First published in The Photographer’s Mail, May 2013
I’d never had a huge love of the United States but after a short trip to New York to visit a friend a few years ago I really fell in love with the place. It’s just like in the movies, unnervingly so! Americans are loud people, it’s true, but when you see them in captivity (in their homeland) they don’t seem so bad. Actually they’re downright nice, polite and happy to help. Just don’t sneeze in an elevator or you’re likely to get blessed from all corners!
Moving to Los Angeles was certainly not on the life plan for me, I was happily building up my career and business in Wellington. It came about when my girlfriend JL won the USA Diversity Lottery and gained a Greencard.
Whilst many people would have seen blinking ads for the lottery on random websites and dismissed it as a scam it’s actually quite legit, and free to enter. The US gives out close to 50,000 greencards every year worldwide which gives you pretty good odds if you’re inclined to enter.
JL entered every year for 6 years and finally got the goods. After a round of interviews, health checks and legal documents she was granted a Residency Visa and a social security number. She was now a legal alien and wanted to check out Hollywood.
I on the other hand had nothing. No Visa, no rights, no nothing.
As we weren’t married her visa didn’t apply to me, and until I won the lottery myself another way to live and work in the States would have to be found.
Luckily for me a few stars aligned and after saving some money we decided to try our luck over there regardless. JL headed over mid 2012 and started looking for work and a home. She bought us a car as LA is not the place for public transport and a far cry from Wellington’s 15 minutes to anywhere. More like 3 hours to nowhere.
I came over in December 2012 after packing up our house, sorting my various business affairs and working out how to take all my equipment without breaking the bank. It was not easy to choose between my gear, it’s like leaving a child behind, but I knew what I wanted to shoot when I got there so I whittled it down to the essential 32kg in a hardware bag. I’ll cover this in more detail in a future article.
Now, not having a Visa was going to be a problem if I wanted to earn money in the US. I could work under the table and for cash but if I got busted doing that it could mean deportation and a life ban from coming back. I didn’t want to risk it and I had some good savings which should last me if I was careful. So I entered the States on a 90 day tourist visa or ESTA Visa Waiver Program. It’s the most common visa for holidays and non-business related travel. I figured 3 months was a good amount of time to work out my long term options.
My three month plan was to basically see the lie of the land (and eat donuts). I wanted to update my portfolio with more fashion and advertising work and also get some of the American landscape in there. I also wanted to make contact with local agencies and studios so they knew who I was, ready for when I could work.
My other goal was to find an Immigration Lawyer. I did some research and found that as an Australian there were two visa options available to me. One was an E3 Visa, which was valid for Australians who work in a Specialty Occupation. This required a degree or at least 12 years in a specialist industry. The other was an O1 Visa, which allowed “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability” to stay in the country for up to 3 years. This was available to most nationalities, not just Australians.
This was the Visa for me! Now, how to sort that Extraordinary bit…