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Daily Inspiration: Meet Catherine Nguyen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Catherine Nguyen.

Hi Catherine, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
Born in Vietnam, raised in NYC, I had the honor of attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. I was lucky to have such a great education to lean on. I started my journey out on my own when I was 16. My first office job was as an assistant for the owner of an executive search firm in the investment banking field. My boss taught me a lot about things other than how to answer the phone or handle her bookkeeping, such as how I should never take no for answer. As a teenage girl, I felt empowered by her words to fight for what I was worth in the world.

After many years working at various administrative and design jobs for companies such as McKinsey and Citibank as well as going to school at CUNY Queens College and Columbia University at night, I ended up at a branding and corporate identity firm. I was the Project Coordinator for brand launches. I got to see the work of location scouts, graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, and typographers first hand. It opened my eyes to a whole world of career possibilities I had never seen before.

I used to paint. In 2000, I started traveling and came home with 30 plus rolls of film – shots of places I wanted to try and remember so I could paint them later. I got my first manual film camera that Christmas as a gift. My love for photography began to overshadow my love for painting.

In 2004, I decided it was time to leave the corporate grind in my hometown and headed to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University for a BFA in commercial and advertising photography. It was incredibly challenging, even more so than my time at Columbia. It was refreshing and invigorating to be surrounded by such creative energy.

I finished school in 2008 and began my photography business. I was relieved to have all of my experience from so many years of freelancing in NY to build my business upon.

I started out photographing a little bit of everything: some weddings, products, real estate, portraits and even a little editorial work. As I started to focus on real estate photography, the market crashed. I had to switch gears. I ended up being contracted to a hospitality content provider based in Vancouver. I spent 2009 photographing large hotel chains throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as the Midwest. Unfortunately, I fell ill with H1N1 and had to go home. My contract was not renewed. I found myself in the position of having to start all over once again. I remember joking that I would have to dress up as the Easter Bunny in the mall soon to a fellow photographer. She helped me to see that I should persist.

So I hustled. I posted on our university’s job board. I started photographing for a prominent property management company in SF. This led to some other jobs photographing interiors for some designers. Slowly, through referrals, business became to pick up.

In 2013, my landlord let me know she wanted to move back into the apartment she had been leasing to me for about ten years. I felt like it was time to head back East. After considering NYC and Baltimore where I have family and friends, we decided on Raleigh, NC.

This meant I was restarting again. I still had clients willing to fly me to SF periodically, but I needed local clients. I scoured local publications and reached out to several magazines. My favorite was Walter Magazine. It’s a beautifully written and designed magazine. I met with the Art Director after forwarding my portfolio and we hit it off. I have been photographing for Walter ever since. It didn’t happen overnight, but my business has grown and my reputation has become solid in the area.

Through my regular work with Walter, HGTV show Love It or List It found me. I became their still photographer for three seasons.

I am so grateful to be able to do what I love every day. My job is no longer just a job. It has been a journey with many ups and downs. I hope my story inspires someone to find their own creative path.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
It has not been a linear or smooth path for me. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a photographer until I was just about 30.

I started out my career in 2008 when the real estate market crashed. I had to pivot my business from real estate photography to hospitality photography.

In late 2009, I got hit with H1N1 and subsequently a long period of depression due to exhaustion and overwork. It took a long time to get back on my feet.

After my business began to thrive in SF, I had to more or less start over in Raleigh in 2013.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I am a commercial and editorial photographer specializing in interior design and architecture. I am known for my work with high-end interior designers, builders and architects. I am also known for my work in Walter Magazine and Flower Magazine as well as other publications.

I am really proud of my work in print: the features in Walter Magazine, Flower Magazine and work I did that has been published in the book San Francisco Architects: Top Bay Area Studios. It’s a different experience of the work to see it in tangible form.

I think my eye for styling on photoshoots sets me apart from others in my field. It makes it much more of a collaborative experience with my clients.

We’d love to hear about how you think about risk taking?
I think taking calculated risk is necessary to move forward in life. If you always do the safe thing or take the path that is well worn, you run the risk of spending your life wondering, “What If”.

It was a huge risk to leave behind a career in NYC to start over as a student at age 30 in a completely different city. It was another huge risk to relocate after establishing my business on the west coast.

Contact Info:

Image Credits

  1. Header image: Builder, Rufty Homes; Staging by Linden Creek Home Staging
  2. Interior design by Design by Tula
  3. Interior design by Lauren Burns Interiors
  4. Builder, Rufty Homes; Staging by Linden Creek Home Staging
  5. Interior design by Design Works Studio (Laura J. Lever)
  6. Builder: Rufty Homes; Staging by Linden Creek Home Staging
  7. Interior design by Design by Tula
  8. Interior design by Lauren Burns Interiors
  9. Interior design by Design by Tula
  10. Portrait by Jillian Clark
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