For Woke Wednesday, we chatted with Raquita Henderson, the photographer behind Pinxit in St. Louis, to discuss how she started photographing weddings at age 13, how she risks losing business by being vocal about her values, and how much she deeply loves weddings.
Liz: What was growing up like for you? Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
Raquita: I had what I think of as a regular lower to middle class black kid childhood. My parents worked hard, and moved us on up like the Jeffersons to the suburbs. It was like the land between The Cosby Show and Everybody Hates Chris. I grew up in the St. Louis suburbs near Ferguson. I have a sister and a brother, so my job was to make sure they were good while my parents were at work. I've always been the kind of person who likes to care for people, so I enjoyed that role. I have good memories of being a kid. Lots of corner store trips and cousins and bike treks like goonies without the pirates.
Liz: I love that. So what was your transition into adulthood like?
Raquita: It was a little bumpy. I went to a predominantly black public school (60/40 split), and college was a whole different world. The level of work required and the financial commitment of college was hard and didn't mix well (I worked three jobs my freshman year), so I didn't survive college away from home for long. I came home after two years, and I still was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. It took me until my mid-twenties to get my bearings and figure myself out. I always met fantastic people who have given me just the nudge I needed to keep moving forward all the time.
Liz: And what was your path like to photography and starting your own business?
Raquita: Oh it started when I was a kid; I got a SLR for my 12th Christmas. I asked for a camera (thought I would get a Polaroid—i.e. shake it like a...), and my dad went whole hog. Pentax K1000 and all the bells and whistles and a book on the basics of black and white photography. I took photos of everything and everyone. I loved it. I dived in feet first. I drove my family so crazy that they had to give me something to focus on, so my aunt asked me to shoot my cousin's wedding when I was like 13 or 14 years old. I did it because I didn't know that's not something you ask a kid to do. I shot everyone in my family's weddings and all of their friends' weddings, until I was in my 20s, via film. I was shooting photojournalism style weddings before I knew what that was; it was just how shooting felt good. A friend became a wedding planner, and I had shot her wedding and all of her siblings' weddings, so I was her first call, and that's how I started charging for my work. My now-husband, then-boyfriend convinced me that this was something people would really pay me for, and in 2007 I started working photography like I wanted it to be my career, not just a hobby. I launched in 2008, and I have been full-time since 2009. Next year is my ten year anniversary.
Liz: That's AMAZING! That's such a good story.
Raquita: I went digital in 2007. That was a key component to launching my biz because I couldn't just give folks my memory cards like I could just hand over film. Those things used to be expensive.
Liz: Interesting. Yeah, could you talk about some of the challenges along the way to starting your own business?
Raquita: Oh I did everything the "wrong" way. I started with a studio in the trendiest neighborhood (studio rents were too high for someone with no clients), I didn't know the first thing about pricing for photography, but I knew a lot about service and sociology and psychology from my time in college—those were always my favorite classes, so they taught me a lot about why people do things. My family only had our portrait made like twice in my childhood—portraits were a luxury item; it never occurred to me to offer them to people. Even as a kid bothering my family, I never took a classic portrait of any of them. So I don't think I took a portrait of someone for work until 2009. I feel like if I could go back and give my young self advice, it would be to learn portraiture and offer that service sooner. And not necessarily for the money—I just think more people should have family portraits made regularly. I wouldn't care so much about knowing other photographers. I would have worked harder at building a brand and a structure for my business. But outside of macro and microeconomics classes, I had no business knowledge at all.
Liz: Right. I agree with all of that advice, and I learned it the hard way, too. (laughs) So what does your business look like today?
Raquita: Almost ten years in, and I feel like I've found my groove. My business is mostly weddings. I really, REALLY love weddings. Like if I wasn't a photographer, I'd be a wedding planner. I love weddings because it means helping people transition into a new part of life. Celebrating love. And what is better than love? The other small part of my business is family portraits because I think people need them, and kids need them. Family portraits make you feel good about your family, about the people you belong to. I also like doing business headshots because I can help people feel good about what they are offering the job market. Basically I choose to use my business for good. That's the base question I ask when making decisions—will this do good?
Liz: I love that. So today is Woke Wednesday. Do you consider yourself feminist, woke, or otherwise a social justice advocate?
Raquita: I'm all of that. I've always been committed to serving marginalized communities before I knew what that was or would look like. I've always been pro marriage equality and been vocal about that for my business. And particularly since Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012, I've been hugely motivated, and then again in 2014 as Mike Brown happened in my old stomping grounds, and then the VonDerrit Myers, Jr. police shooting in my current neighborhood made me commit to being particularly vocal about racial equality, and then subsequently feminist issues.
Liz: So how do you incorporate your values into your business?
Raquita: We donate our time and talents to any organization that is doing social justice work and needs a photographer. We donate financially, as well, where ever we can. I am also very committed to displaying our clients of all races and orientations. And I know that seems like a small thing, but it's really not here in Missouri. I've gotten pushback, and it's cost me business (that I wouldn't have wanted anyway) when I post same sex couples or mixed race couples. Being vocal about my commitment to equality especially in the last five years has been especially hard as a business owner in this area. St Louis is a very interesting reflection of national mindsets. And I've been told that my voice is why I won't be hired. So my personal commitments seem to affect my business whether I wear my Pinxit badge while I do them or not.
Liz: Totally. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others starting out in this industry who share your values but may be nervous to make a stand?
Raquita: I would love to tell them to just jump out there and just do it, and they should also be mindful of the waves they make. I am not saying at all not to make them, but be mindful of the ripples. Surround yourself with great swimmers, and stay focused on the good. There is more good than bad in the world, no matter what it looks like right now. Be Mr. Rodgers. Look for the helpers. Stay calm, have extra shoes, make time to listen, and enjoy it all.
Liz: Thank you so much, Raquita. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Raquita: I think weddings are an amazing opportunity for people to celebrate their lives, the love they have found, and the people who love them and celebrate with them. I hope one day the choice for kindness and celebration and hope and joy that people make for each other at weddings spills over to everyday. I hope we don't have to be faced with a life change like marriage and a party to be able to love people like that everyday. Our lives change everyday. And we should be having a party everyday, to celebrate any change, big or small. We wake up and thats a celebratory event. I'm also thrilled that Catalyst exists. I've dreamed of doing something like it, and I am THRILLED I don't have to try and start another business!
Liz: HAHAHAHA! I hear you. If I ever start another business, someone pinch me or something. Thank you so much for your time and wisdom, Raquita.