for relevant job opportunities. “I was also entering loads of photography competitions”, Serena tells us. “I didn’t win any of them.”
It took Serena six months before she was offered a photography internship with Refinery 29, an opportunity that would prove to be life-changing. What was supposed to be a three-month internship turned into six, before evolving into a position as a Creative Assistant for the company.
“I feel like I’ve had a weird route into all this”, Serena reflects. “My job at Refinery 29 gave me mad insight into the creative industry.
“A creative assistant helps map out projects from beginning to end; brands would come to us and say ‘we want to spend our money with you, do you have any ideas for us?’ So you get to see the full timeline of the project. I was able to absorb so much, so quickly.
“Six months after I graduated, I was doing shoots for big brands. I did a job for Nike where I came up with the idea for the shoot, did the pitch, sold the job and shot it as well. After that, people started reaching out.”
Serena has now found an agent and is continuing her career as a freelance photographer. As a recent graduate, Serena has already completed jobs for a range of iconic global brands; Rolling Stone, Levi’s, Converse and Nike have all enlisted her services. But she’s in no doubt that her time at Refinery 29 is continuing to shape her progress.
“I have such a good network of friends from my time at Refinery 29”, Serena tells us. “There’s always people saying my name in rooms that I don’t know.”
Was that how she got the Rolling Stone job?
“I honestly have no idea how that happened! They got in touch and asked if I would photograph Nandi Bushell, which was such a fun project. They really liked my work, and after that I guess they listed me as a photographer they could count on for the future.”
Serena’s progress as a photographer has not been straightforward, contrary to what her Instagram followers might think. So, what advice would she give to aspiring photographers?
“Firstly, there’s no one clear way into this. My biggest motivation came from the fact that I was continuing to shoot. I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it, but I kept meeting up with people, shooting them and getting it on Instagram.
“Remember that there’s a lot of value in internships, whether you’re doing photography or not. You can see more of the industry and build a creative network that will help you going forward. Find a mentor if you can!
“But ultimately, just keep on creating. Keep on putting your work out there. I get so many of my jobs through social media. Don’t lose your momentum. Keep going.”