by Robyn Jones
photography by Armida Carranza
Trying to highlight the good in the bad is difficult. With so much going on in the world, sometimes the good is always overlooked. In the spring of 2020, the world was put on pause because of a new disease that captured our lives. Schools were taught online, some adults had to work from home, and children were stuck sitting behind a screen all day. At that point in life, everything seemed hopeless. Many families faced tragedies while others went about life worrying whether they were next. An ongoing horror movie is what we were living through. Usually easy tasks became media centered: competing for food in grocery stores, buying up all the toilet paper from Costco, Walmart, even all the way down to Dollar Tree. We all hit rock bottom the first two weeks of the virus’ stay, but little did we know it would stretch two years.
Nevertheless, staying at home to me was like a dream come true. I didn’t have to worry about getting gas, spending money, or sitting in a classroom for more than an hour. I didn’t even have to worry about choosing what to wear each day. I was free to sit in the comfort of my own home, working out in peace, and just living day by day. Then, after about a month, this daily routine got tiring. With my working mother going to work every day from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., my mandated COVID stay at home got lonelier and lonelier. Of course, my dog Coco Chanel kept the house from feeling too quiet, but aside from playing with Coco Chanel, what else could I do?
I have been studying photography; how to edit and neutralize colors, how to get creative, you know—the basic things. After practicing taking photos of things around the house and experimenting with natural lighting, I purchased studio lights, backdrops, backdrop holders. I bought filters, external flashes and more camera lenses. I was so pumped with photography that I even experimented with analog cameras, sometimes referred to as film.
Once I felt I had it together, I made an Instagram account where I published all my work dating back to 2016 up until present time. I was nervous at first but soon gained confidence when I saw my work being published in my community college’s newspaper. I staged photo exhibitions and won competitions. Weirdly enough, that was not the reason I felt confident with my photography. I felt confident when I began to receive positive feedback from people I didn’t know, in addition to my family—friends whom I photographed, even from my previous teachers.
In the summer of 2020, when life felt a bit normal, my four best friends and I ventured outside and experimented with a variety of creative. I made Tik Tok videos to showcase my work and to show off my journeys. I genuinely didn’t think I would receive any type of clout, but soon I was noticing that my likes, my followers, and my view count were going up by the day. By mid-July, I decided to create my local photography business. My friends became my starter team, and I began understanding business moves that I needed to make in order to be successful.
Promoting the start of my business seemed so easy, only because I expected much initial attention from my peers from school, work, and other outside organizations; however, it was challenging to hold that audience’s attention. I got a bit discouraged because the internet is full of people using it for all the wrong reasons: selling recreational drugs, for example. Others use it to promote haircuts in their garage. Promoting real art, though? The sky was my limit, but at that point, it was like I was dragging myself out of a bottomless pit. As I continued going out and practicing and perfecting various creative shoots, my team would post about me and spread my name around to get me into this competitive field. My business was coming around slowly, but business was business. As much of a cliché statement that is, this was a true statement I was learning to live by.
By August 2020, at the beginning of my sophomore year online, my dream of having a growing photography business fell through. Having a full-time job and being a full-time student, I didn’t think I would have time to truly dedicate any piece of myself and my time to something I felt passionate toward. Priority choices had to be made. Powering through the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, I received a few text messages inquiring whether I was still available. Just like that, I was back. After thinking it over, I knew that if I wanted to even remotely do this in the future, I would have to manage my time better.
Starting up again was difficult. Finding locations, complimentary poses, good lighting—all took careful planning and time. I wanted to cry out of stress, but I kept taking deep breaths because I knew my four team members were by my side. For about a year, I have photographed 50 sessions back-to-back that include maternity shoots, weddings, senior portraits, clothing lines and creative shoots. I have traveled from Stockton to all of the local 209 areas, including Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Santa Clarita and downtown Los Angeles—I’m pretty sure you get the picture.
My friend and team member Matthew Maduli has been working alongside me for J’Nai’s Photos for the past year (my business shares my middle name). He commented on Instagram, “After modeling for her, I’ve learned that she is very body positive. She allows you to take photos that make you feel like yourself. Working alongside her, I’ve learned a lot about equipment, editing and professionalism. Overall, it has been a great experience.” Hearing my best friend post his thoughts about me on Instagram had me feeling empowered.
Nevertheless, I experienced awkward moments where I forgot my SD card or an extra battery. I’ve had moments where I felt some shoots could have been better, but I was going through a creator’s block, and I didn’t know whether anything I was producing was good enough to be pushed through. During that first long year of the pandemic, I was always having a little moment where I felt under pressure, especially when it came to risking my health and others for a photoshoot in different cities. I did my best to make sure my team was fully vaccinated and feeling OK before we went out to photograph other families, couples and individuals. I tried my best to make sure the clients weren’t sick or exposed to anyone who had COVID. We had our own families to look out for, including our own peers. It was risky being in different cities where COVID cases were just swarming around like bees.
Along with the many photoshoot adventures we took, we would also drive up and down Northern California on random days to find new locations for photoshoots to open our business up just a bit more. We spent many hours on the road, and we had a fair share of crazy experiences. One of my favorite was spent in Sacramento. My team and I explored all parts of the city; we even made Tik Tok videos, YouTube vlogs, and stopped for dinner. We went from the capital to exploring neighboring cities, regional parks, museums and more.
As we settled back home, we had many Dutch Bros. coffee/energy drink stops and picnics in the Lodi parking garage. There aren’t many activities and places to go in our small cities, so we did photoshoot planning sessions on the garage rooftop. We practiced different poses for people of different heights and sizes. We practiced angles, and every so often we would look at the color wheel to study what colors complimented different undertones that a variety of our clients possessed.
Being an aspiring portrait photographer, I had to learn to open my eyes and understand that not every shoot will go according to plan, and not every client exudes confidence.
Directing poses was and still is one of my main struggles. Telling someone how to look is not something they sometimes want to hear. So, instead of basic headshots, I put a spin to it. I was taking senior high school photoshoots, but we were going to the fair, to the lake, and many other places. Our backgrounds were real.
But, of course, not everything is that easy. I have dealt with clients who were insecure about their rosacea, eczema, scars, weight, double chins, the whole nine. My greatest accomplishment as a photographer was learning how to make them feel like the best version of themselves. I recently delivered photos to one of my newest clients, one of the sweetest souls I’ve ever met. She told me I made her look beautiful, and that she would’ve never expected to see herself photographed in a different perspective than she perceived herself. Her words brought tears to my eyes. Seeing someone who was once insecure feel so confident about herself is what I strive to do. Her telling me she loved looking at herself anchored the fact this is something I am passionate about. This is something I want to do as a career.
Then reality hit me—again. It always felt like I was a step behind other artists, and never going forward. Photography is a competitive field. You have thousands of creators online who have either more experience than you or challenge you with their creativity. Being bottled up at home and taking photo classes online was often discouraging. Because the teacher couldn’t teach Photoshop online, that part of the curriculum was removed. And I signed up for the class just to learn that software. My San Joaquin teachers all opted to keep it simple by just teaching us how to use the brightness and contrast on all of our photos before we turned in projects.
I saw that as a loss of my future creativity. So, since nobody was going to teach me, I had to teach myself. But there were roadblocks to my strategy. Watching Tik Tok tutorials never helped because I didn’t have the latest Photoshop software. I’m a broke college kid trying to make a living. The Adobe monthly subscriptions are expensive. YouTube was my only other option, yet that didn’t even help. I can’t learn online. I have to learn in person. I need to ask questions when they come. Due to COVID, it felt that everything I wanted was not available to me anymore. I felt powerless once again, just like I did at the beginning of the stay-at-home order. After a few weeks of just moping around in my bed, I finally bought the updated version of Photoshop and Lightroom. I forced myself to understand Photoshop first. I had to understand the tools, where they’re located, what they do, and how they work.
I’m not yet completely versed in the different genres within photography. But I have dedicated my time to learn portrait photography, and how to capture the beauty that I see, which others don’t see in themselves. As time continues, I hope that the drive that I have right at this COVID moment stays with me until I find my place within the photo community. Nothing comes easy. Unlike in the movies, you don’t just pick up a hobby and automatically have great content to produce and show off to the world. This journey I have taken in photography is something I won’t regret going through. It is a learning lesson that I’m still on. ■