Cairn // vol. 5: Trusting the Process

This is late, so it's going to cover two weeks, but its late for a good reason. I got to do a family shoot this past Sunday and it was too good not to include in this update. Outside of that, last week I got some hard lessons in self-care, as well as a chance to learn about being a small business owner at the Small Business Success Summit. Last week was a tough week, but good things came from it. The big takeaway from all of this is that being an entrepreneur requires being willing to work on yourself and trust the process.

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Cairn // vol. 4: Emma Goes to a Fundraiser!

It's the beginning of a new week and I'm a little bit glad. Last week was the busiest week I've had in a long time between new clients and places to go. Depression crept up this weekend so I didn't really get the chance to relax, but I'm really grateful for all I got to do last week. The highlights were, going to a fundraiser for the first time, and taking the first step towards my dream of working in the outdoor industry. It's been busy, but sooooooo good! Anyway, I know this is a few days late since I try to make this a Friday thing, but I really wanted to include my Saturday adventures, so hooray! You get two Cairns this week.

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Cairn // vol. 3: Library Adventures, New Projects, More Architecture

See? I'm getting better at this. This is the second week in a row! Crazy, right? This week has been really exciting for me, but it hasn't been without its share of bad news. On Tuesday I found out that a colleague and fellow Des Moines creative was involved in a serious motorcycle crash. On happier notes, I've signed two new projects, went to the library, and have been indulging more into this little crush on architecture I can't seem to shake.

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Cairn // vol. 2: Architecture, Copywriting and Naming this Series.

Like I said. I'm bad at this, so it's been a few weeks. I've been up to some good stuff, like naming this weekly series, trying my hand at architecture photography, meeting with new people, and having some adventures in copywriting (because when you proofread for an engineer, it's usually an adventure of sorts). Let's get started, shall we?

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Trip Report // Design Camp 2017

As I posted last week and flooded your feeds with over the weekend, I went to Design Camp, one of AIGA's best conferences, and their largest regional conference. Design Camp takes place every October at Madden's Resort on Gull Lake just outside of Brainerd, MN. I've always wondered what the value is in going to these gatherings.

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I'm Bad At This // a few updates.

Have you noticed how bad I am at updating the blog?

Me, too. I decided that I'm going to make a stronger effort into at least posting a weekly blog, even if it's just weekly updates with what I'm up to. Authenticity and a willingness to be vulnerable and transparent in my work is a core of my company and I've decided that part of that needs to be connecting with my audience on a more regular basis.

I thought this week would be a FANTASTIC time to start that because DESIGN CAMP IS THIS WEEK! I have been waiting for this for like a whole year! I love Design Camp because of the speakers they bring in (Louise Fili spoke my first year, Mark Simonson did one of the breakout sessions, and this year, Jay Fletcher and Tad Carpenter will be speaking). I always find myself encouraged and reenergized when these design celebrities get on stage and talk about the same struggles or experiences I have. It's not difficult for a creative professional to find themselves experiencing a deep sense of community at Camp. I always feel right at home when I go up there. And did I mention Northern Minnesota in October?

I've been helping Kara Vorwald shoot weddings this month and that has been a blast. I love shooting weddings so much. Kara has been a pure joy of getting to know! She does such beautiful work, creating stunning images that highlight people at their best. Kara is a really sweet woman with a fun sense of humor and a gentle and kind spirit. If I'm not quite the right photographer for your special day, I really hope you give her a call. If she is the one capturing your special day, you're going to love your photos for decades to come.

On that note, I am booking weddings for 2018 and 2019! If you just got engaged, have a look at my wedding portfolio (I just added some new photos with more on the way!), and let's get in touch! Book by December 31st to get 2017 pricing!

That's all for this week! Don't forget to say hi in the comments! Because nobody likes a creeper.

— emma

Kurt // portraits

Last week I had the opportunity to photograph a dear friend of mine! Kurt is an engineer and an entrepreneur. His business is bringing his clients dreams to market at Tallawah Works right here in Des Moines. In this session, I wanted to capture Kurt's stubborn grit and determination, both as a person and an entrepreneur. Kurt was a great sport getting into some dirt in his suit and nice shoes!

The Vulnerability of Being a Subject // part two.

Most of the time, I'm confident and secure in my appearance. I feel just as awesome in sweats and an old sweatshirt as I do a fancy red dress. Other times, I just don't like the way I look. Maybe my skin looks dingy, I have some blemishes or maybe it's a bad hair day. In some form or fashion, I don't feel like showing myself to the world as I am, so I fix myself up with all the bells and whistles. I bust out the Spanx, the hair spray, and all my makeup. When all is said and done, I still feel awesome about myself, but I wasn't keen on showing myself to the world as I am, because I don't want the world to see me as something I'm not. I think this is part of the vulnerability in being photographed. People want to be seen as they are, and we sometimes do what we can to make sure we are presenting to the world who we are inside, even if it's not exactly how things are going that day. As a photographer, it's my job to help you show the world your best and most genuine self in that moment. I never want my clients to feel like they need to "fix" themselves up to be photographed. I want my clients to come as they are.

This is hard to let yourself do, and as a photographer, I struggle with it myself. I have no idea what I'm doing when I'm on the other side of the camera.

I can pose and direct and adjust lights all with confidence when I'm the one shooting, but get me on the other side of the lens and I freeze up. I don't know what to do. I get uncomfortable. I get self-conscious. It feels like all my little insecurities are out on display, loudly competing with one another for the spotlight. It's like that dream where you're naked in a public place. When I get in front of the camera, I feel naked. I feel like there are parts of me being seen and I don't have control over that, and I instantly want to fix myself up. My natural response is to tense up and hide it by telling the person shooting that I'm "so awkward in front of the camera," or to start talking about my insecurities. This is just a variation on "I'm not photogenic." It took me being a subject to understand why people are uncomfortable.

As I mentioned in part one, being photographed is a vulnerable thing and as photographers, we are not immune from that. One thing that has helped me is taking photography courses, not just to keep my skills sharp, but to get used to being vulnerable when I'm being photographed. In some context, I highly recommend every photographer be someone's model for the sole purpose of connecting with that part of themselves that doesn't feel completely at ease with a lens pointed at them. It seems like a silly thing to do, and after awhile you may get used to it, but remembering what it's like to be photographed is something that can help us empathize with our clients. Maybe even choose to be photographed when you're not looking or feeling your best. Sometimes people feel that discomfort even when they look and feel their best. It's not necessarily a confidence issue, but a vulnerability issue. Our job as photographers is to help our subject feel confident and comfortable, so they feel awesome about how they look in their photos.

On the other side of the lens, we find that the interaction between artist and subject is an emotionally intimate one. We have this dance with our subject where we try to capture their genuine self but also honor and protect that sacred space of vulnerability. We share that space with our subject. It can be a somewhat precarious place to be as a photographer as we come to understand the nature of this interaction. I once heard a story about a photographer who was doing school portraits with fairly young students, and asked for one of his subjects to take their hands out of their pockets because the student "didn't need to be playing pocket pool." Not only is it wildly inappropriate, but this was a child being photographed. Children are already vulnerable as it is, but many kids already don't like picture day. Do you think that photographer put his subject at ease? Do you think behavior like that encourages a person to be themselves?

Perhaps a better way to handle that situation would have been to ask the student to fold his hands in his lap, and asked him about his favorite food or his favorite subject in school. Something to break that tension and make the kid feel valued in that little moment. While I have had very few clients for whom such a question would be relevant (although, one gentleman was overjoyed at the mention of cookies. Can't really blame the guy.), it is one technique I use to connect. If I know my client is into sports, I ask how their favorite team is doing, or their hopes for next season. I sometimes ask these questions on a deeper level, such as, "What do you like to do in your free time?" or, "What has been the high point of the past year?" I don't do this just for the photo. I ask these things because I care about my clients as people.

If you are a photographer or are interested in spending more time with human subjects, I would highly recommend being a subject for someone. As you're positioned on the other side of the lens, think about the kinds of things that make you smile and laugh, the kinds of things that get you show genuine emotion. Finally, pay attention to what you are feeling. Are you nervous? Are you feeling more visible? Consider why you feel that way and what you might need to be put at ease. Your clients or subjects might feel the same way. Understand what it's like to be photographed, and use that experience to reveal to you how you can authentically connect with your subject. Genuine connection results in the best images.

The Vulnerability of Being a Subject // part one.

Photographers do invasive work. Like many creatives, we possess an uncanny ability to see things about people that they don't know they are revealing. Sometimes we see what they are trying to hide, other times we see the signs of tension that signal discomfort. If there are no physical signs of tension, this vulnerability usually outs itself in the form of your subject saying something like, "I'm not photogenic," or, "I'm so awkward in front of the camera." Whatever way it shows itself, being a human subject is a much more vulnerable thing than we often realize.

Occasionally, an image comes easy, for the photographer anyway. John was one such case. From the moment I met him, I had this shot in mind. One glance at his attire, his tattoos, or his beard may leave one with the impression of a somewhat gruff man well-seasoned by life, but upon talking to him, it doesn't take long to be drawn into a gentle warmth that melts away any perception of gruffness. This was immediately clear to me, and within minutes of meeting him, I decided that this was the shot I needed to take.

Having this vision for the shot weeks ahead of time was invaluable. When I went to take it, I knew exactly how to set up the shot. When he uttered that confession of vulnerability, followed by an "I don't know what to do. What do you want me to do?", I confidently directed him to cross his arms, and not smile. When a photographer takes a confident lead like that, the tension of vulnerability breaks. The subject gains confidence that even though they are out of their comfort zone, the photographer is going to make them look good. Having a strong vision not only makes for brilliant images, but it reduces the amount of time spent taking the shot. A subject who isn't comfortable being photographed will appreciate this.

Gareth was an interesting man to have on the other side of the lens. He's colorfully complex,  which made approaching the shoot with a vision somewhat difficult. There were so many facets of him I could have emphasized. The night I shot his portrait, he was dressed well, and looked ready to shine for me, but the minute I asked him for a photo, I could feel the tension well up. He seemed reluctant, and slightly impatient, adamantly professing how un-photogenic he is. After giving him a few sets of vague directions, I began feeling tense, and I knew that would make for an awkward photo. Knowing that this shot was off to an uncomfortable start, I resorted to an old distraction technique which I tend to rely on when a subject is fighting being seen, and I need to evoke emotion: introducing something new into the situation. I put down the camera for a second and marched right up into his personal space. I rested my hands firmly on his upper arms and gently guided him to where I needed him to be. At this point in my working relationship with Gareth, I had never had physical contact with him. For a split second, his attention was less on his discomfort and more on what I was doing in his bubble. From there, I offered a compliment that bordered on flirting, and he cracked a genuine smile. I nailed the shot, and even though there was nothing special about it from a technical or aesthetic standpoint, it was one of my best shots because of what I was able to accomplish with an uncomfortable subject.

Photographing both of these gentlemen was both a challenge and a privilege. With John, I had a clear vision for what I was going to shoot, but I'm well aware that things don't always fall into place the way I need them to, and I knew I was only going to have about five minutes and one chance to get that shot. Gareth tasked me with setting his mind at ease, and peering deeper into what was behind those adamant proclamations of "I'm not photogenic!" and adapt to that. The challenge always comes when a photographer meets their subject in a vulnerable place and they have to honor that space while taking advantage of it to create a beautiful image.

A Year Later // reflections of a rookie entrepreneur.

A year ago, after several months of freelancing, a few weeks of pro/con lists and indecisive pondering, and a somewhat ceremonial purchase of a $20 Moleskine notebook, I decided to make it a thing. I decided to start my own company and go out on my own. The past year has been challenging, stressful at times, but overall a really positive experience. It's been everything I expected, and it's just as good of a fit for me as I suspected. Following suit, everything I learned is everything I expected to learn, or at the very least, nothing shocked me.

from "The Man in the Arena" speech by Teddy Roosevelt.

from "The Man in the Arena" speech by Teddy Roosevelt.

SHOWING UP AND BEING SEEN (and the ass-kicking that sometimes follows)
"...not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles..." One of the most important things I learned was that entrepreneurship is absolutely vulnerable. I had an experience where a client was not satisfied with the work I produced, but wouldn't communicate that to me until it was too late. The first time the client mentioned this, I was shocked, and honestly, bordering on irate. I took a step back and recognized that this client knew my expectations, my process and what they could expect because I outlined it in the contract they signed. On the other hand, I knew that the work I submitted didn't reflect the typical quality that I usually present to my clients. Here I was, my face marred by dust and maybe a little blood because I stepped into the arena, and I got my ass kicked. From the day I started this, I knew I would have to be courageous, and I knew I would eventually fail. This client, even though they chose the cheap seats, showed me that I can get back up, and go back out into the arena. The experience showed me that I'm not afraid to fail and that I can recover. To stand up and go back out there after failing only gives me courage to keep going.

With running your own company comes a strong sense of personal responsibility and the understanding of what is yours to take responsibility for, and what is not yours. If you take it personally every time a client or customer is unsatisfied, or a potential client chooses someone else, or assess that situation as though it was all because of something you did, you're going to burn out very quickly. It's one thing to look for places where you could improve your approach, but if we own everything as though it's our responsibility, we will end up taking responsibility for things that we can't control. This unnecessarily sets us up for failure and misdirects our focus onto things we can't control. It's wasted energy. You can't successfully run a business that way. That is why setting boundaries with your clients is important. It's your responsibility to lay out your expectations in a way that your client can understand them. It's their responsibility to understand those expectations. Not being afraid to hold your clients accountable and not being afraid to be held accountable is key to healthy client relationships, and as a result, running a business.

I've always hated the phrase, "Fake it till you make it." I'm not really a fan of faking anything. One thing I learned in the past year is a variation on faking it till you make it. A lot of people aren't 100% sure what they're doing when they first start their own company, and no matter how much training or education you have, there is always a certain amount of swimming that you have to learn by jumping in the pool. I don't necessarily know a lot about running a company, but I have those things about myself as a creative professional that I am confident in. Instead of faking that confidence, I learned to embellish till I make it. It's kind of like when you come across a mountain lion on a trail, you're taller than the mountain lion, but warding them off is about making yourself appear bigger than you actually are by making loud noises and extending your arms out and moving them around your body. I learned to take what confidence I have and make it appear bigger and louder than it actually is. Over the past year, I've grown into that confidence, and it's just going to keep getting bigger.

These are the most important things I've learned since I decided to go out on my own. They're things I've always kind of known but not so much the way I do now. I haven't regretted my decision one bit, especially because it's something I've known I have wanted to do for 5 years now. Year one is in the books. I hope you join me for year two.