We sat down with Kelley Raye to learn more about her deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit, how she taught herself the art of photography, and how she and her wife scrapped their wedding plans after four stressful months to elope and travel.
Liz: What was growing up like for you? Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Kelley: Sure. I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. My parents divorced when I was pretty young, so I grew up about 10 years with my mom and then 10 years with my dad. I moved around a lot during my first 10 years to different cities, so I went to a new school every year. I had to learn how to make friends quickly, which I think is where my chipper, cheerleader energy comes from. (laughs) I moved to Connecticut when I was 10 and stayed there all the way through college graduation. Then I came to Atlanta to be near my mom after that.
Liz: Yes, that is a lot of moving and change! So where did you attend college?
Kelley: Yes, a lot. I just always knew it was coming, so I got used to it. I went to the University of Connecticut and somehow graduated in four years.
Liz: That's great. What was that experience like for you?
Kelley: It was much different than high school. Every day in high school I wore makeup, and as soon as I got to college, I was down to just mascara. It was a little easier to be yourself I guess. (laughs) I had a great college experience, except I am one of those people who cannot take multiple choice tests because every answer looks the same. I thought I was super dumb and thought that I would fail out of school because of it. But I got help from an advisor—it was totally not his job to do this; he's just supposed to tell you what classes to take. But he taught me a better way to study and take tests, and I started pulling in As. I was shocked. I actually graduated on time but it was touch-and-go there for a while. (laughs) I also have a massive student loan debt that I absolutely loathe, and because I'm now a photographer, sometimes I feel like I could have just skipped college altogether.
Liz: What did you study in college?
Kelley: I came in as a psychology major because I love trying to understand why people do the things they do. But since I wanted to graduate, I had to change to something a little easier, so I chose the individualized major route and created my own major: Lifestyle Management and Communication with the hopes of starting my own a lifestyle/event planning company after graduation.
Liz: So it sounds like you knew you were entrepreneurial and creative from the start. What was the path like to starting your own photography business after college?
Kelley: Yes, I knew I wanted to own my own business from a very young age, which is why the decision to go to college was an interesting one—I never really wanted to go. Out of all the business ideas and business plans I wrote up in tons of notebooks over the years, photography never crossed my mind as a 'business.' I always had a camera with me because I moved around a lot. I kept a camera with me to take photos throughout the year of my friends, my family, my house...because I knew my surroundings would change, and I wanted to remember. So taking photos was just something I did and I continued into my adulthood. I was always the only person with a camera (this was before camera phones of course). One day a few years ago, my now-wife purchased a DSLR. We were working on an entirely different business plan and needed a good camera to take photos of some products. Then Easter Sunday came around, and my brother, who was maybe 3 or 4 at the time, looked so stinkin' cute in his little church outfit (my mom made us go). So I took a photo of him. It was the first time I had combined my natural talent with a 'real' camera. Someone saw the photo I took and told me I could be a photographer. Like a real one. So I started practicing on people outside of my family to see if I really had an eye. And I guess I did.
Liz: Oh, wow. Honestly, I assumed you were trained in photography because your work is next-level. So when did you officially launch your photography business?
Kelley: No training at all! (laughs) I officially quit my final corporate job in October 2013.
Liz: Wow. So how is it going?
Kelley: It's going great! It takes a lot of work, a lot of putting yourself out there, and a supportive tribe to keep you sane.
Liz: Yes. Who are the people in your life that you rely on the most as you navigate the highs and lows of running your own business?
Kelley: I rely on my wife for sure. She held onto her shitty corporate job a little longer than we wanted so that I had time to grow my business. One of my main goals was to grow as fast as possible so that she could quit her job, and I could do the same for her. She quit her corporate job at the end of March. I also rely on some really awesome friends who are also entrepreneurs and also my biggest ambassadors. When you're starting a business, support is so important. I appreciate everyone who has supported me so far, whether it's flying me out to Virginia for my first speaking engagement or just liking all the photos I post on Instagram. It all goes a long way.
Liz: Congratulations to your wife for leaving her job and to you for being able to support her in doing that! So you are pretty recently married. What was planning your wedding like for you as someone in the industry?
Kelley: You know, before I was a wedding photographer, I knew that I did not want a big wedding. I was all about those elopements. We wrote down what we wanted out of our day, and the main things that came up were no stress, no stress, no stress. We started planning a wedding, and then what crept up? Stress! After four months of crying, we trashed the whole idea and decided we were going to the courthouse and then we would take a trip. Travel is our favorite thing in the whole world, and we would rather spend our money on that than a wedding that we kind of don't even want. We turned down the volume on our family and friends and listened to our hearts. We leave for our Thailand honeymoon in July. And our courthouse wedding was amazing. We invited our immediate family only, and then we all went to eat burgers afterward. It was the best day. My advice for anyone planning a wedding is cliché, but it is so true: it is your day, please do what YOU want.
Liz: I think that is so important for people to hear. Even if you START planning a wedding, if it's ultimately not right for you, you can scrap the plans.
Kelley: Yes, we sure did scrap it. (laughs)
Liz: So today is "Woke Wednesday." Do you consider yourself woke, feminist, or otherwise a social justice advocate?
Kelley: Yes, definitely woke and feminist. I have always questioned every piece of information that gets passed to me. I even remember challenging my religious science teacher in class one day when we were learning about evolution. You have to question everything; you can't just take what people hand you as true. Do your own research and draw your own conclusion. And as far as feminism goes, my whole photography business is based around weddings and female entrepreneurs. I make sure it is very clear that I'm all about that female empowerment, and I also want my brand to represent a safe space by making sure my portfolio represents as many different people as possible so that no one has to feel like they have to look a certain way to contact me.
Liz: Definitely. Do you have any advice for someone starting out in the industry who shares your values or is outside of the wedding industry norm themselves?
Kelley: My advice would be to control your brand, and don't let it control you. As a photographer, it's very easy to get pushed into a box that you cant get out of, so if you see something missing in your portfolio that you want, do what you have to do to get it in there. If there is something you don't like to do, figure it out early and then stop doing it. Or at least don't show everyone if it's something you don't want more of. What people see is what they will come to you for, but you have the power to control that.
Liz: That's great advice. Is there anything else you would like to say or share?
Kelley: I think thats it!
Liz: Well thank you so much!