According to a survey conducted by The Conference Board in 2014, more than 50% of Americans are, at some point, dissatisfied with their careers. When it comes to our work, we want meaning, we want security and we want a path. So, what does that look like when it comes to a creative career?
For freelance-photographer-turned-small-business-owner Riley Blanks, the answer to that question wasn’t always so easy. A few years ago, she found herself straddled with a portfolio she wasn’t proud of and a client list that didn’t match her interests. She wanted work that was more fulfilling, societally useful and financially sustainable—so she sat down and decided to pivot her skills toward something new.
In this interview, Blanks and I discuss how she founded her content studio, Woke Beauty, and what it looks like to navigate life as a creative small business owner.
Jane Claire Hervey: Who are you and how would you describe what you do?
Riley Blanks: I am a visual artist, activist and the owner of Woke Beauty. The mission of Woke Beauty is to provide an uplifting photography experience that liberates and empowers women. The brand also brings together a powerful, like minded community in the form of gatherings and events, providing a space for encouragement and inspiration.
Hervey: Before Woke Beauty, you were freelancing as a photographer and actor. How did you arrive at turning your freelance career as a photographer into a small business and brand that exists outside of you?
Blanks: In the Fall of 2017, I hit an existential career crisis. I was fed up with allowing inquiries to dictate my work. My portfolio didn’t have an identity nor a heartbeat. I was working odd jobs, shooting weddings—and corporate events and families and head shots—all in the name of a dream I hadn’t quite yet defined. It was hard to say ‘no’ when ‘yes’ paid the bills. I reached a point where I felt like my artistic voice was getting drowned in what felt like meaningless imagery. I wasn’t truly creating if everything I did was driven by inquiry. I gave myself an ultimatum: If I didn’t have a clear, social-impact-driven, photographic niche by January 2018, I’d move on.
I started sifting through my hard drives and reminiscing on old work. I noticed a trend. I had photographed so many women—some clients, some friends, my sister and most notably, my mom. My mom who, despite trauma, has thrived. Yet, like many women, she doesn’t know just how powerful she is. I am always telling her what a goddess she is, and when that’s not good enough I photograph her to remind her of what I see, hoping one day she’ll see it, too. I thought about how I’d given her a canvas album one Christmas filled with pictures I’d taken of her. Underneath each image I had written a sentiment describing her grace, her strength and her wisdom. I remember watching her flip through the album. She had tears in her eyes and I could tell, even if just for a glimpse, that she saw it—her beautiful essence translated by me.
So, Woke Beauty was born with my mom as its catalyst. I now provide three services: individual sessions that lead women through a liberating, therapeutic photography process, memberships for those in need of recurring content for their brands or businesses and portrait session gatherings that bring together a powerful loving community and allow women to indulge in a portrait session while being surrounded by supportive women encouraging them.
Hervey: How did you figure out how to position yourself uniquely within the photography industry?
Blanks: I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes about photography: “Photography is, and has been since its conception, a fabulously broad church. Contemporary practice demonstrates that the medium can be a prompt, a process, a vehicle, a collective pursuit, and not just the physical end product of solitary artists’ endeavors.”
Altruism sits at the center of my moral compass. I wanted to provide a service that didn’t just fulfill my own creative identity, but (more importantly) enhanced other’s lives. I got my degree in Fine Art at UVA with Sociology as my adjunct study. With those two forces combined, I made it my mission to fill our societal downfall of insecurity, isolation, loneliness and digital overconsumption. My camera has become an excuse to get closer to others and to aid them in recognizing their worth. I created a process that does not exist in the photography industry.
On the other hand, on a subconscious level, I developed a business that fits neatly within our female empowerment landscape. Presently, I recognize that this has had a great impact on my success. I’m running alongside a large, strong collective which has provided a lot of support, love and community.
Hervey: Beyond running Woke Beauty, you’re also an artist and active in the community you live in. How do you prevent burnout as a small business owner and one-woman shop?
Blanks: Like many passion-driven people, what I do is so important to who I am. Yet, above all else, I work really hard to maintain an identity that can live separate from my work. It’s really difficult and it takes a lot of intentional practice. But the fact of the matter is I am not just an artist, just a photographer, just a business owner. I’m also a woman, a daughter, a partner, a friend. My identity is comprised of many elements that extend beyond my career. In order to prevent burnout, I have to foster those other equally important areas of my life that make me a happy human, like my relationships, my health, my hobbies. It requires a healthy balance of fun and discipline. I’m not afraid to take a holiday with my fiancé or to sacrifice a few jobs so I can visit my family. I often wake up a couple of hours early so I can practice yoga or exercise because I know movement is vital to my mental and spiritual health. I’m mindful of what I eat and who I give my time to. I don’t always succeed but when I do it makes such a difference. Running a small business comes with many ups and downs. It’s very difficult to ride those waves without a solid support system and other important facets of my time here on earth.
Hervey: What are you strategies and tools for managing your productivity?
Blanks: I look at my time like I look at my budget. If I turn a blind eye, I’ll spend it recklessly. In the past, I haven’t been a big fan of organization or scheduling. As a spontaneous, free spirit I always thought those things were for ‘type a’, ‘neurotic’ people. But I’m learning that a schedule is vital to my peace of mind. In that spirit, I’ve started scheduling everything, including tasks, administrative duties, creative work and other obligations done on my own time. If it doesn’t get done I just move it to another open block until it’s finished. For grueling projects that I know will deplete my energy, I time myself and take small breaks whether it’s to walk my dog or make a cup of tea. I’m super competitive and hyper-aware of how fast time passes so if I have a clock in front of me; I know it’ll hold me accountable. I’m really fascinated by time and how it’s completely and utterly invaluable. We have absolutely no say in it and it never stops. How we spend it has a huge impact on our wellbeing—I don’t take it lightly. I’ve learned that I have the most control over my mornings, before my day begins, and in the evenings, after my day is over. I capitalize on those times as much as possible even if it’s just relaxing on the couch with my family or taking extra time to make a nutritious dinner. Right now, at the top of my priority list for my health, is getting on a sleep schedule. I’ve found that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day has a huge impact on how I feel and how I work.
Hervey: I always ask any business owner I talk to about this—how do you learn from perceived failures?
Blanks: I express my feelings—whether disappointment, anger, fear, sadness—in every way possible. I talk about it, I cry about it, I laugh about it, I write about it, with my only prerogative being that I simply cannot stop. Sometimes my process calls for introspective meditation. Sometimes it’s a long, hard workout, and other times it’s telling my closest friends. Regardless, it’s uncomfortable and I think the real growth comes from moving through that discomfort, no matter how it presents, so that I can come out on the other side with newfound epiphanies. I have found that remaining static in times of difficulty—and let’s be real, failing is difficult—doesn’t work for me. It breeds fear and paralysis. It grows a large lump in my throat that takes days to heal. It allows me to create stories that don’t exist and to conjure up a reality that I’m not actually living. Ultimately, it feeds my ego who would rather feel pride than growth. Getting closer to myself—my real true self—is where the magic happens. When I can’t get quite close enough or when the lesson looks blurry, I’m lucky that I have an incredible support system to guide me there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.