The Illusions of a Dream Job
Maria Wurtz and I talk about the pros and cons to the jobs we always dreamed of having and where the industry falls short.
I met Maria Wurtz in 2017 and she amazed me all through out our two years at FIT together. She created gorgeous self-portraits to highlight the recovery process of her own eating disorder while she worked on the magazine she created. She is one of the most positive forces in my life. In the year after I first met her we formed a life long friendship. Working with Maria through some of the craziest moments of our careers, she always helped anyone she was with believe that they could get to the places they wanted to be. In a field that can be discouraging for so many reasons, finding a person as talented, uplifting, and supportive as Maria is rare. The qualities I admire in her go beyond her artistic talent so much so that I hope the industry starts to look a little more like her. I have been so excited to talk with her about her career and whatever ends of the art world we found ourselves discussing and debating. In the newsletter below we talked about how she got started, the pros and cons to our dream jobs, and where the industry falls short. I hope you all enjoy the transcript of our conversation below.
Maria and I talked for an hour about different topics surrounding working, some are very nuanced. All of the topics are deserving of several newsletters of their own which means important information is missing from the transcript below. My recommendation is to read articles, books, and first hand accounts from the people who face the issues we discussed at greater rates than either of us do. I will link four books HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE as recommedations.
This has been edited for length and clarity
Ava Williams: Please introduce yourself and maybe give a little rundown of what people might want to know about you.
Maria Wurtz: Ok hi. I'm Maria Wurtz, I'm a New York based photographer. I started FIT in 2017 and graduated in 2019 with Ava. I feel like I really got my foot in the door with photography when I was full time at Rolling Stone. Or I guess when I started my internship at Rolling Stone.
AW: Can you talk a little bit about the type of photography that you do?
MW: Portrait photography and lifestyle is what I really love. Not high fashion but like fun lifestyle fashion. My ultimate goal is to be shooting for Free People or Urban, that kind of stuff. I really started photography with self portraits, that was in high school, but all my life I always had a camera I was always taking photos. I was always making my friends do weird photoshoots when we were really young and I didn't understand what depth of field was really.
AW: You’re like how do I make it so the background is blurry?
MW: But then yeah, I started taking self portraits. I always say that the reason I am a photographer is because of my high school photo teacher Mr Booth, who I still talk to. I love him so much. He really encouraged me and pushed me through. I think photography is something I was always passionate about and he knew it. I was young and I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I was struggling with so many things, but I think self portraits helped me learn a lot about myself and about photography in general. Also in his class it was black and white film, so I learned so much from that and that's how I really started, which is interesting. I don't know. I feel like no one really starts on like black and white film anymore.
AW: Right, that's when I actually figured out I wanted to be photographer. I was like 16 I took like one darkroom class, they gave me a camera and I was like that's it.
MW: I love that...but uhm self portraits I think helped me really get through my eating disorder and that's when I really became obsessed with photography. I also didn't really know I had an eating disorder, but it was my weird way of coping and healing and dealing with body dysmorphia and stuff like that. So I kept that up and I think I didn’t even realize I had an eating disorder until I faced it years later
MW: I think this is why I've been obsessed with taking photos of myself, it was like seeing myself through a new perspective, literally. Even though I was taking the photos and it was my camera and my setup I just saw myself so differently.
AW: Yeah, it's like even when I take photos of myself with twins, I'm like do I even look like that? I mean, there's so many factors when you're taking a photo, the lens, how far away you are, all that stuff.
MW: It’s so weird
AW: I love photography because…I know I just talked about in my last newsletter with Emily, I was saying she's sort of one of those people that will kind of just do it no matter what. Good or bad, however I cannot trust the process. That’s why I can't draw. In photography it's like, well, there's a good photo right in front of me and if it's not good immediately, then it's not being picked.
MW Laughing: Right!
AW: That’s why I like retouching. I like refining everything. But if the photo is not good from the base, I'm not using it.
MW: I am the same exact way, because if I have to go that hard to retouch it to make it look good, forget it. It wasn't even worth my time. I go through it then I make my selects and if it’s not good, I won’t even attempt.
AW: I don't want to change absolutely everything about this photo for it to be good. I want it to be good right away. It's sort of like when you're drawing a horse draw a circle. No, I'm gonna start off with the body immediately.
MW: I am full on doing the legs.
AW: Yeah, the shading is tough but I did it.
MW: Shading? Done.
MW: But uhm, yeah, what were you saying before? How the hell did we even just talk about that?
AW: You know it just happens...I guess what I would like to know because we both worked at big companies, we're not saying it to name drop, I wanted to be at SNL for an internship that was it. I would have loved to work there, but I knew the photo team is like two people I'm not going to replace those two people who've been there, right? Also after I loved the photo team to take their job or believe I could do it better would be unreal. But you were working at Rolling Stone, which is really amazing because you were an intern and then you got hired which I think is rare for those companies.
MW: They make you feel like you're the chosen one.
AW: That’s funny you say that because actually at the intern like onboarding, they told us the acceptance rate for the internship. It's like oh my God, yeah I'm not trying to get into Yale. I really wanted to be there obviously, but I don't want to feel like if something goes wrong or if it isn’t perfect that I'm taking it for granted.
MW: It's not that serious. Also then it feels like if you don't get it, you're not worthy or you're not good enough or whatever.
AW: Maybe you could now talk about what your job was at Rolling stone?
MW: I started as an intern at Rolling Stone which I was so grateful for because it is such a small photo team. I really got to work hands on with a lot of the stuff. I was getting to go on cover shoots and doing all that and having very intimate moments with my coworkers because it was so small. I went in thinking it was going to be such a huge company with such a big team and it wasn't at all. So I got to make great connections and really see how things get done and I'm really grateful for that.
AW: Of course
MW: As I was interning I feel like Griffin Lotz, one of the photo editors, he kind of took me under his wing a little bit and he taught me a lot about the digital side of things. So I was working on the website a lot and they were giving me really big opportunities for photo editing so I ended up working as an associate photo editor. He taught me a lot and was always willing to answer my questions. I had 51 million questions, so thank you Griffin and I was always apologizing for the question, but I really wanted to learn. I'm asking 1001 questions, not to annoy you, but I want to first of all make sure I'm doing it right.
AW: Instead of sitting through the anxiety of waiting for them to say “this is bad!”
MW: Exactly! He was so great, though he never made feel like I was annoying him, which I'm so grateful for. But I ended up really loving it there and I think I was also so caught up in the whole world of like...well. First of all, I think you can relate but when you go to school with a bunch of people, and I'm going to say this bluntly, half of them don't want to do this. And you know they're not going to because they never took it seriously in school, they never took it seriously outside of school. It's one thing to be like I'm not doing these assignments because I'm shooting for the New York Times. There are people like that and there's people who are not taking anything seriously. So I think I was very frustrated being in that environment in school that when I got the internship I was like no, this is serious. I'm serious about this. The people I'm working with at this internship are serious about this. It just took me down a different route and made me see things differently and I felt like I was finally doing it and like school was holding me back almost.
AW: I understand, I think it's important to go to school so that you can do your job. I loved going to school. I missed it when I left. But a class only has the ability to teach you so much. When I started retouching, I started working for the retoucher who taught me and there was things I didn't know. But the only way I was ever going to learn, the only way I was going to get better, was by working.
MW: Yeah and that's it with Rolling Stone I was interning, I was doing photo editing stuff and they were using my selects and stuff like that. I think I remember Sacha Lecca, he was like I don't think we've ever had an intern who we've actually been able to use their selects. To me, I was like, oh like I actually am good at this! But...but I think what happened [when I was hired full time], I went in with a confidence and I lost it among it all.
AW: Oh no
MW: You get so swept up in the crazy chaos of it all and you get caught up in the thrill of it, and again [the companies] make it feel like you should just be grateful that you quote unquote made it.
AW: I feel like, there comes a point when you work with these big companies and you have to question how much of The Devil Wears Prada is actually true not to be dramatic but!
MW: Yeah yeah yeah!
AW: Like how can someone, I mean, we’ve all had bad work experiences. But The Devil Wears Prada was such a success because we knew it was real and it felt real. That’s what the industry is like.
MW: No 100% and I think…so when I was interning, I ended up like falling in love with it and I didn't want to leave. Especially because I was graduating. I was like this could really be my career. I 100% see this and I always saw myself in magazines and editorial because I did sugar mag for so long and I kind of always pictured myself there. So I was like I manifested this 100%.
MW: So I basically talked to the Photo Editors when my internship was ending and I was like I'm not ready to leave I really want to stay. Is there any way that you could hire me? I think that's like a huge piece of advice that I can give to anyone, just ask for what you want. We were talking about this before.
AW: The worst thing they can say is no. But I understand also why that’s hard, I don't mean to use this as an excuse, but being a young woman, it can be very intimidating to ask that especially if there are a lot of men in your field.
MW: It is yeah, especially in photo departments in general. It was just me, I was the only female at the time.
AW: Yeah and it's really hard because you don't know how anyone feels, you don't know if even the best person you work with is going to be prejudice or even have a minor thought that keeps you from doing your dream job. And like you know there's this big thing where like, I was lucky at SNL my boss was so amazing, he was so willing and I felt really supported. But you know, that's not everyone at any company. My department was great and full of women. But then you go down to another department and you don’t know who you’re meeting or what they are like. The one thing was, we said sometimes it felt like one day you wear a skirt and you got everything you wanted the next day you wear pants, you got nothing.
AW: How are we still living in this world? I am not saying SNL was this toxic place where sexism was so prominent. But it's one of those things that people on the outside believe is gone or think is not as prevalent as it is.
MW: Well, I think it's worse because people don't think it's there and I think what I notice at Rolling Stone is that the women who made it to the top, made it to the top during a time period where they had to step into their masculine energy and they had to sacrifice their own femininity to compete with the men. So the internalized misogyny is on another level. So you experience sexism from the men and the women. I know it sounds terrible, but that's the truth and I think this happens at so many companies. There's women that stepped into their masculine energy because at the time that's what they had to do to make it, which we respect, but they have to let those ideas go. I’ve worked with so many men obviously but also women who cannot let those ideas go.
AW: I also feel like…obviously there are so many layers but there’s this thing where, especially as a woman in a male dominated field, you do something good or you figure something out, someone compliments you or someone does you a favor. All of which is great, but then you might start to think, or other people imply like they have implied to me, that the only reason you got what you got is because whoever hired you or whoever you were working with was attracted to you. Which is terrible but also I don't want to go through my career thinking I am only doing what I am doing because people are attracted to me and not because I have the skill set needed to make it.
MW: Yeah 100%.
AW: And it's really hard because you know, like how do you talk about it when it's sort of just like so ingrained? Again SNL was my dream internship. I loved it. I had such a good experience. I would do it again, but it was also very challenging. The whole internship not just the struggles I might face as a woman. I won’t pretend it wasn’t. At one point I was either at school or at SNL and so then it became like, in “real life” how much will I have to sacrifice if I want to work for these companies I have dreamed of getting a job with.
MW: Oh my God, I worked with workaholics and that made it really hard for me. I had to be a workaholic too or they would think I’m not working hard enough.
MW: It was also really hard too because I was going through a really good period with my eating disorder and then when I was full time at Rolling Stone, my whole world was turned upside down. I didn't have my normal routine anymore. I was on email at all hours. I was doing this and producing this and making really big decisions I'd never done before. I had just graduated.
AW: Leaving school...it's shocking how much it jars you. You go from having to do a million things to having to basically do nothing but get a job.
MW: And I had a job immediately! I'm so grateful for that, but I think it took a lot out of me because that's my first full time job. There's a lot that I'm dealing with a lot that I don't know. I have no boundaries, so I'm saying yes to literally everything. And you know, I don't care who you are, if it's your first day, you can set boundaries no matter what. I didn't think you could do that because in media it's still so old school, so they expect you to do this and they expect you to be a yes person and to do everything but, I'm suffering here.
MW: I had no control over my life. I was working all the time. I was producing things I was working on weekends. I was working late hours. I was exhausted. I wasn't sleeping and I fell back into old eating disorder behaviors and I would come to work. I'm not even kidding. I would cry every day I would walk in, see Alexa and then start crying. I was in so much fear of everyone, there was no communication between anyone at the company, so at any given moment I was in trouble for something. There was no clear cut communication and so this person is mad at you for this and this person is rude to you because of this. It was just such a toxic work environment that so many people are sucked into. And I felt like I should be grateful because this is Rolling Stone!
AW: You feel like you have to deal with it, or have be able to handle it on your own and you should be grateful of the opportunity you were given.
MW: Exactly and you’re a new artist and this is my chance to make it.
AW: This is your chance you don’t want to throw it away! It's almost like when you're freelance and you feel like you have say yes to every job but you shouldn't. I don’t think there is ever a point in your career where you should say yes to everything simply because it’s being offered to you. If there's a good opportunity you take it, but only the ones that are good for you.
MW: Exactly, but I suffered a lot there and I think after a while I started to not feel the same way that I felt about people when I was interning. You see people's true colors when you're actually coworkers and you're working every day and I think people showed me things and I realize this actually is not normal. Actually, this is not ok! We have no people of color working here. We don't have enough women on this team. There's so many issues that you see across media. Then everything gets swept under the rug that everyone has to keep quiet and then you're stuck and you’re traumatized.
MW: I openly talk about this all the time with my friends. Like you know, I always tell you and I'm openly talking about it now because I want other people in the industry who are young to understand they're not alone. Working there was the most isolating experience ever. I talk about it, but I'm still traumatized, I'm going to hypnotherapy in two weeks to get through it. I spent all my time worrying what they they thought about me. Do they think I was a good worker? This is all like a self a self esteem thing that I was struggling with. I had no self esteem and I was always wondering if they thought I was good at my job. Am I doing enough? I never got positive reinforcement or validation. I know you shouldn't seek validation from people, but in your career you want to know if you're meeting the mark.
AW: It ends up being, even when I'm retouching, I send it back to my boss where I have no idea if I did it right because I've only been retouching for 2 years. I am not asking my boss to pat me on the head for doing my job but when I do get good feedback and critique it’s better than silence which I think makes me a better worker. I think not being validated becomes a self-esteem issue very quickly.
MW: I totally agree
AW: Like at SNL, they were, at times, good at telling you that you did well. Again we didn’t need a gold star, but I remember getting texts where my boss would say we did well despite how stressful it was or even though it was late and we had worked all day. Then me and Katie [McGowan, fellow intern] would text because we were so excited to do a good job.
MW: That’s perfect
AW: Not often but sometimes at SNL my boss would come back after yelling at us for something and just say sorry that he yelled because he was stressed, and even that made dealing with my mistakes easier.
MW: They held themselves accountable.
AW: Exactly but on the other hand, I wasn’t free of that insecurity you were talking about. Not in the slightest. When I was at SNL every Friday we had to take photos of the pre-tapes, and I remember having so much anxiety about why someone was chosen to go and I wasn't, I thought I wasn’t good enough to go. But then I also hated going on those shoots! And if I was chosen to go, I thought it was because my boss didn’t like me enough to spend Friday at 30 rock with me or trust me enough to help him. So it was like a lose lose situation.
MW Laughing: perfect.
AW: Then me and Katie, would be on the way home from a Thursday photoshoot with the bumpers and we would text each other a list of everything we did wrong. Then constantly ask each other if our boss hated us. Mind you, he never actually did anything for us to think that but you're in such a high pressure situation. It’s all you can think!
MW: The thing is they make it seem like it's literally life or death. You work with so many people and maybe not necessarily like the people directly at Rolling Stone, but the PR teams they're mean.
MW: They're straight up rude to you and this is what makes me so frustrated. Why are you like this? What makes you better than me?
AW: No one should be rude just for the sake of their status, which I think makes it so hard again, it's like so ingrained. To go into a photoshoot or a place like SNL or Rolling Stone, it’s like no wonder things haven't changed, imagine how tired it is to be the only person trying to fix the issues there?
MW: I think that was the most frustrating thing amongst all the young people at Rolling Stone. We wanted change so badly, but there's a chain of command just like anywhere else, and the people at top were not willing to change, and so it was impossible for us. Which made it so discouraging. At a certain point a lot of us ended up leaving, I ended up losing my job because of COVID-19. But really, I think working in an environment like that I don't discourage anyone from doing it or trying it. I think it changed my life. I am forever grateful for it. It was the most amazing experience. I have this story for the rest of my life.
AW: I have so many good stories and great memories
MW: But was it worth the suffering? No. Was it worth sitting there crying every day all day? Was it worth not having a life? Was it worth spending my Fridays on slack until 8:00 PM? Was it worth never feeling like I was doing enough? No. It wasn't worth any of that. And maybe that was just me, but I don't think I'm crazy because I know that everyone else who worked there, and my friends who left there, felt this same exact way. We were talking about this stuff all the time. I learned a lot of things. I wish I did my healing spiritual awakening journey before I worked at Rolling Stone because I would have taken things way less personally. I would have reacted differently to the situations I was in. I would have understood people better. I look at them now and half the people that I worked with, I actually can empathize with them. I know they were struggling with X Y and Z. It came off as this blah blah whatever, but I think when you're working in that world and you're just out of school and you just want to do what you love, you're willing to sacrifice it all.
AW: Sort of like The Devil Wears Prada moment where she has to choose between her boyfriend and her job. I was just saying like I would drop everything to work for W. Not that tomorrow I'm going to shoot for W or something, but you know when you’re young you will do anything. I recommend the SNL internship to anyone who can get it, but there's certain things I wish I knew, that I want other people to know. Like don’t take everything so personally
AW: There's been such chaotic catastrophic things that have happened live on television your one mistake is never going to be the end of the world. It might make your boss mad for a second, but we all make mistakes. I mean, one of the most horrific things that ever happened to me there was, I was running SD and CF cards
MW: I remember this
AW: And basically at SNL during the show you had to run, physically run, through the backstage area, up the stairs to the elevators and then down the hall because the photo department was on the other side of Rockefeller, might as well have been on the other side of the Hudson at that point. You hand the person making selects the card because the social media team needed the photos 4 minutes ago, and then you run back to get the next cards. Mind you this was like my favorite task I thought it was fun. But I remember on this one occasion my boss handed [the SD card] over, my job was not only to run the cards but to have new cards from a pack of about 100 identical blank SD cards ready for him. On this occasion I had forgotten to grab new cards for him. So I went to turn and get them in a panic because I forgot, and then all the blank SD cards fell on the ground
MW: Oh god
AW: And he thought, in midst of the chaos around us, the card that had all the photos he had just shot and needed to give to whoever was mixed in with the identical blank SD cards, so essentially lost. Which would obviously mess everything up.
MW: Yeah yeah, yeah.
AW: A clear problem he would be so pissed about.
MW: So worried of course
AW: But the truth was, I had the full SD card in my hand and so it was fine. Yet, I was hysterical over this mistake that actually didn't happen. The idea that it could have happened messed me up more than the actual thing that happened which, mind you, was the best case scenario for that accident. I could have let it roll off my back, but I didn't. I feel like when you're working in a place like that or anywhere like that because things are so stressful you take things way more personally.
MW: You think everything is the end of the world.
AW: Right but if you took a step back, took a deep breath you'd realize it wasn’t. In any normal situation these mistakes don’t matter but again they make you feel like everything is the end of the world.
MW: I also think about like I was just insecure in so many aspects of my life it just rolled into my work world and made everything 10 times more catastrophic than it needed to be. You know, because I was insecure and worried about X Y and Z, work became so hard and then it just interfered with every aspect of my life. Obviously I didn't know what I didn't know, but I wish I knew everything that I know now. Yet, even if I did, I don't think I could go back there now.
AW: If you knew everything now what would you have done?
MW: I would have been creating my own art and focusing more on that and doing my job and going home at the end of day and not harping on things days later.
AW: Or even focusing on micro changes you know, I think one time you texted me asking for any LGBTQIA photographers that I knew
AW: There's certain things, like my boss was really not sexist at SNL and I stress this because I would never want to imply that he was a problem. I knew he didn’t view me any differently than anyone else and that's a not so small thing that makes a work environment so much safer.
MW: Yeah, and I think that's funny because, well so we did not have that at Rolling Stone. But you see it all the time, right? You see what happened with like Bon Appetit. You see what's happening with The New Yorker and all these magazines, media companies and I understand how but it's also like, why is this still going on? After I left Rolling Stone I was like I don't know if I enjoy photography because I think these people ruined it for me. I know it sounds terrible, but I think it needs to be talked about more because the people I meet we trauma bond over what happened at our jobs. I'm not crazy. What I'm saying now I'm sure someone in the industry who's worked there, especially a woman, will be be able to relate.
AW: Exactly, I had a great experience at SNL and I still left super insecure. It’s not my boss who made me feel this way but I think the context of the internship and how big it was to have it. If I made a mistake, it was catastrophic which carried on after. I was retouching once and I made a mistake and my boss asked to meet with me to talk about it and I remember the days leading up to it I thought I was being fired. I think I cried the full 24 hours before I had to go see him. I had never felt that way before.
MW: I think like we've talked about this briefly before too, but it's like there's so much of a boys club. In all these places and I don't know what it would take to change that, and I think every photographer can agree on that. I think that's what's frustrating too. And like even when I was texting you asking if you know any LGBTQA like people like? Who who can take these photos that aren't the same three men.
AW: Even worse for women of color.
MW: Yeah oh my God, yeah who am to complaining!
AW: We were just talking about the difference in The New Yorker salaries between a white man and a white woman on average and then the difference between a white man and a black woman’s salary at The New Yorker is just terrible. And it's just sort of ridiculous that we're still sort of in this space where we pretend that things are going way better.
MW: It's still the same people empowered. Why does Vogue have so many problems? What's the common denominator here? Hello, in order for change to happen you have to do a clean sweep of whoever's at the top.
AW: Right but they obviously want to stay in power so that won’t happen.
MW: Yeah and I'm sorry. Half these people have been there for 100 years. Of course there is going to be extreme racism and sexism if they are still there. It all trickles down and the years of bigotry carry on. It's just crazy. I think what I have taken away from everything and as I'm freelancing now and picking up after getting laid off from Rolling Stone, after I made my life Rolling Stone. I literally went through the dark night of the soul and I realized that it is insane that you would ever let a job or a company define you.
AW: Exactly…wow that was…a lot.
MW: Yeah I know.
AW: I know we just talked about pretty heavy-ish stuff and I think what is hard to show in a transcript is that me and you have a lot of hope regardless of the situations we’ve been in. We are still here despite how low we got, how hard it was, we are still excited about the future of our careers and the future of the industry we will work in. I think we tried to stress that we are grateful for the opportunities we did have and all the things that we learned but it is hard to…it is hard to really emphasize that it’s not necessarily the people we worked with personally that were so terrible but the foundations of which this industry is built. So is there anything you’d like to say to end on a positive note?
MW: Yes. My advice to women in the industry is do your thing. I think a lot of it is just like trusting in yourself, manifesting, truly believing that you can't do it. Put yourself out there, don’t mindlessly scroll through instagram. Don’t compare yourself…But yeah. I don't know hopefully you can morph that into something that can be good.
when I became spiritual and I started listening to this podcast called “The Highest Self Podcast” with Sahara Rose, she had a guest named Brandon Beachum and he said “Everywhere I go I’m there waiting for myself. It’s me reflecting me back to me. Everything is vibrational in nature and whatever I’m bumping up against is a close enough vibrational reflection that it’s appearing in my movie at this moment.” This has helped me manifest and change the course of my life and career. I’m creating and manifesting what I like but I’m also creating and manifesting what I don’t like. This has helped me so much through this wild freelancing journey!
This Newsletter is Brought to You By:
The ocean, nature, my love for being outdoors but need to be by water or I lose my mind
Mark Booth, my first photo teacher who made me fall in love with photography. Who always believed in me and encouraged me to create
Women, and my love for photographing them
Dana Berkowitz & Pink Surf Cult, forever best friend, always inspired me to bring my camera everywhere I go and my photo inspo always
Free People, my forever inspo, aesthetic, brand, entire being
Our next newsletter collaborator needs no introduction, but here’s a little hint: