Arts & Entertainment
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Arts & Entertainment Blog
Q&A with Professional Photographer Michelle Arlotta ’01
By Michelle Arlotta '01
April 28, 2023
Tags Arts & Entertainment
What was the process like to get where you are now in your career?
I didn’t take a traditional path to get to where I am. In fact, I majored in geology and minored in art history and I never took a photography class at Hamilton. It was never my intent while at Hamilton to end up in a creative field and it also wasn’t my intent to major in a science despite having a love for both — one of the best things I ever did was to keep my options open and not limit myself. For me, a big part of the process was the realization that the lifestyle I could lead was more important than the discipline I chose to follow. The lifestyle I wanted was one that would be rewarding, provide me with flexibility and freedom, utilize both my analytical and creative skills and allow me to afford a good amount of leisure time. Health and happiness were always more important to me than anything else.
In terms of the timeline I followed — After Hamilton, I earned my master’s degree in marine environmental science and an advanced graduate degree in waste management. I enjoyed those disciplines, but I didn’t make a rule for myself that I absolutely had to do something directly related to my degrees. While I’m often very calculated and researched about many things, when it comes to the big things, I often lead with my heart. I knew I’d need a career that would allow me to marry both my creative and analytical skills while also allowing me time to work both in solitude and with people.
Oddly enough, I was representing Hamilton at a college fair when I was in graduate school and the school next to me was a technical photography school and I kept chatting with the representative. It was like a light bulb went on for me that night as I realized that a career in photography would give me the freedom I wanted while also feeding my soul… if I was only brave enough to pursue it. At this point, I was a little more than halfway through my very long master’s program, but I had no intent on quitting.
In terms of practical skills — to get to this point in my career I needed a high level of technical expertise, emotional intelligence, business acumen, problem-solving skills, tenacity and a whole ‘lotta guts. While important, being a successful photographer requires more than just solid technical skills. In order to photograph people and their stories intimately with time pressures and stresses all around, the ability to quickly read people and adjust to their personalities and situations is paramount. It is a constant dance of juggling emotions, personalities, and moments while being on point technically. Without business acumen, I could be the best photographer in the world, but I wasn’t going to be able to make a living from it. And in terms of guts… it is scary to venture out on your own without a regular paycheck, a company retirement plan, and health benefits with the added fear that people may not like what you create.
What excites you most about your career?
The most exciting part of my career is the fact that I am paid to create and I have so much freedom with my time and what I create. I love translating human emotions, connections, gestures, and stories into something that people can forever enjoy and look back on. Evoking emotion out of others through photography is very rewarding. I knew I needed a career that would fuel my soul, not just my bank account and being a photographer has done that for me.
What do you wish you knew about your career before entering it?
On a broader level, I wish I was warned that once you work for yourself (unless you absolutely hate it), you are going to find it difficult to work for someone else ever again. It can feel limiting in terms of career changes you may want to make in the future because working for yourself is so different from working for someone else.
On a more creative industry specific level, I wish I knew that no matter how many awards, publications, honors and dollars I put in my pocket, I am always going to feel the imposter syndrome to some extent. The imposter syndrome as a creative keeps one on their toes. I would encourage a creative to embrace it as something that pushes them further, but to never let it keep them down. It is normal to hit periods of burnout and lack of creativity. When working for clients, a creative does not have to reinvent the wheel every time. It is a surefire way to burn out very quickly. It is important to realize that you can love your art, but once you are commissioned to create it, it can alter how you feel about it. The relationship to your craft will change over time and that is okay. Before entering this field, it is important to know that you can give yourself the breaks you need from creating, whether it is through personal projects or not creating at all, in order to have longevity.
How did Hamilton help prepare you for your career?
As someone who was always very interested in science and the arts, Hamilton was a place that I explored both without pressure to choose one side. I bounced between the analytical and technical and the creative and expressive and Hamilton’s open curriculum gave me the freedom and encouragement to do this. I never felt looked down upon by my amazing advisor, Dr. Cynthia Domack, for having a love other than science. I only felt supported. There was a respect and willingness to find a way for me to embrace it all. Across all of my courses, critical thinking was emphasized and is such an important skill to develop. When I left Hamilton, my writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills were further developed and were vital for me to pursue anything I desired. I always tell people that at Hamilton, I learned how to learn anything.
Are there ways in which you feel your career is reinventing itself?
As I’m nearly 20 years into my career, I’m reaching a point where I want to pivot a little bit, but I’m not 100% sure which way so I find myself in a similar place as I was back at Hamilton. I’m leaving myself open to options, considering new challenges to pursue and letting the chips fall where they may. My priorities are a little bit different now as I have a wonderful husband and fantastic daughter that are so important to me and a big part of any decision I make.
What are some important experiences to have or skills to attain before you enter this field?
If going into business for yourself as a creative, a solid understanding and common sense around business basics is imperative. Artistic talent isn’t going to carry anyone all the way.
I think it is important to work under someone in the field for a period of time paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t work and taking time to advance technical and creative skills. It can be difficult for many creative minds to deal with the procedural side of making a career out of an art, so it is important to ensure enough time has been put into building the proper organizational, analytical, and logistical skills that will be needed to be successful.
While it might feel like the slower path, the path to profitability will be quicker if time is taken to learn from others in the industry. It is important not to discount learning from people who might be great artists, but aren’t thriving in terms of profitability because so much can be learned from the mistakes people make. The mistakes often present more valuable information than anything.
Being a creative is going to be a balance of ego and humbleness so putting yourself in varying situations where you can garner experience in that delicate dance will be helpful.
What do you wish you could change about your field?
There has never been a time in history when exposure to imagery is as great as it is today. The average person has a tool right in their pocket to create imagery and access platforms to quickly and easily share their images with the world. I don’t discount how exciting this is in many ways, but there are some downsides that could be an article in itself. Today a common hobby appears as if it can easily turn into an income-generating hobby. This has saturated the industry and gives the perception that projects can be completed for a lot less than a professional may charge. It has altered the perception of the value of professional photography while making some areas of photography nearly non-existent professional career options. But if you are resolute in your worth and continue to hone, elevate, and adapt your craft, people will see the value.