Hello and welcome to Unpopular Opinions with me, Sandra Coan. I’m an award-winning photographer and industry educator, bestselling author, and a proud Westcott Top pro. I’ve been a professional photographer for over 25 years, and I have a lot of opinions about photography and the photography industry on this podcast. I’m sharing them all.
So if you are someone who is ready for some real honest conversation about the art and the business of photography, this is the place for you. I’m so excited to be sitting down with my friend Rachel Larsen Weaver. Rachel’s an artist and an educator and a mother. And I’m so excited to be talking to her today on the podcast.
Rachel, I’ve known your work for a while, but I didn’t meet you until last year at Photo Native. You taught an amazing class on writing and storytelling that just blew my mind. It really had an impact on me and I wanted to talk to you about it.
You are a storyteller with your work.
Your images are so evocative, and I could just get lost in the stories and what you do with your photos, but also in your words. You’re such a beautiful and a talented writer. I’m so inspired by the way you weave your writing and your narrative into not only your work, your business, the newsletter that you write and the way you use your captions. It’s such an art, it’s so special. I think it’s such an important piece of what we do as creatives.
I know a lot of photographers get so caught up in their head about the writing piece, myself included. I journal and I write every single morning but it’s always very personal. I haven’t wanted to share that side. Part of the reaction I had to your talk was, even as a published best-selling author, seeing myself in your class as a writer for the first time. You made me feel that I had a personal narrative that’s worth sharing and weaving into my business.
I was a high school English teacher and getting people to recognize the value of writing for the personal practice of it is important to me. I think that personal practice is more profound when you find places to share that. If you decide you want to be writing more and sharing that more and I had anything to do with that feels exciting!
It sat with me all year and it’s been nagging. This is my 25th year in business, and I spent a lot of time in 2023 really reflecting on that. It’s been a crazy three years. The pandemic was the pandemic and then my father died suddenly in 2021. Dealing with grief and learning from grief and coming into this milestone in my professional career had me thinking of redoing everything.
So I burnt it all down in 2023, and I’m redoing everything in my education business.
I’m so excited about rebranding the podcast. I feel like I’m at this place in my life where I’m tired of jumping through the hoops, playing the games. I want to give people everything they need to be successful – teach everything I know, no gatekeeping, just having honest conversations
What does that change feel like or look like?
Sandra Coan Certification is a brand new program that literally teaches everything I’ve learned over the past 25 years from lighting to posing to portfolio curation to marketing – all the things that you need for a photography business. I put on my teacher hat and I created a rubric so people take quizzes and are tested as they go through. They do a portfolio submission and one-on-one with me. Then they apply at the end and if they pass and they get the scores, then they get a certification badge.
People need feedback.
People need critique. People need to know if they’re doing it right. You can take all the classes in the world, but if you can’t actually talk to the instructor to get critique or get redirected, it’s not going do any good.
I love the holistic nature of that in particular. It feels so right because if somebody comes in and is just looking at your editing you can maybe get your editing fixed, but that doesn’t touch on any of the other things. So I really love the idea that you’re getting to stick with a person and see the different facets.
I love it too. It just like fills up my little teacher heart. We need structure so that people can actually move forward. So they’re not questioning, am I good enough? Am I doing this right? Am I ready? Can I be charging? I’ve seen for too long people stuck in this hamster wheel and I just wanna help them move out of it.
There are those people who think if they take enough classes, do enough mentorships, go to the conferences they’ll be readt but they never have the courage it takes to take the step and say “I do this now.” Sometimes it just takes somebody looking at them one-on-one to say, “You are ready!”
I always tell people it’s really about confidence. You can be technically proficient and have all the marketing down, but need to believe you’re ready for it.
Do you remember having that feeling ? Or did you feel like you kind of had chutzpah from the start?
Oh no, I was terrified! My business was born out of desperation. I was a teacher. I wasn’t making any money. I qualified for food stamps my first year of teaching. I just needed to make money. I totally had that feeling that sooner or later people are gonna figure out I don’t know what I’m doing and they’re going to call me out on it.
It kept me playing small.
I was like afraid to market myself because I told myself “I’m not a real photographer.” Did you ever struggle with that?
Certainly! It’s funny because I have five kids and I see in them lots of confidence. They’ll go up and do a thing and fail and say “Whatever! That’s fine!”
One of my oldest daughter, not that she is failing in any way, shape or form, but she’s a musician, and she will get on any stage given any opportunity and has been that way for years. Some of her friends who are also really talented musicians, they’re afraid, but she has no fear.
I think we have a tendency to think about the least friendly person who could see the thing on our feed and judge us the most harshly. We have that person in mind saying “Who does she think she is?”
But I try to imagine who are the most friendly ears and eyes that this could fall to?
It becomes exciting because there are going to be those people around you that are pumped for you and excited. Let that energy carry you through and it can create a solid amount of momentum.
I love that perspective. Where does that come from? Were you just born that way?
I probably had some of that early on, but also my husband has a lot of it and we have been together since the end of college. We grew up together and I watched him doing that. We’ve egged each other on in that way.
Some of it’s natural and some of it is the way it’s been nurtured. And as I now I would say our family culture really lends itself to that. You look around, and there’s people who are making work that I’m not the least bit interested in and there’s artists who we revere. There’s room for all sorts of people, so why not see if there’s room for you?
Your work is so bold and just so beautiful. Do you bring that confidence into it?
I have to have a talk with myself sometimes about the courage of just sharing the thing. It’s always interesting because sometimes it’s not a photo that might be received super well by the masses, but it feels like the people who I’m most excited about working with or whose opinions I value will love it. There becomes some attract and repel.
Other people might say “Why the hell did she think that underexposed grainy black and white was okay?” But I’m talking myself out of the feeling of having to explain it and move forward.
I love that. I tell the students that I mentor when we’re doing portfolio curation, if have to explain why this picture deserves to be in your portfolio, then don’t put it in your portfolio. It lives on its own. People who are seeing it aren’t going to be able to sit and listen to your story.
Part of what artistry is, especially in this medium, is saying this is the one.
That choosing is such a huge part of our voice – learning to trust that and explore what is resonating with you.
That takes a lot of courage. I will see people who are doing that, but then they fall into that trap of “I just needed to share something from that session,” or “I thought this is the one they would like the most.”
That’s not how you become the artist. That’s not how you take the lead and attract more people who want to work with you.
That’s what I teach my students too. Put on your blinders. Don’t worry about what you should be doing. You have to show up and be you. You’re the only person in the world who can see and capture something the way that you see and capture it. You can have a room full of photographers, we could all be photographing the same thing and nobody’s pictures are going to look the same. Yeah. ’cause our brains don’t work the same, we don’t have the same whatever that we’re bringing into it.
The key to long-term success is to figuring out what it is that you do, what your voice is, what your vision is, and then being willing to do it fearlessly every single time.
That is one of the things I like about encouraging a writing practice alongside photography. Sometimes in your writing you realize there are these stories that you keep wanting to explore. And it’s not to say that just because you want to explore them in writing that they have to be explored in photography or vice versa. But that practice of paying attention to your own thoughts and to what you’re noticing can be really revealing about who you are and what your place is as a creator, as an entrepreneur.
Let’s talk about the writing piece. I know our listeners would be interested to hear a little bit about your writing practice and how you use it in your business. Everybody talks about having a newsletter, for example. But I’ve always written it from a sales and marketing point of view. I’m so inspired by the way you use your writing in your business to inform your artistic vision, but also as a way to connect with your clients.
So my niche in the photography market is I shoot long form sessions, which means that I go into people’s homes, across the US primarily, and I stay with them 24 to 36 hours.
We are creating in this slow and intentional way.
It’s not a day in the life session as I’m not trying to document all of the things, but we get to creatively collaborate. What are your ideas that you wanna play with? What places do you wanna show anyhow?
They are very fun and they are very intimate and they are very connected. Part of the success of them, they launched basically alongside with my newsletter two and a half years ago. I don’t think they would’ve had the success that they’ve had if people hadn’t already been inviting me into their homes through hearing my stories, talking about my family and how I create and what I’m noticing and paying attention to.
I think they feel comfortable having me at their dinner table, sleeping in their guest room or in their living room or wherever, because they have a strong sense of who I am.
Explain your newsletter so people get a feel for what you do with it.
I send a weekly newsletter on Mondays at 8:31 PM and it is primarily creative nonfiction. It’s short essay form, which is what my writing background is in. I went to undergraduate as an English major and then I started my MFA in creative writing in creative nonfiction. But I had a baby in the middle of that and I did not finish my MFA. I taught high school English for eight years. And at some point during that I wanted to start a blog.
What was holding me back from starting a blog was I thought you had to have a camera.
You have to have pictures if you wanna have a blog. So I saved up, bought a digital camera and started a blog. It was really so that I had a place to write. I was just creating images to go alongside that.
People started asking me to come take their family pictures or to shoot their small weddings. One of the things that was hard for me was I would show up to a session and I had always been photographing the moment when it happened, when I saw my kids sitting in that shaft of light. Now all of a sudden I have an hour to try to do what I had done over the course of a week.
I let the blog go as I was pursuing photography.
About two and a half years ago, my daughter was just starting college and I had to give myself a raise. I had launched a mini session thing that flopped miserably. I had moments of introspection where I examined, “What is it that people want from me and from this experience?”
I had a revelation that they don’t want 20 minutes in and out at the cheapest price point. I don’t think that that’s what I’m good at. And so I was like, all right, I’m gonna switch this. And that’s when I started offering .
I love how you said “We’re not gonna do mini sections. We’re gonna do maxi sessions. I’m gonna move in with you on the heels of a global pandemic and I’m gonna sleep in your house.”
I had twice as many people book long form sessions as I had book the mini sessions.
I had more people booking this huge offer where I was flying across the country than I could get to take a picture in front of a backdrop at the park. I realized that there was something there.
That’s proof positive.
You have to figure out what you do. It doesn’t matter what’s popular. It doesn’t matter what the trends are.
There is somebody looking for what you do, no matter what you do. You created something that really doesn’t exist in the industry and sold it.
And to be able to have an offer that is a national offer, I go anywhere to do it, gives the newsletter a purpose. In any given place, most of us have pretty big potential markets. It’s just finding those people sometimes, which can feel difficult.
It always feels difficult, but at this point in my career, I am a firm believer of whatever it is you wanna do, somebody is looking for it.
The real secret is figuring out what you do and going all in.
If you go all in, you’re going to be able to connect to those people who want it.
I had to come to that in my work. I used to get really embarrassed about it. I started my business at the end of the nineties where it’s was all about like photojournalism and family documentaries. And that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I want t put people in front of a white wall in a studio, and I want everything perfectly lit and I want everybody looking into the camera
People have been having portraits of their families since cameras were invented and before there were cameras, that’s how they were being painted. It’s classic. Your work isn’t going to age in the way that some of these other things are going to. What you’re doing is speaking to this history and heritage.
I can’t do it any other way. It’s just my expression. It’s not lifestyle, it’s not documentary. Everything is posed, everything is directed. Even the things that look candid, but it’s not traditional studio photography.
It’s just me.
That’s why people want to work with you and learn from you. I think in learning from people and being inspired by them it is important to have a mix of influences.
If you have two influences, you’ve created a line. If you have three influences, you’ve created a shape. If you have four influences, now you have this geometrical figure, this form that is uniquely yours.
It becomes so much more dangerous where you just look at somebody and think “They’re doing this well; I’ll just try to emulate that.”
Thank you for being with me today. If this episode resonated with you, please take a moment to head on over to iTunes, hit that subscribe button and leave us a shiny five star review. What I know after 25 years in this industry is that community is everything. We all need other photographers to learn from and to lean on. And you have the power to start building that kind of a community for yourself right now. Share this episode with someone in your photography circle who you think could benefit from it. And let’s normalize having honest conversations and sharing our opinions, even if they’re unpopular.
Rachel Larsen Weaver is an artist-educator and photographer joyfully living on the Maryland beaches of the Chesapeake Bay. A mother to five and creator of moments, her enthusiasm for details and self-love are infectious, infusing creative sessions with a buoyant reverence for the simplest pleasures. Her portfolio and practice is fat-affirming, mindful, and genuine, focusing on the life and light of clients. Creator of the 4×4 Mentorship + Workshop, #FindingMyselfInPortraits and the original Long Form Sessions, Rachel travels the country documenting children, mothers, bodies, and places people call home.
New Website: https://sandracoanstudios.com/
Sandra Coan Certification Program: https://sandracoanstudios.com/certification
Join the Waitlist for Certification: https://sandracoanstudios.com/waitlist