An Interview with Annie Kelly, The founder of Learn Digital Photo
I had the privilege of sitting down with Annie Kelly over a coffee to learn about her amazing career as a photographer and teacher. Learn Digital Photo is Annie’s company which offers beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in digital photography and digital imaging. I completed both her beginners and intermediate courses which are held in St Albans. The intermediate course required students to present a photo essay to the class at the end of 8 weeks, and completing this assignment was what prompted me to start this blog. ‘MSA Be Inspired’ would not have happened without Annie!!!! I am so very grateful to have met such a remarkable woman who continues to inspire me to become a better photographer. Check out her courses at http://www.learndigitalphoto.co.uk/, they are worth every penny and are the perfect balance between theory and practice. Read more about this incredibly talented woman below:
MSA: My readers will be interested to know about your background, so tell me where you are from and where you grew up?
ANNIE: I was born in St Mary’s Hospital, London. My parents are Irish. We lived in South Kilburn on a great big council estate; so we lived with a lot of other immigrants. It was kind of a tough place to live, but my parents were really cool. My dad was a maintenance engineer and my mum was a waitress; they just worked really hard like typical working class folks. I was the youngest of 4 and I was really wild. We went to a Catholic school, even though my parents weren’t amazingly religious, it was just a cultural thing because we were Irish. But my mum was a bit of a hippie, and my dad is a real socialist. My parents would talk about politics, world affairs and stuff. My mum read all the time. So my parents were really, really intelligent and informed people; they worked so hard so we always had money, it wasn’t like we were poor or felt poor.
MSA: So when did your interest in photography begin?
ANNIE: My friend and cousin was a model at age 14, we used to go and sit in the photographic studios as she was modelling and I just looked at these photographers and thought, “Oh my God, this is life!” That’s when I got interested in photography. My dad loved photography and he always had cameras in the house, he was always taking pictures of us and he had all the photography magazines. My Dad gave me a camera when I was about 14 -15 years old, so I took a picture outside my bedroom window and it kind of changed my life; I thought, “I’m going to do this”. So I went to the nuns at my school and said I wanted to be a photographer and they said, “you should just go and work in a bank along with the rest of the convent girls”.
MSA: That must have been a real boost to your confidence! (Laughing)
ANNIE: Then I saw a careers woman and she said go for it. There was a course at Watford College, and in those days you had to learn how to be an assistant; you had to spend 2 years doing training just to be an assistant photographer, so it was proper photographic training. So I went on that course but I was a really wild teenager and found college dull and the teaching full of techno babble and jargon. I didn’t really like college. It was really formal and these guys were talking to me about F numbers and focal lengths and I was like, “I can’t stand this”. So I just started doing photography, I used to take pictures of bands and anyone who wanted to just do it. Then I got a job after the first year of college in a dark room working for IPC media. During that time one of my uncle’s worked in the film business, he was a head electrician. I went to see my uncle one day and he gave me the number of a Stills photographer he knew. So I badgered this guy, I absolutely stalked him until he gave me a job. I think in the end he just gave me a job to get rid of me! So I ended up in Elstree film studios, I was one of the only girl technicians and some of the older men were looking at me like, “We never thought we would ever see a girl doing this job!”
In the film industry then it was much like an apprenticeship and you started at the bottom, so I was chucked into the dark room with all the chemicals, and had to process all the films which was a really, really hard job. When you are given 12 films from a production like a Spielberg production, and it’s your job to process them and you’re 18 years old, I tell you what, you learn quickly! I always had this thing were I never wanted to be treated second class because I was a girl, so I was going to learn it….. I was going to do it.
Then that studio went bust and I was made redundant; but I got a job in London, in another dark room, this was working for really high end news and press photographers, like the top brass, and I worked with a guy who used to run his whole studio/darkroom. I was like his assistant and he was really amazingly gifted. Then I started doing my own photography on the side because I had access to a dark room to print it. So I did lifestyle and editorial photography. I had a baby when I was 24. I took some time out, then had another child 18 months later. I started taking photographs of my babies as soon as they were born. People saw those photographs and really liked them. Because I came from such an editorial background, I started taking very editorial style pictures of children which no one had seen in 1992; back then it was all portrait studios with mottled backgrounds and plastic flowers.
MSA: I remember those shots, there were so ugly!!
ANNIE: So people saw them [the pictures I took] and really liked them. I set up a darkroom in the bedroom of my flat because I had all the equipment and I just started taking pictures, and printing them when the kids were in bed. I started working for quite prestigious clients and I lived in central London. So I would come and take really whacky pictures of their families and their kids – something that they had never seen before. Then I’d finished with the father of my kids and I was alone, with two small children. I got a portrait job one day for a woman, who was Nigerian, and I took pictures of her kids; and she said to me, “Do you teach?”, and I just immediately said, “Yes”, because I was in a position where I needed to earn more money, as a single parent I wasn’t meeting the demands of my bills so it was really stressful. So she said, “We do summer school in the University of North London (which is now the Metropolitan University) and they are looking for people to teach a photography course”, and I just said, “Yeah, I can do that”. And that was that.
At that time you got paid quite a lot of money, like £30 an hour to do a week of teaching and I was like, God that’s more money than I’ve earnt in a long time. So I just devised a programme and I delivered it and everyone loved it. I met a guy there who is now my husband; he was an ex-photographer. He came and saw me while I was teaching as he worked in the Media dept. I just said, “You don’t have a job do you? Like, a proper job where I can get a pay check at the end of the month?”, and he goes, “Well, actually, I’ve got no female technicians on my staff and HR are giving me a hard time.” So he said, “Why don’t you come and apply for a job there?” So, I applied for a job there as a technician, an AV technician. I knew nothing about microphones. I knew nothing about data projection. I knew nothing about AV. I just was a photographer. After doing that that for a year, I soon learned and I became team leader of a new technology at that time called data-projection. Then I got promoted to photographer and I worked there for 7 years. So I was photographing people, like Desmond Tutu, Ian Wright and Tony Blair, so it was really great and exciting. I bought a house in Islington and for the first time in my life, I was relatively secure. Everything was going really well and then all of a sudden I’m pregnant again and I’ve got two kids who are 9 and 10 years old. I was like, “Oh my God!”. It was really hard for my then boyfriend, who’s now my husband, because he was like a bachelor backpacker and he suddenly had 3 kids to look after.
MSA: Okay, so is that’s how you came to St Albans?
ANNIE: That’s right. I was coming to St Albans before I was even pregnant with Jack. I was done with London by that time (laughs). My then boyfriend moved in and it was all happy families and it was lovely. We actually bought a place in St Albans. Then I was approached by someone at Oakland’s college who said, “Come teach because you’ve got teaching experience”. I said, “Yeah, okay.” Then they said, “But, oh, actually the law has changed and you need a teaching degree.”
MSA: So is that what prompted you to go and get your teaching qualifications?
ANNIE: Yeah. I had to. It’s a post-graduate certificate in education. So I’m a qualified trainer and adult teacher. Teaching adults is a completely different discipline to teaching children because children are blank slates. Adults come into a classroom with all their own agendas, all their own life issues and also their baggage of previous educational experiences, so it’s a much different approach. I did the post graduate certificate in 2 years, via distance learning online.
MSA: Was it hard?
ANNIE: It was absolute hell! I had left school at age 16. I was one of those kids that was really clever but really disengaged. When I was 14 my physics teacher told my mum that I could go to Oxford and study physics. That was the end of me there; I thought I was just brilliant. The minute he said that to me, I never studied.
MSA: So moving forward now to Learn Digital Photo, how many years ago did you start this business?
ANNIE: About 5 years ago.
MSA: What prompted you to set up your own business?
ANNIE: It’s so funny. I’d been doing teaching at colleges and I was getting really disillusioned with it. I had taught at City and Guilds and I absolutely hated it. It was so prescriptive. Also, the curriculum was at least 5 years out of date, I mean, they were teaching people film and darkroom skills, and digital photography was 10 years in! I’m not the sort of person to keep quiet, so when I would go and see the examining boards, I said “This ain’t relevant… this ain’t relevant in the real world”.
It just so happened that somebody bought a digital camera and they said to me, “I have no idea how this works.” Then over a period of time I had about 4 or 5 people that said, “Will you teach me how to use my camera?”. I said to my husband one day, “I’m going to run a course on my own.” On a Friday night, I remember it so vividly, I sat with my laptop open, invented the name [Learn Digital Photo], and I bought the web domain. My sons all play sports, so we’re all on these email lists for rugby and football teams. I emailed everyone in my email book and I said, “Hi, I’m running this course, it’s 8 weeks long and it’s going to be 100 quid. If you’ve got a digital camera, do you want to come? It’s a pilot study.” I got 8 people reply that said, “Yeah, we’ll come.”
MSA: Wow, so that was your first class?
ANNIE: That was my first class. I’ve got quite a big front room [in my house] so I rearranged all the furniture, I had a data projector and I had my big kitchen table and I made it all really nice. Ten minutes before they all turned up, I just like, “What am I doing? Why do I think I can do this?”. But they came and they loved it. We would have coffee and I’d buy pastries and give them fruit. I mean, I really went over the top. It was so good and people loved it.
MSA: That’s so amazing you did that!
ANNIE: Then a year later, I just thought, “Do you know what? I’m going to book a venue and do it there,” and I literally had 6 people and it just didn’t make any money. But then, all those 6 people told other people. Then that course started to sell out. Then I had a waiting list, so I booked another venue for the next night. The next 2 courses sold out and then people started wanting daytime courses, so I booked a venue for daytime courses. Then they were selling out too. Then I booked another evening course and I went from 8 students to 50 at a time. I’m really good at marketing. The thing was, in conjunction with me starting this [Learn Digital Photo], Facebook had just started taking off and everybody was on it. I used that for my marketing and I honestly must’ve got at least 250 clients through Facebook.
MSA: So now you’re teaching in the evenings, and you teach during the day, plus you’ve got your admin to do; and by the way are you still doing your own lifestyle photography on the side?
ANNIE: No, I stopped that for about a year and a half because I couldn’t do everything and I just wanted to really concentrate on Learn Digital Photo because it was growing so exponentially fast that I couldn’t keep up with it. What happens is, when you start a business, you don’t realize how automated you have to be with your admin. Initially I was doing everything manually. I get maybe 25 emails a day and maybe only 1 of those will book a course, but some of them say, “What camera should I buy?”. So I now have a whole folder of ‘frequently asked questions’ that I just copy and paste into emails, but it took me a while to get all of that together. I literally made my website in a half an hour and it’s still running. My setup costs were zero; this business has never cost me money. I have no business loans. It has to fund itself. I think if you go into the business and you’re going to get into debt, you’ve got to be really careful.
MSA: It’s easy to get into debt, because you think to yourself, “I just need this or I just need that,” instead of waiting for your income to come in.
ANNIE: No, you wait. You actually need very little, If I buy anything for my business, it’s an immediate tax deduction. Don’t overstretch yourself because that’s really stressful. If my business closed tomorrow, I could pay everybody back what I owe them; I always have a slush fund.
MSA: Tell me, how do you achieve balance in your life because you’ve got to juggle your family, friends, and work? How are you managing that at the moment?
ANNIE: I think I’m a little bit of a workaholic, and always have been, but my mum is too. When I was 13, I went out waitressing. There was no messing about. My mum made sure we could all do waitressing, all the girls. Even now, my mom is 77, and she’s still working! Because I’ve always worked and had children, to me I’m institutionalized in that way. My parents always worked and had children too, for me it’s incredibly important to be financially independent.
MSA: You have a very busy week. Do you ever take a day off?
ANNIE Friday is my day off. I go to visit my mum or I like to sit and watch all the crap TV that I’ve missed in a week, and I lie in my pyjamas; or I go to an exhibition in London, but I am back in my office Saturday morning.
MSA: So what are your other interests outside of photography?
ANNIE: Oh, my God, I love cooking! I don’t do desserts though, but I’ve just started on puddings. I’ve been cooking since I was 12 for my family. I’m quite a good cook. I am a nightmare in the kitchen tough; you cannot be in the kitchen if I’m cooking. No one’s allowed in. Just stay away. I get very territorial in the kitchen.
MSA: So what do you think makes you a success?
ANNIE: On the tough days when I think, “Do you know what? I’m going to work in a super market!”, then I just remember my roots, and I remind myself that this is a game. Life is a game to me and you are the protagonist in your own play. So I choose to believe in myself. When I think that I can’t do something, there’s a voice in my head that says, “Yes you can. Why can’t you? Who judges whether you can do it or not?” At the end of the day it’s you. I’m not going to let my imperfections hold me back.”
MSA: Wow, that’s a profound and a very intelligent mind set to have!
ANNIE: Another thing that a gifted photographer, who is really famous in the field, said to me that really stuck in my mind was, “Annie, always work on the 70% rule. If 70% of what you do is good, it’s okay. It’s enough,” and I never really understood what he meant till years later. Because if you try and strive for 100%, you’ll go crazy.
MSA: You’re always going to fail in some way, aren’t you?
ANNIE: Yeah. You’re always going to be a failure in your own eyes in some way. You make mistakes, you learn, you move on, you keep growing and keep learning.
MSA: Coming back to Learn Digital Photo, what would you say is the most rewarding thing about it?
ANNIE: It keeps me really busy which is good, I like to be busy. I like that Learn Digital Photo fits in with my lifestyle and it fits in with me being a mum. I didn’t want to commute because my husband commutes and one of us has got to be here in St Albans when you’ve got kids, especially when they’re getting injuries every 5 minutes playing sport. I’m very homey. I cook dinner every day for my family and I cook it from scratch. If I don’t do that, I’ll cook every weekend and I’ll put it in the freezer and it’ll come out. Nutrition is really important to me and having all my family around the table at dinnertime is really important because that’s when we talk. You might have sons one day MSA, and I’m going to say they’re not the most talkative, so you’ve got to make time for that, even if we only talk about football.
Something that I never realized I would get out of my teaching work is when people, at the end of courses, come up to me and say things like, “You’ve changed my life,” or “you are an inspiration to me” and sometimes I think, “Oh, my God. That’s so big. That’s so overwhelming!,”
MSA: So what would you say to somebody out there who has got a passion for something and they are scared to take the next step in their life?
ANNIE: I love listening to BB4 Radio Desert Island Discs. It’s where people from all walks of life, who’ve really achieved something, come on tell and their life stories through 7 records. One day on the show a woman from an ordinary background who had become the top scientist in the world was interviewed. She was amazing! She was asked, “What advice would you give to people about doing this?” and she said, “Just give things a try. Just try things. Don’t be frightened, just try.”
I really try not to be too hard on myself. I just think, listen to the story you’re telling yourself because your ego is quite a primitive thing and it will believe you. People think that their egos are more sophisticated than what they truly are. You have to treat yourself with care and tell yourself positive things.
MSA: So tell me, what’s that next step for you?
ANNIE: The next step is to try and get an online presence. I’ve got so many ideas where that could go. I want to give it a go, give it a try and see where it takes me. It might fail miserably, it might never come to anything, but I feel like now is the time. I’m very intuitive.
One of the reasons I also want to get into this new venture is because my husband says, “Annie, your business is about you.” Recently, I got really ill; I got a chest infection and it just carried on, I probably had pneumonia but I’m very good at working when I’m seriously ill. It’s just a hang up from my mom and dad who never had a day off work, ever. I just thought, “I can’t have a business that’s just about me.” If I could start a video stream and on-line stuff, I can then have other people to teach and demonstrate. Then it [the business] is not about me anymore. I have to sit and plan it, though.
MSA: Awesome. I really look forward to seeing it! Thank you so much, it has been really good chatting to you and given me a lot to think about.
Annie Kelly is truly remarkable! Check out her courses at http://www.learndigitalphoto.co.uk/, and you can also view her stunning photography on Flickr, just search for Ann K.
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