Being a freelancer and the perks of going viral

Here we are, right in the middle of EHL’s campus and the conference, main attraction of the event, is about to start. Samuel Zeller, a photographer, is about to talk to us about his transition from working at an agency to being a freelancer.


He first explains his way of seeing things: he’s never been a fan of the public education system.
You’re either slow or smart, either in the norm or rejected. That’s why art school changed a lot of things for him: freedom, creativity, and fewer constraints were offered to him. But there was also laziness; many people chose this path to avoid another kind of studies, as we would expect.

Then what would be a better system?

In a company: teamwork, real experience challenges and learning from realistic deadlines.
At school, stop the fear of failure.
In 2011, Samuel worked in a designer agency but ended up having a burnout in 2014. This job gave him no rest, he kept thinking of next week’s programs. He then had to choose: continue working at the agency with great clients or become a freelancer.
He chose being a freelancer.
According to him, knowledge is like a language. Every tool that you learn is a new word and it helps you discover the meaning of unknown things. It’s always helpful even if you don’t use these things anymore.


Samuel Zeller – src:


So why did he leave the agency?

Because they would go crazy about details no one cared about. Because he didn’t get enough freedom.
Some of the best projects that he worked on were confidential so he couldn’t show them on his portfolio, which made it difficult to find clients of his own.

How did he feel working for someone?

It limits your language, you don’t have a lot of time, you have to put benefits over passion and you have less creative freedom. As an artist, it seemed wrong.
Plus, there’s the whole hierarchy situation. According to Samuel, there’re always two or three people on top of you who don’t have the same taste, which complicates the work.
Finally, creativity needs time and it’s not always easy to make clients understand that, and the deadlines don’t help.

Going free

Why did Samuel decide to go free?
He wanted people to know his name for his work, and not to be just a random guy working at an agency. Plus, at the agency, he would never receive a thank you. At some point, he had a burnout and decided to take vacation days to do freelancer things.
After some thinking, he realised that he had no steady income, no portfolio in photography, no advertising budget, no clients nor connections, and no experience.
But there was one thing he had: bills to pay. So he had an idea and went for it. He printed postcards with his photographies and sent them.
Weeks after he received an e-mail from a photo editor of a journal. And here’s the proof of how powerful an e-mail can be. It got him his first job as a freelancer.

                                                        Samuel Zeller – src:

There’s a website, called Unsplash, where you give pictures for free for commercial use or other purposes. So basically you give some of your work for free, kind of like a free sample. In exchange, you get a Creative Common (CC) license.
Samuel had some pictures he didn’t use, so he thought about putting them on the website and seeing the outcome.
In Unsplash, the photos are seen more times than if they were published in the largest Instagram account.

As Samuel says it, it’s like “putting your work on top design agencies desks”.

Total views in his photos: 85,000,000+
Total downloads: 850,000+

It’s like a perfume sample in a magazine, the same principle applies. “Try before you buy”. You give some images for free. This way they know what to expect if they hire you as a photographer.

So what did Samuel learn this year?

  • Going viral is good, but a week later it’s over, it doesn’t last.
  • People need regular content/updates. You need to keep your community active.
  • Numbers don’t matter. Engagement does.
  • Side projects are vital, they are great to generate traffic.


“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” – John Maeda


So what would be Samuel’s advice for someone who wants to leave the office and become a freelancer?

People think they’re not good enough. You have to change your state of mind, how you think about yourself. “As soon you quit your day job you find stuff”.

If you liked this article and the idea behind the website Unsplash – giving free samples to prove the value of your product – here’s one article about this concept.


Jeanne Chaverot

Last modified: 31 août 2020

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Being a freelancer and the perks of going viral

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