I met Katie when I took a photography class with her in Rome, Italy. At the time I was experiencing intense jet lag, so I was doubly impressed with her smiley and upbeat nature. We’ve kept in touch in the past several months, and I’ve come to learn that she is in fact a cheerful and delightful person. She also has quite a story to tell, of how this Filipina woman ended up living in Rome, her dream of a city. Read on, and she’ll tell you how she was able to build a career that she loves.
Bryn: Can you talk about how you first got into photography?
Katie: I first got into photography when I was 16, and I remember from my high school graduation, I got my first point and shoot. I’ve always been an artist at heart, so I’ve always wanted to express myself. I did that through drawing, painting, and lots of artsy stuff. But when I received my first point and shoot, I started to express my emotions by taking photos of my friends, and of places I would go to. The passion for that imagery just grew, and totally transformed the next steps of my life, basically.
Bryn: That sounds very inspiring. Do you want to talk about the next steps of your life, how photography inspired that, and what triggered that?
Katie: Yeah, so in the Philippines we don’t encourage, can I say this? We don’t encourage art as a profession, so when I graduated from high school, what I had in my mind was set. I was going to study nursing, then I was going to study medicine, then I was going to be a doctor. Because in my family, a lot of my relatives are in the medical field. So, that was just the way to go. My mom wanted me to be a doctor, my dad wanted me to be a doctor, my grandparents wanted me to be a doctor, my aunts and uncles wanted me to be a doctor, so you know, the path was set for me.
But when I went to nursing school, I hated the first day. I went to my first class, and I hated it so much. I just felt that it so wasn’t me. I remember going back home and just feeling lost, and like “what am I going to do now?” And I went through the first semester, and I was like, I can’t do this. I don’t feel inspired, I don’t see myself working in a hospital. So basically, I needed to get into that field before I realized what my passion was. While in nursing school, and studying, during my free time I would take my camera, and I would just shoot, and I would express myself and all my emotions through that camera.
At the end of the first semester, I realized that I really wanted to pursue photography. But then when I talked about it to my mom, she told me, “Either you’re going to study nursing and proceed to medicine, or I’m not going to support you.” So, what happened next? I had to finish one year of nursing school basically, and then after a year, I was just like, this isn’t for me, I can’t do this anymore. And I was crying every day [laughs].
You know when you’re 16 and you just want to do something, and you’re passionate about it, but the whole world is against you sort of. I told my dad, “Sorry, I just can’t do this. Let me do something else. I don’t even care if it’s not photography, I just want to do something else. I can’t do nursing and I can’t go down the medical path.” My dad was like, “Okay, but what do you want to do now?”
In the Philippines, basically it’s hard, because we only had one university that offered a photography course, and that university was too expensive. So, my dad was like, “What then are your plans?” I was like “Okay, if I’m not going to study photography as a proper degree, then I’m going to study something else that has photography classes. So then I enrolled in a school and in a course that was advertising arts. Advertising arts had two years of photography, then two other years of videography. So I did that, I studied advertising arts, and I loved the university. And when I was there, I was excelling, because it was what I was meant to do all along.
And that was when I got to that university that my mom was like “Okay, I think she is serious about this now.” So she changed her mind and she supported me. Then after that, I spent two years in that university. I studied advertising arts, but also I studied photography. During that time a I got my first Nikon DSLR. So I progressed from a point and shoot to a Nikon D5100. And that’s the start of this journey of operating the camera manually. My professor encouraged us to shoot manually so that we would know the settings, and the lighting, and get to know our cameras. And basically that’s where I started to love photography even more.
But then two years after being in that university, my mom asked me if I wanted to come to Rome for a summer holiday [laughs]. So, that summer I thought, “Okay, I’m going to Rome and spend the summer.” I said goodbye to my friends, and all of that. But only for a month, right?
And yeah, that’s the funny story.
I came here, and on my first day I went to the Colosseum and remembered from when I studied art history, I was always so fascinated about it in my subjects. And then I saw the Colosseum for the first time, and I was like “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe that I’m seeing it with my very eyes!” And I was filled with so much emotion. I remember going home that day, and saying to myself, “I’m never going to leave.” [We both laugh.] And basically, that started my life here in Rome, Italy. My journey of pursuing, really pursuing my passion for photography.
After that, I told my mom I was going to stay, and she thought I was crazy, because I was leaving everything behind. She didn’t know what made me think I was just going to stay here. I couldn’t just tell her “I saw the Colosseum, and I’m in love, I’m never going to go back.” [Laughs] Right? You don’t just say that to your parents who paid so much for you go get into really good universities and study a really expensive course in advertising. [We both laugh.]
After a while, I had to prove to my mom that I was really serious. I was able to prove to her that I was serious by looking for jobs that could support me while I was studying. One of the jobs that I got at first was au-pairing. The family that I was au-pairing for saw the potential in me, and was like, “Why don’t you teach? You have so much in you, you can teach small kids. I know of this school that hired our former au-pairs, and we’re going to connect you with that school.” That family helped me apply for this school that I was going to work for that would support me as I studied.
Bryn: Okay, what kind of school was it?
Katie: It was a language school, an English language school. I worked part time, but first they trained me on how to teach little kids. There was this really good method of teaching. You introduce the language, and they just repeat after you, and then the language develops from there. I learned so much while I was teaching, and going to school for photography, my mom also started helping me financially. I was balancing work and my studies, and I was studying at an Italian Fine Arts school.
Bryn: Yeah, so you said that you studied photography in Rome, but it was all in Italian and you didn’t speak Italian.
Katie: No I didn’t! [Laughs] So yeah, it was very difficult. My professor had worked in San Francisco for a couple of years, so what he did was every time he explained something, he would look at my facial expressions, and if he saw that I wasn’t getting anything, he would translate for me. Or sometimes when he couldn’t translate, he would ask one of my classmates, who was the daughter of a diplomat, to translate. But then also at that time, I was living with someone who only spoke Italian, because if I didn’t live with someone who only spoke Italian, then I wouldn’t learn the language.
Bryn: Yeah, for sure!
Katie: So I was exposed to the language constantly. I wasn’t just exposed to it in school, but even when I got back home, I would use the language and I would hear it constantly on the television, from my friend, and her family. So, it also helped me a lot. I mean, I still needed help when it came to essays, and all of that. But for the most part, what we did in school is we had a lot of practical work. So it wasn’t more on explanation, but it was more on the work you would show. That also helped. Because otherwise , I would have been in trouble. [Laughs]
Bryn: So it was more visually based and not writing intensive.
Bryn: Okay, so that would help.
Katie: It was Photoshop, and I also had classes in videography, but I don’t remember them now. [Laughs] We would make films, we would edit photos, or we would have a project that we had to present. It wasn’t like I was explaining the project. It was more like “I’m going to show you the project.” Then when the teacher would ask questions, then that’s the time that I would answer.
Bryn: I can understand now how you did that. But it still sounds like it was such an intense period of learning. I imagine that you you were tired a lot.
Katie: Yeah, it was very intense. I was very tired. I was not only physically tired, but mentally tired. I remember during the weekend, or whenever I would have free time, I would just sleep. [Laughs] I was very antisocial all the time. It was just draining, because you know, I wasn’t like the other students who were in my class. They would just focus on studying. They weren’t trying to balance work, and studies, and the language. But I was able to adjust myself to the culture, and live in a way that wasn’t just pressuring me. I could just withdraw from all of that, and just focus on what I needed to learn at the moment.
Bryn: That’s a good point. So, I met you on a workshop for travel photography. But then when I went to your website, I saw a lot of wedding and engagement photos. Do you want to talk about what you’ve done with your photography since you’ve finished school?
Katie: They say that you will automatically find your niche. But that is so not true! You never find your niche right away. In school, a lot of people already knew it even before entering. For example, for me, I already had a passion for photographing people and places before I went to this university. But while there, I told myself I was going to be a fashion photographer. And I told myself “This is the niche that I want.”
But then as the years go by, and you take more and more photos, you actually go in different directions till you find that one direction that speaks to your heart. For me that’s always been people and places. For the moment though, what gives me a salary is portraits.
As a photographer, I’m a storyteller. I don’t just take a photo, because it looks beautiful. I take them because I want to tell a story. So now what is giving me income is taking photos for clients who have a story. Maybe they’re in love with each other, or they’re a family, and that’s what’s giving me income right now. So that’s what my portfolio is. But I’ve also worked for this expat magazine called Romeing. I wrote articles then and also provided photos. That is where I want to be headed eventually, but it doesn’t pay well. So, what pays more for the moment is catering to clients that want their portrait taken.
Bryn: I have heard that so many times, that a photographer will say that they prefer to do one style of photography, but then they are doing portraits or weddings, because that’s what pays the bills.
Katie: Yeah that’s true, unfortunately. [Laughs]
Bryn: But it sounds like you have been able to reconcile what you want to do with what you are doing, realizing that it’s all about telling a story.
Katie: Yeah, it’s still all about telling a story. Even when I take portraits of people, it’s not just headshots. It’s more of I’m telling the story between these two people, or I’m telling the story of this individual who’s coming to Rome and is on a journey of exploration.
Even if they come to me and say “Oh, I want my photo taken, because I’m coming to Rome on holiday, and I want photos to look back on for when I grow older.” It’s not just like, “Okay I’m going to take a shot of you at the Trevi Fountain.” No, it’s more like, “I want to tell your story. What are you here for? And what is it that you feel about this place?”
I always want to tell the story of lovers that come to the city, or families that come, or these strong, independent women that come to this city and basically explore it on their own. But right now I’m rebranding myself.
Bryn: Do you want to describe what your rebranding is?
Katie: Yeah, so I’m going to be rebranding myself. It’s still related to travel photography, but I want to cater to women.
Bryn: Oh interesting! Could you talk about that some more? (Note: I got super excited here, because I personally identify with the independent wanderlust type of woman that Katie wants to focus on.)
Katie: Yeah, I’ve found that in taking photos of people, I want to combine the two aspects. I don’t want to have to choose between telling a story of people and telling a story of a place. I want to combine the two, and I’ve found that the best way to do that is through travel photography, but including subjects.
But it’s not portraiture. It’s more of telling the story of a place, and using the subject as an element that takes part in the whole story. That’s what I want to get into, and that’s basically what my brand is going to be about.
I’m going to only cater to women, because I’ve found that in photographing so many people, I connect more with women who are like myself, of course [laughs], but also strong, independent women who are up for discovery and exploration, and basically they know what they want in life, and they’re going to get it.
Bryn: I can see so many sub-messages that can come off of that and how empowering your brand will be to inspire other women to go off and do their own thing. I can totally see you branding yourself as a women empowerment photographer. There was a marketing person, Ana Rova, I heard on a podcast. She is traveling the world as a digital nomad, and she has a podcast specifically for women empowerment for millennials, it’s called GirlSkill: Female Success. Redefined. I’m thinking that you could fit into that same niche. But how you described your brand, that sounds really interesting to me in itself.
Katie: Oh, thank you, oh my gosh!
Bryn: Yeah! So, could you talk a little about how you talk to the people that you photograph to get to know their story, so that when you talk to them, that you can visually represent that when you take their photo?
Katie: What I do is I ask them what they do in life, what their passions are, and what do they want to see manifest in their life. I ask them lots of questions, like what are your dreams? What are your goals? Where are you currently in your life? Where do you want to get to? Then when I get to know them, I start working with those details to portray them in a way that reflects whatever they just told me.
Bryn: What do you think about? How do you translate what they tell you into a photo?
Katie: It depends on the posing. For example, if somebody tells me, “Oh, I’m really passionate about traveling.” Or “I’m passionate about people knowing that they can do it too.” When I translate that into photography, I want to show her in a light that she’s confident, so the posing is going to be her with her back straight, shoulders back, and I compose them in the photo. I also ask them to tell me three adjectives that best describe you. If they tell me, “I’m confident, I’m brave, and I’m a boss woman,” I’ll place them in a way that shows that quality.
For example, we’re at a cafe, and they are sitting down, I would ask them to sit in a certain way that shows that, and I would have props. It could be a laptop, because if you say, “I’m a boss women, and an entrepreneur,” then you have a cornetto [an Italian croissant] in front of you, then that doesn’t send the message. If you say, “I’m a foodie,” then I’m going to give you food. If you say that you’re an entrepreneur, then you need to have something that will automatically connect the audience to what you are trying to say without saying a word. One example of that would be a laptop, or be on your phone, you’re writing something on your notebook. All of that plays an important role in storytelling.
When it comes to families, it’s totally different, because with families, we just play. With families, typically what I would have them do is joke with each other, or tickle each other, or chase each other around. Even when the background is, say, the Colosseum, or the Trevi Fountain, or a really important monument, it doesn’t really matter, because what you want to show is the emotion of the moment. You want to show the emotion that they are feeling while this monument is behind them.
So, it’s different for every client that I have. With families, it’s more playful. With boss women, with entrepreneurs, and creatives, and women travelers, because most of them are solo, and not with a friend, it’s more like a way that shows their personality, more than just the emotion.
Bryn: You described that really well, because I had a small project that I did for a week where I was trying to portray the emotions of these people. But it was the first time that I had done it, and I’m still trying to think of how to do that if I had to do that on a more regular basis. I think the way you just described it really helped me understand what I should do.
Katie: Ah, thank you! Yeah, you go with the emotion. If it’s a family, you want to portray the joy, love, care, and warmth that a family has.
Bryn: I think the way that you have described your photography is really interesting. I like how you have been able to merge the travel with the storytelling and the people. And how you are now pivoting to focus solely on women. It’s difficult to do something by yourself, so I wonder is there anyone in the photography world that you respect and admire, and that you follow their work?
Katie: Yeah, but not related to what I’m doing. I really admire Alex Strohl, he’s an adventure photographer. He basically takes photos of places, and people on adventures, and I love how you can feel the emotion looking at the photo, and even without people in it, there’s still emotion. I love how he does that.
Also, Lara Jade is one, she’s a fashion photographer. I’ve admired her even when I was still in uni, because I was thinking of becoming a fashion photographer. I admire her work, and I admire how she can also tell a story, even though she’s in the fashion industry. You have to look at her work, and it’s not just girls that are looking pretty, and wearing pretty clothes. It’s more of like the sophisticated women that she portrays in her photos.
There is one more, and she’s very inspirational, because she takes a lot of self portraits, and her name is Georgia Rose Hardy. I don’t know if you have heard of her, she’s British.
Bryn: No, I haven’t heard of any of these photographers! I’m going to have to check them all out.
Bryn: Yeah, [we both laugh] I know!
Katie: Yeah, so Georgia Rose Hardy, she’s a really good photographer, and she does a lot of self portraits. Her genre is self portraiture, but at the same time she’s very imaginative. She likes to edit in a way that, for example, she would edit a hot air balloon into her photos, and all of that. So it really is more of storytelling too.
Bryn: Okay, I just looked up her Instagram account, and it’s very dreamy. It looks very interesting what she does. It seems like very detailed editing.
Katie: To me it’s heavy editing.
Bryn: Yeah, I would say so too. There’s another photographer, Catherine Just, she makes a lot of photos of herself as well, but they are with a medium format camera that she puts on a tripod, and she moves while the camera’s capturing the photo, so the images are always blurry. But this is a completely different self portrait than what Georgia Rose Hardy does.
Katie: Yeah, and you can see how I can connect to these people too. If you look at her work, it’s very dreamy, very imaginative, more of the imagination. What she does is she plans. She plans a lot, every detail, because you can’t just go out into the woods, and take a self portrait, and upload it. She plans it all out, then she incorporates what other elements that she has in her mind, and she puts it in the photo, and boom, that’s it.
Bryn: It’s difficult to always stay constant with your skillset. You study something in school, then you’re working in it, but then you realize that maybe you don’t know the most up to date information anymore. So, are there any resources that you would recommend for becoming a better photographer?
I also join online photography groups. There are in person photography groups here in Rome, but it doesn’t give me what I’m looking for. Online photography groups are the best, because you get to meet and see the work of people all around the world.
You share your work, and then you get constructive criticism, and then you improve. If you see a certain skill in a photographer, and you want to develop that too, you go and you ask, and they give you the information. And when it comes to lenses, or camera bodies, or technical stuff, you can ask on the group, and they will respond to you. For example, you say, “Oh, I’m trying to choose between a 35 mm or a 22 mm, which should I take? And this is what I’m going to be using it for.” People will tell you the pros and cons, and they help you out.
Because, even if you go through the websites with the reviews, it’s still easier with groups that you can get comments or feedback that is relevant and recent, because people have used the equipment. They can also give you feedback that is relevant to your question or to whatever it is you want to know.
Bryn: What groups to you participate in?
Katie: One of the groups I participate in is called Looks Like Film.
Bryn: Oh, I know a guy that co-found that group! I took a photography workshop with him, Ari Dorfman, he’s a really nice guy. He’s actually a police officer who lives just north of Miami, and I met him at a workshop last December at the Miami Street Photography Festival.
Katie: What?!? That’s insane! Really, wow! It’s such a small world!
Bryn: Yeah, he was super easy nice to talk to and to connect with. He said, “It’s kind of crazy, I go to these photography workshops, and these very accomplished photographers are so excited to meet me. And I’m excited to meet them, and all I did was start a website.”
Katie: I can’t believe it!
Bryn: Yeah, I’m going to have to reach out to him. He had told me about it, but then I was talking to him more about other stuff during the workshop. Then I got busy, so I never looked at what he does. But now I’m looking at the website, and this is very impressive!
Katie: Can you imagine, you had to travel to Rome, and then meet a Filipina girl, and then have an interview, and later on find out that you are friends with the guy that started this group that’s so important to so many photographers. [We both laugh.]
Bryn: Yeah, I love it.
Katie: That’s amazing!
Bryn: Yes, it really is. Well, is there anything else that you would like to tell people about your photography?
Katie: I hope that my photography inspires people to be confident and to dream big.
Bryn: That’s such a great thing to say.
Katie: Thank you. Because it’s not just about the photography, it’s about the journey that I am in. Being a photographer has been a dream. And now that I’m living it, I want other people who are dreaming to be encouraged that if they dream it, they can do it.
Bryn: That’s such an inspiring way to end this interview.
Katie: Thank you. Yeah, I really hope that my work, and my story inspires not just people who dream of being photographers, but even people who dream about becoming CEO’s, accomplished artists, something that transcends beyond industries. That’s what I hope in the future when they see my work, or they hear about my story.
Bryn: I can’t wait to keep on following your work, and see how your new rebranding works out, and see where this journey leads you.
Katie: Thank you so much! I’m so glad that we met!
Bryn: I’m so glad that we met too. And thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I think that your story is really interesting, and that it can be inspiring to other people.
Katie: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell my story. I’ve never really told anyone about it in full detail.
To learn more about Katie's work, visit her website at this link.