ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with a Pro: Kathryn Elsesser

Little House on the Prairie © Kathryn Elsesser

This week’s Questions with a Pro features Kathryn Elsesser.

Kathryn is a Portland based photographer specializing in editorial, portrait and food photography. Her photography is grounded in the exploration of the world, which has brought her to countless international locations and provided her with a worldly perspective. She sees herself as a people person, which allows her to successfully capture her client’s vision. She also approaches photography as a process of continuing education, which allows her to stay very current on new technology. Here, Kathryn describes how she obtained her first position, the dialogue that occurs with clients to ensure a mutual understanding of their vision, and how personal work plays into her overall photography business.

We asked: How did you obtain your first position as a freelance photographer for the International Maize and Wheat Center? What advice do you have for new photographers working to find their first gig?

Kathryn said: I was living in Mexico at the time and my spouse was working for the International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT), an agricultural research center. I had accompanied him on trips throughout Mexico where scientists were doing their research plots. At the time, I was taking photographs using black and white film, primarily for myself. We later traveled to India, Pakistan, Nepal and various countries in Africa as well, to document CIMMYT’s work with NGO’s for their annual reports. It was not until we were in Pakistan that my role as a female photographer was recognized as being useful. It was not my first official “gig,” but it paved the way for future work with them. When we were in Kashmir and Northwest Frontier, primarily the Swat Valley, women were typically not seen in public. Driving through the small remote villages, you would on a rare occasion see a woman scurrying through town wearing a hijab. Because I was a female, I had the unique opportunity to go inside the home and photograph women preparing meals for their family. This was especially important because up until that time, there was no visual documentation of how the crops were being utilized in the homes. It was fascinating to enter a world that CIMMYT’s male scientists had never seen. Until that time, they did not have any images of domestic use of corn and wheat in Pakistan. Those photographs, later led to paid shoots where I traveled to Zimbabwe, Nepal and Kenya for CIMMYT’s publications and then a contract to produce a multimedia presentation for IPGRI, the International Center for Plant Genetic Resources based in Rome, Italy.

My advice for new photographers is to join a professional trade organization such as ASMP and surround yourself with your professional peers; especially those whose work you respect and admire. Also, shoot personal projects that reflect your personal interests. Additionally, ASMP offers professional resources that will help you with the business side of photography.

We asked: Did you always have a desire to explore the world through your photography? Has your source of inspiration changed at all over the years?

Kathryn said: It was not until I moved to Mexico for a few years that I entertained the idea of a career in photography. At that time, I was shooting for myself. Prior to the move, I was working for a historic preservation non-profit. Now looking back, the access I had was incredible and I never took it for granted. The remarkable opportunity to photograph in rural villages in Mexico, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Because of my connection to CIMMYT, my focus was agriculture related. When I returned to the United States, I shifted my focus to portraiture, but have since come around full circle and I am now passionate about creating stories around food and wine. Each new experience fuels my enthusiasm and passion for photography.

We asked: What kind of dialogue occurs between you and your clients to make sure you have a thorough understanding of their vision?

Kathryn said: It is all about the initial conversation. It is the time to listen carefully to the client’s vision and direction of the project. Then depending on the scope of the project, a written treatment or a “mood” board of sorts is created. With a previous project, the newly revised Little House On the Prairie Cookbook, the process took months, with quite a few conference calls with the publisher and the cookbook author. There was no on set art direction, so it was critical that the stylist and I build a strong foundation of trust. That the sets we created, the props we picked up and the food we photographed were in line with the overall design of the book.

Sometimes working with very small businesses can be frustrating. At a meeting I would ask probing questions about the project and I often would get the “well you are the expert” for an answer. It is also important to make sure the budget is commensurate with expectations of the project.

We asked: You state that photography is an ongoing education. What resources do you use to facilitate your continuing education in the field?

Kathryn said: I primarily use the resources offered by being an active member of ASMP. I am lucky in that the Portland chapter is very active and there are so many successful professionals to turn to who are generous with sharing business, artistic and technical information.

We asked: What is your philosophy on personal work? How has your personal work affected your business?

Kathryn said: I can’t imagine not doing personal projects. It is so important for a number of different reasons. Personal work has helped me grow as a photographer, it has and continues to provide a creative outlet to creative work that I am passionate about. While it is still a process, I am at least hoping it is developing my voice or style as a photographer.

Again, for me personal work has given me an opportunity to update my portfolio and social marketing needs. For some, personal projects are a way of exploring new interests and skills especially if they are thinking of going in a different direction with their photography. I have found it to be a safe place to make mistakes and experiment. What I especially love, is the creative freedom to do what you want and not have to be worried about meeting client needs.

Yes, personal work has positively impacted my business. I would not have been asked to photograph for the new version of The Little House on the Prairie Cookbook, without working on personal promotional images. In fact, one of them just was given an honorary mention in the recent ASMP food photography contest. And through a connection I made on my Walla Walla Women of Wine calendar, which was another personal project, vineyards have started to hire me.

Find more of Kathryn’s work on her website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with a Pro and Questions with an Educator blog series.

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