Meet Henri Hollis of Henri Hollis & Co.
I am a journalist, writer and photographer with a focus on food. My mom is an excellent cook and she instilled a love of food and cooking in both me and my brother growing up. We always had a hot breakfast before school and rarely ate the same dishes for dinner twice. As a kid, I didn’t realize what a rare luxury that was.
Interesting food and curiosity about cooking were just facts of life, so it wasn’t until I became an adult that I recognized a passion for food in myself. I hadn’t imagined a career in a creative field or in the food industry when I was in high school and college. I always assumed I’d have a generic business career, and when I daydreamed about something as nebulous and undefined as food writing, I figured I couldn’t make enough money for it to be a viable option.
I went to Georgia Tech and tried to go into finance after graduation. I wasn’t happy or fulfilled in that industry and, after a couple of years, decided to pursue a more creative line of work. I’ve always enjoyed writing, so I decided to pursue a career that would combine my business-focused education with my natural skill set. Public Relations seemed like a good mix of the two, but I quickly discovered that entry-level PR jobs were incredibly competitive.
Since I didn’t really have relevant experience, I wanted to show that I had some skills and abilities that would make me a viable PR job candidate. I started a cooking blog called the Bachelor’s Test Kitchen to showcase my talent and give me a talking point in interviews. I wanted to show that I could write well, be creative and deliver posts on self-imposed deadlines. Of course, a cooking blog needs photos, so that’s how I first started my photography hobby.
Through a combination of lucky timing and personal connections, I was eventually able to get into PR. I worked at a couple of different large agencies for a few years before seeing an opportunity to move to a boutique firm that specialized in restaurants and hospitality. Though it was basically a lateral move, I saw the opportunity to combine my passion for food with my profession. That job introduced me to the Atlanta food scene, inserting me into the network of chefs, restaurant owners and food media professionals that have largely helped me stand on my own now.
While at that boutique PR firm, I began taking more photos of my clients’ food and getting those images published. I had quite a few photos published in local publications like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but also in national publications like Conde Nast Traveler, Paste Magazine and others. When I left that firm, I reached out to the Food and Dining editor at the AJC to see if she had any freelance opportunities for photography or writing, and she said yes.
I continued to work for a PR firm that wasn’t hospitality-focused, but on the side, I was taking photos for the AJC. After less than a year, I ended up getting laid off from the new firm, so I decided to increase my freelance workload while I looked for a new job. Within a couple of months, to my own surprise, I’d basically replaced my salary with freelance income. I was enjoying the work and had gotten a couple of important clients, so I just said, “I guess this is what I do now.”
That was back in 2017, and since then, I’ve cobbled together some regular clients and successfully pitched stories to a variety of publications. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about photography, refined my technique and invested in my equipment. I’ve also joined professional organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance and tried to learn more about the field of journalism by taking classes from the Michigan State school of journalism on coursera and spending a week at the SFA’s annual oral history workshop.
Over the past few years, I’ve had my writing published in the AJC, Atlanta Magazine, Jezebel, the Atlantan and others, and I’ve taken photos for a ton of different restaurants and publications. My photography has been published by national outlets like Vox and the New York Times. But there’s a lot that I would like to do and achieve, and the learning never stops. Occasionally I take a step back and appreciate the fact that I’m self-employed and that I’m able to work in an interesting, unique field, but I don’t feel satisfied. I see a lot of ways that I could improve at everything I do.
My road has been smooth but winding. I try hard to keep things in perspective and recognize the privilege I’ve enjoyed along the way. I have had quite a few jobs since graduating from college, but always decent, white-collar, 9-to-5-type jobs. Those enabled me to grow towards my current career path while getting paid a salary. I am also lucky to have a family that would provide a safety net if I ever needed it and has supported me in many ways along my journey. And I’m incredibly fortunate to be married to someone who is a really hard worker and has a great job that provides us with a lot of benefits, the absence of which makes life difficult for a lot of freelance or contract workers. Health insurance, retirement savings and a steady spousal paycheck is a huge help.
With all of that in mind, I’ve struggled in past jobs, been laid off and felt directionless and unmotivated. When I’ve been unfulfilled by my jobs in the past, I’ve sometimes fit perfectly into the stereotype for lazy, entitled millennials. For a very long time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I doubted that I’d find success.
Over time, I realized that I didn’t even know what motivated me. In the working world, I quickly found out that money wasn’t my prime motivator. I also found that I’m not a clock-puncher – I’m not good at compartmentalizing my work and the rest of my life.
I’m motivated by curiosity, recognition and completing projects. By following my curiosity about the food and dining world, I have been able to build the network and find the opportunities that enable me to support myself as a full-time freelancer in food media. Because my work is very public-facing, and because people think that being a food photographer is cool, I get encouraging positive feedback much more often than I ever did in an office job. And because both freelance writing and photography are inherently project-based, I get to complete assignments and move on to the next thing.
While I do technically have an LLC, Henri Hollis & Co., my company and my product are just me. I am probably known first as a food photographer, and that is how I make the majority of my income, but writing represents a significant chunk of my invoicing as well. Because the AJC is one of my main clients, much of my writing and photography is journalistic, though most of what I do is considered “soft” journalism.
I think what sets me apart from others is that I have a genuine curiosity, passion and love for food. My primary hobby is cooking and I read food and restaurant news all the time. I am obsessed with certain publications, writers and recipe columnists that seem to perfectly encapsulate my philosophy about food. I mean, I even think I have a philosophy about food. That passion informs my photography and, I hope, makes me come across as genuine when interviewing people or writing about the subject.
This is a great question because it seems like success has one societal definition and a billion individual, personal definitions. When I was in college and envisioning success in the world of business and finance, I saw myself dressed in a suit, traveling the world and eating at all the best restaurants. That’s not really what my life looked like once I actually started working in an office. I wore a suit every day, but that’s about it.
I’m not sure I have a concrete definition of success now, but I focus much more on happiness, fulfillment and work-life balance. To some extent, that includes making money because I don’t think I’d feel fulfilled if I knew that my financial wellbeing depended completely on someone else. But money isn’t the prime motivation.
For me, success is spending more time doing things that make me happy than not. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve arrived or “made it” to a place where I say, “I’m successful now, I don’t have to do anything else.” What else would I do?
I feel most successful when I’m learning something new, mastering a new skill, trying something for the first time, going somewhere I’ve never been, returning somewhere with fresh eyes… I think stagnation would feel like the ultimate failure, so success means continually moving forward, improving myself, appreciating my personal relationships and helping others. In a way, I’ve taken a different route but ultimately landed in the picture of success created by my younger self. I don’t often wear suits, but I do travel a lot and go to great restaurants all the time.