This column, Meet the Tastemakers, is a new series of interviews with creative businesspeople and entrepreneurs on starting their business, how they discovered their passions, and why they love what they do. I'll be posting one each week this month, so stay tuned!
Katie Meek is a full time freelance photographer in Bowling Green, KY. She is also one half of Cora and Louise, a food blog she and her photographer friend, Morgan Walker, started in 2016. Katie went to Western Kentucky University for photojournalism and worked at Studio Calico as a photographer before branching out and starting her own photography business. You can find her work at her website katiemeekphoto.com
1. What inspired you to become a photographer?
I think that I knew sophomore year of college. I didn’t come to WKU to do photojournalism. I think that I knew that I had a certain style and taste, but I never knew that I could quantify that or use that for myself or do anything substantial with it. I was pretty well rounded in high school in that I had good grades, so I went to college thinking that I would be a dentist. I was taking a lot of science classes and didn’t feel like I was doing myself any favors. I would go back to my dorm room and cry after biology, so I thought I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to feel when you’re doing something you love. I really quickly went to my advisor crying saying how do I get out of this? And she just suggested that I take a photojournalism class. I had a camera my parents had given me one Christmas but didn’t know how to use it, so at least I was taking a class that would teach me how to use it.
I was in James Kenney’s class, and it was really devastating. It was a hard class. I think my first two assignments I was terrible. I cried both times I went out to take photos because I didn’t know how to use the camera well enough. For the first time in my life I wasn’t very good at something. I couldn’t just study it and learn it. There weren’t rules, which really threw me off. There wasn’t some sort of method. I could really do whatever I wanted. Not being put in some sort of box was really uncomfortable for me because I had never been in an environment like that. Then I started to see growth. I wasn’t terrible by the end of it, and it was the most encouraging thing because I had never felt like I could be creative. I still wasn’t good by the end of it, but James Kenney lit a fire under me. He told me I was too good at this to quit. He said, "I’ve seen so much growth in you. I see so much of myself in you. I see you being able to do this well. You’re so determined." And so I signed up for the next class.
I don’t think I was sold on it for awhile. Saying I was a photographer is really scary. My parents freaked out because I had never been creative before. I had no foundation for it. I had never tapped into the right side of my brain. And I wasn’t super creative in my first few classes. I think I was still really doing it for a grade. By junior year, I stopped trying to do things for good grades. I started asking myself about my photos, do I love this? Is it fulfilling? Was this worth doing? Did I meet someone? Did I have a good relationship with the person that I met? I became so much more about doing the work and the process. I shockingly was very shy, and not putting myself out there socially. I feel like I was really grateful for becoming creative because I think it made me more of who I am anyways. Thinking about who I would be right now. I would be finishing dental school.
2. What is your favorite subject to shoot?
I think that the things that I get paid to shoot, I’m always on a timeline. If I shoot a wedding, I have 8 hours. It could be some of the best 8 hours and I could get a lot of really good photos and love more than I could count. Everything always feels very timed. My favorite things to shoot are things for myself that I’m not being timed on because I feel more creative. It feels more therapeutic and more the thing I’m gifted in and not on a clock. Everything has the pressure of time and money. I think the thing I love about blogging, because no one is paying me yet, is that it takes however long I want it to. It's just me, my food, and my camera. It’s up to me how long it’s going to take and what it’s going to look like. To an extent, you can do that under time constraints, but I think it feels very freeing and creative when I don’t have to submit it to someone. It’s really affirming when clients tell you it’s great work and they’ll treasure it. But there’s something really cool about putting something on the blog and saying I love the heck out of this, hopefully you will too. It was for me and by me and on my own dime and time. Sometimes I think, how fun would it be if this were a full time job.
And that’s one of the things Morgan and I were talking about. Would we love it as much if we were having to quantify everything and work really hard? So we think even though it would be cool to make it, we’re kind of grateful that no one cares because there’s no pressure. During this season of my life, I think I would have become really bitter toward food blogging if I was having to start a business, plan a wedding, and run a food blog. I think something would have to give. I was grateful that the thing that could give could be this for awhile because no one was holding me accountable. We called each other one night and I said “Can you breathe? I can’t breathe.” We need to drop it for a minute and pick back up when we feel good. That’s the reality of doing it. It was just because we loved it and it felt good and it felt right. It does still, but not right now. I love doing anything when I have an overflow of time and creativity. And you make time because you love doing it, but you’re not just giving up every Saturday morning because it’s a job. You do it because it’s so fun. You want to make eggs benedict in the morning and take photos of it because it gives you life. It can be a gift to other people whether they’re reading or not.
3. Tell me a little bit about your food blog, Cora and Louise, why you put it on hold and when do you want to resume blogging?
Right now it’s not a secret that we don’t have a goal start date. I’m getting married in September and Morgan’s getting married in January. We joke that we need to make another post in 2017. We’re still alive and doing things. Morgan’s making my wedding cake, so I think it could be sweet to shoot something when we’re together. I haven’t told her this, but it could be sweet for me to shoot us baking and being together because that’s half of what it’s about anyways. I was visiting her in California, and we cooked dinner every single night and didn’t take a single picture. Because we’re resting. Even though it is fun, there’s a sense of work and preparation and thoughtfulness involved in blogging, and sometimes you just want to eat dinner. We visited a conversation about it and both agreed not right now. We don’t have to have a plan, so I think we’ll probably post something else this year and ease into it next year. I think that we both talked earlier this year and we’re both feeling a little bit burnt out on blogging. We’d ask ourselves Is anyone reading this? Also the pressure to be consistent and post every week even when you don’t feel like it. We started giving ourselves more grace and permission to take time when we needed it. Even then we said we’re going to try to change directions and do more longer storytelling so we can work on stuff for awhile and not grind out recipes every week.
A lot of people still tell me that they go to the archives and still go to the blog. It’s there! It’s kind of a capsule right now. We have hundreds of recipes. We’re still there. We’re just going to take a break until we’re ready to talk about food again. We both went full time freelance this year, which was a feat in and of itself. When you have a lot of energy that you need to put toward starting a business and for us both planning weddings, we were both like
Overall the point of the blog was for us to discover what food blogging, and food storytelling looked like for us and I think we did that really well. I think it was really consistent in terms of the work that we did. We got better at what we wanted to get better at. It really served us well and it served other people and had a really great vision and we worked really hard on it. We didn't want to keep working on it because we felt like we had to. We don’t want to keep going when we feel like we don’t have the capacity to. Because we want it to be consistently good. I think that the work we have done is really great, and I only want to come back to it when I feel like we’re in a place to continue the work that we started.
4. What are some of the challenges you experience being a full time freelance photographer?
I think at first I, similarly to learning how to become a creative person, was learning that I am allowed to take photos like I want them to look, and I’m allowed to take photos like I want to and I’m allowed to do creative work that I think is beautiful and shoot how I think is best. Learning how to work for yourself is a whole different thing too because I felt so nervous and uncomfortable at first. I thought that I should be working the same hours, and that’s not the reality. You don’t have to work 9-5 if you’re working for ,yourself.. It took months to learn how to freelance. Not even getting the work, but paying myself and hiring an accountant—all of those things were really important before I started on my own. I needed to know how many shoots I needed and how much money I needed to make. I needed to hire a great accountant and figure out my taxes and what setting up a business looks like. But I think the thing that no one can teach you is how to work at your house by yourself and not be around other humans and not report to anyone. All of that was really funny because I am super extroverted but I think I’ve become more introverted since I work home alone all day. I am forced to make friends with old ladies at the grocery store and I have to leave my house sometimes and walk around or meet up with somebody because I’ve been alone for eight hours and it’s dangerous. I’m talking to my postit notes on the wall. I’m lonely!
I was so used to being in an office with so many people that I had formed relationships and friendships with. There’s pros and cons to that because you can be easily distracted. While I see how an office is a great environment to working, having friendships and doing good creative work. I could work eight hours a day. But at my house, I could work just as hard and not talk to anyone for four hours and edit insanely hard for a long time and hang out for the rest of the day. At first I was second-guessing myself about what I was allowing myself to do and not allowing myself to do. Am I allowed to sleep in until 9 am? I don’t know! Before I got up at 7:30 for my job, so should I still wake up early? I do have a routine because routines are important to make yourself feel like you are working and have some sense of a job. Now, I don’t wake up until I feel rested. My fiancé is in seminary, and he does homework at night, so sometimes I won’t work as much during the day so that we’re both working. I think a lot of it was adjusting to this mindset of what is work? When do you do work? How long do you work? And learning how to say no to things so that you’re not overloading yourself. That’s the part about freelancing that’s hard—learning how to spend your time and what is the best thing to say yes to.
5. What do you love most about being a full time photographer?
I know it’s probably cliché, but honestly, when you know you’re doing the thing that you’re gifted at and were somewhat called and created to do it’s fulfilling to think I can do this and I can make a life doing it as long as it makes me happy. I was just talking to Joe about this the other day. How it still feels really exciting. Some nights I just want to be shooting photos because the light is so beautiful or it feels so good to be outside. I am so excited to meet this person. At the end of the day I still love meeting people and I feel very excited when I’m making photos. Maybe that’s because I’m 24 and I’m not burnt out or I’m not over it yet? But I feel like I’ve been making photos for seven years, so if I was over it, maybe it would be by this point. Especially after learning to do photography as a job for several years. If you can go out and do something and be really excited to do it, it gives you life, you feel gifted doing it. You feel like, I’m not wasting people’s time and money. I’m giving these people something tangible that they can have forever or documenting something you can share online. I’m able to serve other people through it so it doesn’t feel completely selfish that it’s making me happy. I think that it’s giving other people joy too. I think it’s seriously fun! Sometimes it feels harder than others depending on who it is or what it is. But when you hit a really great balance, and the light is beautiful and these people are fun, I don’t want to be anywhere else, and I don’t want to be doing anything else. I’m so grateful to be doing this.
6. Describe the first photo you took that you were really proud of.
In your first photo class, every week you shoot photos and you put them on the wall and everyone in the class critiques each other and you pick what your favorite is. Inevitably the professor helps choose the best photo of the week. It was probably 4-5 weeks in, mine was finally chosen. I remember thinking I should be in a magazine. People should be talking about this. My mom should frame this in our home. This is the best photo. Obviously I don’t even remember what it was, but it was probably something silly like at a nursing home or pretty aesthetically un-pleasing, but it was good. And I think it doesn’t even have to be good, it’s just the affirmation from that. But then I remember with the blog, and it probably wasn’t the best photo ever or the best recipe ever, but one of the first times one of my photos got reposted. It was buzzfeed food reposted our photo from our pasta recipe. It was a good photo. I don’t even remember which one they reposted but I remember thinking this is a really beautiful photo of ingredients. Then when they picked it up, millions of people liked it. Even though we can make something and really like it, affirmation from other people are affirming that we can do this and people care. That’s a good feeling.
7. What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a full time photographer?
It may seem stupid, especially in the area I live, there are tons of photographers, and I’m not sure that everyone’s work is really really different. I think everyone is kind of doing similar work. People are going to tell you to do something different to set yourself apart, but there are a lot of great photographers and people charge about the same prices. People have the option to choose. As I started to freelance, I’m learning how important it is when people do choose you. Not that people run around burning bridges with people they work with, but I think that you should be really kind and I think that you should stay in touch. I seek out people I want to work with and I’m kind to them. It would be harsh to never talk to a client again because a lot of times after I work with people, I genuinely want to get coffee with them or want to be friends with them. And I know there’s blurred lines. You’re busy and you don’t have time to hang out with your clients. Some of them will become your friends, but I think that it’s good to just remind people.
I don’t even know that people do this, but I think it’s good advice. Because I think a lot of photographers are just looking at people as numbers and trying to fill their calendar and make sure they make enough money. I’m not even sure my calendar is full for this year or how much money I’m going to make this year, but I know that I was kind to people and followed up with them. And I took care of them really well. I know that a lot of time goes into taking care of people well. It means that I respond to emails quickly and I call people on the phone if they’re uncertain about something or if they need clarity. If they want to meet up, I say yes, which takes more time. You could take days to respond to someone or worry about other things more, but I think if you’re more worried about the people than they are themselves, they’re going to feel taken care of. Be kind and keep up.