Andrew Harrison

Photographer Andrew Harrison in his home studio with his scruffy assistant


“What’s my next challenge?”

I am a photographer. I have a business called Passion8 Photography.

In the 70’s, I went to the famous experimental school, Ardoch High, in St Kilda. We called teachers by their first names and only had four core subjects, the rest were electives.

At 15, I decided I was ready to live on my own, so I got a flat and left school to do an upholstering apprenticeship. I loved making furniture from scratch, sewing, working with my hands. I learnt how to sew in high school, actually. One of the electives was Machinery, and a few of my mates and I thought, “Yeah, let’s get into machinery!” We rocked up and it was sewing machinery.

After a while, I became a sales rep for an upholstering company, travelling around Victoria selling materials to furniture makers.

From the start, I was restless. I’d get into something, set my goals and work hard at achieving them. Once I’d get there, I’d find myself looking around, searching: what’s my next challenge?

I went and worked for an insurance agency, and within 6 months I set up my own insurance company. I was 22 and had 25 people working for me. It was an intense sales process. You had to get on the phone and cold call 100 hundred people to get 10 appointments, to see 6 people to sell one policy.

I loved it. That was in the eighties and the money was huge. Then the regulations changed and the earnings reduced. But I was already looking for the next challenge.

There followed a lot of jobs and businesses: consulting, web design, marketing, sales training. I helped run a nightclub for a few years, and worked in a family engineering company.

Wedding Photographer Andrew Harrison in his home studio viewing room

Mostly I worked for myself.  I think that stems from growing up with a single mum who worked three jobs to support me and my two brothers. From her I learnt the importance of independence and hard work.

When I met my wife Fiona and separated from my first wife, I was unemployed and looking for the next step. Fiona was a part-time photographer, shooting for friends and acquaintances. She had a couple of weddings, and I came along. I really liked what she was doing, so I picked up a camera and started doing my own photos, coming out with her on jobs.

We did that for about a year and a half, working from our house. It was just part time, I was still doing other consulting jobs. But in 2001, I decided to go for it.

I went and leased a shop in Black Rock, came home and told Fiona: “We’ve got a shop. We’re doing this full time”. Fiona said: “aarghhhh…”

I still have a photo of us in that first studio, with a whiteboard that’s got about four portrait jobs written on it and two weddings. That was all we had to start.

For me, getting the business started was really easy. I went out there and did what I’m good at: talking.  I chatted to people in supermarket queues, cafes, walking dogs in the park. I think today people find it hard to do business because they can’t communicate.

My kids used to get so embarrassed of their dad striking up conversations with  strangers everywhere. But that’s the key to getting yourself and what you do recognized.

Wedding Photographer Andrew Harrison in his home studio

There was plenty of competition in Melbourne. But this was before digital. We were all on an even plane price-wise, and people couldn’t do what we could with film and manual cameras.

Digital was there, but hardly anyone used it. We were one of the earlier adopters. I bought my first digital camera in 2001, knowing that that was the future. We used it alongside film, experimenting. The body was $8,000, for a 3 megapixel camera. Memory cards were $1,400 for a 1GB card. It was so expensive then.

Fiona and I had fun working together – mostly. I knew how to run a business, but Fiona was more of a creative and didn’t always like being told what to do. We both knew we wanted to make a living from this, but we didn’t focus on the money. We were having so much fun taking photos, meeting people and building friendships with our clients – the money was a by-product.

I developed my style over the years. I learnt the basics from Fiona, then from looking around, watching other photographers.

I never studied, didn’t know any photography rules. But I always had that innate feeling of what looked good in a picture. Then I’d do that, and later find out: ah, that’s the thirds rule, or negative space. I still love to experiment with styles, techniques – it’s part of the creative process and personal satisfaction.

After a few years, the business grew to a point where we needed to put on some help, first part time then full time, then several people. Of course, it became less fun then. It was still very enjoyable, and I got a lot of satisfaction from running a successful business – but there was more stress, pressure to get work, pay for everything.

Fiona got breast cancer in 2006. That was a hard time, obviously.  I was running the business, doing the work, looking after our four children, looking after Fiona – but I just did it. You don’t sit there, thinking, oh woe is me. You just get on with it.

The recession in 2008 was supposed to be gloom and doom, but we didn’t feel it. 2010 was the biggest year we ever had.  2006-2007, when Fiona was sick, we grew 200% due to the momentum of the last 5 years kicking in.

After 2010, the world discovered digital photography. Every man and his dog were buying cameras and shooting weddings on weekends for next to nothing. From then, there’s been a steady decrease in work.

Wedding Photographer Andrew Harrison at working editing photos at his stand up desk

I realized I would have to scale down eventually.  As people left, I didn’t replace them as much, downsized on overheads, expenses. I was preparing for the harder times, putting funds aside to tide us over slower times.

After having multiple studios, employees and contractors, I am back to a home based studio. Scaling down has been great. I am back to providing the personalized service that we lost when Passion8 grew. Now the clients only deal with me, and I can build the trust and the friendship with them. It is fun again, like it was at the beginning.

It’s great to be a part of the community, I have become the go-to local photographer and it’s a great feeling. My goal now is to maintain the soul in my business while making a living from it.

Typical weekday consists of checking emails and preparing for appointments in the mornings. There may be several booked for the day: a portrait shoot in the studio, couples coming in for a wedding enquiry, or to view their wedding photos and plan an album.

So most of the week is spent communicating with people – having meetings, talking on the phone, emailing information. In between that, I am working on photos taken on the weekend;  uploading, editing, album design. It’s a great mix of social and creative.

I can’t pick a favourite task, it’s like picking a favourite child. When I’m photographing a baby, I love that. When I’m photographing a wedding, I love that. When I’m showing someone an album, I love that.

I love couples who say, Andrew we love what you do, we trust you; and they let me have a free reign shooting their wedding.

That’s the ones who are generally the happiest with the results. Getting positive reviews online is the best validation, especially when you don’t specifically ask for them.

One thing I don’t want to do anymore is take on more work than I can handle myself. I’ve said yes to everything before, and it gets to a point where I can’t give the personal service I want to be known for.

There are still times when I think, what’s my next challenge?

I achieved a lot in photography, I have the business, awards. I was a board member of Australian Institute of Photography for five years, and the state president in 2010.

I would’ve liked to do something else. I’ve tried to think of something.  I couldn’t come up with anything!

So I’ve decided that my next challenge is to continue to do what I do so well and to enjoy it. That’s a big challenge for me. I’ve always looked for that next thing to make me happy, next thing, next thing. Perhaps now is time to learn that change won’t always bring satisfaction and it’s important to love what you already have. I have found something that I enjoy, something that I’m good at, and that’s what I will continue doing.