Pursuing your passion can be stressful, time-consuming, and bring waves of self-doubt, but the outcome can be endlessly rewarding and inspiring. In this episode, APU Business professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to Elle Forte about her journey to become an accomplished and successful professional photographer. Learn about her decision to leave her career as a financial analyst and how she applied those business skills to build a sustainable business model. Also learn how she is using her photography skills to build the confidence of other women and support their business ambitions by creating strong visual representations of their work and personal brands.
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Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to highlight our local heroes in our community who are champions of important issues affecting us on a national and international scale. Today, we’re going to add to that very important discussion by talking about leading a clear vision as you pursue your dreams.
Today, I am so excited to introduce to you Elle Forte, who is a champion of photography. Elle provides keys to bringing out the true you through photography. No matter your industry, photography is essential in today’s highly digital world, and Elle will tell us a little bit more about this very important area. Elle, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.
Elle Forte: Thank you, Kandis. I’m so excited to be here today.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I am excited for you to be here and to talk about photography because there’s so many critical conversations happening today that address issues of the visual way of communication. So could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and why this topic is so dear to your heart?
Elle Forte: Well, I’ve always had a creative spirit, and I loved music and visual art. And when I was a young girl, I was always sketching in my notebooks and loved everything about drawing with pencils and markers and whatnot. I studied piano for several years, which gave me a lifelong love of music. And every now and then, I’ll still play the piano, and I love hearing the beautiful music in our home.
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Naturally, photography was a part of my life even back then. I remember getting so excited whenever I got a fresh roll of film for my little Kodak Instamatic camera, with the cool flash cube. I loved how I could capture a moment in time with that tiny camera, even before I really knew anything about photography. So the idea of capturing a person, a scene, or even a favorite food in a snapshot, was just so thrilling for me.
Of course, back in the ’70s, we either had to mail in a roll of film to be processed, or drop it off at one of those nearby Kodak kiosks, and wait about a week for our prints to be developed. I learned all about delayed gratification back then. So when it came to my education, my background is in business. I studied finance at Indiana University, and I received my MBA in marketing at DePaul University several years later.
After graduating, I worked for 12 years in the corporate world as a financial analyst. I enjoyed my job, but I really longed for something else. And I guess this is the point in my life where my left brain conflicted with my right brain. So my entrepreneurial business mind eventually merged with my creative spirit and my love of photography, which led me to where I am today.
But when I first launched my business several years ago, I confronted some self-doubt and skepticism from others. And I asked, am I good enough? Will anyone want to hire me? Could I really do this and be successful?
I’ve realized that along the way, the answer was always yes, but it just took a lot of work, both internally and externally, for me to see that. And I would be lying if I said that it’s just been a smooth road all the way, because starting a business is one of the most demanding, stressful, and yes, even painful experiences you can ever go through.
I’ve undoubtedly put more hours into my business than I ever have when I worked for someone else, because it’s really almost like raising a baby. You want to nurture and love it and give it anything and everything that it needs to grow.
I’m only able to tackle this now because my four boys are older. My oldest is 24 and my youngest son is 17. So I’m so thankful and fortunate that I’ve been able to put my career on hold during those early years with my boys.
When I started photography, I was shooting just about anything, initially: events, sports, even weddings. And I found out that what I was drawn to the most was photographing women. And the reason is that women are undeniably very hard and critical of themselves. As someone who has gone through the throes of motherhood, I know exactly what it’s like to put everyone and everything ahead of you. And in the course of my everyday life, women can very easily forget about taking care of themselves and much less feel beautiful.
And so many women today feel uncomfortable being in front of the camera for various reasons. Some believe that they aren’t photogenic or they hate the way that they look in pictures. Others believe that they need to lose weight first, before even having their picture taken.
Sadly, some teens don’t even feel like they measure up to what they see today on social media. So to me, every woman deserves to look and feel beautiful. And that’s really my “why” as to why I love photography, because I want to help people exist in portraits so they can see how others see them and let their inner beauty and their true, authentic selves shine.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that’s wonderful. You really want to help people be the best that they can be in the digital format. It sounds like you’ve had some challenges when you either started your business or when you made that shift to solely focus on taking pictures of women. Can you start by talking about maybe some of the challenges you encountered when speaking or just working in the field of photography?
Elle Forte: My business background definitely helped me with my photography, because there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to get a business up and running. My analytical training enabled me to tackle it from really all different angles.
So I had to come up with a business plan, a marketing plan. I had to learn about sales and incorporate the accounting and the operations, and I was a one-woman shop. So I think the mindset that if I am going to treat this as a business and not as a hobby, then not only do I need to provide an outstanding product and service, but my business must also be profitable and sustainable.
So I think that a lot of creatives, photographers, artists, whatnot, run into that issue of how do I make this a profitable business and believe in my self-worth, while providing that value and that service to clients? I think that was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had to overcome was just believing in my self-worth and knowing that I am helping others one person at a time.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I really like what you said about just trying to make sure that people understand what you’re trying to do. And a lot of times we call that the personal brand. And in photography, like you said, there are probably more people than you care to count that actually have a photography business. So in that space, how do you communicate your personal brand?
Elle Forte: The concept of personal branding is so important in today’s marketplace. As a business owner or an entrepreneur, we all want to stand out from our competition and show what makes us unique. Whether we’re selling a product or providing a service, we’re oftentimes the face of our brand. And through personal branding, you get to show your target audience what you want them to see, specifically in your online presence, on your website, and in your social media posts.
A critical part of your personal brand is communicated through your photography. Some people mistakenly think that a single headshot is all that they need, but really, they can use the same headshot for their social media profile, their website, business cards, and other marketing collateral.
However, there’s so much more that you can do to empower your personal brand through photography. Why not use a variety of professional portraits, depending on your intended message and your audience? Perhaps incorporate some environmental images of you doing what it is that you do, whether it’s teaching or speaking or helping a customer.
Maybe you want to incorporate some lifestyle images of your customers using your product. There are so many possibilities of what you can use in terms of photography, to communicate who you are, what you do, who you serve, and why someone should trust you to do business with your company.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome back. Today, we are speaking to Elle Forte about the future of photography. Elle, in a perfect world, what type of training would be needed to make the public more aware of the importance of photography?
Elle Forte: Kandis, we’re surrounded by digital and printed media in almost every facet of our lives. And a lot of this is communicated to us through our phones, tablets, and our computers. But while the importance of photography definitely has its place in the business world, I would really love to bring a public awareness to the importance of photography in our own personal lives.
In today’s digital age, technology is both a blessing and a curse. The ease with which we can take pictures today gives us an abundance of images on our cell phones and computers. However, we risk losing those images with one failed hard drive, a corrupt memory card, or a damaged cell phone.
As a result, many professional photographers, especially portrait photographers, are advocating everybody to print their images. The latest cell phone will soon be replaced by another one, but printed photographs of you and your loved ones, will outlive us and be treasured for generations to come. And that is the power of print.
As you’re all aware, we have seen some pictures of recent tragedies that have occurred throughout the world. And this is a part of our history and should be documented. And photographs are very powerful when used to tell a story. And this is why we should all be mindful of how we can tell our own personal stories of ourselves and of our families and not be afraid of being in front of the camera. How great it is that we can use photography to document our own history.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that’s wonderful. I want to go back to something that you said before you were talking about the cell phone. And, in fact, the majority of those who live in the United States own at least one cell phone, if not two. So like you said, most cell phones are equipped with a camera and the amount of pictures that we’re starting to see, many in real time, is just starting to escalate, I mean, almost at an exponential rate. Does every person possess the skills to create and execute their own form of photography?
Elle Forte: Absolutely. I believe that everyone can learn photography. And as you’ve mentioned, we are all taking multiple pictures with our cell phones on a daily basis; everyone from children to our grandparents. And we take pictures of people, places, and even our food. We post them on social media almost immediately for our family and friends on Facebook, or our followers on Instagram and Snapchat. The desire is already there to take pictures.
Now, can we learn to take even better pictures? Absolutely. It just takes learning some key principles, but more importantly, it requires a lot of practice. And if you have that desire to take better pictures, cell phones and a lot of cameras make that really easy these days. They’re very user-friendly, and there are a lot of tutorials out in the internet, that will help you to hone in on your photography skills.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That is wonderful. So how do you ensure photography becomes a long-term way to promote the arts?
Elle Forte: I believe that as long as photography is appreciated by different groups, whether it’s in the private sector or organizations, there will always be an opportunity for photographers to promote the arts.
However, for me personally, it’s about touching people’s lives. I want to preserve families captured together in portraits, or perhaps, capturing the beautiful soul of a mother to be forever loved by her children and her grandchildren long after she has gone.
Portraits that are printed and framed is art in its finest form. Imagine displaying portraits on the walls of your home of your family. That is meaningful art and will always be treasured by generation after generation.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. And like you said, they’re heirlooms, and they’re important pieces of your history. When it comes to goals, is there a difference between your personal goals and then your goals for your business and for photography?
Elle Forte: Well, I don’t think that they are necessarily mutually exclusive. Personal goals can also be photography goals. For instance, over the past few years, I have worked really hard to become a certified professional photographer, a designation that is currently awarded to about 2,500 photographers worldwide by the Professional Photographers of America. In addition, I recently earned my accreditation, and I am an associate portrait master photographer. But my journey as a photographer will never end, as I’m constantly striving to be better as an artist.
So this is also one of my personal goals, as I believe continuing education will always be a part of me. My photography goals will continue to evolve as I evolve as a photographer. Does that make sense?
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: It absolutely does. I like what you said about being a lifelong learner, that there’s always room to grow, try something new, and to expand your horizons. I think that is a key point that will resonate with our listeners. As we wrap up, what are some resources that you have used or provided in the past to help individuals become more aware of the importance of photography?
Elle Forte: As a CPP, through the Professional Photographers of America, I have access to a lot of their resources, which help photographers to hone their craft, continue their education, and really help them to build businesses. They also have some marketing material there that we can use to help educate consumers about the importance of photography and the importance of printing our photos and the whole power of print movement.
But I also love to speak to people about the importance of photography and why we need to get over our fear of being in front of the camera and how I can help you to bring out your true, authentic selves, both in the business world and both in your personal portraits, so that you will exist in photos.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Elle, I think that is a great point to leave our listeners with. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue. And thanks again for joining me for today’s podcast.
Elle Forte: Thank you, Kandis, for inviting me to speak on your podcast. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. And I hope that I’ve inspired others to pursue their dreams.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Oh, absolutely. And also, thank you to our listeners for joining us. As a reminder, you can learn more about these topics and more by signing up for American Public University’s bi-monthly newsletter. Until our next podcast, be well and be safe.