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Please tell us about yourself, your background, and your main photography specialty.

Over the past few years my main photography specialty has been photojournalism, with a focus on conflict and humanitarian crises in the Middle East.

My love of photography was born out of my passion for horses and traveling. While living out a childhood fantasy of working as a wrangler on a horse ranch in the remote mountains of Wyoming in my twenties, I also developed my interest in photography, wanting to share with family and friends the unbelievable sights I was seeing.

I started to approach photography more professionally during a volunteer project in Ghana where my photos were central in generating interest and awareness of the plight of vulnerable women and children living with HIV/AIDS, which helped raise money for a campaign I initiated to provide beds for a group of women who are supported by a community-based organization.

Subsequent to my work in Ghana, I continued to develop my interest in photography while working part of the year as an English teacher in Spain. In 2015, one of my photographs was published in National Geographic Magazine, which gave me the push I needed to pursue photography as a full-time profession.

In 2016, I traveled to Palestine where I began producing photo essays about Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. This consolidated my commitment to covering political, humanitarian and social issues and for the past few years the majority of my work has been in northern Iraq covering the battle against ISIS and the country’s efforts to recover from the conflict, as well as the struggle of refugees seeking safety in Europe.

What are all the components of your online presence now? (personal site, social media, other profiles)

Thanks to you I now have a brand-new personal site, which I’m absolutely delighted with. I also have a PhotoShelter site, which used to be my primary site and which I still use to store and transfer high-resolution images to clients. I have several social media profiles for my business (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram), but I’m not as active on them as I could be, so that’s something I plan to work on.

How do you balance photography work between commercial/assignment and personal projects?

While I was based in northern Iraq between 2016 and 2019, I was lucky to have regular assignments with media outlets, UN agencies and international NGOs. Since I left Iraq last year, I’ve had a lot more time to focus on personal projects, which has allowed me to look into expanding my photography business to include a stronger fine art element, offering a selection of limited edition prints that are accurate and artistic reflections of reality, a kind of bridge between photojournalism and fine art.

What has been your business’s biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I first started working as a freelance photojournalist was capturing the attention of photo editors. Having a strong online portfolio of images to share with them via email was extremely important, as was learning to write succinct but captivating story pitches, something I’m still striving to master.

Another challenge I’ve faced as a freelance photojournalist is balancing risks, both financial and physical, with being in the right place to capture images of an event or a conflict. The challenges of freelancing are many, and when I first started, I was quite anxious about covering the cost of traveling independently and all the associated logistical costs, while not knowing if I would manage to publish the photos and reimburse those costs. During my time in Iraq I was determined to find alternative ways of covering the war without paying the daily fees of local fixers, which can be up to $500 per day or more. Towards the end of the battle against ISIS in Mosul, I had the opportunity to embed with a team of frontline medics, which gave me extraordinary access and insight into the human cost of the conflict and the lifesaving work of medics.

My current challenge is trying to gain a better understanding of how the fine art industry operates and finding galleries to represent my work.

I remember working with you on building your new, it was a great experience. What effects did the websites have on your business so far?

It was a great experience for me too, I thoroughly enjoyed working with you! I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about my new site, and I’m so happy to now be able to offer prints for sale – something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I now have many more visitors to my site and I’ve already sold a few prints.

Your site offers multiple types of fine-art prints. What’s your experience with selling them and what feedback have you received from customers?

Selling prints is a new venture for me and it’s still a work in progress. I’ve sold a couple of prints so far, but I realise that having an e-commerce store doesn’t in itself lead to the scale of sales I’m targeting, so I now need to focus on marketing and getting my work represented and promoted by galleries.

Where is the photography industry going, in your opinion? And what can photographers in your niche do to differentiate themselves?

I think photography as an industry is increasingly competitive and is constantly presenting new challenges. In the photojournalism field, I think editors are inundated with pitches and content from a wide spectrum of freelance photographers, making it really difficult to cut through. I suspect they’re also running to tighter budgets than in the past, which results in a downward trend in day rates for freelancers, which, coupled with the increasing operating costs, particularly in countries where there’s conflict, makes it increasingly difficult for freelancers to make a meaningful income.

I think it’s important as a photographer to develop your own style and visual voice, and to seek out ways of capturing images that other photographers aren’t. If I’m covering an event where there are a lot of other photographers, I try to find a different angle or viewpoint, or focus on an entirely different element of the story.

At what point in your career did you start using a website and what effects did the websites have on your business so far?

In 2012, when I had a strong enough collection of images to showcase my work, I decided to create my own WordPress site with the help of YouTube tutorials. That enabled me to show my work to editors, which led me to work as a freelancer with my local and regional newspapers.

What social media platforms do you use, and how do you find time to manage these accounts? How have they helped your business so far?

I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, although not very regularly. I see a lot of my colleagues are very active on Instagram, which seems to help their business, so it’s something I plan to make better use of.

I find Facebook particularly useful in generating interest in my work, which then links back to my website. I’m also a member of several Facebook groups for journalists and photographers, which are very useful for networking and connecting with editors looking to commission photographers for assignments.

Many photographers are looking to transition more from services to products (prints, books, workshops, photo tours, etc.) Do you plan on creating such products?

This is what I’m currently working towards. Until recently I’ve only offered services or sold digital images to media outlets and international non-governmental organisations. I’ve long wanted to sell fine art prints but it’s only recently I’ve had the time to focus on this and to undertake personal projects aimed at capturing images that can be sold as art.

In the coming months I’m planning to create a photo book of images from Iraq, covering the battle against ISIS in and around the city of Mosul and the country’s efforts to recover and rebuild.

I’m also hoping to start offering photography tours/workshops in Wyoming in the future.

What is your least favorite aspect of managing your photography business?

I find self-promotion particularly difficult. I enjoy maintaining and updating my website (since you’ve taught me how to do it), and obviously the projects and trips to capture the content, but I find it a bit awkward to reach out to new clients to promote my own work (maybe it’s the Welsh in me). Everything else about managing the business I really enjoy.

What inspires you? (now, in the industry)

I’m really inspired by the work of incredible photojournalists like Carol Guzy, Laurence Geai and Elizabeth Fitt, all of whom I had the pleasure of working with in Iraq. I’m also really inspired by fine art photographer David Yarrow.

What do you think are the qualities of an effective photography website?

Organised and straightforward presentation that’s easy to navigate, with a strong selection of images. I think simplicity and clarity are key to a successful website, and I’ve tried (with your help) to showcase that in mine.

In your experience, what mistakes are people usually making on their photography sites?

While I was searching for inspiration for my new website, I came across a lot of amazing photography sites, but I found that some didn’t contain enough background information to give context to the images, and some weren’t very user-friendly to navigate. I also found that some sites had broken links or the images were slow to load, which is always off-putting.

What website metrics do you track and what informed decisions do you take based on them?

I use Google Analytics, and I’m trying to develop a better understanding of those metrics so that I can make changes based on the results to improve my online presence.

What are your plans for improving your site and growing your photo business in the next year?

My goal now is to focus on marketing and research and gallery representation. As for my site, right now I couldn’t be happier with how it is – it’s exactly the style and format I’ve wanted for years. Now I just need to get out into the world and get some new content to make it even better.

In this crowded market, how do you avoid getting stuck in the “background” and start reaching the “foreground” of your audience?

In my photojournalism work, I look for stories that I feel strongly about and that are under-reported in the mainstream media. I try and present images that are strong enough to make others feel as engaged in the story or issue as I am. In the fine art dimension, I try to capture images that evoke a feeling or emotion that is more layered and draws the viewer in.

Quick-fire round (shorten answers as much as possible):

Can you share any life-threatening photoshoot experience?

I once felt the air from a bullet as it whizzed past my head while I was photographing Iraqi soldiers on the frontline during the battle against ISIS in a village south of Mosul, Iraq. In the same village on the same day, I also found myself sitting on top of an improvised explosive device buried by ISIS militants… an Iraqi soldier noticed that the wire had been exposed from where I’d been sitting and I was rushed away before the soldiers carried out a controlled detonation. Of course, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story had the bomb been active. Still, it was a lucky escape.

How many countries have you visited (and which one did you like most)?

I’ve visited around 45 countries, most of which I loved for different reasons. One of my favourite countries is definitely Iraq, for the incredible hospitality and kindness of its people and their resilience in confronting adversity, which sadly is put to the test time and time again. On a more personal level, my favourite place is the US state of Wyoming, where I continue to visit as frequently as possible, and where I first developed my passion for photography. I’m also crazy about Afghanistan – it’s such a fascinating and beautiful country.

What’s something you’re still actively learning or struggling with?

How to get editors to reply to my emails and dealing with rejection.

Your favorite sources of reading material?

Online articles and ebooks.

What are 3 interesting things in your fridge, right this moment?

Beer, jalapenos and mushrooms. Nothing very exciting since I’m a terrible cook.

Great having you on ForegroundWeb, thanks for taking the time. Where can people get in touch with you if needed?

My pleasure! I can be reached via my site: clairethomasphotography.com and by email at info@clairethomasphotography.com

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