CREATIVELY COPING IN COVID
Customer Feature: Alyssa Meadows, Civic/Social Documentary Photographer
Just outside of El Paso, TX on the road
When COVID came crashing down on the photo industry in 2020, no one knew when or how work would return, or how to navigate these new socially isolated waters in the interim. Rather than allow a pandemic to halt this talented creators’ endeavors, she sought out safe ways to utilize the time wisely rather than just wait it out, and took her projects solo on the road. We are honored to feature Alyssa Meadows in this blog post as she takes us through her personal projects and journey she embarked on in her own words. In addition, we conducted a social distanced interview that digs deeper into Alyssa's passion for photography.
Black Lives Matter Mural in Atlanta, GA
When the pandemic struck, we all found ourselves in the same boat; forced into inaction, unable to work, and uncertain of pretty much everything. Suddenly, we were met with a societal loss of survival; we could no longer collectively function to meet our needs. Rent looming, businesses closing, clients disappearing, with no end in sight; it was enough to leave any of us feeling hopeless. And for the first few months of quarantine, that was exactly where I found myself, anxious and stressed in a world totally flipped upside down. But as the spring started to warm up and we were allowed to go outside more, I realized I could embrace this global pause on normal living and take advantage of the opportunities it provided. I could throw myself full force into personal work that I'd dreamed of doing outside New York, and subsequently unleashed a deluge of inspiration I didn't even realize I’d tapped into just by surrendering to the situation. I decided to make the most of it and fully invest my time and energy into my longest continual personal project, Every Woman I Know, a portrait series documenting all the women I personally know who have been directly affected by sexual violence.
Every Woman I Know Participants
As I’d been committed to the project truly living up to its name, I realized I was never going to encounter a better opportunity to have the time and space to honor that commitment. Most of the women I know in the tri-state area have participated at this point, and I am deeply fortunate to know many women around the country and world, who are unfortunately also eligible participants. My normal excuse of being too busy was suddenly thrown right out the window; I could do the entire shoot outdoors and socially distanced, and folks’ schedules would never be more accommodating. I committed to making it work however I could financially (mostly sleeping in my car/camping, depending on how cold it was outside; truck stop showers are a lifesaver on the road), and reached out to my favorite Foto Care folks about an extended rental of the gear. They happily agreed, and my imagination and inspiration quickly fired up once I embraced the possibility of my plans.
Every Woman I Know (BTS sessions from the road)
Quickly, my sole intention of a road trip for Every Woman I Know turned into working on multiple projects at once (all that could be done fully socially distanced/outside), from documenting the #BLM protest art going up all over the country in a historical context, to using my white privilege to gain a firsthand perspective on Sundown Towns and illuminate their prevalence, which I as a white woman could do safely. What couldn’t have been more serendipitous though was having a past client of mine reach out asking if I was onboard for a reiteration of an old assignment photographing billboards, in spite of COVID. While I knew it would be a challenging assignment (in terms of many long hours driving and shooting, a tight turnaround, the country’s current circumstances, and the need for specific & specialized equipment), it was the kind of opportunity I would never pass up, and one that demonstrated just how irreplaceable the folks at Foto Care are. Manny immediately made sure I had everything I would need for the job as I told him about the specs of the work. He steered me straight the entire way, from making sure the equipment would arrive on time for the job to dealing with me in a very panicked state during learning curves with the new equipment (which I’ve given him full permission to tease me about for the foreseeable future since he was generous enough to tolerate my stressed and anxious state; it’s only fair).
December 2020 Route
Looking back now and reflecting on what I was able to accomplish, 2020 ended up being my most productive year ever in terms of creating personal work, and I’ve never produced so much content in such a short period of time. Driving over 17,000 miles in the course of 3 months, I photographed 20 billboards all over the country in collaboration with said client, met with 14 women for Every Woman I Know, documented 3 different Sundown Towns, and captured 35 Black Lives Matter murals in 11 different cities. While we can allow obstacles and challenging circumstances to prevent us from chasing after our deepest dreams and desires, I subscribe to if there’s a will, there’s a way. I encourage all of us to use a lemons-to-lemonade mentality and rather than resist the situations life hands us that aren’t easy or fair, instead find ways to turn those negatives into positives and work with what you’ve been dealt. We can’t control everything, but we can choose how to engage with what we can’t control.
Black Lives Matter Mural in New Orleans, LA
Learn more about Alyssa Meadows in this interview
Q: Tell us about yourself, fun anecdotal information you’d like to share.
Alyssa: Hmm, why does this question feel like one of the toughest ones? I’m an outdoors gal, through and through; mother nature should be my middle name. If it’s a nice day, you can almost guarantee I’ll be out hiking or kayaking (I’m the weirdo that keeps an inflatable kayak in her car; it’s saved me more than once from sitting unnecessarily in bumper-to-bumper traffic).
Scene from a hiking trail in Ohio along the road
Q: How did you get started in photography?
Alyssa: I originally went to University of Miami for Marine Biology, and transferred to Penn State when I decided to commit to photography as a major. It was there that I had a fantastic professor, Lonnie Graham, who made it a class requirement to become an ASMP member, which was the single most impactful piece of knowledge bestowed upon me in my undergraduate education. Through the support and insights shared in that community, I was able to get a better understanding of the industry, and a year after graduating, I moved to NYC after getting an editing job for a wedding photographer. From there, I became a Photo Editor for People Magazine where I began laying the foundation for freelancing, and after cutting my teeth there for 2 years, I’ve been full time freelance ever since.
Q: Why did you choose photography?
Alyssa: I actually tried everything in my power to choose something other than photography. My degree path looked more like: Marine Biology > Stage Management (Theatre) > Journalism > Photojournalism, and then during junior year of college I finally admitted defeat and fully committed to the dream I was most afraid to take on. I knew I loved photography, but didn’t want to damn myself to the ‘starving artist’ life. I thought I could do photography for myself on a personal level while working in a more stable industry, but the more I tried to go down that path, the more I realized art was where I was most passionate, most inspired, and most powerful. Now that I’ve made photography my life, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s my one true love in this world, as it gives me the freedom to create beautiful imagery that can also generate important and powerful discussions. It gives me access to worlds I haven’t yet discovered, and provides an access point for contributing positive change on the planet through the power and magic of art.
For Freedoms Billboard in St. Louis, MO
Q: What inspires your work?
Alyssa: In short, everything. I have a laundry list of personal projects jotted down (~30 at the moment) on a variety of topics revolving around sexual violence, women’s rights, our country’s history of racism, environmentalism, mental health issues, the dynamics of abusive relationships, gender stereotypes, etc. My problem is less having the inspiration, and more having enough time to create all the work I dream of making. If I had to identify the most impactful motivator of my projects, I would succinctly say injustice. Where some of us recognize the world falling short and accept the status quo of society, I refuse to resign myself to “that’s just the way it is.” We as artists sometimes forget that historically, we are the ones who lay the foundation and start breaking down the barriers for positive change, and I make sure to keep that knowledge front and center, even when it feels like my work isn’t causing the impact or having the reach I would like. We are usually the first critics, finding creative ways to communicate issues and point out where the world still fails to work for all of us. From Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll to Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party to Georgia O’Keeffe’s extensive career of vulvic paintings, artists find a way of making pointed statements where there’s still not enough space for open, honest dialogue (I mean, just look at the bulk of work from Cindy Sherman). I consistently remind myself of the power that’s always available through artistic creation, and I take that responsibility very seriously. Anyone can make aesthetically pleasing art; I want my work to communicate, incite change, and create conversation more than just produce a ‘pretty’ picture.
George Floyd Mural in Atlanta, GA
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
• Sexism & ageism in the industry; female photo assistants of today may not face the same challenges of the prior generation, and it’s still far from a balanced, equitable field for male and female photographers.
• Finding the space for my work to thrive. The one difficult access point for my work is inherently the nature of my work it’s usually too commercial for fine art, too fine art for commercial.
• Finding ways to make it work financially and figuring out what it actually takes to run a business (a lifelong educational practice, in my opinion).
• Be careful who you collaborate with in this industry.
Q: How did you face them and learn from them?
• That’s an ongoing process - unfortunately, our industry still has a very long way to go. While men in this field get much more latitude for entirely unacceptable behavior, I’ve found my outspoken voice chastised and censored far more than what the 21st century calls for. That said, I’ve learned to be vocal and outspoken about these issues rather than silenced or shamed into submission, because things can only change when they’re discussed openly.
• Trusting my process, creative vision, and voice. Rather than trying to refine my work to be more fine art, or attempting to further commercialize my art, I learned that just because my work didn’t fit the square or round pegs didn’t mean my images weren’t strong or my projects weren’t important. In fact, I feel as though I’ve turned it into a strength, making the work I want to make regardless of where it ‘fits,’ and bringing that level of confidence in both myself and my craft is irreplaceable now in my process.
• The key here in my opinion is community - when you invest in those around you and seek out fellow creators in your industry, your education and insights open up exponentially. We are all independent business owners, trying to cut it solo, and if we’re being objectively honest about it, none of us grow or learn in a vacuum. Learn from your fellow photographers, ask them what resources they rely on for their own self development (ASMP, APA, various Facebook communities, and several newsletters are a large part of my go-to resources), and don’t put that educational aspect on the backburner or it will bite you later.
• Don’t enter into professional engagements and collaborations lightly; always know who you’re working with and what their values are. There are a lot of folks in this industry that are only interested in investing in themselves, and will see you as a means and use you to meet those ends. There are photographers who will skim off the top of your assistant rate; there are clients that won’t ensure model safety, or even your own; there are photo assistants who will try to get their business cards into your clients’ hands; there are other photographers you’ll collaborate with that will erase your contributions and claim it as their own. While it’s not a large part of the industry, it does exist, and it’s important to be mindful of who you decide to trust and work with.
For Freedoms Billboard Assignment in Gardner, ND
Q: How do you keep the passion of photography going strong?
Alyssa: Honestly, that’s never been much of an issue for me. As long as there’s injustice in the world, whether it’s police brutality, the rampant pandemic of sexual violence, the destruction of our natural resources, I’ll never have a shortage of inspired projects. I may only be one person on the planet, and I don’t subscribe to the mentality “there’s only so much I can do.” I may not know how, it may seem insurmountable, it may not have been done before - I will figure it out. So, I suppose my stubbornness as much as anything keeps me motivated.
I also do the opposite of many in our industry - I refuse to commit. I know my strengths (portraiture, travel/lifestyle, documentary) and weaknesses (fashion, still life) as an artist, but I don’t subscribe to being a _______ (food, architecture, wedding, etc…) photographer. While most of my peers hone in on certain specialties, I subscribe to a different mentality. By constantly challenging myself to learn new skills, and taking on a wide variety of clients and projects, I could never get bored. One day it’s photographing food for a local restaurant; the next it’s photographing billboards across the country - what’s more motivating than a life full of learning?
Additionally, keeping in touch with all the small successes I’ve had along the way. On days where I still feel like a nothing and a nobody, like my work isn’t making a difference and my career isn’t going anywhere, I remind myself to stop and reflect on all the things I’ve accomplished over my career in the last decade. We as artists collectively suffer from a “what’s next?” mentality, forgetting our achievements as soon as they’re in our rearview mirrors, while concurrently fixating on all our past failures - it’s the worst recipe for healthy creativity. It’s easy to forget that success is built out of a hundred small steps, not 4 or 5 giant leaps, and with such a gradual climb of tiny triumphs, we often lose touch with just how much we’ve accomplished. When I’m feeling like a failure, I reflect on all the things I’ve forgotten I’ve done or work I’ve gotten, from major campaigns and clients to significant successes with grants and exhibits. I re-presence myself on where I am now versus where I started, and recognize I’ve actually accomplished a lot of the things I wanted to accomplish, and to continue pursuing those goals one day at a time, one step at a time.
Black Lives Matter Mural Panorama in Pittsburgh, PA
Q: What is your favorite image making tool?
Sony A7RIII. As someone who started out on Nikon, I can see what a world of difference it made to my creative practice to switch. There are absolutely some cons for both (Sony’s internal menus are much more difficult to navigate, and settings on the body get easily changed; Nikon’s NPS was unsupportive/unreliable and the autofocus failed so much I ultimately decided to switch brands). That said, the A7RIII matches my workflow better, making image creation a lot easier for me. Creating multiple exposures and having solid high ISO processing are key to a lot of my work, and my Sony has made both markedly easier for me.
Q: How do you create your work?
Alyssa: My work sits only in my mind conceptually for a long time - I often ruminate on projects for months or years, waiting for it to feel “right.” Often there’s an idea I have, and I don’t yet have the actual final vision solidified. It took several months to settle on how I wanted to light Every Woman I Know, as I knew it needed an ability to participate anonymously, and I also wanted to give women an opportunity to step forward if they so choose. I played with the idea of hats they could remove, hands in front of their faces they could take down, or photographing the backs of their heads instead of their faces and with the choice of whether or not to turn around. Ultimately, I decided on simplicity, and playing on the visual literacy of them metaphorically and literally ‘coming into the light.’ Once I settled on the how, the rest of the development flowed freely and easily.
I am a very intuitive photographer; I go by what feels right rather than thinking in technical terms. I don’t use a light meter, I’m not always focused on the gear; I’m only fixated on creating the images I imagine in my mind, and I massage the work until it finds itself in focus. I test the material as it develops with trusted colleagues and friends, seeing if it’s landing as intended, essentially creating beta versions of the proposed project (The Female Experience went through several iterations before I landed on its final composition and construction). Once I find where the work feels stable and solid, I go after it full force; it just sort of flows freely from that point, often becoming the snowball rolling down the hill at an ever increasing speed. There's just a sense of when it's "right" and I trust that instinct when and how it finally hits.
Lexington, KY billboard assignment for For Freedoms
Q: How have you adapted to changes in the industry?
Alyssa: Our industry is constantly evolving honestly, and this is just the most extreme iteration we’ve seen yet. To me, it’s more a matter of staying the course, trusting in the process, and finding creative solutions to problems that pop up. While COVID has created a lot of chaos in the world around us, and disrupted our ‘normal’ ways of life, the silver lining has been the collective moment to breathe, refocus, and take a step back to evaluate where we all want to go. I decided to orient myself more around my personal work, as one thing this pandemic’s taught me is that even though I thought I had a strong freelance financial flow (via shooting for myself and assisting/editing for others), even having a dependence on clients has pitfalls. So it’s now about pivoting towards creating more self-generated work (going after the clients I want) rather than what had been my usual method (referrals/return of past clients).
I also deeply dove into the realm of personal projects. So often, our excuses for not developing work outside of clients are “I don’t have time,” “I’m burnt out,” or “I really should work on other things like answering emails/updating my website/backing up my archive.” It’s so easy to get lost in all the 8 million little things we need to do as business owners, and we set all our personally artistic and creative goals aside, forever left on the back burner, forgotten or discarded. Rather than resist the fact that work and income had essentially come to a standstill, I accepted that fact and dove headfirst into producing many of the personal projects I wanted to do. From documenting the police brutality and the subsequent protest art across the country, to photographing the most participants in a single year for Every Woman I Know, this has by far been the most productive year of my practice for developing personal work.
Q: How do you see your business changing in the next 5-10 years?
Alyssa: I think if there’s anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s that nothing in this life is certain, that the very nature of our world is a constant state of unpredictability. So no matter where I imagine I might be, I think we’ll just have to wait and see. What I will say is that the course of 2020 has allowed me to explore my creative side more freely, and subsequently has shifted my artistic practice substantially. I’ve gotten much more in touch with my relationship to myself as an ‘artist’ - because our work can be so commercial, so client-based, so technical, it’s easy to forget we aren’t just photographers. We are so often separated from the other visually based arts that it’s easy to think of ourselves just as image makers rather than artists, to get trapped in a false line of thinking. Over the months in quarantine, I’ve deeply reconnected with my artistic roots, and think the work I create in the coming years will make that evident.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a younger version of yourself about the road ahead?
Alyssa: That’s a tough one, as the biggest thing I would say any photographer needs in this business is perseverance, because this industry is a long haul marathon, not a short, sweet sprint. This is the exact cartoon I found somewhere in the depths of the internet when I was freshly out of college, and it stayed with me; it was the constant touchstone visual memory I would remind myself of whenever I felt ready to give up or throw in the towel on this whole ‘photographer’ thing (there were definitely countless times the thought crossed my mind). That said, if I were to go back in time and have a conversation with my younger self, there are two pieces of wisdom I would impart on myself:
1. Trust what the universe has in store for you and trust in your abilities - don’t waste time worrying over the past, as once it’s over, there’s no changing it, it’s about moving forward powerfully from it. Don’t beat yourself up over the mistakes/pitfalls/coming up short; learn from them and apply those lessons moving forward.
2. Be careful of who you allow into your space and align your work with. While I would never trade the experience gained or lessons learned through the situations I’m reflecting on, I can look back now and recognize that some folks in this industry are purely self serving, and will use you up without giving anything back, predatory in nature. Don’t share yourself or your talent with those who haven’t earned the honor of your collaboration.
3. Okay, maybe there's a 3rd one - Meditate. Every damn day.
Q: Why have you chosen Foto Care to be part of your support structure?
Alyssa: I know that it’s not about how much you save, where the best deal is; that’s a fast game that only is financially beneficial. There’s no heart, no soul in that. Our industry is built on a tight-knit community with a strong desire and commitment to support each other. The way I was introduced to Foto Care was foundational to the love and appreciation I have for the company and its staff now. Roughly five years ago, a good friend of mine, Tony Gale, created a small women in photography educational group composed of myself and 4 or 5 other women, as he noticed we were bumping up against gendered barriers in the industry and wanted to help. Foto Care Rental’s lobby was where we had the majority of those meetings, and it was immediately evident that Tony & Fred were just as invested in creating a more accessible and equitable industry. Then that understanding was compounded when I began developing Every Woman I Know, and Fred said the Rental Dept. would be more than happy to support the development of the project, which they have continued to honor and uphold for almost 4 years now. I could not be more grateful, and means everything to know that Foto Care isn’t like most of the other camera stores, that the staff actually care about their customers, that they value more than anything the human connection. It’s an irreplaceable feeling to know you can walk into a store in the middle of Manhattan (located on 22nd St. btwn 5/6th Ave) where I can talk to folks I consider my friends, knowing they have my best interests at heart because I’m not just another bottom line in the system. And ultimately, the fact that they willingly and happily put their brand behind such a critical project about sexual violence, that is the kind of company I want to get behind (as compared to one with a history of sexist and racist allegations spanning multiple decades). When things go wrong on set, I know who I can call (Manny and Tony can attest to this haha), and when I need advice on what the best gear to invest in is, there’s no shortage of trusted, informed folks who both know my work and the equipment - that’s invaluable and irreplaceable. There’s an incomparable level of understanding and trust, and I would never trade that for anything.
Equipment list that Alyssa used for this road trip:
*courtesy of Foto Care Rental
Alyssa Meadows, Civic/Social Documentary Photographer
Alyssa Meadows (1989, United States) is a nationally-exhibited artist from Pennsylvania currently residing in New York City, working as an artist and activist. Driven by self-initiated personal projects and documentary work, she uses photography to unearth truths, educate the misinformed, connect with others, and learn through exploration. Her main subjects predominantly focus on issues of intersectional equality and environmental activism. In 2018, she was selected as one of the eight recipients for the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s IPF Grant, and best series for N.Y. Curator’s Grief online exhibition for her personal project, Every Woman I Know.