Cardi B getting glam for the 2019 Met Gala in a crimson Thom Browne gown that took 2,000 hours to make. Young Harlem figure skaters competing on the ice in the New York Times. Sarah Jessica Parker masked up on the cover of Footwear News. If you’ve seen these images you’ve seen the work of Flo Ngala, the 25-year-old New York-based photographer who has turned her creative passion into a full-blown career as a professional photographer—one that’s still very much growing.
From her figure skating roots to her obsession with Tumblr to her eventual pivot to a professional photographer, Ngala has created a line of work born out of natural curiosity, hard work, and her impulse to bring her camera with her wherever she goes.
Here, Ngala shares her story and advice for photographers hoping to turn their passion into a career.
Before figuring out how to get your big break, Ngala says you should make sure you have a solid portfolio: “You have to make sure you're doing good work, seriously,” she says. “Otherwise, even if you get the opportunity, even if you get that moment, it may not sustain itself.”
In her early teen years, Ngala got inspired by photos she saw on Tumblr, and decided to start taking her own, guided by her own curiosity. “Seeing things being curated well, that resonated with me [and] spoke to how powerful good work could be,” she says. “That's how I think all artists should go into anything—just making sure that they're looking and seeing and feeling what it is that resonates with them creatively, and then taking that step of finding the resources they need to create their own work.”
Ngala got her practice by shooting street photography in her neighborhood and self-portraits and headshots for her fellow students while in college. “I still have a flyer of me being like, ‘Headshots for $30,’” she says. “I considered myself a portrait photographer and a photojournalist, so even when I was learning the craft, I was shooting 35mm film, black-and-white. The pictures I was taking in and around Harlem were very much this kind of reportage style.”
That practice allowed Ngala to build her portfolio as a professional photographer, gain experience and comfort with her equipment, and learn how to make others feel at home in front of her lens. She recommends emerging photographers do the same—and reach out to peers and mentors to review their portfolio for technique.
Ngala’s first big break came unexpectedly in 2016 on the set of a Fat Joe music video. Her childhood ice skating group, Figure Skating in Harlem, was asked to cast skaters for the “All the Way Up” video, and Ngala took the job. By instinct, she also brought her camera along.
“It was my first time being on a video set and I was like, ‘This would be really good for my portfolio,’” she says. “I did my skating part, but after that I was shooting the scenes and the situations I was seeing that I thought were beautiful—all the lights and the cameras and the crew.”
Ngala shared her work with the video’s producer, who connected her with an executive at Atlantic Records. “She went on to be a big mentor of mine and the person who allowed me to first work with Gucci Mane, with Cardi. I still have a good relationship with them to this day. That's the backwards way that my career started.”
In 2019, Ngala achieved another milestone in her career: a photo on the cover of the New York Times. Getting to that moment actually started in 2017, when Ngala was in Miami for a shoot with Cardi B that overlapped with Miami Broward Carnival. “You never see that amount of people and that amount of beautiful colors,” she says. “That celebration of culture, especially Black people, it's just visually, such a sight for me.”
Ngala returned to Miami the following year with the sole purpose of shooting Carnival photos and, on a whim, pitched them to a photo editor at the New York Times. Though she passed on the images, she invited Ngala to the Times office to learn more about her history and her work.
“I didn't know that what came of it was going to come of it, but I was just excited to just be having a conversation,” she says. The two kept in touch and she eventually asked Ngala to tag along with Figure Skating in Harlem skaters—and the photos made their way to the front page as well as a full page in the first Sunday Times of 2019.
“I got to be a fly on the wall for about a couple of weeks, going here and there, and the story started to shape itself. Eventually, [the editor] was giving me feedback,” she says. “When one of the images was selected to also be on the cover, it really blew me away.”
Early in her career, when it came to booking gigs and negotiating rates, she relied on her peers for advice. “If you don't know something, ask. There were so many times where I've had to be like, ‘Hey, can I call you about this thing? How much should I charge for this? How much should I do this for?’” she says.
“I think people should give themselves a break, allow themselves to figure it out,” she says. “Don't be afraid to be honest if you don't know something. We're all human beings at the end of the day.”
Even in her uncertainty, she learned a lot. In fact, Ngala would argue that’s the point. “There's always that adrenaline rush and anxiety of, ‘Did I do this right or wrong?’ But when I look back, I had to have those not-sure moments to get to the moments of like, now I know what I'm talking about, now I know what I'm doing,” she says. “You literally have to learn as you go.”
This year, Ngala started working with an agent for the first time in her career as a professional photographer. And while she’s built a name on her own reputation and work, her agent can help ask the right questions, handle logistics, and negotiate on her behalf. “The conversations that [my agent] can have alleviate a lot of my stress and anxiety,” she says. In a recent instance, her agent helped figure out how Ngala, based in New York, could shoot portraits for Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, filming in Los Angeles.
Though she was approached, when seeking out representation, Ngala recommends handling that relationship thoughtfully. “If you decide to get representation, it's about knowing that at the end of the day, what works for you?” Sometimes the transition from handling things on your own to letting someone else have control can take an adjustment period. Ngala’s advice? Approach tough conversations with respect and love, and be able to stick up for yourself with courage when necessary.
During this year’s Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, Ngala took her camera with her to the streets. “It was an incredibly heavy moment,” she says. “I wasn't there necessarily to photograph—I was there more as a protester,” she says.
She began sharing her images on Instagram along with personal captions. “I decided to be more vocal about the images because I was feeling a lot of things. I'd never put myself in that situation before,” she says. “I was grateful to be able to use something I love—photography—to share an opinion and my voice and thoughts.”
“People work for a year and have big breaks. People work for 10 years and have big breaks. Some people never get those big breaks,” Ngala says. “Do what you can do, work as hard as you can work, take care of yourself—it is dangerous to get so caught up in what you think things should be and how you think things should work.”
Instead, the art is what Ngala always returns to because, in the end, the work is what will last. “I want my legacy to be being someone who did things in her own way and was herself and was still really good. I want people to look at my images, and I think I already feel that now, but I want people to look at my work and be like, ‘Wow, that's a really, really good photograph.’"
Watch the full interview with Flo Ngala here and join the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network to hear more stories about building a business around your art.
Meet the author:
Maura M. Lynch is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Brooklyn, NY. In her free time she co-runs STET, a site dedicated to emerging writers and storytelling, and plays guitar and sings in Blush.
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