As you already know, Clickin Moms believes that women are uniquely poised to become even more prominent contributors to the photography world and encourages all women to explore how the art of photography can enhance their own daily lives. We’re not alone in this. Me Ra Koh has long been promoting the empowerment of women as photographers, and when we approached her to share her extraordinary journey and unique vision with our community, her response was, quite simply, beyond anything we could have hoped for. Grab some coffee, a box of tissues, and sit in on a conversation that will deeply move you, make you proud to be a woman, and compel you to get out there and create. It’s our privilege to present you with Me Ra Koh…
Name: Me Ra Koh
Photographer Since: 2002, the year I turned thirty
Camera: SONY ALPHA a900 DSLR and SONY ALPHA a55 DSLR
Go-To Lens(es): SONY 24 -70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T Zoom Lens and SONY 85mm f1.4 Carl Zeiss Telephoto Lens
When and why did you decide to pursue photography?
Before I start, I want to say what an honor it is to share with all of you. My hope is that my experiences encourage you, bring unexpected healing and deeper confidence. I don’t know how to not share it all, but in being transparent with you I pray you would know that you are not alone – and most of all, you are worthy of your creative dreams not matter how crazy they may seem.
When did photography come into my life…
I picked up a camera for the first time when Pascaline was eighteen months old. My life had taken a painful turn, and I was desperate for healing. A few months prior, I had been speaking at a women’s conference in TN. I was pregnant with our second baby, Aidan, and started having pains that drove me to come home early. Within days, we were told that Aidan’s heartbeat was slowing down, and I had two large ovarian tumors that needed to come out right away. My life had turned upside down. I stalled the surgery as long as I could, praying that Aidan would make it. But when his heartbeat finally stopped, I was rushed into an emergency C-section to have the tumors removed. I woke up with a C-section scar, milk coming in and no baby to hold. And I hit a place of sadness unlike any other I have encountered.
If you and I met on the street today, you wouldn’t see the trauma my heart has endured. But the first thirty years of my life was filled with nothing but trauma. Growing up with an abusive father, being date raped in college, losing in court – unable to even have a restraining order – I hit bottom at twenty. Unable to go home because the rape brought shame to my Korean father, I lived out of my car in Seattle parking lots. Not knowing why I had been created, what value my life had, I started looking for ways to end it. And I’m so thankful that this trauma did not happen but instead, I checked myself into a locked psychiatric ward and gave up in the safety of those four white walls with little hope I would ever face the world again.
But the healing, the deep healing came, and I ended up writing a book for women who had been sexually victimized called Beauty Restored. I met my husband, Brian, who has been my champion from day one, breathing life, love and worthiness back into me. But when Aidan died, I found myself unable to make anything “good” out of it. I just wanted him, and the sadness that consumed me was all I had left of him.
After the surgery and Aidan’s death, I laid on the couch day after day while Pascaline played on the floor beside me. One day, I remember the afternoon light spilling in through the French doors. She was beautiful, illuminated like an angel. I wanted to capture her, to preserve the life I could hold on to, the life that was right in front of me. So I went and bought my first SLR camera at Costco.
For the last two years, I had been on a book tour for Beauty Restored, doing over 40 National TV and Radio shows. I was sharing my story in front of thousands of women at conferences, and now, with this camera in my hand, I could tell Pascaline’s story. Whether it was the first time she played with a yellow balloon, or her helping me in the garden, I was finding healing. Photography had found me and was healing me.
Friends noticed the photos I was taking (in Auto mode – mind you), and asked me to take their pictures. Eventually someone asked me to shoot their wedding. I had always been intimidated by the technology of the camera, but the grief and need for healing pushed me to figure this camera out. I was desperate to find my voice again, and the desperation finally triumphed over my insecurities of not being smart enough to understand photography.
I never would have imagined that photography would lead me to this place. I feel like Aidan lives on because without the sacrifice of his life, I would have never picked up a camera with such desperation.
You are as much an educator as an artist. When and why did you make a decision to put a significant amount of your time and energy into education?
When I graduated with my BA in English, I was determined to finish Beauty Restored and find a publisher. I wanted to be an evangelist that brought hope to people who felt hopeless. But no one would let me speak at their church or college. I was shocked! Wasn’t my sheer passion for wanting to speak enough? A family friend, who is an evangelist, told me that I needed to get my Masters in Teaching while I kept working on Beauty Restored. I was completely discouraged. I have several Learning Disabilities and never got anything higher than a C or D in school. Go back to graduate school? ‘You have to be kidding’, I thought. His response, “If you can learn to hold the attention of a seventh grade class, you will be ready for any audience you ever encounter.”
I decided to give it a try. I remember the first day of my Masters program. We went around the room and shared why we were here. Everyone had a similar story of always wanting to be teacher or having a parent who was a teacher. It got to me, and I said “I want to learn how to be the best speaker possible.” Silence. My class mates thoughts I was nuts, but it became the best training ever. I spent seven years teaching high school English and Public Speaking to at-risk, gang banger kids in Seattle. It was hard to leave them when Beauty Restored was published, but I knew that the next chapter of my life was about to start.
After my first few years of photography, I was dumbfounded by the lack of resources for understanding your camera. I’d read my Manual, photography books, things online, and my brain felt even more confused. I also couldn’t find any women to learn from. Everyone was still shooting film, and women photographers were a rare breed. Websites had just started, blogs weren’t around yet, let alone forums. But I was desperate to have this camera make sense to me. I decided to unpack the technology behind a camera in the way I learn information. I needed it to make sense to me in the way that my brain thinks. Women friends connected with my explanations, and after a while I wondered if there were other women, especially moms, who felt as confused as I had. I decided to offer up a workshop for moms on my blog, that was four years ago. Blogs were new, so I didn’t have the readership we have today. But within 24 hours, the workshop was sold out. I had offered ten spots, and eight of the ten women were flying in from out of state.
As an educator, I have learned that confidence is essential. If you don’t feel confident in what you know, you can’t stand tall and strong. You can’t ask for what you are worth. Brian and I decided to tailor our workshops to women only, and the theme would be confidence. Over the years, we’ve hammered out a packed two days that teaches photography using all different learning styles, like I used in my former classrooms. If something doesn’t make sense, I firmly believe that this is NOT a reflection on your ability but means you haven’t found the right teacher. I’ve had to hold on to this belief for my own survival, as most of the mainstream education has never made sense to me.
Our CONFIDENCE Workshops have been incredibly fulfilling for me. They have sold out for four years, drawing three types of women. One, the woman who already has a business but is lacking confidence to take herself to the next level. Two, the woman who is thinking about starting a side business. And three, the mom who simply wants to take better pictures of her kids. Our goal of confidence goes deep throughout the weekend as we use the camera to tackle bigger fears that keep us from taking hold of our dreams. Empowering women has been my heart from the beginning. The camera is a vehicle for me to do this. And if I can do all that I have done, with all my barriers and pain, how much more can women do when they find solid confidence in themselves.
Do you yourself have any formal education or training in photography?
The only formal education I have had is a class I did when I first bought my camera at our local community college. The class was called “Taking Better Photos.” It lasted eight weeks, met once a week in the evening, and I drove the teacher nuts because all I wanted to know was how to get that buttery, blurry background. “What do you mean “buttery”?” he’d ask. I’m sure you ladies know what I mean!
Why does your outreach focus so heavily on women?
I remember my weeks in the psychiatric ward. I was asked to look my pain straight in the face, embrace it, and no longer turn away. My pain started from believing I had less value because I was a girl. I remember feeling lesser when I was little because in Asian culture daughters don’t hold the value sons do. Then, to go to college, and have my virginity, femininity, voice robbed from me as I was raped… I started to believe that my biggest problem was something I couldn’t change – I was a woman and not a man. But when I went deep into my pain, within the walls of the psychiatric ward, when I started to grieve all the lies I had believed, all the years lost, I found a desperate need in me to find the beauty, power and grace of what it means to be a woman. I didn’t want to leave the clinic as an angry woman who had something to prove. I wanted to leave the clinic as a woman who knew her value, worth, and ability to extend hope to others.
I will never forget the night. I think of it often before I go on set with Nate Berkus or get up to speak to an audience of women. The therapists at the clinic had decided to focus on my rage that day. Unbeknownst to me, they had planned to antagonize me in hopes that all the rage I carried, that I was afraid to release, would come out. By the end of the day, I felt out of control – screaming, throwing things, hitting the walls – and all the while the therapists telling me to keep going because this was a safe place to let it out. But at the end of that day, I felt ashamed. I felt like damaged goods. I remember lying on the cold linoleum floor, my legs curled up to my chest, crying in the dark. How could my life ever be worth anything? How could all my broken pieces ever be put back together? I knew what my “impossible” was in that moment. My impossible was to someday be a leader for other women, to be a sign of hope and triumph, that no matter how much the world tells us we have no place, no voice, we still know our worth and continue to bring healing to the world around us. This was my impossible in that moment. This meant I would have to find my voice again. I would have to love again and risk being hurt again. I would have to choose life outside of these four walls. I said a prayer that night on the floor. I whispered it through all my tears, “God, if you can piece me back together, I will fight for other women to find their impossible too.” I made a promise that night, and that promise fuels all that I do.
You’ve used the phrase “Shoot like a Woman.” What exactly does that mean?
Wonderful question. Yes, I do use the phrase “Shoot like a Woman” a lot. It means three things. One, you work to understand your camera so that you know you are smarter than your camera. Once you know this to be true, your camera becomes an extension of you, rather than a piece of equipment. Two, you “refuse to say cheese” and capture the story by looking for the Conflict, the Defining Details and the Setting that has Purpose. Three, most importantly, you come to your shoot as a woman. If you’ve had a trying day, you don’t compartmentalize those feelings, you bring all those feelings with you. You channel those feelings into the emotion you are looking for in your subjects, in your lighting. As a woman, you have a power inside you that is naturally and effortlessly intuitive, empathetic, and resourceful. What do I mean? You start your shoot with conversation, getting to know your clients. As they talk, you are taking in all the non-verbal messages they are sending. Your empathy is alive and well, and you see the brokenness peak through their words. You know that your camera is a tool that can bring powerful healing, and you start your shoot with your empathy guiding you. You take all the random things they are saying, and because you are resourceful – able to cook up something random for dinner with the most random ingredients – you bring this to your shoot. You cook up a shoot that takes all the randomness of what they share, how they feel, and turn it into the beauty of their lives. You can come with a shot list of photos to take, especially when you are first starting your business and trying to remember that you ARE smarter than your camera. But don’t stop with the shot list. Shoot like a woman by pulling all these pieces together to create a series of photos that is specific to their family story.
Examples always help me process information, so here is one. I once did a shoot for a family I had never met. They were referred to me, and when I walked into their home I set my camera bags to the side and asked if we could chat about their vision for the shoot. I asked them about their baby, who was six weeks old. It turns out that this baby was a miracle in their lives. They had been trying to get pregnant for ten years and when they’d given up all hope, she found out she was pregnant. Pause. I take this in to my heart and tune in to what my heart is asking me to do, knowing this takes courage and confidence on my end. I ask what they enjoy doing most with their baby. The mom lights up and says “taking baths”. I pause. This is where we need to go. I ask her if we could start our shoot in the bathtub. Right away, her football sized husband isn’t sure what to think. This is not what he pictured in hiring a family photographer. But the mom is open, and I promise to be discreet in how I photograph her. We fill up the tub, she gets in with her baby. I put on my zoom and sit on the floor in the hallway – to give them space to connect in what they love most. She starts to forget about the camera and begins to sing to her baby. Her husband is standing with his arms crossed next to me, still unsure. But as the mom sings, her baby looks up at her and coos. Their black lab, their first baby, hears her singing from the other room and walks into the bathroom and lays his head on the bathtub rim. I hear the husband say, through tears, “This is my family. This is the beauty of my family.”
In this moment, I have made the conscious choice to shoot like a woman. I have set my shot list aside, and I have taken the story of who my clients are and created – with them – a series of photos that tells the story of their family – and the hope that they live with everyday.
How has your photography evolved over the years? Can you share some images that represent the evolution of your artistic journey?
When I first started shooting, I copied everything I loved online and in magazines. I think this is the perfect place to start. That is why I wrote “Your Baby in Pictures.” It’s a culmination of my forty favorite photo recipes that gives you EVERY THING you need to know to cook up your own version of the photo I’ve taken. Some photographers have issues with this and criticize new photographers for not being original. But when my daughter, Pascaline, sits down to practice the piano, no one criticizes her for learning a simpler version of Beethoven. When I need help getting in the groove and rhythm of writing for my blog, I sometimes type the page of a favorite author to help my finger muscles and spirit remember my love for words. Painters spend years copying the works of masters from centuries ago. Why wouldn’t we do the same with photography? When we first start a creative practice, we must start by echoing those we respect. And then something magical happens: we find ourselves pulling from what we’ve learned from the masters to create our own masterpiece.
When I first started shooting, I copied the masters. Now I find delight in creating my own masterpieces. I don’t listen to critics and stay away from the places they gather. For example, I don’t want my focus to ever evolve around how sharp my images are. Sometimes the blur in a photo is what lends the magic.
What qualities make an image successful for you?
If my client emotionally connects with the image, and if the image reflects the story of who they are, I have succeeded. I remember doing a shoot with a family who had drove ten hours to have me take their family photos. I was in Denver, CO and offered up a handful of Minis. This family drove from Kansas City, all night, to make the shoot. Again, I think about how I can shoot like a woman. How can I honor this family for the time they have taken to come by capturing what makes this family unique? What are the subtle actions and gestures that bring them together? The little boy had his teddy bear with him. So I asked the teddy bear if he had any good ideas for a picture. He had wonderful ideas that he whispered into my ear. I asked Teddy if he would share those ideas with the little boy. The little boy listened to his Teddy, and he told me the idea. Teddy said they should lie on their tummies and look into each others eyes. “Yes!” I said. “Teddy is so creative! Let’s start there!” The image was successful because it was a true story of this family’s darling boy and the relationship he shares with this best friend, Teddy.
What aspects of photography do you find most challenging?
The most challenging aspect, that I have committed myself to, is the industry’s lack of acknowledging women photographers – especially moms with a camera. This both saddens me but also fuels the passion needed to pioneer such a path. I’m blessed to have developed partnerships with corporations who want to see this change happen, but sometimes that is a challenge in itself. Being partnered with large corporations can often be the lesson of how to run alongside a giant and not get stepped on by accident. And yet, there is an opening, a desire that is starting to grow among corporations, in how to better serve women photographers. This small seed has potential to change history. The process often feels messy and overwhelming, but the destination is more than worthy of all the work and risk it demands.
What are the top three highlights of your career as a photographer to date?
This is a hard one to answer! I’m afraid I have more than three. I hope that’s okay!
1. The first time I met with SONY at their headquarters. One of the SONY USA executives asked me if I would consider partnering with them to reach women. After he was done with his presentation of how we could do this, my first response was “But did you know I locked myself in a psychiatric ward?” Brian’s head hit the table. He couldn’t believe THAT was my response. But I went on and told him that I would love nothing more than to reach women together, but what you see is always all of me. The most shameful parts of my life, the most pain filled, is what makes me who I am. And these are stories that I can never hide from the public because women need to know they are not alone when they feel crazy, overwhelmed and unworthy of their own dreams. The VP looked at me and said “Actually, we’ve been following your blog for several months and already knew that part of your story. And we feel the world is desperate for authenticity, and we would like to increase your platform because you are authentic.” I will never forget this moment and be ever thankful for the partnership that has grown from it.
Photo by Photos by Hillary
2. The first time we booked a $10K wedding package. Brian and I took a risk by running an ad with a photo of ME! We didn’t use a wedding photo because how could you compete. So I decided to risk my hunch that it’s not so much your photos that clients value but how comfortable they feel with you and your camera. We took out a second on our home to run this ad that cost us almost $20K. As we signed the paperwork for the second, Brian looked at me and said “Don’t ever call this a hobby again.” Agreed. But after the ad was out for two weeks, a bride who was vacationing in Cabo called me and said that my picture reminded her of her best friend. She couldn’t imagine a better fit for her wedding day! She forfeited her un-refundable deposit with another photographer and booked me WITHOUT even seeing my work yet. The next milestone moment for our wedding photography would come a couple years later when we booked our first $25K package.
3. When Brian and I chose to give up our wedding photography to build a Rachel Ray type brand for moms with cameras. We had no idea how to do this, felt like we were starting all over after getting to the top of our game. But we knew that we couldn’t do it all, and I needed to start focusing on TV opportunities and meetings with large consumer brands. We believed that this was our next chapter, and it would take all the courage we could find. So the highlight was last year as I stood on the other side of the white curtain that separated me from Nate Berkus and his audience. I heard him introducing me as “your new best friend” and “his favorite photographer” and I felt more nervous than I can even put into words. But as I passed through the curtains and waved at the audience, I felt like I had come home. All my years of teaching, the high pressure and stakes of shooting million dollar weddings, the years of demonstrating shoots for women at our CONFIDENCE Workshops, all of it, every bit of it, comes into play as I feel right at home among the high intensity and pressures of being in front of two million viewers, teaching photo tips and getting one shot (just one shot ladies) to take a picture for two million people to see…and I feel great. Who would have guessed this is where the road would bring us.
4. With much exposure comes much praise but also criticism. After a handful of appearances on the Nate Berkus Show the critics in the photo industry got ugly with what they thought of me. I was so overwhelmed by all the criticism and can’t express how much it hurt. I went to lunch with my dad, who I have since developed a wonderful, restored relationship with. I told him about all the negativity I was getting, and he said something that has forever changed me. He looked at me and said, “Me Ra, as a father I have not given you all that you deserved and needed. I wish I could take back all the years of pain I caused you, but I can’t. But I can give this to you now. This truth. I tried to destroy you throughout your whole life. I tried to beat you down and tell you how worthless you were. And after all those years, you are still going. You are still full of hope and joy. You still want to help people. Me Ra, listen to me, if your own father can’t stop you… who can?” I am forever in his debt for this gift he gave that has taken my own confidence to a new level.
5. And the last, having my book and photo tips featured in the NY Times. That was amazing.
Photo by Pascaline
You recently partnered with the Nielsen Photo Group and are hosting a “New Beginnings” Photo Contest. Can you share some of your own photos that represent “New Beginnings” to you?
I would LOVE to. But let me first talk about this contest, and why it is so close to my heart. This photo contest is a BIG deal for the photo industry as a whole – it’s pioneering a new path. Let me tell you the back story. Lauren Wendle, the VP of the Nielsen Photo Group, approached me a year ago when I was in NY. She had heard about my appearances with the Nate Berkus Show and my passion for empowering moms. Lauren wanted to see how we could work together to create a stronger space for women in the industry. This was and is HUGE. The photo industry has a history of being a boy’s club, and there are too many horror stories that women have gone through of not feeling valued as photographers because of their sex – whether it’s the lack of camera manufacturers acknowledging women in how they make their cameras – or the grumpy old men who think that a mom with a camera should stay away. And yet, Lauren recognizes that women are coming into the industry in droves. The Nielsen Photo Group owns PDN (Photo District News magazine) and Photo Plus Expo. They’ve recently acquired Rangefinder magazine and WPPI (the largest wedding and portrait tradeshow in Vegas every year). They influence almost all the photography magazines you see on the stands, as well as stock photography agencies. Their partnerships with National Geographic, SONY, Nikon, Canon and several commercial, editorial photographers have been around for years. To many pro photographers, being recognized by PDN and/or Nielsen is a highlight in your photography career. For the VP, a woman who is a force to be reckoned with, to want to make real change in the industry on behalf of women is something that would have been unheard of even five years ago! We put our heads together and decided to start this change with a quarterly photo contest that is much like the ones they have done for years, but it’s more geared towards moms with a camera. This partnership is a New Beginning for our company and the Nielsen Photo Group, but also a new beginning for women in the industry as a whole, and we are excited to see what it grows into. The Nielsen Photo Group has muscle and influence that can truly change the history of women photographers, but it’s a fight that takes all of us.
I am often asked why there is a fee to enter the contest. Wonderful question. Because we don’t value things that are free. This is not just a quarterly photo contest – this is another way for you to say “I’m worth $12 to submit my photo(s).” This is an exercise in you strengthening your confidence as a photographer, your self-worth as a creative. I have already received countless emails from women who have entered and share how empowering the experience has been. If the contest was free, you wouldn’t have this same experience. None of us would value what we submitted, but with a fee, you are going to look for your best and battle all the voices who tell you not to risk. Those voices don’t bother us when there is no risk involved. The Nielsen Photo Group has been doing these photo contests for several years, and the men photographers who enter don’t seem to have an issue with spending money to enter. But I think as women, our battle has always been different. If Lauren and I wanted to simply collect as many names as possible, this contest would be free. But we aren’t doing this to collect names, we are doing this to give women an opportunity to put their best forward and experience the reward it brings (whether you win or not). [Editor’s Note: The New Beginnings Contest is open to entries until November 20, 2011.]
The “New Beginnings” contest even has a kids category! Do your own children share your passion for photography? Do you have any advice for getting kids started in learning photography?
Pascaline and Blaze love taking photos. It’s amazing because they have grown up around the camera lingo all their life, so the camera settings have never intimidated them. When we are in Thailand, we give them photo assignments with a couple tips. “Take photos of the elements that you see every day that you love. Get in close, unless the stuff behind it helps tell the story. After that, walk around and look at everything that is surrounding you. What is something that you haven’t noticed before? Maybe you’ve walked by it every day, but can’t believe how interesting, funny or beautiful it is.” I’m always amazed at what they bring back. Their perspective is so innocent, fresh and unburdened.
Photo by Blaze
In some recent conversations with Sesame Street, we talked about how to empower kids to not just be consumers but creators. Creating a platform for kids to share their photos is why we have a Kid’s Category. Our sense of worthiness starts when we are children. For mom and dad to believe in your photos, your creativity, so much that they would pay for your photo to be entered into a contest is a message of worthiness that will stay with a child forever. Whether they win or not is beside the point, experiencing their parents behind them and encouraging of their artistic efforts is life changing.
Photo by Pascaline
You’ve talked about the difference between being an artist and “leading an artistic life,” and it compelled you to pack your family up and move to Thailand for two months! How can those who don’t have the resources or flexibility to make such a drastic change nonetheless start “leading an artistic life”?
The exercise of our family going to Thailand is something that we can do at home. In fact, I have needed to find a way to bring Thailand’s magic to our everyday life – to sustain me in the high demands of being a mom, homeschooler and CEO of our media company. And what I’ve found is that Thailand was and is the practice of sitting in the dark. Sitting in the unknown. Taking myself out of my comfort zone and practicing what it means to try something new and uncomfortable – this is what Thailand was. I’m not a REI type of girl, so to live in the jungle with monkeys ransacking my kitchen EVERY DAY was stepping into the unknown. But it called out my creative spirit in a way that had never been called because I was doing something unfamiliar, something new.
When I give my creative spirit a space to grope in the dark, in the unfamiliar, my spirit is able to expand, breathe and grow. All creation starts in the dark, and most of us grew up afraid of the dark. But as creative beings, we must venture back to the dark. We must carve out time to be quiet and listen to the whispering utterances of things that cannot be heard in the day to day noise we live in. Whether it’s learning how to do something you’ve always been afraid of, like rock climbing for me, or taking a long walk in the morning when your family is still asleep – as you listen to the rhythm of your steps and feel the earth holding you up – you are experiencing the magic we found in Thailand.
If you could change one thing about the photography industry today, what would it be?
My change to the photography industry would be twofold. First, there would be a clear space for women in the industry. Women photographers would support other women photographers, instead of being caught into competition because of the isolation they often feel. We would see the change and growing space from the top down – from all the camera manufacturers wanting to know how to support women to more women photographers speaking on the trade show floor. As an industry, we would begin to embrace Feminine Wisdom and seek this out as we speak on topics of running a business, shooting, and balancing all the loves we have in our life – not just photography. These changes would run down into the consumer arena.
I dream of having end caps in stores like Target or Best Buy that offer photography items which appeal to women. Women, even teen girls like my Pascaline is becoming, would walk into the electronics section and feel like there was a space for her. Women would feel acknowledged, worthy and valued by simply finding camera/photography products that are tailored to their needs and likes. And through all of this, women would be empowered to strengthen their voice through their camera. They would take more risks with their creativity, their livelihood, because they see the great need the world has for hope and the healing their photos hold.
From the bottom of our hearts, Thank You, Me Ra for so generously sharing your story and your wisdom with us. Those who have been following Me Ra and her work no doubt know what a beautiful and giving heart she has! How has this discussion influenced you? What are your thoughts about the place of women in the photography industry and the role that photography plays in your life? Chat with us in the comments!!
Me Ra will be speaking at Click Away 2016 in Seattle. Will you be joining us?