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Behind the lens: A conversation with photographer Elle Yancy

All images by Elle Yancy

Rolling out spotlights beauty, portrait and fashion photographer Elle Yancy for our weekly “Behind The Lens” feature.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how close are you to reaching your maximum potential as an artist (with 10 being the highest). 

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate myself a solid 3.5 to reaching my maximum potential as an artist.

Describe the moment that you knew photography was your life’s calling?

I realized photography was a life calling of mine the year I bought my first camera, which actually wasn’t bought for the purpose of pursuing a career in photography. I was heavily into fashion during the time, so I decided to start a style blog that included photos of myself wearing a variety of outfits, along with some of the really stylish people gracing the streets of New York. After shooting my first three people, I noticed that I was being a little too extra for photos that were just supposed to be simple street fashion shots. From the actual shooting to the editing, I was treating these photos like high-end editorials, taking my time and adding special effects in post-production. It was fun, but the real obsession began after that when I decided to make photography an actual hobby. I’d spend all of my money investing in photography gear and all of my nights binging on YouTube tutorials while editing photos. Once I started drawing lighting diagrams during my downtime at my retail job during that time, I knew I was in it for the long haul. Most importantly, photography has always brought me freedom in expression, and that’s a feeling that I want to have for the rest of my life.

All images by Elle Yancy

What were the steps that were taken to get you from that of an initial dream to becoming an accomplished professional?

To be honest, I definitely have a ways to go and feel like I am still taking those steps to becoming the type of accomplished professional that I aspire to be. My journey as a photographer really began the moment I decided to look more into myself and bring out what’s inside of me through my lens. Being aware of my purpose as a photographer and allowing myself to channel that energy was definitely an important step for me. Understanding the power of manifestation or law of attraction has also helped tremendously along the way, [as well as] being clear with my intentions, truly believing in myself and my gifts, constantly setting and attacking goals, and always staying grateful along the way. What I can also attribute to where I’m at now as a photographer is my curiosity, hunger for improvement, studying my craft, constant practice, welcoming growth, and making necessary sacrifices. I didn’t receive any type of formal photography education so a big part of my journey has been trial and error and learning what works best for my business. Through learning what works best for my business and being clear with my vision along the way, I was able to understand the type of investments I needed to make before going out and actually making them. Investing in my business has really played a big role. Lastly, but equally important as the rest, was taking risks. Listening to that voice in my head telling me to step completely out of my comfort zone really helped me to grow within myself and as a photographer. One of the biggest and necessary steps that I’ve taken was quitting my 9-to-5. It got real after that.

Who have been some of your greatest teachers?

My greatest teachers have definitely been life, my mistakes, and my journey of evolution and self-discovery. I try my best not to focus on the work of others so much, but one photographer that I learn a great deal from is Shamayim Shacaro. I really appreciate how he uses his platform to share valuable information with other photographers, models and the industry in general. He packages it in an incredibly authentic, spiritual way that’s refreshing. Matthew Jordan Smith is another photographer that has helped me along the way, especially when I was starting out. I’ve always connected with his body of work, and the fact that he’s an African American photographer who’s been in the industry creating timeless images for so long really inspired me. My last teacher will definitely have to be YouTube. You can learn how to do just about anything on there.

Outside of other photographers, who has served as some as your greatest creative inspirations?

Outside of other photographers, my greatest inspirations would have to be culture, spirituality and life itself. Through being in tune with the universe, it becomes incredibly easy to see all of the beauty that surrounds us, especially … in the smallest of details.

All images by Elle Yancy

How important is it to study the greats?

There’s definitely a certain level of importance that comes with studying the greats. However, I feel as though we all have that greatness in us that is just waiting to be tapped into. Photography, for me, is not black or white. There’s no right or wrong way to approach it. It’s an avenue for endless creative expression, and I believe that’s exactly what all of the greats have been led by — their need and desire to express themselves. Of course, the greats were also led by the inspiration they received from other greats, and that, for me, is the most powerful thing to pull from them. With that inspiration, you can create your own greatness. Everything else, such as the technical aspects of photography, can be learned almost anywhere.

Rank these in order of importance, while describing your rankings: Technical proficiency, clarity of vision, personal project investment.

In order of importance, clarity of vision is at the top for sure. Everything begins with some type of vision, and a successful execution of that vision greatly depends on how clear it is. Next up would have to be technical proficiency because there’s little you can intentionally create without knowing how to use what’s needed to make your vision come to life. This is where practice comes in. Last, but certainly not least, is personal project investment. In the business of photography, being pulled away from creating personal projects to tend to client jobs is always a reality. You get lost in the sauce by creating for others and not so much for yourself. This is why it’s very important to stay inspired and consistently work your creative muscles by investing in personal projects. They are also super important because they keep us grounded, give us an opportunity to sharpen our skills, add depth to our portfolios, and sort of tell stories of who we are as artists. Personal projects help keep the fire blazing.

In what ways do you ensure connection with your subject?

I strongly believe that good flowing energy and positive vibrations between my subject and myself always contribute to a successful shoot. Ensuring a connection usually begins before a session, whether through e-mails, phone calls or texts to establish the first line of good communication. Depending on who or what the subject is, research beforehand may also be necessary. On the day of the shoot, my main focus is making the subject feel as important as they truly are while creating an environment of comfort where they can feel at ease. One can never go wrong with good music, putting down the camera and engaging in interpersonal dialogue, and being personable.

All images by Elle Yancy

What is one passion project that you are looking to pursue in the future?

A passion project that I will pursue in the near future will take place in my country of birth, Liberia, and will be focused on merging local culture with high fashion in a very meaningful way. I am very excited about this one.

Have you felt personally impacted by the fact that you are a minority among working photographers?

I have absolutely felt personally impacted by the fact that I am an African woman in an industry dominated by men, even in the Black community. The shortage of women like me in this business really motivates me to inspire as many other women and young girls that I possibly can and show them that not only can they can do it, but their voices and talents are also needed and valued. Being an African/Black woman in this industry is extremely powerful because we have the ability to shift the narrative and imagery that we are already used to seeing in the media. I am also impacted by the fact that other people of marginalized communities are inspired by what I represent, which leads them to show support in the most meaningful ways. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for that. It adds to my purpose and motivates me to keep going.

What advice would you have for aspiring photographers, specifically people of color?

The advice that I have for people of color who are pursuing photography is to never forget how powerful you are and understand the importance of using your platform effectively. We have always been misrepresented in mainstream media, but now that more of us are occupying these spaces, it’s time for us to control our own representation and channel our innate Godliness. Furthermore, I encourage aspiring photographers to start by looking within themselves to discover all they are passionate about and bring that into their work. Never stop shooting, always seek inspiration, and strive to tell positive stories through your work. These are things that set us apart as artists, the fact that we all have a different story to tell. The moment I knew photography was a life calling of mine was when I realized how obsessed I was.