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  • Annette Dawm

Freelance Life with Whitney South

Whitney South is a full-time assembly welder as well as a freelance photojournalist. “That all happened because, as a freelance photojournalist based mainly in entertainment, COVID was kind of a journey…. That’s when a lot of things ended and there were no shows. There was no live music. There was no nothing. I remember thinking to myself, ‘You need to do something else.’ I had actually thought about welding like, a million years ago, when I was in art school. They had a welding program for art and sculptures. I remember being interested in that.” She explained.

“I literally just put on Facebook, ‘Do I know any female welders out there?’ My friend from high school—who I haven’t spoken to since high school—sent me this website for Conestoga College. They have a government subsidized, six month welding program for pre-apprenticeship. They only take 30 people and I applied. I had to do an interview on Zoom…. I had to give them my high school transcripts, which is weird! I’m 40 years old now and I’ve been to college and I’ve been to university! Don’t they want those transcripts? But they wanted high school transcripts and I graduated in 1999! So I actually had to call my high school and ask, ‘How do I do this?’ They ended up mailing me the transcripts…. That’s how I got into welding!” She laughed.

“The nice thing about welding is, I go to work in the morning and I do my work. Then I come home and that’s it! It’s not like being a journalist 24-7…. So the way I keep it balanced is, I do things after work and on weekends. I keep doing the writing and the photography because that’s what I really, really love to do. My work at welding is super supportive of that. They actually hired me to do photos for them!”

“…. It was at a ‘Women in the Trades’ event and my name tag said, ‘My name is Whitney and I’m a welder/photographer’. Basically, because my work has been so supportive, it’s been easy to balance both of them…. It’s weird because I’ve gone from shooting 100 shows a year. Then with COVID, it went down to 15. Now I’m very choosy about what I get to do.” She continued.

South began as a photographer in the 1990’s and has worked for a number of newspapers and online publications across Ontario. According to Whitney, “I wanted to be a photographer for a long time, ever since I shot my first show…. That would have been back in 1996…. A local hip hop artist bought my photos and used them as his album cover. That kind of gave me a bit of a bug. Someone not only liked my photography, but they appreciated it enough to use it as part of their career….”

“I knew that I loved doing that and I knew that I loved photography, but it wasn’t until I moved away to Vancouver and I came back to Ontario that I thought, ‘I want to do more with my photography than just take pictures’. So I applied for a newspaper job at The New Hamburg Independent even though I had no writing experience whatsoever. I sent them my photos and I sent them some blog posts I had written.”

“The editor said, ‘I love your writing and I love your photography and I would love to hire you right now, but I need you to go get that piece of paper that says you went to school for writing.’”

“So at 32 years old, I applied for college. I went to journalism school at Conestoga College. I absolutely loved it! I got a job right out of school with The Cambridge Times and started being a photojournalist….”

Although South said she has become known for covering country music, she is determined not to be ‘put in a box’. “It’s really cool to love all of this music…. I think being musically diverse is important and enjoying what you’re doing is important no matter what. Stuff surprises me all the time! I go to Rock the Park. I’m an old lady! I don’t know everyone who plays at Rock the Park! ….They bring in so many solid acts there…. Then I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know who this is, but they’re so good!’”

“Parkjam was good too. It only ran for one year. They had these different genres every night…. Country was fantastic, but my favourite night to shoot was hip hop. It was Haviah Mighty, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Redman and Method Man and Ice Cube…. So that’s another great thing about the live music gig is that you’re always discovering new stuff….”

“….I’ll admit, I used to be one of those people who would say, ‘I listen to all kinds of music except for rap and country.’ ….The first country show I ever shot was Lee Brice at Rock the Park. That was in 2015, and the Facebook memory always comes up every year. It says, ‘Going to my first ever country show. This will be interesting.’ Then my friend, Andrew commented, ‘Well, that escalated quickly.’”

In 2016, Whitney had been working at Our London and was asked to cover The Canadian Country Music Association Awards (The CCMAs): “It wasn’t that I disliked country music. It was just that I wasn’t familiar with it. Then for three straight months, that was all I was writing about. I emailed The CCMA because I didn’t know who any of these people were. I asked them if there was anyone I should speak to who is a local artist. They sent me this girl named Jessica Mitchell…. From the first phone call, we just hit it off. She is currently and forever will be one of my favourite people in the entire universe!”

“In those three months, I talked to Brett Kissel for the first time and I talked to Chad Brownlee for the first time. Chad Brownlee was so excited because our cover of Our London was the first cover he had ever been on! He asked me to mail him a copy so he could give it to his mom! Brett Kissel wanted me to come to The Delta and bring a stack of papers because he wanted to give them out to people….”

She added that she hopes to attend The CCMAs this year in Hamilton, ON. “….I don’t know if that’s going to happen. That’s freelance life. You don’t know who’s going to invite you to what and where you’re going to go.”

Unfortunately, Our London closed in 2018. To this day, Whitney ranks it as one of the “worst things that ever happened” in her life. They were only given a month’s notice and she quickly had to figure out what to do next. Luckily, the connections she made via The CCMAs lead her to the next chapter in her career.

“Working at Our London was a fantastic bunch of years. When we closed, it was not because we failed. It was not because print media was dying. Basically, we got ‘baseball card swapped’ with Post Media and they closed us because we were competition with their work. Not a lot of people know that. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, a newspaper just closed’, because that’s what happens, but that’s not what happened.”

“….I met some really, really great people, including Charlotte and Shelby over at Red Umbrella, which is a PR company. They’re amazing! I remember my first phone call was to Charlotte because we had to let people know what was happening. We had to tell them, ‘Don’t send us press releases anymore because we’re closed….’”

“She said to me, ‘How do you feel about writing bios for musicians?’

I said, ‘I would love to do that! That sounds fantastic!’

She said, ‘Okay! That’s what we’re going to do! I’m going to start sending you bios right away!’”

“My very first one was Shawn Austin! That was a really, really long time ago. He and I actually talked about it recently. He was like, ‘That was you? Oh my God! That was so long ago!’”

“Because of that, I thought I could try freelancing and see who needed what and where. In addition to that, I called Chris Campbell at Tourism London. I made a meeting with him and I said, ‘We’re losing a huge part of London’s art community by getting rid of Our London. There aren’t going to be that many people writing about the arts and music and everything else. I think you should let me write for the Tourism London website, exactly like I did for Our London.’”

“He said, ‘Go away and make me a business plan, and we’ll meet again and see how it goes.’”

“….He seemed kind of interested in the idea and I had never written a business plan before. Luckily, my brand new Mac computer had a template for business plans and I just filled out the little boxes! Then we met again and he said this is a fantastic idea, let’s do this!”

“So I wrote and did photography for almost four years for Tourism London. Everything from the local craft beer scene to visiting artists…. There were a lot of concerts, but we are a music city, right? I covered food festivals and restaurants and everything else that has to do with tourism. That’s basically what started my freelance career, which was that pitch to Tourism London.”

South also noted that most people don’t actually know what a freelance career entails: “People send you a lot of job postings when you’re freelance. I don’t know why, but with every job posting they send you, you realize they have no idea what you do! Your friends and family have no idea what you do for a living! They’d send me radio jobs or all these different things….”

“I think that people think when you freelance, you’re doing all of these exciting things all the time and you’re super, super busy. They think people just come to you…. You have to hustle! That’s what people don’t realize! When you’re freelancing, you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re answering emails at 2 in the morning. You’re waiting six months for people to pay their invoices. It is a really, really tough gig and I don’t think people realize that. You have to do it because you’re super passionate about it. At the same time, you have to take jobs that you maybe don’t want because you’ve got to keep the hustle going! You’ve got to pay the bills! You’ve got to get it done!”

When COVID-19 came around, Whitney’s contract with Tourism London came to an end. In order to continue her support for local artists, she created an Instagram account called @LdnEnt. All of the stories she wrote and all of the photographs she took during that time are still visible.

“I did a porch portrait project with a bunch of local musicians, artists, makers, DJs and all sorts of stuff. I would be 20 feet away! I was on the road and they were on their porch! I had my big, long lens and that’s how I met Aaron Allen, Julia Haggarty and Mark Swan—all of the local musicians. It was about taking a beautiful portrait of them, but also to let people know if they were doing a livestream or if they were putting out new music. There was no other way they could let people know. There was no media. There was no hyping that up.”

Many artists are big fans of Whitney’s work. Her photos can often be found across social media and in magazines: “It is always flattering and it always makes me smile, especially if I send them silly shots and they post them…. Or if I’m working with an artist and that photo ends up in a big article like Rolling Stone! I actually have a friend who is a big fan of Kittie. He pulled up his Spotify on his TV. My photo was on the TV! He took a picture of it and sent it to me! ....It’s kind of cool to see your work make its way into all of these different realms, especially with Kittie. They have so many articles written about them in metal magazines in The States and Europe and then I see my photos! That’s kind of neat!”

She wanted people to know that she views each of her photographs as a piece of art and she hopes that others can view them in the same way:

“That kind of all happened because I went to Budweiser Gardens and I was shooting Metric and July Talk. It was really dark—like, super dark. I’m looking at it going, ‘How am I going to do this?’ At the time, I was so obsessed with making sure I had perfectly clean shots and I thought, ‘I’m never going to get that.’ So I changed my entire idea. I said, ‘I’m a painter too, so let’s make light paintings instead of trying to make it perfect.’ That just made me a whole lot happier as a photographer. So I hope that when people look at my photos, they see the composition that goes into it and colours, not just the people in the photos.” She added that she can’t wait to take more photos of her favourite artists in London next year.

Initially, Whitney South was reluctant to give advice to those entering the photojournalism field due to her own career change. However, after giving it some thought, she replied: “Don’t do live music photography because you want to be famous or rich, or because you want attention. Do it because you love it! You can’t have any other expectations. You’ve got to look at it as a joy to do. I know some photographers who are obsessed with getting paid, but sometimes it doesn’t pay. If you love it and have a passion for it, then do it. But the minute it makes you unhappy, or it takes away the joy, it’s not a thing for you to do.”

For more information, please follow Whitney on Facebook and Instagram.

Photo courtesy of Whitney South.

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