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« Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work Life Balance in the Legal Workplace | Main | Interview: Steve Zikman: From Lawyer to Travel Guru »

Interview: Rosanne Pennella: From Litigation to Professional Photography

Rosanne Pennella started her career working with federal judges and then as a litigator for top firms. Then one day she received her first camera -- a Nikon N90s -- as a Christmas gift. A few years later she quit her job as an attorney, and with two N90s cameras and a bag of Nikkor lenses ranging from 20 to 200mm, she decided to pursue photography full time for five years and see if things worked out.

Readers will be happy to know that Pennella has achieved success in her new field -- for instance, on August 1, 2005, Nikon announced that it was honoring Pennella's work in its inspiring monthly, "Legends Behind the Lens."

For those interested in learning more about Pennella's work, we encourage you to visit her website. Among numerous shoots in exotic locales, Pennella has photographed the rainforest of Borneo, former headhunters of New Guinea, puja rituals on the Ganges River in India, cremation ceremonies in Bali, the mystical landscapes of China, villages in northern Thailand, tribal warriors in Kenya, as well as the cloud forest of Central America.

What is remarkable about Pennella's story is the rigorous approach she took to her career change - she spent considerable time analyzing her strengths and passions and how best to combine them into a satisfying career, while at the same time preparing her finances to support herself for five years while she learned her new craft.

Click below to read Pennella's interview.

JD Bliss: After practicing in litigation with two large New York firms, you decided a decade ago to begin a completely new career as a travel photographer.  Since then you’ve done photo shoots in dozens of countries and established yourself as an artist with a global reputation.  Given that accomplishment, what originally led you to pursue the law?

Pennella:  When I was growing up I knew I wanted to do something professional, and I originally thought that would mean attending medical school – until I realized that I wouldn’t be starting my career until I was at least 30 years old.  That’s when other influences started steering me toward the law.  I had an analytical way of thinking, and as one of seven children I had always been the negotiator in my family.  After I entered Tufts University, the clincher that steered me to litigation was a course on criminal trial law.  I worked with someone who practiced criminal law and who also traveled a lot and took a lot of photos.  In retrospect, I collapsed the idea of the travel photography and law, not realizing that the attractant was the travel photography.

JDB:  Once you entered practice, why did you become dissatisfied as a lawyer?

Pennella:  After I got my J.D. degree in 1988, I clerked for a federal judge, then joined a large New York firm.  By the time I moved to a second firm several years later, it was apparent to me that being a lawyer was not the right career for me.  I wanted to do something with greater variety, something in which I could make more of a difference.  I felt that I had a creative side that was struggling to emerge.   And I wanted to fulfill my passion for travel and my interest in photography.  Even while I was still serving my clients and keeping up with the big firm litigation pace, I began the process of assessing what was important to me and what I really wanted.  I decided to begin an analytical process that eventually let to my pursuing a career in photography.

JDB:  What were the steps of that process and how did you use them to prepare yourself for such a dramatic career change?

Pennella:  I started reading guides to career change, such as Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow.  The authors recommended keeping a journal as part of a self-assessment process, and as I did that my love of travel, interaction with people and photography expressed itself clearly. Earlier in 1993, I had taken a sabbatical from my firm and used it for three months of travel by myself, shooting photographs in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia with a simple camera.  The whole experience confirmed what I loved about travel, and serendipitously I received an SLR camera as a gift the following year. 

Within a year and a half I had decided on becoming a travel photographer.  I thought the decision through and created a step-by-step plan for myself.  I wanted to learn as much as I could about photography so that I could get my skills to a professional level.  I wanted to have a financial cushion, and determined that I had to save enough to support myself for five years while I learned my new craft.  And because the fear of the unknown really was a psychological hurdle, I talked to as many people as I could about what I wanted to undertake.  In 1995 I told my firm that I was ready to leave but they offered me a part-time position.  That enabled me to start scheduling photography classes in New York.  The classes confirmed for me that travel photography was what I wanted to do – even though my teacher told me not to quit my day job.  But I did at the end of 1996, and gave myself a five-year trial period to make a success of what I’d chosen to do.

JDB:  Why do you feel you’ve been so successful at effectively establishing a global brand as a photographer?

Pennella:  I’m convinced that marketing is the largest success factor in any creative endeavor, even more so than skill.  I teach a course in photography at The New School in New York, and I tell my students that the most important elements in being a success as a photographer are to completely believe in yourself, to develop the skills that back up that belief, and to have a plan on how to get your work noticed on the level of other professionals.  For my own plan I was very specific:  I initially determined the three magazines in which I wanted my work to be published and the two galleries where I wanted to be displayed.  By envisioning a specific future, I think any person has the best chance to make it become a reality.

JDB:  It’s one thing to have a plan and quite another to put it into action so successfully.  What were some of the key tactics you used?

Pennella:  First of all I was determined to please myself with my photographic vision.  I saw that people who truly believed in what they were doing have the best success at getting it accepted.  My style, which I display and discuss on my web site,, can best be described as color-saturated, intimate and graphic (which to me means intense focus on detail).  I assembled a portfolio that applied these elements to travel photography and began marketing it, and myself, to potential clients – tourist offices, travel magazines and trade catalogs.  It was a major breakthrough when, near the end of my five-year trial period, Nikon World, a quarterly magazine published by Nikon, ran photos I had submitted and my bio as a cover story.  Since that time, Nikon has used my images in their trade ads, catalogs, had me speak for them at photo conventions and honored me as one of their “Legends Behind the Lens”.  Another breakthrough was my discovery that I’m good at explaining photography.  Teaching and workshops are an important part of expanding my practice contacts, and in addition to my photography courses at The New Schooland International Center of Photography in New York, I regularly take part in Popular Photography/American Photo Mentor Series photo treks (

Teaching makes me a better photographer because you can’t explain something unless you’ve mastered it.  Teaching has pushed my photography to another level.

JDB:  How do you handle the business and logistical sides of your photography?  Has your training as a lawyer been a help to you?

Pennella:  In addition to doing my own marketing I do everything else, because I’ve not yet reached the point financially that I can have an assistant.  I had to learn all the details that many business people take for granted – like how to send a FedEx package, which someone else always did for me at the law firms.  I travel approximately half of the year, so the other half of the time is very busy for me administratively.  I keep ongoing lists of work and personal goals for the short term and the long term, and break them down into manageable agendas so I don’t get overwhelmed.  That kind of attention to detail has been one use I’ve made of my legal training.  It even extends to my photos, because as I mentioned I pay close attention to the details of a graphic composition and have a checklist for elements of edges and backgrounds:  when I am photographing a hotel room, are the pictures on the wall straight, is the light on the left the same color temperature as the light on the right?  Another influence from the law has been taking the verbal skills that any litigator needs and applying them to my teaching and workshops.

JDB:  Has your new career been as rewarding as you hoped it would be?

Pennella:  The simple answer is that a bad day as a photographer is still better for me than my best day as a lawyer.  I’m always doing what I love to do, always learning and exploring.  In the past year I’ve made the switch from film to digital photography, and I know that I’ll be making other changes as technology advances.  My creative efforts are evolving too, particularly in terms of doing more writing – which is especially satisfying to me because I initially explored being a travel writer before settling on photography.  And of course travel itself is a wonderful growth experience that always takes me in unexpected directions.

JDB:  Your transition to a new career wasn’t just a leap of faith – it was the result of analysis and planning.  In that light, what advice would you give to lawyers who are unhappy in their current careers but are uncertain how to initiate a change?

Pennella:  Actually I have the opportunity to do that kind of life coaching, because a number of the people who attend my photography workshops and seminars are attorneys and other professionals, and they approach me with that question when they learn of my background in the law.  Certainly I understand that it’s debilitating when you’re in a career you don’t love yet you don’t know what new direction is best.  I spent years struggling with that myself, and it took real effort to analyze my strengths and passions and how best to combine them. 

At some point you just have to make the leap – ultimately no one else can tell you when the time is right.  My career change came at a good time because I’d built up my savings and didn’t have to balance family obligations or a mortgage.  If you do have those kinds of obligations, start a gradual process of change, maybe with a new part-time or after-hours endeavor.  But don’t wait for the “right moment” – it will never happen.  Create the right moment by making your plan and setting a goal that in five years, or whatever time is best, you’ll be doing what you want to do.  It’s never to late to start, but the important thing is to start.

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