It took Tasmanian-born Emma Murry ten years to get past negative feedback and finally become a photographer. While at uni, a dream-crushing arts lecturer dissuaded Emma from changing courses from law to photography, so she sidetracked into commerce, moved to Melbourne and became a marketer.
But after years in marketing communications, Emma’s heart just wasn’t in it. At 30, she found a photography lecturer who supported her, sold everything, applied for Austudy and enrolled in a full-time photography course.
After graduating, she worked freelance for six months (when she brilliantly photographed the portraits in The Leap Stories book), and is now photojournalist for a newspaper in Alice Springs.
Emma’s tale is a reminder to see dream crushers for what they are – a single voice in an ocean of possibility, who can’t see past their own limitations to honour your potential. While they may be acting to try and ‘protect’ and ‘guide’ you, it’s your life to live, your ideas to explore, your desires to plunder, your mistakes to make, your hunches to follow, your story to write, your success to be made on your terms.
Do you carry scars from the advice other people gave you about what you were capable of, or what you ‘should’ do? Most people I speak to can distinctly recall a critical conversation with someone who profoundly impacted the trajectory of their career choices (for better or worse), based on their own world lens. The trick is to steer towards people who are willing to help you explore your curiosities and build your confidence, rather than deny your interests and plant self-doubt.
If you come across a naysayer, move on until you find a wayfinder. If possible, don’t wait ten years to do it, but even then, know it’s never too late to forge a new path.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
This changed regularly. The first job I remember wanting to do is marine biology because I was obsessed with dolphins in primary school.
In grade seven I did a school project on Marie Curie and decided I was going to be a world-leading scientist.
Later in high school, I admired the discipline and dedication of sports people, and for most of Grade Ten I wanted to be Cathy Freeman.
Funnily enough, I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was eight but I didn’t seriously consider photography as a career until I was 30.
Growing up I was often upset that I didn’t feel a strong calling in one direction. I’ve tended to jump from whim to whim and worked furiously on short-term goals without getting too caught up in what will come next.
These days I think it’s better to have shortsighted ambitions; I’m constantly changing and developing so it seems ridiculous to focus too far into the future.
What did/do you study?
I started off doing a double degree in commerce and law at the University of Tasmania, halfway through which I realised I didn’t want to be a lawyer and all the hours I was spending in the law library could probably be spent doing something I actually like.
I applied to transfer my law degree to fine art so I could study photography. It wasn’t for career reasons, I just wanted to learn how to take better photos.
I went to an interview at the arts school and the lecturer was very rude to me. He said that my work was superficial and if it was up to him I wouldn’t get a place, but I would probably receive an offer based on my academic record.
The offer came through a few weeks later but I was so upset about what he said I declined it and focused on finishing my commerce degree. I started a marketing job shortly after graduating and didn’t think about it again.
Ten years later, after leaving marketing and a bit of soul searching, I started a Diploma of Photo Imaging at RMIT on my 30th birthday.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
Most people would think that leaving my marketing job was the scariest thing I’ve done, but that decision was actually quite easy.
The hardest decision was to turning down a marketing job earlier this year and really committing to my freelance business.
I was six months out of school and financially things were getting tough. Work was sporadic and at any given time I only had bookings for a week or two into the future. I was struggling to believe that I have what it takes to make the business succeed. I found it hard to trust that more work would come and it felt like I’d forever be worrying about whether I could pay next month’s rent.
I panicked and started applying for part time marketing jobs to ease my financial worries. I eventually got a call back for an interview, which I practically ran out of when it was finished. A few days after the interview the HR consultant rang to offer me the job and I declined.
They were lovely people and the job would have been ‘fine’, and the financial security would have removed a lot of stress from my life. But I knew that taking the job would have been the end of my business, and I’d soon find myself back where I had been a few years earlier.
A few people thought I’d made the wrong decision, but it didn’t really affect them because I’m the one who would be showing up to that job every day. I’m the one who has to live with the decisions I make, so at the end of the day, my opinion is the only one that matters.
Looking back I think turning down that job is the first time I’ve really backed myself. And thank goodness I did. If I was working a comfortable office job I wouldn’t have been open to the amazing opportunity I have now with News Corp in Alice Springs.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
I was coordinating external communications for an international engineering consultancy that specialises in renewable energy. I wasn’t completely unhappy in my role; I liked working for a company that was doing good work, and I got along well with my colleagues. That’s why I stayed as long as I did.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
My mother. She is one of the most caring people I know and I’ve grown up watching her coach my hockey teams, run work social clubs, and care for my grandfather (amongst many other things). As a result, I’ve learned the benefits of giving selflessly and helping others, which has helped me build strong personal and professional relationships.
My father is a former decathlete and weightlifter and has brought me up appreciating the benefits of discipline and hard work. In areas of my life where I’ve made any kind of achievements, it’s been more to do with toil and determination rather than talent or ability.
Growing up I was constantly looking at others to see which path I should follow; meanwhile, my sister was off making her own. She’s also been my biggest cheerleader during my leap.
My manager at the engineering consultancy was an incredible role model for me as a confused twenty-something. We were two female marketers in a sea of male engineers and we had to work twice as hard to get any kind of respect. The way she believed in the work we were doing and our contribution to the company inspired me, and she showed me the importance of self-belief.
My teacher at RMIT, Rob Gale, is a very experienced photographer and someone whose opinion I really value. He is the only teacher I’ve felt has understood me, believed in me, and known how hard to push me. We still stay in regular contact and he was the first person I called when I got the job in Alice Springs.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
Not much. I blew my life savings on a year of travel before I started studying photography. When I returned I sold my car to buy a decent camera and laptop, and after that I was living fortnight to fortnight on my Austudy payments.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?
I’d been pretty disillusioned with marketing for a few years before the leap. I knew it wasn’t my passion, but I also didn’t know what else to do. I felt like I was living my life ‘on hold’ until I could figure out my next move.
My ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment came during a professional development exercise where my team was partnered off and given a list of questions to ask each other.
My partner asked me “where do you see yourself in five years?” and I couldn’t come up with an answer. He prompted me by following up with “Would you be happy if you were still here?”
My heart sunk. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending another five years ‘on hold’.
A short time later I asked my manager for three months off to travel (which was really an excuse to get some space to ponder my future). This kind of leave was standard practice at our company so I was a little shocked when she resisted.
The company was going through some tough times and she wanted committed people in her team. “You’re either in or you’re out” she said to me. I realised I’d been overthinking the situation, and simplifying the question to “in” or “out” it made the decision easy. I was out.
My parents were overseas at the time and my mother happened to send me a message that night: “Hello, we’ve made it to Sweden. It’s a little chilly but the countryside is beautiful. How are you?”
I replied: “Glad you made it there safely. It’s raining in Melbourne but should be clearing up by the weekend. P.S. I quit my job today.”
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
For me, my leap was a moment to overcome years of being paralysed by fear, which kept me in a job that I didn’t enjoy or see a future in. I knew that if I didn’t learn to work with fear I’d spend the rest of my days doing things I don’t want to do. What kind of a life is that?
A technique I like to use is to set a minimum timeframe for my leaps, that way it doesn’t feel so permanent (and scary), and no matter how much I want to give up I have an end date I have to reach.
For example, when things got hard for me earlier in the year I promised myself that I would work on the business as hard as I could for the next six months, and no matter how bad things got I couldn’t give up before the six months was up.
Sometimes things get worse before they get better, and committing to a date helped me push through the uncomfortableness and motivated me to do the work required to grow the business.
When I get caught up worrying about things too much I also like to remind myself that I’m not trying to cure cancer, eliminate poverty, or achieve world peace — I just take photos. This helps me get over myself and just get on with it.
How did you fund your leap?
I used up all of my savings, I sold everything I own, and I lived on Austudy.
What other leaps have you made?
I took a leap and contacted you, Kylie, and from that our collaboration for the Leap Stories book was born. As a result I met some incredible people, I got to work with two women I admire (you and Tess McCabe), and I have eleven beautiful portraits to add to my folio.
I recently took a giant leap into a job as a photojournalist with News Corp in Alice Springs. It was a difficult decision because I don’t have any training as a journalist, and all the hard work I’d put into my business was starting to pay off — I had six wedding bookings for summer and new enquiries coming through every week.
But the job in Alice Springs had much more potential for personal growth and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to challenge myself like that. That’s the thing about leaping: you get stronger every time you choose to be brave, and before you know it you’re looking for bigger and scarier challenges to test what you’re capable of.
What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?
I can’t think of anything that was a spectacular failure (although I’d quite like a big juicy failure to learn from).
My year overseas didn’t turn out as I anticipated it would. I’m an introvert, and I hoped that a year of solo travel would push me out of my shell and I’d be better at meeting people and socialising.
In reality I didn’t change that much. I was still the same shy girl from Hobart, except I was in Cuba.
But from that experience I’ve learned that I’m better seeing friends one-on-one rather than in big groups, and I’m not anti-social, I just need a lot of downtime.
I’m also (slowly) writing a book about my year abroad called Travels of an Introvert because I feel most travel books misrepresent what solo long-term travel is like, and I’d like to make something for people who are more reserved.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
Professionally I there isn’t anything I’m afraid of.
I had skin cancer when I was 24 and since then I’ve been petrified that I’ll have another melanoma. For the first few years I was afraid to be in the sun at all, but these days I just make sure I’m as careful as I am when I’m outside. If any of my friends forget their sun cream they know I always have at least three bottles on me at all times.
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
I get to do what I love every day. I know that sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. I bloody love taking photos. With my job at the paper, I get to photograph interesting people all the time and my work gets seen by the whole town.
My absolute favourite thing is taking a great photograph of someone who doesn’t like having their photo taken. The other day I was at Alice Springs Hospital photographing babies for our ‘New Arrivals’ page and one of the mothers was adamant that she didn’t want to be in the photo.
I managed to talk her into having a portrait with her new baby and nine-year-old son and when I showed her the photo she loved it so much she cried. Those moments are like drugs to me.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
I can’t think of any big downsides.
Because I’m doing something I’m so invested in I care a lot more about whether I’m doing a good job, which takes a toll on my emotions. I worry daily about whether my photos are good enough, but I think every creative experiences anxiety about their work.
What might be your next leap?
Next year I’m starting a new long-term documentary project on remote health, which I will pour myself into for the next two years. Life in the red centre is very different to the east coast, and my hope is to publish a photobook to raise awareness about the complexities surrounding the health of people in remote communities and shine a light on the incredible organisations that work in this area.
I’m very excited, but I know it will be a big emotional and financial investment.
What are your favourite words to live by?
“Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
I really admire a buddy of mine from photography school, Brett. He grew up in Rye where he was working as a concreter before deciding to start the diploma at RMIT.
From the day we met Brett knew he wanted to be a high-end fashion photographer and has maintained a relentless focus on achieving that goal for the past three years.
He’s currently assisting a host of big-name photographers in Melbourne, and the work he’s producing himself is incredible. I can’t wait to see what he’s doing in another three years.
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
Just start. You don’t have to leap the whole way all at once, I certainly didn’t. Wherever you’re at now take the next step: do some research, register an ABN, start a website, make a Facebook page, make a phone call.
Just take one little step in the direction you think you need to go. No one really knows where their leaps will take them, but that’s what’s so exciting about them.
Also get a good accountant, and learn a bit about marketing. I used to laugh when I started my photography business a few years ago because in the beginning I spent most of my time doing marketing — the very career I walked away from!
Right now I’m:
Hearing: The chatter of the newsroom
Drinking: LOTS of water (Alice Springs’ summers are brutal)
Reading: One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits by Adam Skolnick. It’s a beautifully written book about Nick Mevoli — an American free-diver who died attempting to break freediving world records.
Get off hold, silence the dream crusher, follow your curiosity and build your way forward. We’re with you.