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I bought a one-way ticket to a new city to chase my dream. Here's how I got freelance work and free housing from my network to do it.

Kezia Rice   

I bought a one-way ticket to a new city to chase my dream. Here's how I got freelance work and free housing from my network to do it.
  • Chris Naydenov knew no one in Berlin when he moved there to pursue his dream of photography.
  • He took a job as a janitor to make ends meet while he promoted himself and made contacts.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Chris Naydenov, a 24-year-old photographer in Berlin, about how he supported himself when starting out. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I grew up in a small, sleepy town in Cyprus.

When I was about 15, I got into video games. I watched YouTube videos where players recorded their games, and I started doing the same. This was my first experience of creating video content.

My gaming videos included montages or animated music videos. But after a while, I became bored of staying at home staring at a screen. I started going out more, meeting friends, swimming, or skateboarding. I brought my camera with me to document our adventures.

Taking photos became my main hobby. But the industry in Cyprus was limited to wedding photography.

In 2015, I was finishing high school, and my friends were researching universities. But I knew that studying further wasn't for me. The progress I'd seen in my photography made me hopeful. I wanted to keep working on my craft and pursue a career in it.

I lived with my mom and worked as a barista and a lifeguard to save money. I wanted to move somewhere with an art scene that I could break into. In the meantime, I took on small photography gigs to build up my portfolio.

While working, I met a lot of cool people who were moving to Berlin.

Berlin felt like a good place to start my photography career, so when I'd saved up 2,000 euros, I bought a one-way ticket to chase my dream. It was 2017, and I was moving out of my mom's house at 20 years old.

I started out in Berlin volunteering 3 to 4 hours a day in a hostel in exchange for free accommodation

After three months of living in the hostel, I moved in with a friend, sleeping on a mattress on his living-room floor and paying a portion of his rent.

My first job in Berlin was as a municipal janitor, and I worked as part of a team that cleaned the stairs and gardens of about 15 to 20 public buildings a day, as well as emptied all the outdoor rubbish bins.

The work wasn't easy: My shift lasted from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. I had to scrub stairs by hand, and I often removed dog poop from the gardens.

But I knew I was in Berlin to focus on something much bigger. I put my headphones in while I worked and listened to podcasts about people who had built their own businesses and made their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, I devoted all my free time to photography

The first year and a half in Berlin, I didn't even go to a bar. I had no hobbies because photography was my hobby. I spent time connecting with other photographers on Instagram, doing free photo shoots to build up my portfolio, and going on photo walks around Berlin.

It was at one of these group photo walks in 2018 that I met Titus Scholl. He was a photographer setting up his own digital-marketing agency that offered brands photo and video content. When his workload became too much, Titus reached out to me to offer me paid work as a contracted freelancer at his agency, where I'd edit photos and videos.

Over time, I'd been reducing my hours as a janitor so I could make more time for my paid photography gigs.

By the end of 2019, I'd been in Berlin for two years and was earning 1,500 euros per month between cleaning and freelancing. My freelance income was made up of regular work from Titus' agency and the projects I worked on for my own clients. It was at this point that my boss at the cleaning company gave me an ultimatum: I either had to increase my hours or leave the job.

Leaving the security of my janitor job was a big risk, but I felt I had to grab the opportunity of working as a full-time freelancer with both hands

I went full-time freelance at the beginning of 2020, three months before Germany went into lockdown. Lockdown didn't affect my freelance work too severely because brands needed new content to promote their services online. I shot and edited at home, and work continued to flow in steadily.

After I'd been working as a contracted freelancer for Titus' photography agency for more than three years, Titus decided to step down as CEO. This left me and two other colleagues in the agency, alongside two freelancers we worked with. We discussed how to move the business forward, and Titus asked me and another colleague if we wanted to continue running the agency together.

In late 2021, the other employee and I officially took over the business. I dived into this new challenge, learning the different aspects of running a larger business, including taxes and financial plans. It's been more work than I ever could have imagined, but I don't regret it one bit.

One thing that has surprised me in my career is the importance of connections

You can be talented, but if you don't meet the right people, no one will know about it.

My advice for others is to always put yourself out there and shout from the rooftops about what you do.

I didn't have a detailed plan to become a successful creative entrepreneur, I just kept working at my passion, and it propelled me into this path. Sometimes that means sacrificing comfort or free time, but it's worth it in the end.


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