Ollie Khedun is a professional photographer, filmmaker, and director living north of Sydney, Australia.
“It’s the big picture stuff that’s important, if you’re going to do this as a career, what’s the life that you’re wanting to design around it, because life isn’t just work, it’s about family, it’s about friends, it’s about the relationships that you develop and therefore having an openness about what you do not being overly protective and sharing it with your peers is super important. That is something that is quite rare, people want to be quite protective about their secrets, and the opposite reigns true for Alex, it certainly rings true for me too” - Ollie Khedun
A conversation with Strohl Works
Ollie Khedun opens up about his life, career, and creative path with Strohl Works’s Joel Fuller.
J: Hey Ollie, it’s a pleasure meeting you and thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
O: Not a problem Joel, it’s my pleasure.
J: Photography has been a more recent thing for you right? What had you been doing prior to photography?
O: Ya you’re right, I took a big career change about 3 years ago into the creative space after about 15 years in the corporate world working positions in recruitment, leadership, and sales.
Originally graphic design was what I really enjoyed and where I excelled, but before graduating with a degree in that field I switched degrees and did a business studies program instead. I remember thinking that you can't possibly make it in the creative arts and you need to have a solid type of job to succeed, in hindsight that was a mistake.
After graduating university I wanted to save some cash to travel, go away, and see the world, and so I took the first job available to me, it happened to be in corporate recruitment. As with any job I’ve had in my life I went at it 100% and suddenly six years later I progressed in the direction of a career I never really wanted. I had had such different goals before this.
I decided to go do a ski season in New Zealand after those 6 years, and I ended up spending a couple months in Sydney along the way. Arriving in NZ I arrived with no job, no friends, a totally fresh start, it allowed me to be anyone I wanted. I really wanted to itch the creative side of me that I always had, photography at the time had been a small thing on the side. I took a photography job in Queenstown and for the next year worked for a photography manager shooting different ski fields in the area. A really amazing year, but yet again I decided not to continue that path, and thought okay that’s enough, moved back to London and back into my corporate career. I ended up doing that a couple of times up until 3.5 years ago which is when I decided to dive into my creative career seriously after working at Apple in the UK.
Working in a massive organization like that makes it very difficult to have the day to day freedom I wanted in my life. My partner is from Sweden and we wanted to have better flexibility going from Australia back to Europe, and that was never going to happen in a big corporate business, so I thought alright now’s the time. I cut everything off, bought a drone, bought a camera, and really needed to start building a portfolio, because even close friends didn't know I was interested in photography.
J: It was almost a surprise to some of them?
O: Probably, although it’s interesting, you kind of have that fear factor, in some regards, and you think about all the professional connections you’ve made in the past doing the things that you used to do, and then all of the sudden you’re kind of this “photographer”, with not really much work to back it up. That was quite a scary scenario for me. Once you’re in it and once you’re doing it, it’s amazing how supportive those people are, people are like “congratulations, how can I help you? How can I support you?”, and that’s something I never really envisioned.
J: So all of that time that you spent in the corporate world, that was not wasted experience?
O: Ya exactly. Once I decided to take on this new field, I definitely felt like a beginner, starting from scratch, there was so much I needed to learn, and still so much I need to learn. You almost totally discount all the experience that you had previously. It’s taken me awhile to dig into that and realize that all the experience I have is hugely valuable, it's not just the technicalities of taking photographs, or making films that matter, it’s all the other stuff, and I’ve spent a lot of years, 15 or so years in either a leadership role, a sales role, or a deal making role, and all of those things come quite easy to me, not easy, but I am well trained, whereas a lot of other creatives I know never really had that experience. They come straight out of university and that’s what they know, the business side comes a little harder. Straight from the beginning I’ve always been like, put me in seven new pitches a day and I’m really comfortable with that, put the camera in my hand and that’s what I am most uncomfortable with. So it’s been an interesting few years.
J: Photography and the creative field is so reliant on your people & business skills wouldn’t you say?
O: It absolutely is, I think that’s taken a while for me to realize, or re-realize, that’s the case with any business and getting through life. It’s about being a good person, believing in what you’re doing, and looking after the people that you’re either working with or working for, and for me one of the really sad things I see in the creative community is people that spend a lot of their time at either agencies or businesses working let’s say as a graphic designer, doing boring and stale work that I am sure was not the reason they got into that field. These people have a lot of creativity, so then when you hire someone onto your team, to do creative work, how do you give them the freedom to go out and do the things that they’re really good at, how do you unlock that potential? How do you release the pressure of money or the client? And let them do the things that they’re really good at, from my perspective that’s what I really enjoy. I am not the best person creatively, I’ve only been doing it a few years, and therefore I really like to harness individuals to flex their creative muscles and give them the freedom to do their best work while I deal with the client and the financial stresses.
J: A step back here, what sparked your interest in graphic design and then what sparked your interest in photography? Any inspiration from anyone?
O: I was interested in the graphic design route because when you look down the road of possible careers, at the time I was doing a lot of drawing, a lot of painting, and I was trying to think how can this turn into a career. I couldn’t see myself being a fine artist, I totally envy the people that do that, but I needed structure around my work, and I thought graphic design met those structures as a job within an organization.
When it came to photography, I was working long hours and big weeks in the corporate world, and I really wanted to hold onto some level of creativity or art in my personal life. I didn’t have the time or space to do the big paintings or projects that I used to so I thought maybe photography was a good option, click get my image, creativity satisfied. I got a film SLR when I was 20 or 21 as a birthday gift from my mom and that was that. I tried to teach myself, learn on trips, and take small jobs.
J: What do you enjoy photographing most?
OK: For me the outdoors have always been a big inspiration, I have lived by the ocean for most of my life, unless I was in the mountains in NZ or in France. When you look at my corporate career I was spending 12 hours a day in a suit at an office somedays and when I came into this world I wanted to do the exact opposite. I have done work for outdoors style brands here and there and that’s all fine, tourism bodies and councils too, for me it doesn’t have to be any of those things, it can really be anything, it’s about the people. It’s about what story are we going out there to tell, if it’s just a bit of adventure porn for the sake of it, its fine, but I’m not going to go on talking about it for weeks or months on end, if it’s something that has a meaningful and useful purpose than I am excited about it. It’s from the people and client side of things, who are you working for? Do they care about this output? Do they care about this work that we’re about to do? Or do they just need to tick a box of we need more content? Because if it’s that, it's not overly interesting. If it's “we’re really excited about this project, because when our true audience gets to see this they’re gonna get really tied into the story and get behind what we’re doing and why we’re doing it”, then I’m thrilled. So it’s very much people focused for me, I had a great career prior to this, the money was good etc, I left it to do this, if I am going to do this, I wanna make sure I am having fun with it every day and to me a fun day is about the people that are around me, it doesn’t really matter why we’re there or what we’re shooting, it’s are we with the right kind of people.
The project I was working towards before I took the adventure workshop was a big project on the West Coast of Tasmania. From an industry perspective the West Coast of Tasmania has been held up in mining for its entirety, there was once very large communities built on the mining there, maybe 4-5000 people/town and now the areas are dieing. You know if they don’t have any business ideas or new projects, the places will die. The beauty and potential of the area is huge, so much in the outdoors, hiking, biking, canoeing, so much potential. The job for us was to really go there and showcase that beauty and showcase the quirkiness of the people that call the area home.
J: What has photography been like since taking the Adventure Workshop?
O: Since taking the adventure workshop my work has been a lot more synced. Prior to it I was kind of saying yes to a variety of things, I took it prior to the Tasmania job, the workshop helped me dig into my own feelings and my own style. It was an 11 day shoot, multiple scenarios, locations, and everything needed to look consistent. The type of work that has been coming in since has been similar, I thought it was a dream job, but since then I have done two other similar sized projects and it's all been based off of that work and people recognizing the consistency.
J: Can you give me three of the best benefits from the workshop?
O: The practical, freelance, & business tips were very useful in the workshop. It was also beneficial to realize you shouldn’t get held up on the technical details or gear, I really enjoyed Alex’s views on that stuff. Yes it’s important, but the more you shoot the more you’ll understand the technical side of things, it’s the big picture stuff that’s important, if you’re going to do this as a career, what’s the life that you’re wanting to design around it, because life isn’t just work, it’s about family, it’s about friends, it’s about the relationships that you develop and therefore having an openness about what you do not being overly protective and sharing it with your peers is super important. That is something that is quite rare, people want to be quite protective about their secrets, and the opposite that reigns true for him certainly rings true for me too.
One of the main benefits was confidence I gained, I had my own ideas around how I think I should be working. When you’re a freelancer you’re working solo, it’s easy to wonder if you’re doing the right thing, it’s easy to wonder if you should be focusing on x vs y, going through the workshop it wasn’t like I was being taught by some 30+ year seasoned pro with rigid rules, it was really open and flexible and making sure you go into your work and life with some principals about who you are, what you can deliver, what you wanna deliver, and why you wanna do that. It gave me a whole lot of confidence that work is one thing, but life is also encompassed with it, if I take anything away about figuring out who I want to be for myself, my career, my family and friends, and build a career off the back of it, I need to be confident in what I want from my jobs and my life. That’s been the biggest thing for me, It’s allowed me to go into all my projects with much more confidence around the fact that what am I saying yes or no, it’s allowed me to make decisions a lot easier.
J: Where do you see your creative future?
O: When I started doing this I didn’t know if I was going to be a photographer, a filmmaker, a drone guy, I just went into to see where it goes, so by doing that I have a knowledge of drones, I have a knowledge of photography, a knowledge of film and over the years the short 3-4 years I have been moving towards the place that I am now. I really enjoy the photography side of things, I really enjoy telling a story through images, I am not a fine art photographer by any means, I apply my feel, and move on. It has married really well with the film side of things, I think by dipping into motion and drone work I’ve now got this sensibility of what each requires and I’ve got this sense of what my weaknesses are. I try to be as light as possible with my gear, I see these film guys with so much gear, and the results that can come with it are fantastic, but I’m never gonna be that guy.
I don’t know about the future, I’m enjoying it, but I’m not a 24 year old with minimal overhead, and the ability to wonder what’s going to happen in the future with loads of time, I’m a 40 year old guy, a kid, a wife, a little family, that’s more important than anything. From a work perspective and career perspective, I can’t be flighty, I can’t take the next three months off and see where this goes, take a few trips on spec and see what happens, the work that I take on has to be significant from a career perspective and from a financial perspective. This means that the future of what I do might move in a variety of different directions.
J: Was there a lot of support in your life moving into your creative career?
OK: My other half is an amazing person, she has not once commented negatively where we’re at, the work that I’m doing where it might be going, where it isn’t going, and there’s been some real tough times within that. Her view really is are we healthy? Are we happy? That’s it. So long as that’s there, you go through rough patches, having a little one makes jobs like this tough because I might be gone 10 days at a time on a shoot, come back and assemble it for the next 6 weeks or whatever, but at the same time our son is an amazing mirror to see how life is going. If he wakes up happy, generally we’re doing our job well, if he’s having a shitty day, it could be partly him, but it’s mostly us, there’s probably something that isn’t quite right, we like to keep things really nice and simple. There’s been 100% support there, she can see the reasons why I’m doing it, and the joy I feel. I feel like you’ve got a responsibility, not just to yourself, but to the people around you, that could be as close as child and wife, but could also be your friends and family, to be as happy and as excited as you can be about life because who knows what they’re going through, for them to see you doing something a bit out of the ordinary, it can really inspire them to go and do their thing that they’ve been wanting to do as well, it’s not just about you it’s about the relationships and people in your life.
J: That’s it, I don’t have any more questions, I really appreciate your time Ollie and our conversation, I feel inspired by you. Thank you so much.
O: My pleasure Joel, be in touch. It’s been wonderful to have this conversation with you. I am excited for more workshops and hopefully we can meet in person one day. Take care.