“I always fall a little bit in love with my subjects,” Meagan Harding confesses, gazing down the camera barrel as we sprawl on the floor of her Carlton-based studio. I’m perfectly at ease, having spent the last hour being photographed by someone who feels like an old friend. This warm, fuzzy feeling is her calling card, and alongside her talented eye, is the reason 99 per cent of her clients are referred. “Service is the best marketing you can have,” she tells me. “If you give people a magnificent experience, you will get clients.” Formerly the national sales manager of a leading retail company, Meagan took a plunge – applying her business knowledge to two creative ventures – emerging as a freelance stylist and photographer. “Styling was the main thing I wanted to get into,” she says, describing photography as a “happy accident,” sprung from a bond with her father. “Dad had a dark room at home,” she says, and fondly recalls “playing with” his professional equipment while growing up. He bought Meagan her first SLR camera – an expensive, secret gift. “I got this,” she remembers him telling her, “It’s really for you, but let’s just say it’s for me.”
Camera in hand, Meagan travelled the globe – visiting South-East Asia and India, and living in London, Dubai and Pakistan. “It really pushed my attention and focus towards people,” she says, describing how she would sketch and draw people in developing countries, before scrambling to retrieve a book featuring the work of Dorothy Lange. “I’m almost disappointed I was born in the era that I was,” she says, flicking through the photojournalist’s harrowing, humanising shots from the Great Depression. “Doing street photography when no one else was doing it – there’s a candidness and authenticity that I just don’t think you can get anymore.” But it hasn’t stopped her from trying – getting her first digital camera eight years ago and not putting it down since. “Four years ago someone offered me money to do some pictures,” she tells me, debunking the prestige of photography. “It’s how you see the world, so there’s no right or wrong. Some people are better at it, but it’s not a secret skill.” Striving to capture her subjects’ true character, she doesn’t own Photoshop. “I’ll take out blemishes,” she assures (to my relief), but for Meagan, perfection is flawed. “If I can see lines on someone’s face – their character or quirky expression – that’s what I love.” With no time or interest for tableau-esque wedding snaps, she strays as far as possible from “cheesiness” – having copped an eyeful from the corporate world. “I know how insincere a lot of it is,” she says, but her sales and management experience was integral in designing her freelance life.
After years spent satisfying stakeholders’ demands, she knew exactly how to launch her service ventures – spending 18 months refining her business, marketing and financial plans. “I pulled all that together at the same time as building my brands,” she says. Initially working from home and with help from a graphic designer friend, Meagan’s start-up costs totalled a mere $500. She worked weekends and nights to build up her clientele, ever the professional from word go. “You have to set yourself up like you already have a business,” she says. “My first client will never know who they are and I’ll never tell. As far as they know, they were my 150th.” Her processes are meticulously regimented, manifesting across numerous spread sheets and checklists, to the point that someone else could step in and take over tomorrow. “You have to set yourself up so you’re redundant,” she says. “If you do that, you never will be. People who hoard information are redundant because no one sees their value and worth.”
When the time came to reduce her corporate hours, Meagan approached her CEO. “I freaked them out a little bit,” she laughs, “but it was a really nice transition – I’ll be forever grateful that they allowed me to do that.” She worked part-time for three years while Meagan Harding Fashion Styling and Meagan Harding Photography grew. Using her name was very deliberate. “I am my brand,” she puts simply, “people hire me,” and when Meagan Harding got too busy, she took the full leap. “I’ve been here just over a year,” she says, of her chic, white-walled warehouse studio. “I needed space to be more productive. You get to a point where you can either keep your business the same, or you can take a risk and the opportunity to grow – that’s what I had to do.”
In addition to her two trades, Meagan writes a blog, Style Farm, and hosts a weekly fashion podcast with friend and fellow photographer Cheryl Lin. “I’m not the type of person to do one job,” Meagan says. “When I worked corporate, I was wholesale manager, national sales manager and training manager. I can’t just do one thing – I lose interest.” Always making mistakes but never regretting a thing, she overcomes obstacles with a “how do I fix it?” attitude. “I still have moments of second guessing myself,” she quickly adds, before adopting a mock-mediation pose. “It’s not like I live in the lotus position, at peace with the world.” But she’s confident in saying “this is who I am”, welcoming clients into her world. There’s a cup of tea brewed on arrival and music requests taken. “Whatever you need so you feel comfortable and happy,” she says. “There’s skill in knowing how to push someone’s buttons on first meeting, and this is where my business success comes from.”
There’s no smoke and mirrors, what you see is what you get – be it a 45-page personalised styling guide, or headshots that capture true character. “People ring me up to make a booking – no one ever asks questions, ever,” she says, “it’s all there on the sites, including the price.” Meagan collaborates with select make-up artists and fashion stores, but is very conscious not to be seen as endorsing a brand. “Clients come to me for independent advice,” she says. “It’s important to me that people see I’m not on some secret kick-back – I just don’t operate that way.” Entirely self-taught, she admits to probably not being the most “technically brilliant” photographer – but doesn’t want to be. “If I like the photo, that’s all that matters,” she says. Her advice for aspiring photographers is passed on from a mentor and friend, who has photographed the likes of Bono, Geoffrey Rush, and Megan Gale. “He spent upwards of $20,000 studying and learnt more in his first six months in the studio,” she says. He told her to pick up the camera and just do it. “That’s what I’ve done.”