As a huge fan of Gillian’s photography (her Instagram feed is so beautiful), I wanted to get her take on building a photography business and living a creative life with faith as the foundation. After I’d contacted her I realized that we had actually met before on a shoot a few years ago with Framework Magazine. Small world.
She spends most of her time running her business Gillian Stevens Photography and working at a Vancouver boutique. Besides having amazing fashion sense, she’s also genuine and passionate about all things creative. Check out the interview to learn more.
What did you study and how did you end up here?
I did the fashion marketing program at Kwantlen and really liked it. It was practical and encouraged us to network with businesses in Vancouver. I grew up in South Surrey and was not overly familiar with Vancouver or its fashion scene. I’m a very hands-on learner so I quickly jumped in. One of our first projects was going to different boutiques and meeting the owners. It helped me get out of my comfort zone in a really good way. I realized that meeting new people and connecting is something I love and essential to what I do now.
It was around that time that I started my photography business. As we were learning I was directly applying that knowledge to the business I had. It happened pretty organically and I found there was a lot of crossover between fashion marketing and any creative business.
Did you always like photography?
I’ve always loved photos. It was one of those things that I just did because I loved it. People started asking me to take photos and I saw a business opportunity. I always thought I’d work for myself so I went with it.
Why didn’t you end up in fashion marketing?
I still work at a small boutique—helping with a lot of different aspects of the shop. I’m really passionate about independent designers and small business and I have become so invested in the different designers we carry—it’s so fun to build that brand knowledge and familiarity. It’s such a privilege to work so closely with someone else who started their own business. The owners are incredible and their shop is very special. It’s different from photography, but there are so many fundamentals that are the same.
Do you have a really flexible schedule?
Yes. I say that I work part time and full time because my business is full time and I put a lot of hours into it. But my one or two days a week at the boutique is a bit of a break. I get to do something that someone else has set for me. Working at the boutique propels my creativity. It’s a fun balance. I’m passionate about a lot of things so it’s great to be able to spread that out.
You told me a little about how you got started in photography, but what was the journey like for you in starting your business?
I just kind of went for it. Right away I knew that it was what I wanted to do as a business. So I thought: How can I grow this? I didn’t want to say yes to every opportunity because I felt it was really important to define parameters on what I actually liked doing and where I eventually wanted to go. I wouldn’t say I came up with a 5-year plan or anything, but I pursued projects intentionally. Sometimes photographers start with too broad of a spectrum. Then they get pigeon-holed into saying yes to things, but sometimes you just have to be comfortable with only a little work, but the work you want to do.
What’s the core kind of photography that you do now?
Probably 85% commercial work—a lot of styling, shoot production and creative direction. Some clients want me to do everything, and others want something really specific and I just shoot that.
I am so blessed by getting to do something that I love. There’s so much creativity in it and it changes all the time. My clients can be everything from clothing brands to a bakery or a suitcase company. When I was growing up I always thought: how can I do everything that I love? I feel like I get to do a lot of the things I love.
It’s so different than a lot of photographers who end up shooting weddings or portraits.
Commercial work is so much more flexible and works a lot better with how I work.
It sounds like you get a lot of that editorial direction which is so fun.
Yes. I still do really love shooting families, newborns and portrait sessions. I feel privileged to be included in those intimate moments, and it’s such a cool way to connect with others.
So could you take us through a day in your life?
I get up pretty early; I’m definitely a morning person. I find I’m most creative in the morning. I usually make a schedule for each day because I there’s so much going on that I need to write it down and know what I need to accomplish that day. We live really close to the beach so I go for a walk or run—I try to get outside every day. If I don’t have meetings I’ll get started on work. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work from home, but if I’m going out for a shoot I’ll get everything organized for that. A lot of my days are just a mix of doing everything—including the groceries, keeping the house clean and preparing for whatever we have going on that week. The nice thing about creating your own schedule is that you can start work at 6:30 and then by 3:30 or 4 you can say, “Ok, work is done for today.” I always feel like it’s time for tea and a nap at that point.
I always have that. I don’t know if every night owl wishes they were a morning person, but I’m totally not a morning person. I do my best creative work in the evenings which doesn’t always work out well.
My brother is like that. I get it from my mom; she’s very much a morning person.
So how does your faith interact with your creativity and your business?
It’s the foundation of everything I do. It’s the central part of who I am; I place my work and my life before God and ask Him to direct me in whatever His will is for my life. Any growth or success in my business is a complete gift. My prayer is always that I would share Christ in my work and in what I do. I work in a very secular world so how can I show His love every day in the little things that I do? How can I have a different kind of business and be a different kind of business owner?
I wrote down this verse the other day because it’s totally how I feel: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” ” (James 4:13 – 15).
Instead of making all these grandiose plans or saying I want to accomplish certain things, I’m confident in God’s will for my life.
It’s so easy to get lost in the hustle of everything and forget that might not be God’s plan. Maybe it is, but it also might not be.
I love working hard and knowing that it’s because of Him that I can work this hard. But I also need to prioritize to remember what is most important in my life. Even when it comes to booking shoots I have to think: “Does working with this person or representing this brand hinder Jesus working through me?” It’s hard to do because in our culture it’s about success. Especially as a small business owner it’s so easy to get caught up in the success of your business.
Right. That becomes your defining measurement.
And to just go against that and say, “I feel like God has called me to do this, but even if He has a different plan for me tomorrow then I’m ok with that.” That’s hard to say, but I want to be an agent for Him.
I love that. This is my favourite question to ask. It’s interesting to see how that’s something that works into people’s lives every day—especially when they’re running their own businesses.
I have a few role models in my life of Christians with their own businesses that have been such a blessing. It’s interesting to see how people in this city love God, run businesses and live that out.
I’m always looking for models of women serving God and working in these kinds of fields. The things I’ve always been interested in—I studied arts and magazine publishing—seem so different from a lot of the women that I grew up with. I look around and so many of them have houses and children and I don’t have any of those things. Obviously that wasn’t God’s plan for me (at least for now), but sometimes it’s hard when you’re blazing a bit of a different path. It’s difficult to know what that looks like at the end of the day. I love reaching out to other women to ask: “How does this work for you?”
Totally. That’s awesome.
So what are some tools or tricks you use to stay inspired?
Pinterest. Instagram. I get a lot of inspiration from it and the people I connect with there. My friends and family—I love hosting and spending time with people and cooking. Our city; I think we live in one of the most beautiful cities. There are so many people here trying to make things work and to be creative, and it’s a hard city to do that in because it’s so expensive. It takes a lot to do your own thing and succeed.
Do you have any career dreams?
I’m kind of living it. I love what I do. I would love to travel a bit more and I’m super excited to be a mom one day. I would love a job that allows me to be flexible and evolves as I do. But right now, I feel like I’m exactly where I am meant to be.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own business or work in photography?
Pray about it. That’s the best place to start with anything. And just go for it. Be confident in trying something new. Reach out to people. I learned a lot from connecting with others in the community. Word of mouth is still so huge. Be yourself and make friends. Shadow someone who is doing what you want to do.
This is the scariest thing for me. But I keep telling myself that the worst that could happen is they say no.
I was always so surprised by how receptive people were. I would think: “They have such a cool business; they would never want to work with me.” And now we’re friends. Any time anyone reaches out to me I’m so humbled and flattered. It’s so good to encourage others. Like you said, the worst thing that could happen is they say no. But then you’ve already succeeded more than if you had never asked.
What’s one surprising thing about you?
I’m really obsessed with vegetables. I could eat only vegetables all day every day. I also really like Justin Timberlake.
Now I’d love to know about you. What part of Gillian’s story resonated with you the most? Are you a vegephile, too? (Is that a word? Because it should be.)