Jelger’s restart in life

At the end of my previous blogpost we’d arrived in Vancouver as new immigrants. It was a moment of roaring emotions: feeling free and exhilarated while disoriented and scared at the same time. “What have we done?” was the last thought Tanja and I shared before falling asleep on that first night.

In the next weeks, I felt like a shipwrecked sailor who’d washed ashore. I had to rediscover everything. Starting with exploring the blocks around our temporary home in downtown Vancouver, I gradually went further and further. I learned where to shop for groceries, clothes and furniture. Every time I checked an administrative obligation off our task list, I felt proud. And we celebrated when both of us passed our road tests (BC didn’t have an exchange agreement with Belgium, unlike with most other European countries). And then the next challenge arose.

Short term: day jobs for the win

The next challenge, was getting work. Vancouver’s high cost of living was burning our savings like dry kindle. And welcoming as Canada was to its immigrants, the job market had its own mind.

For the short term, I’d been hired as a barista at a famous coffee stores chain (the one with a mermaid in its logo). Initially, I felt excited about it. I had a job without the stress and professional responsibilities of before, and I could focus on my long term plan.

Meanwhile, Tanja managed to get a job in a home healthcare store, thanks to her physiotherapeutic experience. She felt less excited about it, but didn’t mind the lack of complaining patients.

Long term: going from head to heart

For the long term, I’d had entirely different ideas. Continuing my legal career was out of the question. My experience had proven that the legal world was a bad fit for me. Instead I’d decided to go the route of my passion: photography. Wedding photography to be specific, because it seemed a fun, and feasible branch to pursue professionally.

Tanja was my biggest support in the project. Days after we’d landed in Vancouver, she nudged me to go to city hall and get my business licence. Another few weeks later, she made me order business cards. Eventually, her nudging and prodding got me further, than my own enthusiasm. Which felt strange.

As much as I wanted to become a photographer, I felt a lot of reluctance and anxiety to actually make it happen. Sure, I’d dreamed of having the freedom to follow my passion, until it was right there in front of me and I had to put my money where my mouth was. Fear paralyzed me every step of the way. Fear to meet new people, fear about my lack of skills, fear for rejection. Looking back, I realize all my fears could be boiled down to one base anxiety: the fear of not being enough. But I’ll talk about that topic another time.

After a few months I’d had enough of Tanja’s hounding me. So I suggested that given her wealth of input, she might as well step into the limelight and join me in the business. She did, and we founded Jelger and Tanja Photography. It’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

The in between stage

Joining forces felt profoundly right. We’d be able to spend more time together, and could complement each other’s weaknesses with our individual strengths. But we still had our daytime employment.

We continued to juggle our day jobs and budding business for over a year. Until the drawbacks became too much. The once refreshing lightness and simplicity had turned into a grinding boredom. And the low wages felt like an added insult to injury, because they couldn’t even cover our cost of living. Worst of all, we spent even less time together than in Belgium, given our impossible work schedules. Our young business suffered dearly. Change was needed.


The change came in April 2013. I’d hoped to fix the situation by finding a better day job. My applications for an admin job didn’t do much. After a disappointing job interview, I felt stuck in a dead-end. Tanja and I discussed our options, and both of us came up with the same crazy thought: I should start working full-time for our business. Instantly, the “of course!” feeling took over and we knew we were on to something. Two weeks later, I took off my apron, and walked out of the coffee shop for the last time.

But that was only the beginning. Days after I’d quit, Tanja left her job too. Seeing my joy and excitement about full-time employment for our business was too much to handle. So again we reviewed all options and decided: “to hell with it, let’s jump off this cliff.” Our savings would get us through the first 6 months, and after that, we’d have to figure something out. The most exciting and frightening chapter of our lives had started.

Freedom to be

Leaving our day jobs freed us up in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Overnight, we’d gained full control over our schedules, work loads, and obligations. More than that, it established independence as a way of life in our minds.

Up to that point, we’d lived and thought within frameworks set by someone else. It seemed a small and evident price to pay for a steady income, but it had slid us back into an attitude of complacency and unintentional living. The very attitude that had made us decide to quit our old lives.

Our leap into the unknown, was the perfect wakeup call. We made a commitment not to let it happen again. From then on, our life would be unapologetically about mindful, intentional living, guided by our internal compass.

Building an unconventional business

After taking that great leap of faith, our business was of course our biggest priority. It had to become a sufficient source of income. But at the same time, our gut feeling told us to develop it in a way that felt right to us, which differed from the conventional entrepreneurial track. No business plan, no offering everything to anyone, and absolutely no cold calling.

We went our own direction. The only service we offered was wedding and couple photography. And we built our own training curriculum. For months, we studied whatever information we could find. It wasn’t hard thanks to the online learning platforms. Online seminars, webinars, presentations, e-books: as long as it mentioned wedding photography, we took it.

Our enthusiasm was high, and our days were packed. And together with our constant networking efforts, slowly, but surely, results showed. By Summer we’d actually managed to book our first few weddings (at a ridiculously low price, but we were over the moon nonetheless). Which is when the next step came.

Trial and error

Tanja had stumbled on the website of a photographer who marketed herself not just to brides, but to princess brides (which she described with carefully chosen adjectives). The hyper focused way of marketing piqued her interest, and she convinced me we should look into it. She contacted the photographer, and we signed up for mentoring sessions to build our own brand.

It came down to a simple objective: by showing our most authentic self first, we could attract like-minded (and therefore ideal) clients. But simple as the objective seemed, the journey to complete it was not. For months, Tanja and I slugged through soul searching exercises, but something continued to feel ‘off’. We needed more intensive help. Our mentor recommended us her own business coach, who had founded this marketing technique.

Rebranding our business and ourselves?

In April 2014, we restarted the brand-discovery process. Again we ground through the soul searching assignments, which proved even harder because we had to tear down our preconceptions from the previous round. For months, it felt like a frustrating experience that would lead nowhere. But I was wrong. Our coach did manage to lead us to a clear and tangible, be it unexpected, result. The image showed us not who we thought we were, but who we truly were: our truest, most authentic self. In April 2015 we announced ourselves to the world as: “Jelger and Tanja, wedding photographers for spontaneous and adventurous couples.”

With the birth of our new brand, came the biggest challenge yet: to become our brand. Just because we knew the values, didn’t mean we owned them. Spontaneous? Adventurous? Gasp! I felt like an unadulterated city person, proud of my European heritage and taste. But below that layer of civilization, I noticed a quiet cheer. A secret longing, that wanted to kick it all to the curb, and get back to my wild, untamed roots. I had no idea what was happening to me.

Unleashing myself

As the years went by, we grew. With baby steps, we undertook hikes in nature, and dared to share the occasional silly photo on social media. Our courage and confidence increased, as did our trust in the values we’d displayed on our ‘banner’. Together with ourselves, our work transformed too. Photo shoot locations moved from city parks to rugged outdoor locations, stiff and awkward poses became dynamic, playful experiences. Now, 7 years later, I proudly look back and see that we own our brand. More than that, we’ve become our brand.

Taking a leap into the unknown, and subsequently discovering our life values didn’t only affect our business. It influenced all branches of my daily life. A life of complacency didn’t leave me feeling fulfilled and happy. This realization made me question everything I’d taken for granted. I turned to research and self-development instead. Blazing my own trail through life through trial and error, and falling back on my gut feeling as a compass.

Increasingly, I experienced the disconnection between me and myself. Me as a thinking, walking, talking mind, and myself as an entire multi-dimensional being. Reconnecting with my entire self (body, mind, emotions and spirit) became my new credo. It was the start of a lifelong journey, which I continue to walk every day. For now, I’ll give you a short introduction into what each dimension looks like for me. In future posts, we’ll take a deep dive into each topic.

Body: from foe to friend

For over 30 years, I’ve struggled with my body and its image. I used to hate my body with a vengeance. I experienced a complete lack of control over my body weight, which left me feeling powerless and depressed. So instead, I fled into my mind and considered my body a stupid, disobedient physical extension of myself. In the last few years I’ve learned to reconnect with my body. I learned to nurture it properly, to listen to its wisdom, and to love it as an undeniable, integral part of myself.

Read the full story here.

Mind: more with less

As intensely as I’d hated my body, I loved my rational mind. I genuinely lived in my mind. For a long time, it felt as the true and only seat of my existence. Tunnel vision took over and blinded me of my mind’s shortcomings and biases. Increasingly, I struggled with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression and burn-out. Thankfully, I found an amazing clinical counselor who yanked me out of the maze, and taught me how to live a more balanced life.

In the future, I’ll be exploring mind-related topics such as recovering from being a ‘head-person’, embracing vulnerability, and living more authentically by reconnecting with your Primal Self.

Spirituality: create your own

Finally, the most sensitive and vulnerable dimension: spirituality. Life will inevitably confront us with voids that leave us grasping for meaning. Spirituality is what fills this void.

History is filled with examples that all human beings are spiritual by nature. I myself believe spirituality is an essential and necessary part of living a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, many of us have suffered bad experiences with spirituality. Bad connotations have taken over, and made us discard the concept altogether as a wooly, unnecessary or out-of-this-age concept. Believe me, I’ve been there. But it shouldn’t be. I believe that finding spiritual fulfillment, in whatever way works for us is our birth right. Together we can redefine and cultivate what spirituality should be for us.

I’m going to talk about spirituality. I’ll tell you what it means to me, and how I practice it in my own unique way. All of that, and more, in a future post.

I’m excited to explore all of these topics with you. Thanks for tagging along.