Photographer and mom, Natalie Gabriels, shares her brave story of reimagining and reinventing her business during lockdown.
Many people had the same feeling of dread that Natalie Gabriels had when South Africa’s lockdown was announced. The photographer recalls that day: “My last job was 15 March, the same night our President announced what is happening and I thought: ‘There goes all my bookings’. Then we were told that gatherings can’t be more than 100 people and all my jobs were for far more than 100 people.”
The realisation that her photography jobs had dried up instantly made Natalie go into reset mode. It was time to catch up with family, housework, and working on her business. “Suddenly we became teachers. I became a full-time Google classroom teacher. I thought I could juggle business, domestic work and schoolwork, but unfortunately it didn’t work like that. My mind could not switch over to Natalie Gabriels Photography-mode. I just wasn’t wired like that. I was a teacher and domestic worker, and working on my business was last on the list. I was on a ‘work sabbatical’ for two full months,” Natalie recalls that stressful time.
Meanwhile she was in the process of revamping her website and the company doing the development needed her images and for her to finish the new logo. “They wanted to sign it off, but they always had to wait because I was mentally drained at the end of a long day.”
While her daughter didn’t have any issues with online learning, her son needed all her focus. “My daughter enjoyed schoolwork, but I could see that school was hard for my son and it became my challenge. We started at 8am, but one time it took him 45 minutes to write a sentence. I nearly lost it because I wanted to work on images for my website.”
“One thing that I don’t regret was becoming my youngest child’s full-time teacher. Once, he needed to write a few sentences about his family and he wrote: ‘My mom focuses more on me than her own work.’ It was one of my worst days… both worrying about work and whether I’m teaching him the right way.”
But clearly something happened and through Natalie’s struggle to adapt, she kept at it. She wrote the post below on Instagram revealing her new website and a new attitude towards her business.
This uncertain period gave Natalie the gift of reinvention and re-imagining who she was and what she wanted to do. “I couldn’t see the purpose of being a photographer. But being the kids ‘teacher’ was also not the answer, because being unemployed was not an option.”
It was her entrepreneurial friends’ activities on social media showing that they’re trying out new things that inspired her to return to photography. “They were my inspiration even when I thought: ‘How do they balance everything?’ The turning point came when I wanted to try and document the beginning of school. It didn’t work out, but the following day I started driving around with my camera and went for a long walk along the Berg River. I saw this bridge. The sun and intensity of the light was perfect and I started to create images. Images with meaning. I interpreted the bridge as my passage to return to who I was and am: Natalie Gabriels and Natalie Gabriels Photography. Not Natalie, Teacher and Home Executive.”
Another wake-up call for Natalie was the deaths of two people. “I photographed both Kirvan Fortuin, a dancer, and writer Elsa Joubert. My images appeared in the news, but not always with my photographer’s credit. I realised that I haven’t been focusing on copyright. I tried to understand it in the past but didn’t make a lot of effort. I didn’t look after my brand. I realised that I have to take responsibility and learn about it.”
Business Partners (mentioned in Natalie’s Instagram post) is a company that helps entrepreneurs with financing, technical assistance, mentorship and more. She found out about them quite by accident when another photographer referred her for a photography job at a Business Partners event in 2018.
“A few months later I contacted them to ask if they could refer me to a company or a person to help me with the business side of my business, and in March 2019 they told me about their mentorship programme. It sounded too good to be true. How is it possible that a company is willing to invest in a photographer? We are sometimes last on the list of everything. There was a meeting with about 10 – 15 people, some of them were caterers, contractors, security... and I thought I wouldn’t get a spot in the programme. The only thing they wanted from us was our time and commitment. They told us what the programme offered: mentorship and tools to transform our minds and understanding about what is important in our business.”
Natalie had two mentors: one focused on the business side of things and the other on her photography techniques, and she met with them once or twice every second week. “I learnt about studying my business. Who and what is Natalie Gabriels Photography? I even transformed my mind so much that I bought a new a 27-inch computer. It was one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received in my business. If it wasn’t for this mentorship programme, I'm not sure I would have known how to turn back and cross the bridge to becoming a photographer again.”
While things in her business are definitely more quiet now than pre-lockdown, Natalie is looking ahead. “I know I have to reinvent myself and become a different kind of photographer. I specialised in corporate events and had bookings, but the Covid-19 pandemic changed things. Entrepreneurs know how to bounce back, though. If you have a good community of friends then you support each other, even if it is just a phone call to share ideas and have a good laugh about everything. I also learnt that one needs to equip oneself and be open to change.”