One of my guiding principles in life is to surround myself with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It raises my internal “bar” for what can be accomplished when you pair inspiration with grit. Two of those people that I am so fortunate to know are Rowena Meadows and Blimie Tee. They’re the founders of The Storytellers Conference, which launched this year and hosts it’s inaugural Conference in May 2019, in Miami, FL.
I am very proud to announce today that Confluence Magazine is a sponsor of The Storytellers Conference, and to share the conversation I had with Row and Blimie about the conference and how it will serve emerging documentary photographers.
Your conference is called The Storytellers Conference. Tell me about the name and how it encompasses your vision for this conference.
Rowena: I really wanted the name to be something edgier and less literal but in the end there was no escaping the truth at the heart of what we wanted to say about our conference. Exploring the intricate, inner worlds of families the way we do as documentary family photographers is important and challenging work. Blimie and I wanted to create an international gathering with the dual purpose of helping family photographers move beyond documenting moments to crafting stronger, more complex narratives, while at the same time, empowering them to realise that the skills they already have can be widened, modified and applied to exploring broader social issues. It's really about that shift from just 'taking photos' to becoming an intentional author of visual stories that the name 'storyteller' encompasses.
Can you tell readers how the idea first occurred to you, and how you went from “crazy idea” to “this is acutally happening”? What advice do you have for photographers with an idea or a dream they’d like to bring into reality?
Blimie: Well, to be perfectly honest it just sort of happened by itself. I messaged Row one night - I don’t think I’d ever messaged her before, but I was a silent admirer, and I wanted to get her input on something. She was prepping for a family vacation, and we never got to what I wanted from her, but we just got chatting and we both expressed how we’d love to travel (she to America, and myself to Australia) and how if only there was an international family documentary photographers conference, we’d all be able to meet. She sort of pushed me to do it, and I said “No way”, but we continued talking about who we’d love to have speak. I sort of pushed her to do it, and if she’d do it, I’d do it with her. And that’s the long version of how Storytellers came to be. We contacted our speakers shortly after we started considering that we could do it. We got super positive feedback and encouragement from them, and we decided we just have to jump in with two feet, without thinking too much, otherwise we’d realize how crazy the whole notion was. I (we) still can’t believe sometimes that “It’s really happening!”
I think the biggest piece of advice I’d give, is “Don’t think”. I know, that sounds terrible, but honestly, the more you think, the more you’re going to face reality. I mean, obviously, you need to make sure you’re making a sound decision, but don’t overthink it too much, otherwise the fear will overtake you.
Rowena: For me, the only goal I have in life is to live according to what I value regardless of the discomfort it brings. I'm highly prone to negative thinking and I know there isn't much I can do to turn off the radio 'doom and gloom' in my head. I have however, slowly become expert at comfortably noticing those thoughts and fears whilst letting them sit quietly beside me. I might not be able to make them completely silent, but I can create space for them and make sure they don't make my decisions for me. That's what my values are for and I know that for me, there can be no such thing as failure as long as I'm acting according to what I value. Being surrounded and supported by brilliant minds and seeking advice wherever you can get it doesn't hurt either.
Blimie: I just have to add that Row has taught me to “yes think” a bit. I’m more of the “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there” person, and I’ve learnt from Row that it’s okay to think a bit, recognize the thoughts, and then move on. A great support system is paramount. Your spouse, your friends and family. But even more so, who you choose to partner with to make your dream a reality is so important. Having a partnership where you complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses will be the key to your success.
Rowena: And Blimie makes me think/worry a whole lot less! I guess I just have enough faith in the fact that we can deal with whatever road blocks come up because of how well we work together. It's pretty crazy and wonderful considering we have never met. I'm grateful for her every day.
What does the Storytellers Conference hold for those who are looking to expand their work out from only doing family-based work to shooting something else?
Rowena: For a little while, there have been quiet rumblings and a sort of palpable yearning within the documentary family community for more diverse learning opportunities and in many ways we wanted Storytellers to really open people's eyes to the possibility of expansion beyond just shooting family-based work. There's no doubt this is an inspiring and dynamic time for our community with many photographers already testing the waters of personal projects and the birth of Confluence Magazine is a much needed vehicle for that work to be seen. We are happy to be a part of that evolution and we've intentionally chosen speakers to give a very rounded educational experience. Having working photojournalists like Maggie Steber and Ryan Jones share their process with us is bound to stimulate plenty of thought about what is possible beyond family work.
Tell us about some of the work you do beyond your client work.
Rowena: Between family and commercial photography work and working on Storytellers there hasn't been a great deal of time this year but I've come to realise that I'm really missing some aspects of working as a psychologist. I'm grateful for that ache because it's helped me come up with plenty of ideas for personal projects exploring mental health issues. To be able to combine my former career as a psychologist with photography feels fortunate indeed and I'm in the early stages of a project exploring mental health and recovery after a suicide attempt. This year, I've also helped to launch a charity in Australia for families where a parent has a terminal illness. It's a collective of photographers who offer free documentary family photography services and photo books in order to preserve the memory of the sick parent.
Who inspires you to push boundaries and build something new like this conference?
Blimie: My parents definitely inspire me. It’s not a conscious inspiration, like “Oh, I’m doing this because my Mom inspires me”. But when I think about where I get the drive to push boundaries, it’s definitely from my mother. She opened a private girls school when she was 27 years old. She was (is) never afraid to do what she feels is right. She has been a pioneer in many different ways. After 22 years, she left the school and went in a completely new direction. She opened a tea shoppe, selling beautiful teas, tea giftware, and she even created her own line of premium loose leaf tea. Watching her research different opportunities, learning about new industries, going to trade shows, making connections and all the while being able to express her passion and her creativity, is definitely something that inspires me daily.
Rowena: Can i also add that this documentary family community is ridiculously full to the brim of inspiring photographers, entrepreneurs and risk-takers, especially you, Katie Jett Walls! Blimie and I both agree that it's also very hard to ignore the fact that many of us wouldn't even know about this genre or have met each other if it weren't for the pioneering efforts of Kirsten Lewis Bethmann. Her name is synonymous with the [family documentary] genre and she has never stopped tirelessly working to elevate it. That's inspirational to both of us. And of course, the documentary family community in general is our inspiration. Working mostly by ourselves should seem lonely but the warmth of the community and the support that is available and offered daily feels wonderfully connecting, like we are all pulling each other along a little bit here and there. I've never known anything like it and it's a huge part of why we were inspired to do this conference.
Blimie: I agree, the feeling of closeness and friendship in this community is above all what pushes us daily to make this thing happen.
Thank you so much for talking with me, and sharing this with our readers. We at Confluence are very excited to be partnering with The Storytellers Conference because we want to see the kinds of deep and necessary stories that grow when artists are inspired, educated, and empowered.
Register today, there are just a few more seats available.