#womenwhoinspire: Ashley Stephenson, Photographer + Owner at Story Photographers
If you don't know Ashley, you should. Ashley is one of the most honest, raw, and relatable people I have ever met. Her work as owner and photographer through Story Photographers is a double entendre. She captures the various chapters of her clients lives whether it's a wedding, engagement, family session, baby story, boudoir shoot, or a portrait sitting, but she is also incredibly open about the story of her life, her growth in her business, and the changes she's made to lead a healthier, happier version of Ashley. I invite you to tag along with me today while Ashley talks about her passion project See Her Story, shares what a day in the life of a photographer actually looks like, and many other odds and ends. Enjoy!
J: Tell me, in the short version, of how Story Photographers came to be. Were you always interested in photography? Or did your story start differently?
A: I was always the friend in middle school and high school (PS. this was back before smart phones, kids) that had a camera in her bag to document everything. I remember in early elementary school I wanted to be “an artist” when I grew up. But even as people started to pay me to take their picture as I was about to graduate from undergrad I still didn’t really think this was going to be a business that I built and a full time job that would sustain me. I was in grad school at Duke, HATED it, while shooting on the side. I had a dream where I was anxiously treading water while holding my camera above the water so it wouldn’t get wet and that was the HELLO LADY moment. Hello lady, why am I paying so much money for grad school that I am hating?! So I worked a couple of part time jobs while I starting shooting portraits and a few weddings and the business just took off. I really never planned for photography to be full time but the business just kept growing and growing. I was a few years ahead of the huge flood of photographers in this area so I was able to establish myself a little before the market was completely saturated. The first couple of years I operated the business under my name, and then my husband at the time started shooting with me, and we had the vision to eventually bring on other photographers so it didn’t feel right to me to keep the business just my name. As we were having these conversations people kept using the word “story” when they would describe our work or how we showed interest in our clients. We felt like our people named us!
J: What major life lessons have you learned from working as a professional photographer?
A: What a question – I think I would answer this differently along the way as I’ve grown in being a professional photographer. Ten years in I can say that one of my biggest life lessons is that on big emotion days like a wedding day, people often take out their big feelings on an easy target like a wedding vendor. Understanding that interactions like that are actually not about me at all has really helped me in my every day life as well. Being photographed is a vulnerable thing, so I know that contributes to it. Someone might treat you a certain way or say something hurtful to you but it’s always good to take a beat and think about if that is a thing you need to take personally or if it’s actually about you. I have also had to learn a lot about setting good work and life boundaries for myself and not assume that everyone is just going to do that for me. It’s been a tough lesson for me to implement well, as I tend to want to be all things to all people, but I know that’s just not possible. There were seasons where I let the business run me, instead of the other way around, but I am in a healthy season of building better boundaries so that I can be my best self in my business and in the world.
The biggest life lesson I have learned being a professional photographer is that, to me, photographing people well only has a small part to do with your technical knowledge, and a large part to do with how you treat people. You can be the best photographer in the world but if you are rude or mean or cold, THAT is what people will remember. I’ve had so many people that I’ve met at weddings tell me “We liked our wedding photographs by this other photographer fine but they were rude to us all day” or something similar. When I am warm and kind and generous and helpful, it allows the person or people in front of my camera to trust me, which then allows them to relax and share who they really are with me, which then helps me tell their story more authentically.
J: What does a day in the life of Story Photographers look like? Does it look different than you thought it would look?
A: Up until this past year, I would have said there is no method to the madness! There is no schedule! It’s always different and up in the air! And I do love that freedom to a point, but I am finding peace and groundedness in putting some sort of rhythm to my days. I try to wake up and do a little yoga, with a little prayer a meditation. This helps me get my mind right before I tackle the day. A few mornings a week I try to go swim laps, other mornings I run errands. I’ve learned that I just don’t do desk work well in the morning, so instead of forcing myself to work that way like I did for several years, I have now adjusted to what fits my creative flow. In the afternoon I might edit, answer emails, go to meetings. I like to take walks in the late afternoon/early evening, sometimes alone and but most often with friends. Again, this is a new development and it’s a habit that I crave and protect in my schedule. After that I might cook some fuel food for dinner or dinner out with friends. I am a night owl so I get my best work done at night, so usually I come back to my desk after dinner and knock out a few hours of work. This past year I’ve really tried to pay attention to what brings me peace in my scheduling and not overdoing it like I have in years past. I try to spread things out, not overload too much in one week. I used to think I had to stay chained to my desk for HOURS at a time (and I boy did I sit long stretches at a time in front of the computer), otherwise all the things would never get done. Now I have a better sense of the idea that yes, when you are the one running the show, the work is never done. So since the work is never done, it won’t hurt to take a break! It will only help! I know that hustle helped build the business, but I do wish for my own health I had defended that peacefulness earlier on!
J: You not only work to serve your clients, but you also give back to the community. Tell the readers about See Her Story and how that came to life.
A: I can talk all day long about See Her Story! See Her Story first started out as a once a year fundraiser I organized for InterAct of Wake County. The idea was that women are notorious for not wanting to be photographed (we don’t like how we look, we would rather hide behind other people in the picture with us, etc), but the truth is that the people that love us want our picture! And we are worthy of having good pictures taken of ourselves! I photograph women in various settings and stages of life, and I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all – all the excuses to not be in a picture, all the half joking “can you photoshop…” laundry lists, all the self deprecating comments muttered under anxious breaths. But here’s what I also know: women are also notorious for not wanting to do something for ourselves. So in trying to figure out how to encourage women to get their picture taken, the idea of the fundraiser took shape – I created an evening where women can come get photographed by the ladies of Story Photographers, but to get in the door they have to donate a certain amount of money or items off the current needs list to InterAct. This way they are taking the time to look at their own story, but also looking at the stories of other women in their community. I try to also make the evening a fun ladies night out by picking cool places to host the event, with yummy food and drinks, and provide hair and makeup touch ups. This past year Joanne joined us for the event and (OFCOURSE) everyone adored her!
In the past couple of years I’ve felt See Her Story become more than just a one night event, and instead grow into something more like a movement, or a concept. Recently I did a See Her Story photo challenge where those that participated followed prompts for three days that helped you express yourself and your story creatively to those who connect with you on instagram and facebook. Coming up very soon I am hosting my first See Her Story retreat on Bald Head Island October 5-8th (I still have a couple of spots available!). The idea there is that typically women pour them selves into their families, their jobs, their friends, their communities. We give and give, but we forget that we have to pour back into ourselves. We very often run out. I wanted to curate a weekend where women can stop, rest, reflect, recreate, create. All of these things allow us to pour back into our selves. There will also be group and individual times for women to reflect on their stories to help lead them to healthier lives and practices. Toward the end of the retreat I will photograph each woman in her relaxed state so she has the gift of seeing herself basking in the self care. I know for sure that we look different when we are taking care of ourselves! I am also working on more components in the See Her Story movement, such as See Her Story portrait shoots women can book, more service opportunities, community groups, ways to encourage women to get in their bodies.
I know that for me I have always created out of my own story. I have this need to grieve out loud, to share of myself with others so I can be set free. I love having deep, honest, real conversations with people. I am 33 years old and I have been a business owner 10 years, my dad committed suicide when I was 24, my husband of a decade chose to suddenly separate from me last year, as a teenager I struggled with disordered eating. I am a progressive Christian, a feminist, an empath, an extrovert, a sister to a biological sister and a adopted brother. All of who I am shows up in my work in the world. It has to… in order to do my best work in the world, I have to know who I am and why I am who I am. I strongly feel that everyone would benefit from taking a healthy look into their stories and thinking about what that means for their time and service and work and love in the world. I want to hold space for women to do that creatively.
See? I can talk about this all day! Somebody stop me! PS I am also working on a See His Story, so stay tuned for that!
J: What charities or organizations are you partial towards, volunteer for, or give back to? Why?
A: In recent years I have been interested in InterAct of Wake County’s work. I took their “Courageous Voices Tour”, which is their creative way to give you a tour of the facility and to describe their services through sharing client’s and staff member’s stories. You know I am all about that! They do SO much to serve families who have experienced all kinds of abuse. There are tons of different ways to donate money and resources, as well as seasonal and regular volunteer time.
J: What has been your biggest struggle professionally? How did you endure it (or are enduring it currently!)?
A: While I have been susceptible to many of the typical struggles for a creative entrepreneur, the biggest struggle I’ve faced is work/life balance. I have always been aware that I don’t do that well but it hasn’t been until this past year that I was really forced to look at my life and make some clear choices about what is important and how do I want to live. Like I said before, I know my early days constant hustle helped lay a strong foundation for the actual business, but it meant that I sacrificed a lot personally. In correcting this I’ve had to apologize for things, made a few mistakes I’ve never made before, but I know I have to do it in order to be a healthy human. Part of my work life balance struggle was that I just wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to be the best, the favorite, the fastest, etc and so on. There was a current of anxiety that fueled that workaholic energy that I choose to no longer live with. I have always known that I am really good at being “business owner photographer Ashley”, but what does this Ashley like to do when she doesn’t have her business hat on? Who is she? I got lost for a lot of reasons but it’s been good to reorient myself.
J: We all have one book, blog, or podcast that we’d recommend to others as a “must” check out. What is that for you?
A: For business owners I ALWAYS recommend “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. It speaks to my “everything connects back to your story” heart because it talks about how when you are passionate about WHY you do what you do (instead of how you do it, or what you do), you have the most chance to succeed in a big way. I just love that book and have given it to so many other business owner friends. Another book that I order several of at a time to give out is “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud. This book is good for ANYONE. All people. Having good boundaries is foundational for a healthy life. It is amazing how so much in relationship with others goes back to if you have healthy boundaries with that person – with family, a romantic partner, in business partnerships, etc.
J: What is your day to day motto? (If you could leave the readers with one piece of advice to take with them daily, to help them feel inspired, what would it be?)
At the beginning of every year for the past several years I have chosen a word to focus on for the year. This past 12 months I have been really into picking certain mantra’s that serve me where I am at, so it’s always seasonal and situational for me. I have been in a very difficult season personally, with lots of change and grief and loss, so I have repeated Glennon Doyle’s mantra of “next right thing”. The idea is that if we start looking too far into the future on how to tackle a problem, or to try to guess how something is going to turn out, we can get lost in the unknown and anxiety of that. So instead, let’s just focus on doing the “next right thing”, right now. Today, what is the next right thing I need to do to move forward. What is the next right thing I need to do to be my healthiest, best self. What is the next right thing I should say to someone. It really is a good perspective changer. Other mantras/mottos that are centering me right now are “I am enough”, the serenity prayer and reciting the fruits of the spirit from the Bible. I think it’s important to look at where you are at in your story and identify what you need to be reminded of. Then buy/make art with that word or phrase on it, put it on a bracelet, write it on your bathroom mirror. Help yourself remember what your heart needs to hear!
All photos in this post are courtesy of Ashley Stephenson with Story Photographers.