We talk to professional photographer Julie Lovegrove whose midlife overseas volunteering experience took her on a whole new business journey, leading fellow travelers on photography trips to Africa.
What made you decide to do what you do?
The catalyst was seeing some images of amazing places in Namibia and wanting to experience and photograph these myself. I couldn’t find a trip that was ‘just right’, so after many hours and weeks of research I put together a self-drive tour and invited four other keen photographers to join me. The two weeks there were fantastic, I came back with hundreds of images I loved, and everyone else had loved it too. The initial hard work of planning had been done and I decided that it was worth running it again, but as part of my business as a professional photographer.
Why did you wait until you did to do it?
This is a rather long story! The very short version is that both my parents died and left me some inheritance money, which allowed me to start travelling more. I could have been very sensible and invested it, but they both loved travel and would definitely approve of me using it to see more of the world.
The long version is that I never knew what I wanted to be ‘when I grew up’, so for pretty much all of my life I fell into jobs, which were mostly fine, but that’s all – just fine. I always had a hankering to travel to exotic and far flung places, and ‘do something’ with wild animals. As a teenager I would dream of being brave and adventurous like Joy Adamson, Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey, and it was the film ‘Born Free’ that grabbed my imagination all those years ago. After watching that I knew that I had to go to Africa one day. It took a long time but my chance came when I was 44.
At that time I was a wedding photographer, and a friend mentioned that her husband had been invited to Zambia to photograph a new safari lodge for their brochure and website. She said that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to do it though, and without engaging my brain my mouth opened and I immediately retorted “Is he mad? I’d do it like a shot!”. Cut to a couple of months later and I set off to Zambia, all expenses paid, and a fee paid too (although I’d have done it for nothing!) I was a bit terrified, as there was going to be no communication with the outside world, so I couldn’t just contact my more experienced (in photography) husband if I didn’t know what I was doing or if something went wrong. The fact that the clients were delighted with my images was a huge boost to my confidence, as until that time I always thought that one day I’d be ‘found out’ for not being a ‘real’ photographer as I’ve never had any formal training or qualifications.
Several years later in December 2010 after seeing ‘Born Free’ again on television and talking animatedly about it, my 21 year old son said “so go and do something with lions”, went on the internet, and found me a volunteer programme where I could actually do that. So I went. All on my own. To a ‘gap year’ programme. (Average age 18-26!). Not knowing anybody. And I LOVED IT. Being in my 50s didn’t matter one jot as I just got stuck in with everybody else and they all included me without seeing my age as a barrier.
So many people describe something that happens to them as ‘life changing’, but in reality for most people it only changes something in their life for a very short period of time. This really did change mine, as on another volunteer placement I met an Australian girl who was also a photographer. Whilst there she got a job with the volunteer organisation as Photography Coordinator and Tutor at one of their bases in South Africa. My immediate reaction was ‘ OMG, I’d LOVE to do that’. This led to me going on the programme as a volunteer, and before I left I had a chat with the business manager, letting her know that if they ever needed somebody to fill in for up to three months, I’d love to do it. They normally like somebody to do the job for at least a year, but I explained that wouldn’t be possible for me as I had a business, husband, and at that time a daughter still living at home. The following year I had ‘the’ phone call, went out to South Africa to work for them for 3 months, did it twice again in subsequent years, and I slowly gained the confidence to become a photography trip leader for myself.
Related: Top Tips For Travelling Solo
What are you hoping to accomplish?
I would like to run two or three ‘sold out’ photography trips a year to various wonderful places. I don’t actually need too many clients as I would never have more than 6-8 guests per trip. Any more than that and I wouldn’t be able to give them enough individual help with their photography. Not everyone needs my help of course and I had a couple of very competent photographers on my trip earlier this year, but I do want everyone to get what they want out of a trip. Not just that, but I want to exceed their expectations!
How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
Slowly! It’s an ongoing process, but for my first two trips I created pages on one of our business websites, wrote blog posts, got help with SEO, and generally told potentially interested people what I was doing. I also had a lot of advice from my husband who has been doing this for many years.
How did your family and friends react?
They have all been very encouraging and my family have been amazingly supportive. When I’ve disappeared off to South Africa for 3 months at a time I’ve felt incredibly guilty for various reasons though. My youngest daughter only left home last year to go to University, and I was actually away for her 18th and 21st birthdays. GUILT! At the time of my first couple of long stints away I had regularly been looking after my eldest daughter’s toddler, so she had to arrange alternative childcare for when she was working. GUILT! And of course I’ve left my husband to run the business and house and keep everything afloat whilst I’m away. GUILT! Having said that, without fail they all said that I must grab the opportunities and do it. They haven’t made me feel guilty – that’s just down to me. Isn’t that something that goes with being a mother and wife though – the feeling that we should always be there for the family? My closest friends just tell me to go for it – we’re all at an age where the children are grown, and feel that we should do things whilst we can. You never know what’s around the corner.
How has your life changed having gone down this path?
The ‘earning money’ trips haven’t changed my life, but the wildlife volunteering has meant that I’ve become ‘me’ if that makes sense. Throughout my whole life I’ve been introduced to people as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and whilst ‘belonging’ and family is very important to me I never really felt that I had much to offer or was a very interesting person. Going on these trips on my own has felt as if I’m a person in my own right, but of course all that change is only in my own head. In terms of my actual life changing, I used to get away on a holiday once or twice a year if I was lucky. In the past few years though I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a total of several months a year abroad (when I add up all the various different weeks.)
What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
My advice would be that you have to be passionate about what you are considering doing. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to make a big change and you can’t be half-hearted about it. You need to look forward to getting up in the morning to put the work in or it would be too easy just to coast into retirement!
However, know your limitations and if something needs to happen quickly but you don’t have the capability yourself, then outsource it to somebody else. You can’t be great at everything. I’d also advise to ensure you keep track of expenses. I personally have massive spreadsheets on my computer to ensure that all the numbers add up and that what I commit to is profitable.
What are you proud of and what keeps you inspired?
I assume the question relates to business, but my first answer would have to be a personal one and the answer is easy: my three children, who are all fantastic and well rounded adults with great qualities. I’ve often thought that I haven’t achieved much with my life, but then I remind myself that I’ve done pretty well in raising them to be the wonderful adults they are today. When I was a full time mum I was at a dinner party and somebody asked what my job was. The conversation moved very swiftly on to a more interesting topic when my reply was ‘I’m a mother’ and I instantly felt inadequate and boring compared to the group of successful career people I was with. It’s sad that being a mother isn’t seen as an achievement or a job of any worth…..
On the business side of things however I’m proud that:
I’ve had the courage to push myself out of my comfort zone on many occasions.
I actually have more technical knowledge than I think I do (in photography terms)
I’m an excellent planner and meticulous about the finer details of my trips.
I’ve helped others with their photography and post production to the extent that after perhaps years of ‘not getting it’, things finally became clear to them and they’ve suddenly become much more competent than they were before.
My children think I’m pretty cool, and my grandson is open mouthed with amazement when I tell him I’ve seen lions, elephants, leopards, organgutans, and all kinds of wonderful animals in the wild.
Friends say that they’d love to go off on trips like I do, but don’t actually do it. I’m proud that I do.
What keeps me inspired is the knowledge that there is still a lot to see in the world and that one way of doing that is to take others with me who have an interest in photography. I get a kick out of seeing somebody as excited as I am when they see a great sight, or look at one of their own photos and feel proud of themselves for having captured it. If they’ve achieved that because of me it’s a great feeling and that in itself is a huge inspiration to do more.
What do you love most about being the age you are?
Having a great relationship with my now grown up children.
Being self employed. It means that I have the freedom to travel frequently.
Finally finding something that I’m rather good at, which has been a huge boost to my confidence.
Embracing that it’s now my time to do what I want, it’s OK to put me first, and if I don’t do it now I never will.
What do you hate most about being the age you are?
Having to put reading glasses on more and more often!
Age spots on my face and backs of hands! (I should have used sunscreen more often)
Being ‘invisible’ to anyone who doesn’t know me if they are under the age of 30.
Not having my parents alive.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
I know that if you want to do something then you should do it and not let anybody hold you back as you’ll always regret the things you didn’t do. The internet is simply amazing with the ability to find out anything you want to know, and if I’d had that in my twenties, my life may have turned out very differently. I may have been like Joy, Jane, or Diane, and gone out to rescue lions or study chimps or gorillas somewhere in Africa!
What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Sometimes you just have to take a risk. (Which I’m very bad at, but my husband is often willing to do just that.) Sometimes it turns out amazingly well, other times it can be a really bad financial decision. But if you never take risks you’ll stay in your comfort zone and never experience the exhilaration and joy that can happen when you venture out.
Keep in contact with people you meet along the way. You never know what it may lead to.
Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
‘Do it now whilst you can’
Which woman do you most admire and why?
Jane Goodall. To think that she sailed to Kenya on her own in 1957 at the age of 23 is just incredible. What she then went on to achieve is even more incredible. And today at the age of 84 she travels an average of 300 days a year speaking in venues around the world about the threats facing chimpanzees and raising awareness of the damage we are doing to the planet.
Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
That I’m anti-social, and that I’m full of confidence. I’ve recently read about the traits of an introvert and realised that it’s me! The more I read the more I realise that it’s actually OK not to want to go to a party where I don’t know many people, or to want my own space. As for full of confidence – not always by any means, but I can fake it pretty well when necessary!
How can readers find out more about what you do?
And if anyone would like to come on a photography holiday that I haven’t yet planned please get in touch with your ideas and suggestions here. You don’t have to be professional, know what you’re doing or even have a fancy camera. Although my trips are open to men as well as ladies, I’ve heard time and time again that on a photography holiday ladies can feel intimidated by (usually male) tour leaders and participants with their technical knowledge and massive long lenses. I do my best to ensure that nobody feels inadequate, scared to ask a question, or stupid on my photography trips, and want to reach out to anyone who has a couple of weeks to spare and an adventurous spirit.
You may also like Volunteering Abroad – Why It’s Great At Any Age, Finding The Magic Outside Your Comfort Zone, and Photography 101 – A Mini-Course.