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Conversations with the Inspiring Colette Roark

Today we’d like to introduce you to Colette Roark.

So, before we jump into specific questions about what you do, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My earliest memories involve a deep connection with photography. When I was a little girl, I converted my bedroom closet into an “office,” and I used an old Fisher Price View Finder as a “camera.” My older brother took my awkward school photo and made me a pretend ID badge as a photographer for our local newspaper. While the neighborhood kids rode bikes and ate ice-cream, I was an imaginary, third-grade photojournalist. My love for story-telling through photography began on my mother’s coffee table full of magazines, where the large magical pages of LIFE magazine captivated me. I would stare at the powerful images for hours. The words were interesting, but the photos of people from all over the world were the ones that spoke to my heart.

I took formal photography classes in high school and college, but I ended up getting a degree in special education. I taught for six years before I had my own children and decided to stay home with my kids through their preschool years with every intention of returning to the classroom when they were older. During my time off, I was devastated with the diagnoses of a rare Neuroendocrine tumor. I had most of my right lung removed during my pregnancy with my youngest son. It was a dark time that God gently carried me though, and He began whispering in my ear an old, familiar passion I had put aside. I picked up my camera again. I started reevaluating the ways I wanted to spend my energy. I wanted to tell the story of my sweet family. I wanted to tell the story of life happening around me. I wanted to tell the story of emotions that words couldn’t always convey. Staring at a life-threatening illness makes you see the world in a different way. Colors are deeper. Shadows are darker. Highlights are brighter. Stories are more meaningful.

People started noticing my photographs. Friends asked me to photograph their families; I wanted to tell their stories too. Small, freelance opportunities opened up, and I was hooked. I made the decision to start my own photography business. This time, instead of an ID badge, my brother helped me get a business license and designed my logo. My website may have said “portrait & event photography” but it really meant “story-teller.”

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
As a mom who runs a business in the art world, people do not always see me as a full-time businesswoman. I shoot sessions in the off-hours like sunset time or weekend afternoons. I’m sending emails, contacting clients, and doing tedious business tasks when my kids are in school and my husband is at work. I often put in the long hours of editing when everyone is in bed and I can finally get things done without any “mom jobs” requiring my attention. My business hours are often “unseen” as I juggle the mom schedule with my work schedule. I am so grateful that this business allows me to do both, but I’m frequently fighting to establish myself as both a mom and a business owner. The balance is a challenge. My advice is to give yourself grace, but it’s OK to set clear boundaries about your business work hours.

Creating the art of photography has always come naturally to me. The business parts are not so easy for me. I had no background in marketing or sales which of course are vital for a profitable business! I think a lot of artists struggle with this. I had to learn it all. I’m still learning, and I will always be learning it in today’s progressive world which requires a willingness to consider innovative marketing and paths to profitability. Business is so much more than just a product. I was eating lunch with a group of moms the other day, and one lady’s advice to her daughter who wanted to pursue cosmetology was to get a business degree. I agree. A new business owner needs more than just talent and optimism; do the hard work of educating yourself in your areas of weakness.

Since we were used to living on one income when I started my business, my profits have not always been the most important part of my business model (strange, I know!). I have been able to take on projects and stories I find meaningful but aren’t always profitable. I have been able to volunteer with local humanitarian efforts and nonprofits to tell powerful stories. However, photography work incurs a lot of expense that the average person does not realize. Quality gear and post-production are very expensive. So, finding a way to tell great stories and make a profit is a challenging goal. I have had to learn when to gift my time, and when to charge my worth. Friendships blur those business lines sometimes, but running a profitable business means you are worth your price tag. Women especially are expected to be all heart in many business decisions, but the wiser choice is often to know your worth. Insider tip: your friends are not always your best clients (wink wink). Those who understand the value of your work will pay for it.

What should we know about Make Your Memory Photography? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
The most memorable photographic stories are unscripted and raw. For me, weddings are my favorite tales to tell. From getting ready to quiet first looks to exchanged promises, and celebrations that reflect a lifetime of a connection, they all make the most epic stories. When I look back at old, black and white photos of wedding couples, I can see so much more than a bridal gown or a hairstyle. It’s a heritage, a moment in time that can be handed to a someone in the family a hundred years from now and somehow it will be part of their ongoing story. That’s powerful. I love photographing weddings.

I also enjoy photographing high school senior portraits, but I rarely do them in a stuffy studio space. I take seniors outdoors. The physical geography of a photo is an important supporting detail. Arizona lends itself to striking backdrops with its sunsets and landscapes. Sometimes, an athlete is best photographed on the high school field where he/she has spent countless hours of hard work. Sometimes, a car or a family pet tell us more about the person. I always encourage seniors to incorporate something into the session that tells their story. It’s such an exciting crossroads of sentimental milestones and hopeful new beginnings; I want to show that transformation in every senior session I shoot.

I am constantly looking for ways to support humanitarian efforts, start-up companies, and non-profits. Pictures tell a story in a way that people listen. We are living in a time when divides are wide and words can wound, but I have found photographs to be a salve. I think pictures transcend opinions. They connect us in a unique way. If a picture can make us see ourselves or see our humanity, then we will listen. When an organization tells a good story with pictures, they create an audience that is already invested. I like creating that kind of story.

Do you have a lesson or advice you’d like to share with young women just starting out?
I started my photography business at the same time my neighbor was starting hers. We grew together. Every step. We would have long talks over the yard fence about marketing, editing technique, and sales, but mostly we just encouraged each other. We believed in our common dream. There is something so empowering about having another woman there to understand how hard the business world can be and to tell you not to give up. To this day, when I have a challenge or a triumph, she is the one I call. She gets it. We also collaborate on projects and pass each other clients. We are stronger together.

My best advice to a young woman starting her career is to find someone in the business you have chosen to be your mentor and your friend. Be the same for her.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Colette Roark ~ Make Your Memory Photography

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