“I love that my job is to become a serial expert on interesting people doing interesting things, all over the world,” Clare Major, filmmaker and videojournalist, writes on her web site. She has shot in Spain, Switzerland, Senegal, Liberia, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Haiti, and all around the U.S.

Liberia goldmine, photo courtesy, Clare Major

She didn’t always want to be a filmmaker. She wanted to be a paleontologist when she grew up, because she “really liked the idea of walking around the desert, working outside in the dirt, digging up bones.”

Now I am beginning to understand why she enjoyed hiking hundreds of miles through the California desert.

I first met Clare covered in dirt and dust, shouldering a giant backpack, and anticipating a good meal and a brew at Callahan’s Lodge. It was the day after crossing the California/Oregon border, on foot, on the Pacific Crest Trail. Clare and her hiking partner hiked the entire PCT in the summer of 2015 the hard-core way –creating a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada. That meant that if they got picked up to go into town for a resupply and were dropped off the next day even a few feet farther down the trail they would backtrack to create that connected path from border to border.

It was important to her to complete the trail in this way. “Keeping a continuous footpath felt like a way to keep myself honest—I worried that if I let myself skip one mile it would be easy to start skipping ten or twenty or one hundred at a time,” she says.

Clare brings this same attention to detail and perseverance to her work as a filmmaker.

photo courtesy, Clare Major
photo courtesy, Clare Major

From Classroom to Career

“I grew up taking photographs with my father, and I’d been a photographer on my high school newspaper and yearbook,” she writes in an email interview. “In college at UT-Austin, when I looked at the required intro class for photojournalism and compared it to film, I knew I’d rather be studying film. Video production was appealing to me. Plus, the Radio-TV-Film major meant that I’d have an excuse to watch movies for class.”

After graduating, her adventurous spirit led her to spend two years in Senegal as a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer, before returning to the states and attending UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to study documentary film.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, she cultivated her filmmaking skills, making a beautiful short film there. Feast & Sacrifice, an intimate look into Senegalese family life, won first place documentary at the 2011 College Television Awards and was a national finalist for the 2011 Student Academy Awards.

Watch the film below.

“One thing I’ve noticed about looking through the lens is that I’m able to film things that I might actually have trouble watching without the camera,” she says. “In [Feast & Sacrifice] I filmed a ram slaughter as part of religious celebrations. If I’d just been watching it without filming, I think I might have been queasy about the blood. But because I had the camera and had a purpose I was totally fine.”

Braving the World of Freelance

Liberia, photo courtesy, Clare Major
Liberia, photo courtesy, Clare Major

Clare made the decision to go it on her own straight out of grad school, and hasn’t looked back. Her freelance work, which includes shooting, producing, and some editing, has supported her full time since then. Her biggest fears are data loss and forgetting to hit the record button, she says.

“Studying at the Berkeley Journalism School with filmmaker Jon Else, I learned from his example and the example of alumni who spoke to our classes that it was totally possible to make a living as a freelance filmmaker,” she says.

“I really value the independence of freelancing—that freedom outweighs the fear of failure.”

Although, she acknowledges it can be tough sometimes. “The isolation of freelancing is the toughest part. I’m my own boss—which is great when I want to, say, take six months off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—but it also means that I’m the only person responsible for and keeping track of my own success,” she says.

Azerbaijan, photo courtesy, Clare Major
Azerbaijan, photo courtesy, Clare Major

“Charting and measuring my own professional trajectory when there isn’t a corporate ladder to climb or a ready-made series of career goals—it’s hard. But of course that isolation comes along with the freedom and independence that I love so much—it’s just something that I’m continually trying to get better at dealing with.” Her PCT thru-hike helped with this.

“I was definitely nervous about stepping away from my career for six months,” she says, noting that freelancing is often about timing and being available.

“In the bigger picture, I think that hiking for six months—being away from email, away from any deadlines other than how many miles I’d hiked that day—has made me more relaxed about ‘career path’ and more serious about adventures,” she says. “I’m serious about my work—doing work I care about and doing it well—but I’m also making sure that I’m planning my next hike and my next trip to visit friends or family.”

The Craft of Making Films

Clare calls what she does not art, but craft, a word that, for her, melds both art and science —“combining a set of skills that are based on objective principles and rules with an intuitive sense of what feels right.”

“My favorite moments in my job involve observational, ‘fly on the wall’ filming of real people doing real things—documentary shooting where I and my camera melt into the scenery and I am recording life as it happens,” she says.

This comes out in her work in scenes where just watching people perform the actions of their daily lives tell the audience a story.

“I’m of course never actually invisible, but in the best moments I may as well be. I know I’m doing my job when people tell me that they forget about the camera,” she says.

Clare’s dedication to her passion as profession is an inspiration to me, something I hold on to as I begin my own journey into freelance writing.

“I never seriously doubt my decision to work as a filmmaker. It can feel overwhelming or frustrating at times, but I can’t imagine going into an office every day to work for someone else. The freedom is unbeatable.”

Find more of Clare’s work at claremajor.com.

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