When people ask me what my job is, it can be hard to know what to tell them - I wear quite a collection of professional hats and labels these days: photojournalist, yoga teacher, blogger, brand ambassador and many more. Labelling the various roles I have helps describe what I do, and the skillset I have, but the labels don’t define me; I am still just Sjana.
Yoga, photography and writing all do the same thing for me – they ground me, let me vent, let me create, and they cleanse my being and soul. So to be able to combine all my passions into a career path has been completely amazing.
I have always been a very physical being with a creative soul and mind. I would often draw plans for rearranging and redecorating my bedroom, design outfits, and write letters, stories and poems. Creativity was able to re-energise me.
My love for photography started way back in the early years; Mum always had her SLR camera with her as we were growing up, so maybe I got my passion from her. I got my first camera when I was eight years old and my first DSLR when I was fourteen. I was able to capture moments in time and some of the amazing and hidden beauty that I saw in nature and the colours, light and shadows around me.
I went through a really bad period both at school, with bullying and in my own head, battling against my anxious mind and my own internal critic. The bullying escalated during Year Nine, and even though I changed schools for Year Ten, eventually I crashed, emotionally and physically. A couple of good things came out of the mess that I fell into – one being leaving school, and the other being diagnosis of an underlying metabolic condition, which sparked both the turning point in my health and my road to emotional recovery.
I started Year 11 with my right arm in plaster, only to replace it with a fractured heel two weeks later and six weeks of bed rest and immobility to look forward to. I stressed out about missing so much school right at the start of my senior years. The pressure of the HSC (Higher School Certificate) in 18 months time started to weigh far too heavily on my mind… and some seriously dark thoughts started to grow. Mum and Dad realised that, for me, staying in school wasn’t an option. This wasn’t a decision they could make on a whim; legally in Australia you must stay in formal education until the age of seventeen, unless you have a permanent job to go to. Luckily ‘formal education’ included more than just school. I enrolled in an online Certificate III in Fitness Training and sat an alternative entry exam for university. I completed the Cert III around the time I received an offer for mid-year entry to university. So at age sixteen I headed off to university in Newcastle.
I started with a wide variety of subjects including sculpture, marine environment studies, German and psychology, to get an idea of where I might like to head with my degree. It wasn’t until my second semester, when I took a photography course, that I realised this was the field I wanted to pursue. I decided to find somewhere I could study photography as an entire degree – not just a module here and there. I applied to a university interstate for a Bachelor of Digital Media – ePhotoJournalism and gained entry for the next year’s intake. I took six months off from my degree in Newcastle, worked as a lifeguard and waterslide attendant at the local pool to save some money, and started getting ready for my 18th birthday and the big move away from home by myself.
There were aspects of the new degree I really loved – especially the creative subjects like life drawing and photography practicals - and there were some that were a really hard slog like history and ethics of journalism, but it was all really valuable. After one year doing the degree, some of my photography got noticed on Instagram and I was offered my first freelance job – unpaid of course – at a conference for an international entrepreneur community. Mornings were spent in seminars and afternoons on the beach photographing those same entrepreneurs and tech-savvy business people launching themselves on kite-boards over the waves as they expressed their own creative energy.
The day before I left for the conference I signed with my first model management agency as an additional means of earning money to support myself through school. Travel, modelling, blogging and photography work grew organically and I launched my website SMYLE (Secrets to Make Your Life Exceptional) with information, advice and inspiration for others to feel empowered and lead happy, healthy lives.
After two years of photojournalism, I took a gap year to travel and build my ‘brand’. That was two years ago – and I haven’t gone back to university. I have slipped into a niche where paper degrees and academic qualifications have less value than the experience I have had in the industry to date. This doesn’t mean that I have given up on education and learning. Instead I have been able to fine tune the direction I am taking and seek out more specific learning opportunities – like presenting classes at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts), one on one sessions with talented photographers, and approved and accredited Yoga Teacher Training.
My future probably holds many more changes and adventures, a lot more hard work and mountainous challenges. But I will be ready for it all … and I will have school, education and life to thank for preparing me.
I am the first to admit that I have been very blessed, some would say extraordinarily lucky, and have had some very unique opportunities over the last couple of years. But it’s not just about luck. Each of us contributes to the direction of our own journey through decisions, effort, learning and the opportunities we make, and take, in our lives. We provide the momentum, energy and resources to move forward in some direction. My choices, hard work and educational path (albeit an unconventional one) have helped lead me to where I am now.
No matter what point in your life you are at, your age, or your gender, my advice will always be to be true to yourself, your values, talents and passions. Always seek to develop yourself and strive to be the best YOU that you can be.