Emily Keegin and Caroline Tompkins
Emily Keegin is a creative director & photo editor based in Oakland, California. She has a BA from Bennington College & MFA in Photography from the Royal College of Art.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Caroline Tompkins received a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, and her work has been featured on BBC, Al-Jazeera America, and The New York Times among others. Her photographs explore issues of female sexuality, localism, and sincerity within them. Caroline currently lives in Brooklyn, NY working as a freelance photographer and photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
“Even when I’m making money, I feel like it won’t last.”
Caroline Tompkins: Thanks for talking to me! As a woman, I think money is interesting. It’s been funny to work in a corporate environment, and see how my natural inclination is to be passive towards it. I mean, I feel like my male co-workers are maybe more comfortable talking about it, especially with getting a raise. They’ll have been there less time than I have and be like, “I think I’m going to ask for a raise, soon” and I’m like, “Wait what? You can do that?”
Emily Keegin: I feel the same way. I think it’s about self-worth. And committing to a higher price, for yourself. That sounds like prostitution, but, well, maybe it is. Which is to say… You should definitely ask for a raise! (laughs) I think it’s especially hard when you have to ask for a raise to a male superior. I don’t know why. It’s like asking Daddy for money or something. Anyway…
CT: I want to start this conversation by knowing more about your relationship to money. Do you think about it a lot?
EK: I think about it. All the time. And I have a very complicated relationship with money. I feel broke all the time. Even when I’m making money, I feel like it won’t last. And, partially at least, it comes from the years between graduating college and having a steady job and how difficult it was to get to a place where I could feel comfortable… Also, I have a pretty apocalyptic view of the world. (laughs) And I feel the same way about money. And in the creative field, you’re constantly doing things for free. So it also feels like there’s no sense that there’ll be another paying job coming down the line. Do you know what I mean?
CT: Totally – and when you’re graded on performance, you feel like, “Well, I fucked that one up, so they’ll never hire me again! Maybe this is it!” (laughs)
EK: Yes! Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I think a lot about aging out, like, “Am I still desirable?” In this field, what’s exciting is the new trend, the new thing and everyone is trying to stay as contemporary as possible… Youth is given some weight in that calculus. And as I get older, I think “Am I going to age out of desirability?” Maybe I’ve just looked at too many anti-aging wrinkles creams! (laughs) The industry is also changing and shrinking so, what was an obvious career path when I started fifteen years ago is now… Who knows! This is getting depressing.
CT: I’m sorry you thought it wasn’t going to be depressing! (laughs) I feel the same, obviously. It feels scary not knowing older people in the field. Maybe it’s different for photographers.…
EK: No, I think it’s the same… I’m worried for young photographers who are finding incredible success. Their aesthetic is really hot and I’m terrified that in fifteen years, that aesthetic might no longer be cool. And then they have to rethink their craft in a quick and marketable way.
CT: I definitely worry for people who have a super niche aesthetic.
EK: Yes, but there are also people who have been doing the same things for years and who keep on doing the same things and there might be like, five years where they go out of style and they’re not popular, and then they’ll be back! Because everything is cyclical. I can think on the top of my head of a few people who went out of style for a few years but now, I see them working again, doing the same thing they were doing before, and they’re cool again…
CT: It might be a reason to diversify. The security of being a photo editor is hard to bargain with.
EK: Oh my god, yes, same!
CT: Do you feel like working at Businessweek changed anything about money, even from the perspective of being around finance bros?
EK: Oh my god, yes! It was a real wake-up call as to how much money people make! (laughs) How did you feel being there? What’s been the striking feature of being at that kind of work?
CT: It’s changing. I started right out of school, while I was still on food stamps, and it seemed insane to me that people were eating 13$ salads for lunch every day. And today, I bought a 13$ salad. The idea of someone spending 300$ on a pair of pants was insane and now I’m like, “that seems like a reasonable price for pants”. It’s fucked up. I go to Equinox and Sweet Green and it’s like, “who have I become?” There’s something about working at Businessweek that’s comforting as opposed to working at People or something like that, where I feel like I would disagree with having to worry about gossip or trends. Not that I agree with capitalism, but I interned at GQ and felt like it was very toxic for me.
EK: Well, the community at Businessweek is second to none. A lot of artistic freedom is granted to the people there. Maybe it’s because of money, because it’s a financially secure magazine, so until Bloomberg decides he doesn’t want to do it anymore… That’s a really secure place to be operating from.
CT: I think about money all the time. I feel like I get the question asked to me every day, “When will you finally go full-time freelance?” And truthfully, I love working there, but it’s an exciting prospect.
EK: I feel like I’ve asked you that question a million times! Like, “Now! Let’s go!”
CT: Yeah, well, fuck… (laughs)
EE: Well, you know, we all want to believe that money is that thing we shouldn’t think about, like it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. We don’t live in a country that grants us healthcare and this baby needs a pap smear! So… Believing that your talent and your art can deliver what is necessary to live in this country is a difficult thing. And looking at your contemporaries, I think some people have managed to make it work and some people have months of constant work – followed by months of no work. And then there are horror stories of magazines that don’t really pay, or you do things that are “great for your career” but are done for free… I don’t know, I think it’s super scary.
CT: Yes, and since graduating I’ve always been working full-time so being without a steady paycheck is really scary.
EK: Yes, and it should be scary! I think the part that is super unfair about art making is that the actual time you spend making art is not what’s going to bring you an income, you know? That’s really only a piece of your career. The rest of your career is taking meetings, hustling, doing your taxes and making sure your mental health is correct! You suddenly have to do all the stuff that is taken care of when you work in a full-time position. And that changes everything.
CT: I photographed Pauly D, the DJ. This is a pretty funny way to get to my point, but it was in a club in Midtown, and I’d never been to one of those bottle service clubs before. It was amazing to see the way people were interacting – and I had this epiphany that nobody was thinking about work while they were there, whereas I’m thinking about work in most social engagements, whether it’s at a dinner or with my peers or anything. They were not thinking about how their livelihood is being affected by their actions. Does that make sense?
EK: Were you jealous?
CT: It just sort of accented how much that is a part of my life. How your public-facing life is part of your job. It feels like we all know a photographer who posted something they shouldn’t have. I’ve had meetings with photographers who came in and they were very alienating to talk to, and I was like, “well, I guess I’m never going to hire you”. It’s hard to think about going into meetings of my own and that if I’m not super charismatic, that could mean I won’t work.
EK: Yes, and then there’s jealousy and feeling critical about yourself… It’s loaded, so loaded. It’s much easier being in the photo editor seat, I think.
CT: Of course, but I think the thing about ageing and the uncertainty of media today is equally scary.
CT: How did having a kid change the way you think about money?
EK: Oh my god… Well, let me pour myself a glass of wine to discuss this. (laughs) Well, having a kid is pretty expensive. There’s just less time to work, so I’ve become more aggressive regarding what I ask for from projects that I am hired for. There just isn’t time to fuck around, or spend all day thinking about what photographer to hire for some piddly hourly rate… I just realized that my time was worth something and in order to work, I have to pay for childcare. Like, spending time on a project meant that I was actually losing money if I wasn’t making more money. So I guess having a kid was actually positive, a net positive. “Annette Positive” would actually be a very good name for a stripper. (laughs) But she’d be dressed as a businesswoman, you know? “I’m Annette. Annette Positive”.
CT: I think I see a Businessweek project is coming.
EK: There you go! You can have that one. I highly recommend having a kid. It’s super great, and super weird. It’s weirder and cooler that anyone will tell you. They’ll tell you “It’s so hard!”, and it is, but it’s super, super cool and super weird.
CT: Weird, how?
EK: Humans are super weird, the way humans develop is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’ve never hung out with children, this is the only child I’ve ever met (laughs). So this is very new and super weird, and you go from… They start walking one day, it’s a trip. It’s really a trip. Highly recommended.
CT: There’s something I wanted to say about having a kid, but I can’t tell you in this interview… I’ll tell you later. About a scam involving having a kid and using the parental leave… And being a surrogate.
EK: I like where this is going!
CT: Basically just getting paid double to have six months off. (laughs)
EK: Because yes, no one would check!
CT: Right! How long do you have to keep it up?
EK: Probably forever! (laughs) It probably has to stay that way for a long time. That’s the downside of the scam.
CT: I surrogate a kid, I get paid 70’000$, I get paid leave off… Well, I have the kid but I don’t keep it. Anyway, I’m kidding. Please don’t email me about having your kid.
EK: Oh I see, you would be the surrogate? I thought you were just going to pretend you were having a kid.
CT: Yes, I could also… (laughs)!
“Is this my future?”
CT: Anyways, I think that sort of aggression is something I wish I had more of. Is it something you wish you had before you had a kid?
EK: Yes, I was always afraid… I don’t like confrontation. It made me feel uncomfortable about asking for more money, which is stupid. I always wanted to be that “I give no fucks” type of person.
CT: Do you feel like it created conflict?
EK: No, I feel like I’ve gotten the money I’ve asked for. The other part is that I work with very small budget magazines, and when photographers I’ve worked with before come back to me and say “well, my day rate is 2000$ but I guess I’ll do it for this.” And you can’t help but think, “I know what you’re doing, but…”
CT: It’s funny being on both sides. It’s funny the way photographers use manipulative language at times. I mean, I get it, companies have more money than what they say they have.
EK: Everyone has more money than they’re willing to say they have. I’m sure that if I really wanted, I could give you another 50 bucks, but it would mean that I would have to go find 50 bucks from somewhere and I don’t have the time to do that… Part of me is “of course you should ask for more” and part of me is “please, just do this for the shitty amount I’m asking for…” But all photographers should be asking for more money. Period. Don’t listen to me.
CT: It’s funny being on the other side because I’ve been in positions where I have to go back to people on money stuff, and sometimes they’ll say, “did the budget change?” as though I’m going to pull a higher number out of a hat… And it’s like, “please don’t make me write you another email, I’ve already said no.”
EK: Yes, you know, I was once on a shoot, and we’d agreed to an amount, and after the shoot that person came back to me and said “oh, you know, retouching came back much higher than we expected… Is there another 400$ in the budget that we could maybe get?” And at that point if feels like no one is making any money off it, the photographer isn’t making money, I’m not making any money, it was already a tight budget. And it puts me in a very bad position, because I don’t want you to pay out of your own pocket for something that I’m publishing, but at the same time I feel like saying “do you want to know how much I’m making? Because I’m not making any money here either!”
CT: It’s such a weird reality. A newer realization I had is finding out how much friends have paid out of their own pocket for fashion shoots.
CT: Like, 25000$.
EK: It’s so insane!
CT: And I’m happy for them, but at the same time, I’m like “is this my future?” Am I going to be able to justify that, like I have the 13$ salad?
EK: That shit is fucking bonkers. And those prices are real. And I don’t get it. And the concept is that it fuels work that pays more, but…
CT: But from a production standpoint, I’m confused. I’m like, “show me the receipts”. Other times, I haven’t responded to an email asking me if I wanted to do something, and then within 24 hours, I got a second email with them upping the budget.
EK: I hope that wasn’t me!
CT: No, no! (laughs)
EK: Well, that’s a good strategy. It’s very passive-aggressive of you.
CT: I was talking with a photographer recently and she was telling me how she’s really hard to work with and really prides herself on that. It was inspiring for me. I usually want to be the most agreeable, most flexible person. Ultimately it comes down to personality differences, but then I kept thinking “should I be harder to work with?”
EK: No! Definitely not.
CT: But it’s like you being more aggressive with money. It is, in some way, being harder to work with.
EK: But money is like… Everyone knows you’ve got to make money. Like now, everyone knows I need to pay for childcare to be able to work with them. And I can’t afford to do it for less. And that’s an out. Recently I worked with a man, and I had to negotiate my fee and I told him that I needed to know how much he was making so that I wasn’t being paid less. He was very hesitant to give me the numbers but then I found out I’d been offered half of what they’ve offered him. For the same project.
EK: Hot take – I don’t want to be asking for 1000$ more if in fact, I should be asking for twice as much.
EK: So that was uncomfortable, but… Whatever.
CT: But did you already know your co-worker?
EK: Yes, I wasn’t asking a total stranger. (laughs). But I think it’s healthy to be asking male photographers how much they’re making working with the same publications. I know that magazines work with a very tight budget, but sometimes, when you’re working with established photographers, who maybe have an agent, you have to pay them more than you’d pay people who are brand new… However, I think it’s a really good thing to talk to colleagues asking them how much they’re making from these places, so there’s nothing dodgy.
CT: I feel like it’s often the add-ons – the digital processing fees, the retouching, the things like that that can double the rate… Or at least, that’s what I found with talking to people who have an agent.
EK: Yes, or asking for equipment rental that’s actually your equipment. Or writing down “studio rental” when you’re shooting in your living room! (laughs)
CT: Is the thrill of getting a bigger paycheck in spending it or watching it accumulate?
EK: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know! I think it’s in spending it. I’m looking at a pile of Amazon boxes. (laughs) What about you? With your salads?
CT: I think it’s spending it. I don’t know. I’m always thinking “well, I have money now, but pretty soon, it’ll be gone! I don’t know why, but it’ll be gone!”
EK: I don’t think you can be in media and not think that tomorrow, you might be fired. I mean, I’ve seen enough en-mass firings to never think “oh yes, my job is safe”. I think we’re smart to think that maybe tomorrow, we’ll be out of jobs. (laughs)
CT: That’s surprising for me to hear because I feel like you’re a celebrity photo-editor.
EK: In a sense that I deal with celebrities?
CT: No, like you’re sought after, like you’re on the edge of coolness, and people want to work for you for no money. I wonder if that’s something that a, you think about but also b, I feel like if you’d get fired tomorrow, someone else really cool would want you, and therefore you have nothing to worry about.
EK: That’s so nice. Wow. That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time. Thank you.
CT: Because people ask me all the time, “how do you work for her? She won’t answer my emails!”
EK: Well… I’m really bad at emails. I have really low self-esteem. I’m so enamored with things that other people are doing, I’m always thinking “if only I was that person doing that thing.” But, real talk. I’ve struggled for a long time with depression, I’ve been working on it, daily, for a long time. And when I think about my career, I’m pretty negative about it! (laughs) So really, I’m so grateful to you for saying this. I’ll keep this in my little mind when I’m beating myself up. Thank you for being my therapist. (laughs)
“It’s a total mindfuck to wonder if I’m getting hired because I’m a woman”
CT: I feel like, I’ve not gone freelance because there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe in myself.
EK: I thought this might be the case. Every time I told you I thought you should go freelance, I was kinda, like “You’re amazing. You should go freelance”. But it’s true, you’re amazing, you have an incredible eye and there really isn’t anyone who’s working like you’re working. I mean, you’re part of that group of SVA grads who are using a similar kind of aesthetic, like Molly [Matalon], Damien [Maloney] and others. It’s kind of an editorial, film-y aesthetic. And there are younger people who are peeping you, and copying you a little bit to get inspiration. When I ask photographers who’re just graduating, who they’re looking up to, your names come up, often. Like Molly, Corey [Olsen], David [Brandon Geeting], you, everyone’s looking at you as the vanguard of contemporary editorial photography. But what I think about you, specifically, is that you have this very good sense of quirk. You’re very versatile in your aesthetic and you slip around with tremendous ease and that’s very exciting!
CT: Wow thank you.
EK: And I also think that because you work as a photo-editor, I trust you to produce a shoot and to get it. If I tell you “I need this shot”, I know I don’t have to hold your hand or worry about it. I know I can trust you and that you’re going to go and get it. Which is a really nice thing. I would say, you should trust your vision. But also, you’re a woman, so maybe, don’t. (laughs).
CT: And that’s where we wrap up! Thanks! (laughs)
EK: I mean, you know you’re going to have a harder time than like, any dude.
CT: It’s a total mind-fuck to wonder if I’m getting hired because I’m a woman. Like I’ll get hired to shoot something and and I’ll think, “well, this magazine hired way too many men, so they need to hire me to fill their quota”. It’s ridiculous.
EK: It’s the dumbest. Like, women are finally getting hired and we keep thinking “but maybe I’m just a token!” You weren’t getting hired before, so shut up.
CT: I feel that I’m hired to shoot mostly women. So I’ll start thinking that they’re thinking, “Oh the subject’s a woman, so we’ll hire a woman photographer”.
EK: “We’ll just hire her”. LOL. Like there’s no one else.
CT: It’s a weird thing. It’s something I struggle with as a photo editor, too.
EK: But you hire women to photograph women because women tend to not sexualize their subjects in the same way that men do. Often, women feel more comfortable with a woman behind a camera. Although… Not always. You can get a much worse portrait sometimes from a woman because the subjects don’t take directions from a woman as easily.
CT: Of course, I’ve definitely been on that side too.
EK: Yes, but I would try to quiet that little voice if you can.
CT: I’m plugging along. It’s steeping, slowly. It’s something I worried more about maybe a year ago. I was asked to do something recently and – not to bring everything back to money – but I told them I wasn’t going to to do it for the amount they were offering and immediately after, I felt like “Oh my god, I’m crazy, what am I doing? I’m turning down a month’s rent!” and they came back to me after, with more money. So there are these smaller victories.
EK: Yes! Your time is worth a lot, your creativity is worth a lot. Creativity and talent are the most rare and precious things. Your vision and your talent to create that vision – well, first of all, you went to school for it. You already spent thousands and thousands of dollars to learn that, and you’re a master at these things and for people to think you’re not worth that money, it’s crazy – every-time I’m saying things like that, I keep thinking of the budgets I work with and I’m part of the problem. Editorial’s one thing, because we’re all in trouble but advertising or whatever shit for the Silicon Valley, when the budgets for these are shitty, that’s crazy.
CT: It’s crazy to see how things are valued. Like when social Ad campaigns are on editorial budgets. I’m really interested in how that will play out. Interested and terrified. Do you feel like you have any good financial advice?
EK: Erm, laughter. Ha! No. Ask for more money. That’s all. Probably don’t go into magazines.
CT: If you could buy anything right now, what would it be?
EK: If I could buy anything right now… Ok, this is the first thing that comes to mind, what I really want is a dandruff shampoo that doesn’t smell bad. Moving out West, I have crazy dandruff and the only thing that works smells fucking horrible… I’m talking to you on the phone and all I can think of is chopping my own head off. It smells like rotting Sulphur trash, I smell like Satan’s asshole. It’s the worst. So besides that, I don’t know.
CT: There’s probably an Into the Gloss article about your dandruff…
EK: You think? I don’t think any of those ladies has dandruff.
CT: Okay, maybe more of the Buzzfeed crowd.
EK: “10 things you didn’t know about a flaky scalp”. So that would be my number one thing to buy… I’m going to think about it and write something charming.
CT: Maybe just rewrite the whole thing.
EK: Ha! Well, this has been very enjoyable. I’d been procrastinating all day. I’ve been so glad to know you. Enjoy the rest of your day.
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