Excuse the wonky bits! I'm refreshing & rebuilding!

Well, that was a year… and honestly, although I’ve been writing these roundup posts in various places for over sixteen years, I have NO CLUE where to start with 2020.

Over the Christmas/New Year break I have been looking at what actually happened apart from the pandemic, and there are a surprising amount of good things. But… I’m still half convinced I’m going to wake up and discover it was all a really bad dream.

2020 started pretty well – some lovely networking groups and new people to get to know, planning with my gorgeous mentoring clients, and my own planning rituals, and a general sense of possibility and excitement, as often happens at the start of a year.

Winter

Fairytale personal brand photography, wild queen in the woods with a book - Lian of Waking the Wild

January, after a bolt in my tyre and then FOUR new ones, saw me in London for an extravagantly wonderful pantomime, late night furniture ordering with Mum, shooting magic in the woods of Hertfordshire, catching up with people after Christmas, some fabulous brand shoots and launching the Creative Reboot podcast with my lovely friend Sarah Wayte. An intercontinental podcast wasn’t necessarily on the cards when we hatched the plan, but it’s worked brilliantly so far! (Keep your ear out for Season 2, launching 15 February 2021!).

February found me on the road to Sussex, not to wizard school but to a big country estate nearby, to have a few days’ retreat with 16 other female photographers, to learn and experiment and shoot. As ever, I went along not knowing anyone and came away with friends and colleagues and mentors – it’s been an enduring highlight despite only being three days long.

Photo credit: Holly Rose Stones

It also feels, given the rest of the year, like a MILLION years ago – cooking together, sharing rooms, dancing round the house and exploring the gardens before covid was in our collective consciousness.

I turned 34, went shopping and lunching with Mum to celebrate, had a wonderful halfway day with my bestie who lives in Reading, and celebrated my sixth singleversary with joy and desserts with friends. (It’s on Valentine’s Day – it’s a great excuse to eat cake!) Had some more fab brand shoots, and met my friend’s little girl for the first time on the way back from my retreat.

Spring

March started relatively normally, with a trip down south to see my godmum and my bestie and her Mum (I am so grateful we did this, as we’ve not been able to meet again since), and a visit to Walton on the Naze for Dad’s third anniversary.

I met Mum in town to do our monthly banking, have eye tests and lunch out, and started noticing things like Lush offering free handwashing facilities. I was so sceptical that it would make any difference to our lives on that last trip on 11th March.

By 19th March, I’d done my last shoot (alone in a showroom with buckets of sanitiser, while my lovely clients stayed in their office – most unlike our normal way of working together), collected an order from Debenhams and was sitting in my office watching my beloved business fall apart in front of me.

Over the course of three days, all the work, income, collaborations and personal work I had lined up for the year had been cancelled or postponed. The clients who hadn’t yet signed contracts for headshots, events and team work had phoned to say they couldn’t go ahead. Everything suddenly looked incredibly bleak, and like many others, I was strong publicly, and did quite a lot of crying on the floor in private.

I had Mother’s Day away from Mum & Gran for the first time in years, and on Monday 23rd a full lockdown was announced. At this point it still felt surreal and dystopian, and short term – I remember speaking to my March clients and agreeing we’d reschedule “in a few weeks when this is sorted”. Looking back now that seems incredible, and not in a good way – but I’m also glad we had no idea then what we were in for. I think the year would have been even harder to bear, navigate and cope with if we’d known exactly what was coming.

April is a blur – I more or less lived on Zoom, and because the government had kindly completely forgotten about people who live alone, for five weeks I couldn’t see anyone – including my Mum. My neighbours were mostly shielding, my friends were as terrified as I was, and the roads were deserted so going anywhere wasn’t really possible.

When they eventually introduced bubbles for single adult households, Mum and I were able to see each other, but still nervous to hug or touch – which as we’re a cuddly family felt bizarre in the extreme.

I remember going, in mid April, to the studios to collect my lights and some props from Studio 19, as we didn’t know how long we’d be advised to work from home. Somewhere which is usually my happy place felt like something out of a horror film – it was deserted and dark, and I used gloves and sanitiser to open the gates and the doors, to extract my stuff. I closed the doors through tears, not knowing when I’d be able to go back myself, let alone have clients there. I think that was the first day I started to appreciate how serious the situation was.

I did however manage to move all my websites over to two new hosting companies, Kualo and Stablepoint, having completely lost my shit with Tsohost, where my sites and email regularly went down for no reason and they were completely unapologetic – not what I needed while trying to pivot my business to work entirely online during a crisis!

May saw Mum’s birthday and a walk along the coast at Brightlingsea, plus a takeaway from our favourite restaurant Bambu. It was strange, but special – and we were blessed with sunshine.

More Zooms, some speaking at events, and improved weather made it a brighter month – and I reconnected over Zoom with my lovely friend Merry after almost ten years – a definite highlight of the year!

Summer

June brought an easing of restrictions and I ventured to Booker for the first time since March, which felt weird.

I was allowed to open the studio and work again – unfortunately most of my clients weren’t yet allowed to work, and/or needed their hair done before they wanted their brand shoots!

So I had a covid training course and then just cleaned the studio to within an inch of its life while planning and rescheduling. While I was there I had a chance conversation which led to an amazing project in the last quarter of the year – serendipity at its finest.

I had a total breakdown about social media towards the end of the month and booked a mentoring session to fix this – and it helped a lot. Highly recommended if you’re struggling – I’d let “shoulds” get in the way of what I actually wanted and needed my socials to do for me and my businesses.

Being at home more in the summer was quite lovely – it was stressful looking at the world at large, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to enjoy my garden properly. We also made pasties in honour of Dad on Father’s Day, which was really lovely (and I’m so pleased I haven’t forgotten how to crimp the edges).

July meant more sunshine, a rainbow parasol, an ulcer flare in my throat which I suspect was down to stress and being run down, and experiencing a taste of what everyone else’s lockdown had been like – my lovely uncles spent a few days replacing the patch of grass in front of my house with pretty paving, and I have no idea how the world has coped with having people around 24/7. I love them dearly and get on well with them – I co-own and run a chocolate company with them – but it taught me that I really do value living alone!

I also squidged in walks, a hot tub session, getting out on the water in a canoe (which completely reignited my desire for a kayak), had hot chocolate in the garden with friends and generally enjoyed having a slightly more normal life for a few weeks.

In August I managed to pack in a whole lot of shoots, both postponed and newly booked. It was terrifying and wonderful to get back to working – something I never thought I’d say in my office job days.

I also had an interview on BBC Essex radio about being childfree by choice, got my shed painted like a beach hut, visited Dad’s memorial for the first time since March because of Covid restrictions, and FINALLY GOT FULL RAINBOW HAIR courtesy of the epic Verity Clarke Hair.

I travelled for the first time since March (and, it turns out, the last time in 2020) – first to London to see larp friends before one of them moved abroad. I’ve missed my larp family a lot, which sounds ridiculous because I’ve only known most of them for a year or two – it was wonderful and soul-soothing to reconnect, and also oddly to be able to talk more about real life stuff and find out who they are on normal days 🙂

Then at the end of the month I drove down to Oxfordshire for a client shoot, staying in a socially distanced way with my bestie in Reading to break the journey and avoid service stations.

It was strange and wonderful at once – weird not to touch because we’re normally very cuddly, but insanely amazing to see her actual face and be able to chat into the night from opposite ends of their enormous sofa. I may have cried tears of sadness and relief on the way home. It also feels so odd that that was allowed back in the summer – with the way things are now it feels like a very distant memory!

I was even brave enough to venture back into town and pick up glittery glasses to go with my rainbow hair. I do believe late August/early September was when I hit peak Carla, while testing lights for a client shoot at Studio 19…

Autumn

And just like that, the evenings were starting to draw in and the summer was over. September is always a busy time for me and 2020 was no exception – with a revamp of my co-owned stationery subscription Ink Drops and a new back end system, a shoot for one of my uni besties (who did the Ink Drops brand refresh and who’s also currently working on my new logo/rebrand – eeeek!), studio days, podcasting and some lovely summery evenings back when we were still allowed to meet friends outdoors. (It feels so strange even writing that!).

Val and Carla behind the scenes on a brand shoot

I snuck to a car boot sale with Mum before the season ended, and at the very last stall as everyone was packing up, I found a Victorian lapdesk – something I have wanted for most of my life but never found at a sensible price. It now lives on my bedside table and I have been delightedly writing letters and my diary on it – though possibly my unicorn PJs are not as elegant as the average Victorian lady’s clothes…!

October brought a slew of medical appointments for Mum, which were scary but efficient and have given us some diagnoses to work with – not excellent, but nothing immediately terrifying, which is good news.

I tried and failed to have two weeks off – I managed a day and a half away from work! – and due to a combination of Mum’s appointments and rising covid numbers, I found myself sadly cancelling a couple of things I had really been looking forward to. But there is always next year.

My first ever filming job – the result of that serendipitous conversation at the studios earlier in the year – happened towards the end of the month, and we’re both learning loads from the experience. I’m looking forward to offering more video to clients in 2021 as I’ve loved the experience of filming an online course as well as brand intro videos.

Just before things went weird with the virus again, I managed to squeeze in an in-person Brand Clarity session – they’d been on Zoom for the rest of 2020 but we were able to socially distance in my studio and it was SO GOOD to be back in my element with paper and pens and coaxing stories and memories and joy into a brand essence – it’s a bit like alchemy with people and words and I LOVE the process so much. (Brand Clarity is the process I take all my photography clients through before a shoot, and this year I introduced it as a standalone process where instead of a shoot, you get your brand essence at the end. It’s been glorious!).

I also spent more or less every spare minute building the TEMPRD website – and on 2nd November we launched a new chunky chocolate brand to the world. To our delight, it’s been an instant hit – with repeat orders galore and some amazing feedback. It’s a family business, and I will admit to being a bit tearful when after all our hard work and a few frayed tempers and the constant setbacks of covid, we saw the first orders roll in on the website. The wholesale side has grown too and we now have ten stockists across Essex & Suffolk – and counting!

I was fortunate enough to get a place on a course with Indie Roller via South East Creatives in November, and that was a lovely inspirational way to head into the last few weeks of the year.

As ever, lockdown didn’t mean stopping or resting for me – if anything I was busier than ever keeping things running even without being able to shoot. But the situation struck me all over again on the 5th, when I had an appointment at a clinic on Colchester High Street, the day the second lockdown took effect. It was very sobering walking through empty streets at a time of year I normally avoid them like the plague because they’re so crowded.

I spoke at another fab event, Digital Growth, took part in my first virtual market, moved my carousel horse Starlight to a new loan home (he’s helping Verity at her new hair studio The Art House – I am pleased to report he didn’t poo in the car on the way over and has made friends with the Cheshire Cat!) and on what would have been Mum & Dad’s 47th wedding anniversary, I found a precious, irreplaceable earring I thought I’d lost forever.

Winter again

December dawned and with it, the end of the lockdown, although the tier system of restrictions was still in place, and infection rates in the south and east were rising again – the promised/dreaded second wave. There was news of a new variant of covid, or perhaps two, and things got a bit crazy for a while. The village post office was the busiest I have ever seen it – Sue and Cathy at Wivenhoe deserve a medal for dealing with it all without turning a hair.

As a Tier 2 area I was allowed to open my studio again so I spent a lovely morning creating styled product images with two sisters who run a paint company, which made for a gorgeous first edit of 2021.

I finalised another lovely client’s images and promotional slideshow, utterly failed to send Christmas cards, ate a lot of TEMPRD chocolate and finally collapsed onto Mum’s sofa on 20th December having moved myself, my entire business including the big PC and my cats to hers for the Christmas break.

I carried on working up to Christmas Eve, but paused for our traditional winter solstice celebration on Zoom with my little coven, and I actually loved working at Dad’s old desk while Mum pottered. Being together was precious, especially given our forced separation in the first lockdown, before support bubbles were introduced.

Luna & Clover settled in very quickly at Mum’s, as they always do – they don’t go out but they have the run of the house, and they have favourite spots they always go straight to when they arrive. Clover’s is under the desk for a good uninterrupted snooze, Luna’s is on top of the tallest cupboard in Mum’s room. I’m very lucky to have portable cats! (and this, although just a phone snap, is a milestone because it’s the first photo I have ever got of them together, both looking at the camera! Only took seven years…)

Christmas was quiet but lovely – we had Gran with us just for the day, and the table at its longest so we could stay reasonably distanced while still enjoying the day together. We missed our lost loved ones – I always miss Dad more at Christmas as he loved it and used to do mad things like bbq our breakfast, or deep fry the turkey outside. And Christmas Day was my Grandpa’s birthday, which we always marked before we did Christmas things when I was small. I am immensely grateful that we stayed in Tier 2 over Christmas so Gran didn’t have to be alone and the three of us could be together.

In that weird Twixtmas week I gave in to borderline burnout and just flopped on the sofa, snoozed a lot and cuddled the cats, and worked my way through my three holiday books (two were about bookshops – I can’t help myself!). I didn’t feel properly ill but I didn’t feel well either, and for a whole day I just sort of stared into space, which is most unlike me, but I think the rest did me good.

I also watched the growing Covid infections, deaths and restrictions with mounting horror – although this year I’ve broken my news diet and have kept a more regular eye on the news websites, I still don’t have a TV at home. Having the horrors of the pandemic broadcast at regular intervals into the living room was a bit of a shock to the system!

While relaxing and recovering, I finished my January planning and helped Mum sort out a few things, made plans for my home and my life and my business, and put a deposit down on a kayak at long last. It’s my 35th birthday present to myself and is the result of years of longing and saving – I can’t wait for it to arrive. It will, of course, be pink…!

Despite everything, over the year I managed to work with 20 photography clients, postpone 10 and work with 8 other clients on brand or mentoring projects – slightly exceeding my target for the year, which feels like a bloody miracle given lockdown, covid, the general feeling of fear and a trashed economy. Other numbers I’m proud of – 18 podcast episodes, 350 Zooms between 18 March and 1 August, 9 speaking events, one 365 project (I’m a bit behind on uploading but am still enjoying the process), my first £4k bookings month (which for full disclosure was then mooshed by lockdown, but I’m proud to have hit it regardless) and three sold out Ink Drops months.

I have been intensely grateful for my friends & family – I have the best support network and I’ve felt the impact of it every day this year, more than ever before. I bang on a lot about friendship and business besties and finding your people – and never before have I quite so profoundly appreciated just how many excellent humans I have in my life.

In terms of mental health and emotional impact, I’m genuinely unsure if I’d have coped without my cats. It’s been a year heavy on virtual interaction and extremely light on in-person catch ups and hugs and the everyday affection I had totally taken for granted in all my circles of friends. Without my cats to cuddle (and they are a very cuddly pair, even though they apparently hate all other humans – as I type this Luna is tucked under my arm and the duvet, and also enjoying the heat from the side of the laptop) I think the year would have been a much harder experience.

Money musings

My studio has been my absolute saving grace, both because having premises meant I was able to get a business grant early on in the pandemic, and because it’s given me somewhere to be which is safe, but not my own four walls at home. My timings of leaving the day job in 2018 mean I am ineligible for the SEISS grant, and SO many of my friends and clients and peers have been excluded from any help that I feel a bit guilty for the studio grant – but also grateful, as it’s meant I could keep going and keep creating and keep growing. Or at least keep planning to grow.

Cashflow has been properly hit and miss this year and I know I’m not the only one – I had some excellent advice in December to keep an eye on your monthly figures and the yearly ones will take care of themselves. As I once again try and squeeze my tax return into an already busy January (sorry Kylie!), I am inclined to take this advice to heart and actually do that.

With the possible exception of the kayak, although that’s coming out of longer term savings so I don’t feel too guilty, I’ve been reasonably frugal this year – but have also allowed myself to spend where necessary to get the right things. So a couple of software upgrades, a new printer to replace my 16 year old workhorse which was starting to malfunction, a new Wacom tablet to replace my 10 year old one which I can’t get parts for any more, and annoyingly a replacement podcast mic as mine died unexpectedly after six years of solid and reliable service.

I’ve learned that having the right kit doesn’t magically make you a professional, but it sure as hell helps you do the job better, faster and more efficiently – and with a lot less swearing.

Savings have been more or less nonexistent, but I did work out that I’m now using an average of a tank of petrol every six weeks. I used to get through a tank in four days, so this must be some kind of balance?!

Things the pandemic has taught me

I know I am more resilient, more adaptable and braver than I ever gave myself credit for. I know I am loved unconditionally. I know even more certainly that romantic love is not what I want now or in the long term, but deep friendships and close family and animal soulmates are.

My most profound realisation is that I am exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I always wanted. I can’t imagine weathering the past 12 months doing anything other than being self employed, being a photographer, or being a multipod. I knew I was on the right path in my heart, but had a moment of clarity when furlough was announced and several of my friends were paid 80% – 100% of their full or part time salary to stay at home and not work. I didn’t feel a flicker of jealousy despite at the same time having dropped to £0 income.

Money aside, I’ve had ups and downs but a consistent strong sense of purpose – and I believe that is one of the things that has pulled me through. And being single and childfree are definitely the right choices for me 🙂

It turns out I truly do thrive on variety and being busy – and I am terrible at relaxing. I miss the water, I miss hugging my friends, and Zoom fatigue is a real thing.

Connection is my greatest superpower, and I know much more than I think I do about business, photography and branding. And about oversharing my life online 😉

One small but happy achievement was successfully dyeing one of my favourite dresses from burgundy to black – I adored the shape and now I adore the colour too. And it didn’t wreck my washing machine!

Some of the feedback I’ve had this year has made me cry happy tears – I really am changing the world for some amazing people. And if I can make a difference to one person – with a photograph which truly reflects them, or a new view of who they are and how they work, or an idea they can run with and create happier work – then any and all of the weird times are worth it.

2020 was a strange old year, and I don’t want to minimise the impact – I know that in so many ways I am one of the very lucky ones. But even with the pandemic running amok, I wouldn’t change who I am and who I have in my life and what I’m doing every day for the world.

And I’m excited to see what 2021 brings! Thank you for being along for the ride 🙂