Looking Through the Lens: An Irish Film Maker’s Big Gamble in NYC

We’ve all wanted to take a big gamble at some point in our lives to just up and leave the place we’ve established ourselves, our career and connections for a new place that’s exciting and different from our comfort zone. But is taking the risk of moving to an entirely new city, country or maybe even continent really worth the reward if it works?
For our guest blogger, Thomas Rowley, the answer is a definite ‘yes!’ A filmmaker and cameraman, Rowley captures his creative success in New York from Ireland after his masters on a graduate visa

Betting Big

I’m a filmmaker and cameraman, and after finishing a Masters in screenwriting I decided to take a big gamble and move to New York for a year – to upskill, make new contacts, and just plainly to live in somewhere as gigantic and fascinating as this city is.

Looking back, I probably should’ve prepared, packed, and planned in my last two months – instead, I decided to make a big budget short film, wrapping 4 days of filming across 18 locations just in time for my flight. The nice thing was I was so absorbed in that I didn’t stress about the big move, the downside was I arrived with no coherent plan at all.

Not Your Average Grad

At 31, I’m a lot older than the average grad visa applicant, and this brought up two worries – (1) would I end up sharing a house with a load of kids in their early 20’s, becoming the surrogate dad of the house, frowning at their hangovers and tutting over unwashed dishes? and (2) would employers wonder “why is this old guy here for an internship? What terrible tragedy set him on this course in life?”.

Old Friends in New Places

Luckily both were wrong. An old college friend contacted me just before I arrived asking me to move into his apartment in Brooklyn. And with internships, the added years of experience and contacts ended up working in my favour. Before I left I hastily emailed around all my old employers asking if they knew any New York agencies where I could drop their name to try for an interview, and I compiled a long list of leads from their replies.

In the first 3 weeks, I walked around the city for hours checking in with all their contacts, grabbing coffees, pints, and seeing as much of the city as I could. Exploring a city for the first time is probably my favourite thing to do – I ran a street-based film project in Dublin so I knew what was at the end of absolutely every single street in the city, but in New York everything was fresh: I had no idea what was around each corner, so everything felt novel and surprising. 

Smells like Success

Finally, one lead led to a promising interview – an art documentarian in Ireland sent me details for an Emmy award-winning documentary house in Brooklyn, called MediaFactory. The interview is burned into my memory for one reason. I’d walked out to Bushwick, where I was kindly greeted into the office and then asked if I wouldn’t mind taking off my shoes. As I walked in I realised that, walking for days in 35° heat, my feet now smelled like gone-off blue cheese wrapped in a cloud of farts. As I talked and explained my background, I watched helplessly as my potential employers’ noses wrinkled and they began opening windows. Somehow, magically, I got the job (though I have since never been asked to take off my shoes). So an early tip – buy lots of light socks for the summer, it’s a killer. 

I’m extremely lucky that did work out. Through my internship here I’ve managed to expand my skillset as a cameraman and filmmaker, and explored the city through my filming work. Every new gig can be a whole new experience. I spent one week in the Lower East Side with Coss, a former millionaire drug-dealer from the area who went to prison and came out with an inspiring determination to build a new business. The result is ConBody, New York’s only prison-themed gym which is staffed exclusively by ex-convicts. We worked closely together all week long, bringing together training videos for his online platform. The next week I was in the United Nations, helping on interviews with candidates for Secretary General.

Creative Irish Careers

Global sensation Hozier performing at the Irish Arts Center last summer in NYC

Oddly enough I’ve ended up gaining more Irish contacts than when I was in Ireland. I did the camerawork for a 3-part documentary series on RTE (‘Nationwide in New York’), where we interviewed Irish people carving out careers in NYC – boxers, actors, fashion bloggers, and even a whiskey distiller turned angel investor who brought us around the city in a helicopter! I recorded countless gigs at the Irish Arts Center, working with some artists I’ve always admired – Gabriel Byrne, Hozier, Enda Walsh, Zadie Smith, Paul Muldoon – and discovering new acts from home I’d never seen – like the amazing Loah, or  Colm MacIomaire. I’ve always had an interest in writing and literature, and spent one mind-blowing weekend filming a creative workshop with award winning authors Donal Ryan and Joseph O’Connor in NYU. 

Conquering the Big Apple

I’m now coming to the end of this year and looking back, if I had to pass along any tips to me a year ago here’s what I’d say:


Before I left my dad offered me his big thick winter boots. I laughed ‘I’m going to New York dad, not the west of Ireland’. Very few winter days didn’t go by where I didn’t regret that dearly. Where I thought of how warm and resilient those boots would’ve been. The winter here IS worse than Dublin’s. So do pack some extra warm clothes for winter.

2. Tap up the Irish network

It’s kinda a cliche, and sure you didn’t travel thousands of miles to hang out with Irish people but believe me they’ll be a huge help. You’ll meet people on the same path as you, only a few months down the line who can help you avoid silly rigmarole early on surrounding bank accounts, taxes, phones, social security.

Think of it like a computer game walkthrough – someone else solved a lot of the problems you’ll meet, so why not meet them and see the solutions. Not only that, I’ve made some great friends for life here, following up ‘You’re in NY! You should meet…’ from friends back home.

3. Remember to savour it

You’ll become so busy in this city between your work and social life that all your free time can easily get vacuumed up. Take a few nights off going out, save some money, and go do some of those only-in-NYC things. A lot of favourite nights were the special ones I treated myself to after a week of taking it easy – the immersive theatre of Sleep no More, seeing George Saunders and Greta Gerwig put on a show in Symphony Space, Rooftop Cinema or a night in the Explorers Club. With a little bit of money saved you can see something incredible in the city you won’t see anywhere else.

4. Set goals for yourself

A year can go by so damn fast. I haven’t achieved everything I set out to do but early on I did set two goals for myself – to upskill as a cameraman and get more experience and contacts, and to make an NYC filming project. Having those two kept me roughly on track during the year – in the last weeks of my internship I’m collaborating with my employer to make a set of short filmed pieces here (a NYC version of a Dublin project I ran, Storymap), to take back with me as a calling card. The great thing about NY is that everything really is possible here if you know what you want, and keeping some basic goals in mind is more likely to lead you to those opportunities.

A huge thanks to Thomas for sharing the gamble he took when he moved to NYC last year. If you’re interested in learning more about Thomas’ work, check out the project he co-founded, Storymap, and read more of his writing on Headstuff.

Ready to start your Graduate Visa adventure? There are only 400 places left for the 2017 programme and they’re being filled up fast! Email Melanie.Young@usit.ie to get the ball rolling or call us on (01) 602 1747.