When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the economy, portrait photographer Stephanie Saujon, the owner of La Photographie, became nervous about her ability to support herself — particularly since her clients span the country. It then occurred to her that she could continue to connect with them over video chat and shoot photos virtually.
Using this method, she has helped clients design sets and lighting in their homes; once they are posed, she photographs them from her computer screen. While these photos are lower-resolution than her normal fare, they're an innovative way to look at life during these strange times.
We caught up with Saujon to talk about her photography work through the pandemic.
Westword: Can you tell me about your photography style?
Stephanie Saujon: I specialize in portraits, and I also do wedding photography. Most of my work is glamour, beauty, boudoir photography for women.
What inspired you to get into this type of photography?
I’ve always loved fashion. Growing up, I loved fashion magazines, clothing, hair, makeup and anything that was very feminine. When I started doing photography in 2007, I learned by photographing my lady friends, and it just sort of took that direction. I became very interested in classic pinup drawings from the ’40s and ’50s, and pretty early on started experimenting with pinup photography and different types of fashion photography.
What is your favorite photography style to do?
My favorite is probably high-concept portraiture.
How did you come up with the idea for the virtual photo shoots?
I had a big work trip through February and early March, and pretty quickly after I got back, everything that I had booked for the next two months was canceled. It definitely was a shock for me to just lose all of that income at one time, and I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills or any of that. I started seeing a lot of leaders in the photography industry talking about how everyone should use this time to work on their brand, get your finances in order and try to focus on the things that you don’t normally have time to do, but I wasn’t in that position. I had been working on my brand all winter and sort of doing all that work anyway.
I was sitting on my couch, talking to my partner, and we were watching TV, and it just popped into my head: What if I photographed people on a screen? What if I had somebody set up their phone and we FaceTime? Perhaps that would be a way to connect with my clients during this time. So I contacted a close friend of mine who I also work with a lot. She was very skeptical. She said, “What do you mean? Isn’t it going to look really low-quality?” And I said, “Well that’s kind of the point of this — for it to look lo-fi.”
I want it to look like a screen. This [pandemic] is going to go on for longer than any of us know, so we’re going to be connecting over screens. What if we just embrace that? What if we just turn that into art? [My friend] had the same sort of lightbulb moment that I had. She built the set in her house using mirrors and curtains, then we did the shoot, and it went really well. I posted those images in mid-March, and it took off immediately. I have a really great client base that I have been developing for over a decade. Every person that I’ve photographed, except for one, is a client. The response from my clientele was immediate and enthusiastic. It just kind of took off.
Describe the process of one of these photo shoots.
When someone sends me an inquiry...we set up a time when we can do a video chat consult. They show me around their house or what they are thinking as far as what they want to use for a set. Then I help them put together a set by telling them, “Oh, I think that this fabric would look really nice with your couch,” and “I think that this wardrobe piece that you have would look good with that fabric.” I help them art-direct it as much as they need me to.
I would say it’s about half and half: Half of my clients would like me to consult with them on the art direction, and then half of them know what they want, and I just call them and they’re ready to go. It’s been everything from people setting up outside to in their homes, some of them using window light, some of them using other lights that they have available. Once we’re set up and the camera angle is where we want it to be, then I just give them direction through the video chat. I tell them, “Turn your face this way; look that way,” which is what I would normally do during a photo shoot anyway. Then I photograph the screen with my DSLR camera.
How many of these photo shoots have you done so far?
I’ve done about two dozen at this point.
And you’re getting a lot of interest?
Yeah, I've had people reach out to me who I’ve never photographed before. I’m kind of on a waiting list right now because I have so many people who want to do this. I can’t take anybody else until May.
Maybe I wasn’t the first person to have the idea, but I was the first person who was putting out the work that I could tell from my community of people. Even in the photography community that I’m a part of, people were very skeptical. Another photographer commented, “If people don’t value quality photography, then why don’t they just take a selfie?” I just think that that’s very short-sighted, and I think it’s closed-minded, because art can be whatever we make it. It doesn’t have to look like a high-quality, high-res, fully retouched image for it to be artistic. And, more important, [this] is where I’m connecting with my clients right now.
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How do your clients react to the shoots?
It gives us a chance to be creative together and to get our minds off of all the terrible things that are happening right now in our country and in the world. It feels good to be creative, and, even if it’s just for thirty minutes, it gives my clients a chance to feel beautiful or feel artistic. It also gives me a chance to connect with them in that frame of mind. It's transcendent, it really is. It’s beautiful.
Artists are going to create with whatever tools we have available to us. Sometimes you have to be a little innovative, to let go of the ideal of what we’re supposed to be doing and try to embrace what’s available so that we can do something new.
Find out more about Saujon's work at the La Photographie website.