The Photography Lounge - Episode 1: Brooke Shaden
Conceptual Self-Portrait Photographer & Artist
In this first episode of The Photography Lounge, your host Alastair Jolly sits down with Brooke Shaden and they discuss the backstory of how Brooke became one of the leading photographers in the world of conceptual self-portrait photography.
We learn how photography was not the path that Brooke had ever considered and how her early career in the film industry lead her to find a future where she could work individually.
It's hard to imagine how someone who is such a leader in the photo community, gives so much to supporting others and educating others can be a self-confessed introvert and someone who does not like working with people. Despite this, we discuss how much she gives to her community, her workshops and her humanitarian work with The Light Space.
Of course, we also talk about her approach to her photography and the often dark subject matters, dealing with death and decay, that she visits. Even though she is someone who is 'scared of everything', Brooke manages to portray the beauty and positivity in the darkness.
Brooke has been a leading Flickr Pro for 12 years now.
Learn more about Brooke:
Promoting Passion: https://www.promotingpassion.com/
The Light Space: http://www.thelightspace.org/
Intro: Welcome to The Photography Lounge. Home of inspirational conversations with the world's best photographers and the leading minds from the photo industry.
Brought to you by SmugMug and Flickr, join me your host Alastair Jolly, as I go beyond the lens and dive deep into the stories of what inspires and motivates the photographers and creatives that we all love and admire.
Alastair Jolly: Hi folks. Alastair here with another episode of our podcast. I'm really excited to have this next conversation. Today's guest is one of the most creative individuals that I know. For the last 12 years she has explored the light and the darkness in people. Discovering, interpreting, and then portraying these themes and stories as a self portrait artist.
Brooke Shaden: I always thought that I was going to be incredibly normal.
So in my mind there was no artistry involved in my life, ever. I always thought I was going to be an English teacher. That was always my goal growing up because my identity was wrapped up in being responsible and having a normal life and being. You know, like living in the town that I grew up in and everything was just going to be structured and perfect.
And, and it wasn't until I discovered filmmaking that I decided maybe I could be some sort of an artist and I went to film school. And of course, I got a backup degree in English literature just in case. Yes, exactly. It really wasn't until I graduated college that I realized I didn't want to work with people.
And that was a massive issue in the film world. Cause you have to work with a lot of people.
Alastair Jolly: Huge numbers of people on a film set.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. And it was, it was just every morning I would wake up with a stomachache and I couldn't imagine my life like that. So I said, what could I do. Where I could be totally alone every single day.
I wouldn't have to talk to people and I could still make art and I figured photography was the way to go because I could make an image that looked like a whole film in my mind, just in one frame, totally by myself, where I get to be the person choosing the theme and the colors and the wardrobe and all those decisions on a film set that get split up between hundreds of people.
And I just thought, that sounds perfect to me. I can dream up my perfect life and then try to make it happen through photography.
Alastair Jolly: It's interesting that you know, several times there you've talked about not being with other people. Some people would look at your work and think it's quite extroverted.
You know, there's these characters and personas and the themes and the props. But you're quite introverted then?
Brooke Shaden: Totally introverted, and this is, I think maybe something that a lot of artists can identify with is this feeling like we're desperate for connection because so many artists are, I mean, that's why a lot of people create, because we have something to say and we would love if somebody would listen to us and, and hear what we have to say.
Alastair Jolly: Or validate it.
Brooke Shaden: Totally. Yes. But then at the same time, a lot of artists have a lot of emotions and we have a lot of, you know, feelings that we don't necessarily feel comfortable sharing with a lot of people. And I think it's just the perfect medium. Especially self-portraiture is this way to create by yourself, but not necessarily just for yourself.
It's for other people at the same time.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah, it was just about to say that. Who do you create it for? It is a self-portrait. Something you want to not do with other people, but you're still creating to share it.
Brooke Shaden: Yes, I very much am. And there's, I think that throughout history, artists have been pegged as people who create for themselves and by themselves and there's a lot of sort of, I don't know, maybe respect wrapped up in that ideal of an artist creating for themselves.
I feel like I'm an artist who is perfectly timed in history. Like, you know, some people always say like, Oh, I wish I was born a hundred years ago. I actually feel like I'm in the perfect moment right now because I love sharing and I create first and foremost, because I want to, but largely to be able to help people and to share, you know, some sort of common experience with people.
So I think that. I'm, I used to be ashamed to say that, like, I felt like less of an artist if I said I create for other people. But I think that it's kind of the way that art is going right now is just this idea that we can create this sort of communal experience for people.
Alastair Jolly: It's interesting that idea of sharing, because not only do you share your artwork, you pretty much share everything you do, how you do it, why you do it.
It's something you're very well known for is this sharing of knowledge and many other things. Is that something you consciously decided to do?
Brooke Shaden: Massively. Yes. I will first say that I don't look down on anybody who doesn't share, because I think that that's a really personal choice, but I know that I have often felt like I didn't know where to turn for help for so many different reasons, whether it's creative or business or something else.
At one point I realized that I was really struggling with jealousy a lot in my life, and I didn't want to be that person that struggled with jealousy, and so I made a conscious choice. I thought, if I don't want to be that person and that makes me ashamed that that is me, then I need to just do the opposite and find joy in helping other people as much as I can, and just that conscious effort to find joy in helping people made that my truth.
And I started devoting my entire life to that and every single thing that I do, whether it's creating an image or a business decision, anything. I always say, does this benefit me? But does it equally benefit other people? And if the answer is yes, then I always do it. And if the answer is no, then I really have to reevaluate why I'm making that decision.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. It's funny that you know, again, going back to the fight that you openly say you don't want to work with people or be with people when you do it. And yet. You have this person that shares the so many people around the world.
Brooke Shaden: It's a huge struggle in my life. Yeah. It is
Alastair Jolly: You physically have to work to do that? Because it seems to come so naturally.
Brooke Shaden: It comes so naturally. And I think that there's a point where there's the ideal of like, I want to create a community and I want to inspire people. And if I died tomorrow, I would want to be known for having inspired people. But then the reality is that I get overwhelmed by community and I'm uncomfortable in a group situation.
I don't function well in the presence of other people, and so it's just a daily struggle to create distance from that while at the same time cultivating it. It's, it's just a weird position.
Alastair Jolly: Well you make it look seamless and easy, even if it's an internal struggle. Because people adore the work you do and the way that you give to the community, and you have a huge following and a huge community that loves your work.
So the fact that you have to work at that and it is an internal struggle. I think we're even more grateful that you're willing to do it in person.
So is there a normal day in Brooke's life?
Brooke Shaden: Actually, very much so. I mean, I am a person all about structure and organization, and I just love a good routine.
And in fact, I can't create art outside of that, really. Like if I'm put in a situation that's not my everyday experience, I feel really out of balance and I don't create well from that place. So for me, I mean, I'm a super morning person. I love getting up really early and I'm the type of person where. I'm pretty much shut down at noon.
So like if I can get my work done by noon, then I'm good to go. And so I typically am business in the morning. Everything I don't want to do in a day, I do it first so that I don't have to think about it later. And then I do all my business things that I might have to do. And then by the time noon hits, I've really gotten a full workday and by that point.
And so I just do creative stuff the whole rest of the day. That's kind of how I structure my days. And they're all very different, of course, for anybody who has many different facets of their business that it will be the case. But for the most part, I stick to a really good schedule and I love a schedule.
Alastair Jolly: It's funny. Yeah. I mean, there's creatives world so differently. Personally, I function better in the evening. I'm certainly not a morning person. Talking to so many creatives, we, all, our brains are wired differently, and you have to find that path that suits yourself.
Brooke Shaden: And that's exactly, I love that you brought that up because so many people have said to me, and I just, here in general, you know, to succeed, you have to be a morning person or to succeed, you have to get up early and really, you know, like seize the day.
I wish that people would embrace whatever routine they like, that they naturally gravitate toward. If you want to be up until four in the morning creating stuff, then do it because that's the time that you get into your flow. And I just wish more people would recognize their own, you know, perfect schedule and follow that instead.
Alastair Jolly: we're all so different and you have to embrace that ee are all wired slightly differently. Many people will know the name Chris McCaskill, who's one of the founders of SmugMug, and he, he recently did a Ted talk and his Ted talk was about, your difference is your superpower. And we are all different.
And that's what makes us powerful and we have to embrace it. And yeah, I definitely don't embrace early mornings.
Brooke Shaden: And I don't embrace the night. So I hear you.
Alastair Jolly: Okay, well we'll get this done quickly then I get the hint. So, you are very structured and you're very aware of the things that need done on a business level.
And you create all, every day?
Brooke Shaden: Largely yes. And I guess that sometimes I use that word loosely because, there are days where I'll write a grant proposal and I will feel so accomplished and creative by the end of that process that I'll feel like I can't believe I made that. And then, and then I think to myself, Oh, right, that's not actually making art.
But to me it's like the same muscles in your brain that you're using to find a different way of seeing the world and then articulating that somehow. And so even though I'm not necessarily taking a picture every day, I still feel like I'm creating something every day that I'm proud of. But I would say that I'm shooting or sculpting or doing something really creative, probably three to four times a week. And then the rest of the days are just super business creativity.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. But every day you're working on your craft.
Brooke Shaden: Oh yeah, definitely.
Alastair Jolly: And that's something a lot of people need to realize that, you know, as a businessperson and trying to make a living from your creativity.
Unfortunately, it doesn't mean touching a camera every day or taking an image or creating an image every day, but every day you work is, you know, part of your craft. And you know, it's something we've, you share a lot of. So, you mentioned there. You're working every day, and you mentioned writing grant applications and stuff.
So it's hard this business! Trying to make money, people will look at how successful you've been and think, Oh, you must be inundated with work and constantly people asking you to create for them or licensed or whatever. But you quite clearly work very hard at bringing opportunities?
Brooke Shaden: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the biggest questions that I get regularly is how do you get brands to come to you?
Or how do you get publishing companies or, you know, all these things. And I always laugh at that because I say, why do you think they're coming to me? I'm going to them. You know? And, and that's the work that I think people are really hesitant to talk about. Is like the effort that they put into finding those jobs for themselves.
And not that that's necessarily how everybody does it. But I have certainly spent countless hours writing random emails to every publishing company I could find, and music groups and brands and just different companies. And, and you know, 99% of the time, I hear nothing back from those people. But every once in a while, you do.
And that's how I've gotten almost all the jobs I've had.
Alastair Jolly: I mean, the reality is to be, we'd all love to just be artists and just create all day and night. And to, you know, I'll make it and they shall turn up, kind of thing. But you know, the reality is we're business owners and we have to be salespeople. Every, every organization needs salespeople and a marketing team, the finance team.
And at some point you get to take an image or two. It sounds like you have a lot of process and, you know, hard work ethic at making sure you fulfill all those rules,
Brooke Shaden: right and for me, it's actually a really easy thing to do because I consider business marketing, branding, and creativity to fall all under the same title of just controlling your narrative, whether it's art or business or something else.
When I look at a business choice I want to make, or even a piece of art, I want to create. The question is, what is the narrative that I'm forming around this? And then how can that benefit other people? So when I write to a company or a gallery or something like that, my question is never, how can I get them to take my work and sell it?
It's how can I get them to understand the story that I'm telling and then make them care about it. And that really makes such a difference in how you pitch to people and how you get people to support your work or purchase your work or anything.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. And if that organization or that gallery gets that and understands the work you're doing, then you know they're going to be able to represent you in a genuine and authentic way and hopefully convert that into revenue.
Brooke Shaden: That's the goal, isn't it?
Alastair Jolly: the goal is always driving revenue. As much as we'd love to just have people enjoy your artwork, you have to pay the bills. Right. I once read a comment that you made that resonated very deeply with me. You made this comment about how, when you mentioned that you're a creative who works at home, a lot of people don't recognize it as a real job.
Brooke Shaden: Yes. Yeah. It's been a big issue lately.
Alastair Jolly: Who are those people?
Brooke Shaden: So a couple of months ago I began fostering. In, at least in the U S um, the foster system is where you take in children who need a home temporarily. And throughout that process, over the last couple months, I've had a lot of random people in my house who have lots of opinions about parenting and every one of them has said to me, well, thank goodness you work from home so you can be a stay at home parent and take care of these children full time.
My response initially was, sure, I can do that. And then you very quickly realize that there is no working at home when you have a two-year-old running around the house. And I didn't, I never really thought about how stigmatized it is to work from home. I mean, people just think you're doing nothing all day, essentially.
And so I've been really vocal lately with all these people coming into my home and saying, you know, actually I'm the main breadwinner for my house and I work a very full time job plus. And that's just been a weird experience for me. I did not expect that, and I didn't expect the shame that comes with that.
You know, the looks that people give me when I say, Oh, well actually I'm going to look into daycare and actually I need to work. And that's just been wild.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. And yet the reality was if, if you were a foster mother who did have a day job in an office, they wouldn't think twice about daycare or the fact you weren't going to be there.
But the fact that you're a home and you're a creative. Then there's this idea that, Oh, well she can just be there all the time.
Brooke Shaden: yeah. And even from the earliest parts of this process I remember right when we started getting licensed for foster care, the big conversation was we had to do a whole bunch of classes.
And I said, well, actually I have to travel a lot for my work. And they said, what are you doing for your work? And I said, well, sometimes photo shoots and sometimes lectures. And they said, well, you don't have to do that. And they just couldn't fathom that was work, you know? And, and they kept saying, well, you know, it's really valid if somebody has to go to a job, uh, you know, at a mine for two weeks, or like, that was their example, you know?
And I said, okay, but you know.
Alastair Jolly: never mind the revenue stream. This is important for a revenue stream, which is going to support this new family
Brooke Shaden: Exactly.
Alastair Jolly: Right. You don't need to do that.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. So much stigma there. It's really bizarre to me.
Alastair Jolly: During my photo career, I was very fortunate to always work from home and a lot of people say, Oh, you're so lucky you get to work at home in your pajamas watching Netflix. And I was like, no. I get up every morning and I dress, get clean, get dressed, go into my office, my space, which is my office, and do work. You know? And it was like one day you'll get a real job. I hope that it's never true that they get a real job in that sense.
Brooke Shaden: may we all never get real jobs.
Alastair Jolly: So you mentioned that you've recently become a foster parent, which is hugely commendable. And I am grateful that there are people in the world, like yourself willing to do that. Obviously, it's a big change becoming a parent and for someone who is so into their business routine and so prolific creating and working on their craft, it's been an adjustment, I'm sure?
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. A huge adjustment. And one that I thought I was prepared for and then realized I am not. And that's been a great discovery in a lot of ways because I feel like part of my job as an artist is to know myself really deeply, and I had started to feel like. Wow. I've really done a lot of work there.
What's next? Like, what am I going to explore next? And for some reason, I just didn't see becoming a parent as the next thing to explore. Which it seems very obvious now. And, I've been just shocked at how rocked my world is and how everything is different. Nothing has remained the same. Um, but that said, I am very structured and really on the ball as much as I can be. And so, so I, in August last year, I batch created over 80 pieces of content that I could release over the course of six months so that I wouldn't have to work if I couldn't. And it's been a lifesaver.
Alastair Jolly: That's a lot of upfront pre-loading of the work.
Brooke Shaden: It was a lot. I spent about a month and a half creating the content and I basically, I took a few days to just map out every piece of content that I wanted to create, whether it was topics for a blog, posts, videos that I wanted to create, photo challenges, images, stuff like that.
And then I scheduled it all out for a few weeks, and I would do. I mean, one day I filmed 25 videos in one day just to get all that done in one day. It was very difficult finding that many outfits. I kept changing every single time and
Alastair Jolly: It looked like a new day in each. Exactly.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. I think people are tricked.
I think it's a working, so I ended up filming I think 35 videos and writing over 50 blogs. Putting together all these graphics for social media and, and all in all, it took about a month and a half to do, but then I had six months worth of content where I could release four new things a week for six months straight.
And, and it's been incredible. And I did it knowing I would become a parent soon, so I would have that time right. But now that I've done it, I can't even imagine going back. I just keep thinking, okay, May is coming and I'm going to, you know, I'm going to batch more content and, and keep going with this.
Alastair Jolly: So this is the new plan?
Brooke Shaden: it's an amazing plan because you get into creative flow when you're really hyper-focused like that. So instead of every week trying to push yourself to think, okay, now what's the next thing I'm going to put out there? Instead of just wait until you get that flow. And then just. Run with it and make that content and get ready.
And then if a week comes and you're like, you know, I'm inspired to do something else, do it. You don't have to release that content, but it's there and there's so much security in that cause so many people are. So afraid of social media for so many reasons. And the constant thing that I hear is, well, I can't keep up.
How am I going to create all the time and well, don't create all the time? Create when you feel like it, and really be prolific during that time and then let yourself rest for a while and that's okay.
Alastair Jolly: Rest and refresh and yeah that's revolutionary.
Brooke Shaden: It's amazing. I mean, I, I'm so passionate about this because I think that if more people worked when they felt like it and didn't, when they didn't feel like it, then things would be so much better for everybody.
Alastair Jolly: Just a couple of years ago now we acquired Flickr brand, and that's when we first really started communicating about working together. And just at that point, if you remember, you were celebrating, I think 10 years since your first image had been uploaded and we had some fun re-imagining that.
You remember that?
Brooke Shaden: Oh my gosh. Yes. And that was such an important moment for me because Flickr was, it was everything to me. When I started photography, I couldn't, I would not go more than like two hours without checking Flickr. And my community was there, and I started my career there and I was able to make an income because of Flickr.
It defined an era of my life in so many ways. And so to connect with you and be able to come full circle 10 years later and say, Oh my gosh, let's celebrate together. Like, you know, that was, it was the best feeling.
Alastair Jolly: It was really wonderful timing. To celebrate that. So maybe we can tell the listeners just what we did with that first time.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. So I looked at the very first image that I ever took at, which was my first image on Flickr and thought, well, it had been a decade. So what would I do with this concept now? Like if I could just go back and recreate this after 10 years of experience, what would that look like? And so we, we did a couple of different photo shoots actually to try to reimagine that and figure out how has my style evolved? How has that concept evolved? And, that very first image that I ever made. It was called if I should die before I wake based on, uh, a prayer that my grandmother used to say to me, that always terrified me. And I thought
Alastair Jolly: Just before you went to sleep.
Brooke Shaden: Exactly. I mean, I thought, what a terrifying thing to think about.
And so, um, so it was, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. And I just would think, Oh my gosh, I hope that I don't die in my sleep because of what a terrifying thought to me. And so I, that was my very first image that I ever made was a sort of a clone image where I was handing a ball of light to my other self and sort of handing off my soul.
And so I re-imagined that 10 years later. What I learned actually from that is that there's so much that you learn about yourself just through the recreation process, but also that in a lot of ways, going back to a concept and re-imagining it is, I guess it's less rewarding than I thought in some ways because I felt like. No, I really had moved on from that. And that's a great feeling to acknowledge that 10 years on or however many years on you are, that maybe you have left that behind and maybe you've said what you had to say and you're moving into a new era of your life. So it felt like perfect closure to do that and then say, now I'm ready for the next thing.
Alastair Jolly: Re-imagining it and realizing you'd close that chapter initially anyway. And your prayer that you mentioned, if there's any Metallica fans out there it features in the song Enter Sandman.
Brooke Shaden: Oh really?
Alastair Jolly: I'm showing my heavy metal roots there. If anybody wants to check out, we did make a little film about a reimagining of that image, 10 years on. So you'll find that on the Flickr YouTube channel if you want to go watch that. But there was a lot of fun seeing the process and seeing how you work through that sort of visualization of what you want to do. Slightly different from your typical work because it was a reworking of, of an Initial image.
But you know, it's maybe something I would encourage the listeners to do is, you know, look back at that early work and one trying to reimagine it, but also, you know, look at how far you've come.
Brooke Shaden: Yes.
Alastair Jolly: So everyone has improved. I hear a lot of people recently saying, “I've went back to my Flickr account Oh my goodness I don't want to look at it. It's so bad” but celebrate that.
Brooke Shaden: Oh my gosh, yes. I just, I wish that, you know, I think that there's a huge trend of people saying, well, I'm going to delete that old work because it's so bad. And, um, I mean, I, sometimes I pull up the images that I know are the most embarrassing pictures I've ever taken, and I never feel more proud than when I look at those images because even though I recognize they're silly or they're poorly done or something, at least I did it, and at least I had the guts to put it out there.
And keep it there too. Like to say, this is a valid part of my journey and I'm not going to just erase that. I'm going to celebrate that I did it and I put it there and people had opinions about it and they were bad and they were good and they were everything in between. But, but it's there and we can all go back and look at that and, Oh, I just think.
That's my favorite thing.
Alastair Jolly: I just wish any of my work was as bad as your old work.
Brooke Shaden: well. Thank you. But there are some cringe-worthy images in there, which everybody can see cause I'm not deleting them.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. But you know, you look at any of the great masters. You know, and nobody goes back to their first pieces of work and says, Oh, that's not worth the money.
Cause it's, you know, it's actually even more valuable because you see the progression and the techniques and the learnings that they had, the news, early pieces of work.
Brooke Shaden: You also never know how you're impacting other people, what that work. You might be embarrassed by it, but someone might be hugely impacted by that.
Which was a lesson that I learned on Flickr in my first year of creating. I made a picture that I just thought, Oh, this, this was really badly. Maybe I shouldn't have posted this online. And I deleted it. And, um, it was the first time I had ever done that. And the next day someone messaged me and said, where's that picture that I saw yesterday?
I can't find it. And I said, Oh, I took it down. It wasn't very good. And she said, well, you know, I just went through a miscarriage last week and it was the first thing that made me feel understood. And I felt jus awful that I deleted it because I'm selfishly thinking, Oh, people probably don't like this, when in fact it was really deeply touching somebody.
And ever since that moment, I just thought, I'm never going to assume that, that my art is just for me. It's for other people too. And if I'm going to put that out there, then I need to release it. Just let it go and let it belong to everybody and not just myself.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. But belong to those people that it resonates with or see something.
And that's the beautiful thing about art in general is we all resonate, and we all love different things. And there's a space for all of us, you know, and there's a, you know, a need for everybody to celebrate what they think is the good and the bad, because it will be the opposite for someone else.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. And you know, like there are images that I can very clearly see are ridiculous images that I made in the past.
Probably objectively, but we'll just say subjectively. But nonetheless, just that, just creating that work, putting it out there. Letting that exist as good or bad as it may be. It gives other people permission to create work that might not be perfect, but maybe as a reminder that we're not creating to be perfect.
We're creating to create. And I think that a lot of the joy of the process is lost when we. When we think that everything has to be so good, it just doesn't.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. And maybe you look at a piece of work and you think technically, I could improve on the technicalities of it. Right. But you know, the theme or the story, or the concept is still as relevant today, as it was back then.
I mentioned in my introduction about, that on top of all the things you've just mentioned, this, you know, high productivity level, super early morning structured person. The amazing step you've taken to become a foster parent, on top of all that, you still think team to do humanitarian work as well.
Brooke Shaden: I do try yes.
Alastair Jolly: And you know, it's something I would love to take some time to talk about and that's, the Light Space.
Brooke Shaden: Yes. Yeah. Well, I started, I met this amazing woman named Laura Price and we met eight years ago or so, and she reached out totally out of the blue and just said, I teach creative workshops, or I host creative workshops in India for the sex trafficking community, and would you be willing to come teach photography?
And I, we didn't know each other. So we met and we had a quick conversation, and by the end of it I said, okay, let's book my ticket and I'll go. And so we did. And I went to India that year, and I taught self-expression workshops through self-portraiture. And it was a life changing experience for myself and for the people involved.
Everyone had a really transformative time and I started going year after year to India and teaching the same workshops to different groups and at some point. We kind of said, well, this is awesome that we can do this, and I'm spending, you know, a few weeks every year there. But it didn't feel like it was a lasting impact.
I mean, I knew that I was giving people the tools to express themselves, but then we'd take the camera away and what are they going to do then? And so, uh, so we said, let's do something long-term and really teach. Photography as a vocation where, you know, people within these communities who are vulnerable to trafficking have something to put on their resume, have a creative outlet, have real proper training and just see if that leads to jobs in the market.
And so we started a photography school called The Light Space that runs in India, Thailand, and Greece. And Greece is our newest chapter that's going amazingly well. So we're working with refugees in Greece and we currently. We're kind of growing a little too fast in Greece and we're working on that.
But we've had a hundred students this year come through, and we're working with a proper school in Greece now as part of their normal curriculum. To add that in, and. It's been amazing. We've had a couple of exhibitions with all the students work and it's great because of course they're building a resume, they're getting an official certificate saying, I've done this training, but the best part is just watching them see their own art on the walls and people are buying it and they feel so validated in their voice.
And, and these are people who have. You know, fled from horrors that we can't even imagine, and they haven't had any stability like that. So, for them to be able to go to a school and have this program and then walk away saying, people bought my art, and people came and looked at it. It's amazing. I mean, how incredibly empowered they are after that.
Alastair Jolly: Absolutely. Life changing for these people. So it's amazing that you do that. What, you know, what compels you to. To add that to the workload that you've already got?
Brooke Shaden: Well, I do a lot of work and research about legacy, and it's a huge topic in my brain all the time. And I know that a lot of people get really anxious that the word legacy, because it's a big word. And so I guess we can boil that down to purpose, if you know, if that doesn't resonate. But I think a lot about if I were to die tomorrow, what do I want to be known for? And I mean, it's actually the reason why I don't really consider myself a photographer exactly. Because that's a word that feels too limiting to me, and I don't really care about photography. And I started to realize that, like the thing that always defined me as a photographer, I don't really care to be called a photographer. So what do I care about? And I just want to give people tools to express themselves.
And that's really what guides every decision that I make. Every business decision, every creative decision is just going back to will this inspire people to express themselves more? And if it does, then I do it. And. I guess, you know, my initial work in India got me thinking about that a lot. How can I help this group and that group?
So I guess at this point in my life, I just think so much about impact and, and how can I make one small choice that will impact the most people in the most positive way and just feels really important.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. I had a very special and influential person in my life who used to have this phrase, life's about how you live your dash.
And you know, when you see someone's life and you see born this date dash died this day.
Brooke Shaden: Yes.
Alastair Jolly: He used to say, life's about who you live the dash. And it's kinda that legacy statement of, you know, how you live that your life is your legacy, and what you're doing is a legacy already, you know, the fact that you have these humanitarian projects and you're impacting all these lives. You're impacting people in the creative industry. You should be very proud of how you're living your dash.
Brooke Shaden: Thank you that means a lot .
Alastair Jolly: You know, there's so much more we can talk about. And you know, we've already covered so much, so much that you pack into this, there's little dash in this life that you're living.
Because you also do workshops and tours. Yeah. Right?
Brooke Shaden: Yeah, I do. And that's another way that I just feel like it's so important to share every little bit of what I know. Even when, what I know, changes and morphs and other things. I just, I don't believe in, you know, hoarding secrets or anything like that.
And like I said. If that's your thing that you don't want to share, fine, that's fine. But I just don't see any of it as precious. And I think, you know, a lot of photographers mistakenly, I believe, associate their techniques with what makes them special. And in some cases that may be true, but.
Anybody can learn any technique, and I'm highly aware of that because I am not a technical person yet somehow, I learned Photoshop. So I know it can be done by the vast majority of people. And thinking about that, how accessible technique is. I just feel like the techniques are not the thing that I need to hold back.
So, so I share everything that I possibly can in the hope that it inspires somebody to, you know, create whatever they feel they need to create.
Alastair Jolly: I mean, you can share every ounce of technique and talent that you have, but they'll never be Brooke Shade. What you want to do is inspire them to be that person.
There's nothing to be afraid and sharing work and sharing your stuff because you're uniquely you and people wouldn't have the same vision and the same drive and stuff. So,
Brooke Shaden: and you know, the work of being an artist is about being 10 steps ahead of yourself anyway. So, you know, I can share what I'm doing today, but my brain is already thinking about how I'm going to push myself further tomorrow.
Alastair Jolly: it's a bit like being a parent too, by the way, being 10 steps ahead.
Brooke Shaden: I'm learning that very quickly. I think I'm five steps behind right now.
Alastair Jolly: You mentioned earlier that you were amazed and traumatized and stuff, by what it's like trying to be a parent. That goes for all parents. Irrelevant of the fact that you're, you know, a new foster mother doesn't matter at what stage you are at it is traumatized and most of us fell at least five steps behind.
So back to the workshop, the tours that you do. What do people experience on these workshops?
Brooke Shaden: Well, not what they expect. I'll tell you that, which is my specialty. Whenever I do a workshop or a lecture or go on tour or anything like that, my, my goal is to get people to dig deeper in themselves than they ever have before in a very short period of time.
Because like I said, I mean. I'm happy to share techniques and all of that, but having a real experience in your, in your own thoughts and your own body and your own mind, that is so much more valuable than anything else. So every one of my lectures or whatever I happen to be doing, it's always sort of a little dive into how can you inhabit your mind and your creativity and your identity even more, and then how can we pull that out to create something more meaningful for yourself and for other people? So I do a lot of work like that with people. Just how do you dig deeper? How do you turn that into something tangible?
I love teaching about everything, you know. Like how can you then make money from that thing that you've just created and how can you create a sustainable life and a career that feels manageable and, Oh gosh, I just love teaching. I really do.
Alastair Jolly: Well, it's important that people learn how to, how to make money from it.
I think, when I was at photography school, I was amazed that I left and had been taught no business skills whatsoever, and I'm actually horrified to find out that nowadays it's still the same as a whole. You're very much taught how to be a creative and taught the techniques and the history.
What you'd really need to do is be taught how to sell yourself and market yourself and learn how to price work and who to go to work out the cost of living. It's a shame that those things are still missing. So the fact that you include that is the super valuable.
Brooke Shaden: and it's my favorite thing. And it's kind of funny cause people very rarely ask me about business.
And I think that it's because my business is so wrapped up in who I am that people don't really see me as having a business very much. And, and that's great.
Alastair Jolly: Its because you work from home.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I'm doing nothing every day as it is. So, um, yeah. I think that, I think that there's this kind of invisible business that's going on with what I do, and that's what I love to teach is like, how can you take control of your narrative. Pitch that narrative to people, get people on board with, you know, the story that you're telling so that you can create a business out of that, make money from it and et cetera. So yeah it's one of my favorite topics and I'm always telling people, I wish people would ask me more about business cause it's like my favorite thing to think about.
Alastair Jolly: Well, there you go. If you're listening and you're going to one of the workshops with Brooke made sure to be the first to ask her about business and you'll get bonus points for that one.
So you've spoke about, you know, banking all this content late last year in order to give you that space this year to, to have, uh, you know, the things that you need to do this year. Are you doing tours and workshops this year as well?
Brooke Shaden: I am a little bit. I host a convention every year called promoting passions. So I'm hosting that in the fall in September.
It's a three day event, all focused on art and just being a weirdo, you know, like in a really good way. Um, so I'm hosting that and I have a number of, you know, do you ever say to yourself, I'm going to really take a break? And then you realize that's not happening at all? That's how I am right now. So I'm traveling a lot less right now.
But, um. But I have a book coming out soon. So I've been working on that and I'm hosting this convention and I'm creating an inspiration deck of cards that I'll be releasing in the fall as well, which is, sort of a little deck of cards that people can pull out and get inspired by, find ideas with.
And I'm working on a new series right now that debuts in May and that's, uh, a big chunk of time that it's taking as well. But
Alastair Jolly: can you imagine how much you'd get done this year if you didn't take a break?
And the stuff you just mentioned, most people would be grateful if they could do that in five years full time. You're talking about taking a break this year.
Brooke Shaden: the reason why I have all this on my plate is because I really prepared to be able to manage that this year. So yeah. You know, um, for the first time I hired an event manager for my convention, and I got a great publisher for my book who's taking care of a lot of things, a business partner for the inspiration deck that I'm creating.
And, and I'm all alone for my series, but at least that's fun.
Alastair Jolly: So when is the convention?
Brooke Shaden: It's in September, um, 14th to the 18th in Tucson, Arizona.
Alastair Jolly: And where can people find out more?
Brooke Shaden: there will be information on Promotingpassion.com.
Alastair Jolly: You do visit a lot of dark places in your work. Is that something you’ve always been into that almost horror vibe?
Brooke Shaden: yes and no. I'm scared of everything. Everything. I mean, I will not watch anything on TV of it's even remotely scary. In fact, if, if somebody even says the word ghost in a show, even if it's a joke, I will turn it off because it just sets my imagination going. I hate it. So I have a lot of just ridiculous fears, and I think that's why I create dark work because it's, you know, you have your own control over it, but I also think it's wildly beautiful and I have for a really long time.
I remember being in high school and writing a short story about like these blood cells that like tried to brainwash this girl that would like fall out of her head and out of her nose and she would have all these nose bleeds. And I remember reading this story in front of the class and like, everybody just stared at me like they thought I was nuts.
And, and that was the first time I'd ever really shared something like that. But thankfully that was just fuel for me. I was like, Oh, you don't like that? Well, watch me. I'm going to do more of this. And so yeah, I've always, I've just always found. Anything dark to be just incredibly beautiful. And I mean, this comes from so many different things in my life.
Just, I mean like watching my cat die when I was 11 like that was an impactful experience for me. That I found really beautiful, even though it was really upsetting. And I started to notice in my adulthood that those moments that I had. Surrounding death or grief or just dark stuff. I realized that it wasn't very normal, that I really enjoyed those moments in my life in some way, you know?
Not that I wasn't horribly upset by them as well, but I just found it beautiful. And I think once you kind of put that together in your adult life, of the moments that set you apart as a child, and you can start to build those into your art. Then that's really where the magic is. That's where your voice comes from.
So, I've always really intentionally created dark work,
Alastair Jolly: I know other photographers that specialize in horror genre, but they also tend to love everything about horror genre and watch horror movies etc. You’re very different then?
Brooke Shaden: Gosh, I just hate it. I mean, I'm a really excessively happy person a lot of the time, and it really don't fit the bill for somebody who would create like that.
But I think there's also some magic in that. And yeah. And it also fits my personality cause I'm super analytical. So, you know, even if I'm going through a difficult time in my life, like a couple of years ago, I was sort of trapped in this cycle of grief for whatever reason. I realized that I couldn't create from that space.
Like I need a distance from that and to analyze it and to be happy to create. And so the series I'm working on now is all about death and grief from that time of my life. But I couldn't make it when I was in it. And so, so I like to distance myself from my inspirations and really understand them before I act on them.
Alastair Jolly: Have you ever created something and went, Oh, no too dark?
Brooke Shaden: No. Never. But I will say that there's a difference between. Thinking something's too dark and thinking something isn't tasteful. So there are times when, you know, I've experimented with fake blood or something like that, and every time I do, I just think that's not quite what I'm going for.
I'm going for disturbing. I'm not going for disgusting, you know? And there's kind of a difference there.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah. Have you ever created anything extremely happy in your work?
Brooke Shaden: I thought that I have, but nobody agrees with me. You know? It's like, well, it's happy for me. Right. So, yeah, I have a couple of images and there's even one that I made once where a, it's an image of me in a field, and I have a paintbrush, I'm sort of painting a sunset into the sky and I thought it was really happy. Of course, I added little drips of red paint just to look bloody a little bit, but I still thought I was really happy. And I remember taking that image to Greece when I was teaching this class to some of the refugees that I work with there.
And I was so excited because I thought, Oh, I'm going to finally like show this happy image. And they were all horrified by this picture. And I said. Why this one? I mean, I've showed you so many creepy pictures. And they said, well, this one looks like there are bombs going off in the picture. And then I thought, well, that's their experience.
And so it's, it's so interesting how different cultures, different experiences, just bring a totally different interpretation to an image.
Alastair Jolly: And you know, your interpretation, you know, me saying the word anything happy. It's all up for interpretation, right? You know, all your work may make you happy because one you created the vision, second it came out the way you wanted it to, which you're happy and people resonate and uh, in, there's you making something that is you perceive as happy, and other people interpret the horror in it from their situation.
Brooke Shaden: I've always found very interesting. I've always created work that's pretty polarizing, like people really genuinely hate it when they don't like it. And people really genuinely love it when they do. And there's not a lot of in between. And what I've always found interesting is that the people who hate it think that it's just dark and disturbing and upsetting, but the people who love it see all the hope in it.
And so there's just, there's an interesting division that happens and II find that the people that hate it because it's too dark, will often find that later in their life they can relate to in a different way, depending on different experiences that they've had. And even people that liked it at first will sometimes go the other way depending on their experiences.
So I always create with the intent of putting hope in the darkness, that's always my intent, and that doesn't always translate for people. And that's okay.
Alastair Jolly: What's the craziest, weirdest situation you've ever put yourself in? I've seen many behind the scenes images of, of the work you do, you know, and there is certainly situations, I've looked at them and thought I would never put myself in that thorny bush semi naked or whatever.
Brooke Shaden: Well, I mean, I have had a lot of situations where I've been alone in nature. Where maybe that was a bad choice. Like I remember going out and it was nearly dark and I knew it was too late for the photo shoot, but I did it anyway. And I started wrapping my head and red yarn and realize that I couldn't see, cause it was so dark, but I was still shooting and I couldn't get the yarn off my head and I was just making it tighter and tighter and tighter around my neck and I forgot scissors and I had to drive home like that cause it got stuck that way.
And so there are moments like that that are like. That was really, that was not smart. I shouldn't have done that, but the worst one was when I went to target and I started looking for jars that would fit on my head. People loved to watch me in stores. It's always entertaining.
I have, yes. And, uh, and so I started trying jars on my head to see if I could fit in them. And I finally found one that I fit in and I took it home and I filled it with, I guess, water and soy milk or something. And I did a backbend off of my couch and dipped my head upside down in the jar of water, which is so much worse than you even think it's going to be because you can't go perfectly upside down into water without getting water up your nose.
And. On second thought, where your head is upside down in a glass jar, which you can't really get out of very easily. And so that was definitely the scariest photo shoot that I've ever done because I knew that, you know, to, to get my head out of that dark, I couldn't go straight out just like I went in cause I barely fit. I would have to lift the whole jar up with me, you know? And that was going to hurt as well. So it was just, it was really terrifying. And I had my husband sitting on my legs so that I wouldn't flip over the couch when I went backwards and I had my remote in my hand just hoping that I was triggering the camera while my head was in that jar.
And it was awful. It was really awkward. I love that picture. I can't look at it cause it's really disturbing to me. But yeah, it worked. And, um, but I won't do it again.
Alastair Jolly: I just have to say do not try this at home.
Brooke Shaden: Please don't. Please don't.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah, definitely don't do those types of things alone.
Brooke Shaden: No, and that's what I've learned is I'm, I'm so careful these days to always tell somebody where I'm going, what I'm wearing, how long I'm going to be there, things like that and I carry a whistle with me and you know. I try to take care of myself. But people always think I'm out on these super remote locations, but actually I'm usually just right off of a hiking trail or something like that and just making it look really wilderness and secluded.
Alastair Jolly: Yeah, that's the magic and the smoke in the mirrors, but yeah, no, we've heard a lot recently about people doing silly things, and unfortunately some people lose their lives for the gram, no image is worth your life. You know, you don't want to shorten that dash by doing something silly. It's great that we can express ourselves in these ways, but you know. Buddy up people.
It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I've been really looking forward to having this conversation for such a long time and we've been very fortunate to have wonderful conversations before this one so it's great that we had the opportunity to record this one.
I just want to finish up by giving you an opportunity to let people know where they can find out more about you.
Brooke Shaden: Yeah, well, I've got my website, Brookeshaden.com and I'm really active on Instagram. My handle is just at Brooke Shaden. Um, that's where I share a lot of behind the scenes stuff. Editing. Tips and tricks and stuff like that. On YouTube as well with that batch content, releasing all those videos.
Um, and so that's at Brooke Shaden. I'm on Flickr, which is at Brooke Shaden, and that's where you can see every single image that I've ever made for the past 11 years there. And that's the only place that I really keep my whole entire body of work.
Alastair Jolly: does it feel like 11 years?
Brooke Shaden: No. No. It doesn't at all feel like 11 years.
And, but that's good because, you know, my whole philosophy is that you just have to keep chasing your curiosity. And when you do that, nothing ever feels like a long time, I think.
Alastair Jolly: What'd you think will be in Brooke’s life in 11 years in the future?
Brooke Shaden: It’s going to get creepy or I know that I'm sure of that,
Alastair Jolly: Its just going to get darker and darker?
Brooke Shaden: Yeah. But I think for me, that's also joy. So I'm just going to keep creating, and I don't even know if I'll keep making pictures, you know, a decade from now, but that doesn't really matter. I'll still be making something.
Alastair Jolly: Well, we look forward to continuing to watch as you move forward with your work.
It's been such a pleasure to talk to you, Brooke. Thank you so much.
Brooke Shaden: Thank you.
Alastair Jolly: we're laughing because there's a dog barking.
Brooke Shaden: In a hotel room in Vegas.
Alastair Jolly: 22 stories high in Vegas, in hotel room, and there's a dog barking. Do you think it's outside? It's Vegas. Who knows? Anything can happen. There's a dog hanging from the balcony. I don't know.
Alastair Jolly: It's probably a little handbag dog.
Outro: A huge ‘Thank You” to Brooke for joining us on this episode. Don’t forget to check out SmugMug.com and Flickr.com for all the latest news on our products and come back and join us here next time at The Photography Lounge.
Written by Alastair Jolly
June 15, 2020 · 7 min read