Woke Wednesday // Meet New York Photographer Amber Marlow

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Amber Marlow is a New York City wedding photographer who opens up in this interview about her challenging upbringing and the journey that followed to find ease with her racial identity and a sense of self worth.

Liz: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you?

Amber: I grew up in a strict evangelical Christian household with my mom and stepdad, who were emotionally and physically abusive. We were the "dinosaurs lived five thousand years ago" science and evolution deniers. I wasn't allowed to watch secular television or listen to the radio. I was homeschooled through middle school, and I didn't really have friends as a kid. I also had a half-brother who was six years younger and clearly the “golden child.” I was also the only PoC in my family and wasn't really allowed to acknowledge that part of me.

Liz: Thank you for sharing this with me, Amber. I'm sure it doesn't inspire feelings of warm fuzzies to discuss.

Amber: Eh. I'm pretty at peace with it now, thanks to therapy. My life is rad now!

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Liz: Can you talk a bit about how you transitioned out of your home life as a child into adulthood and what that experience was like for you?

Amber: I moved out when I was 20 and ended up moving in with my grandparents. My grandpa died shortly thereafter, so it was just me and my grandmother for about three years. She was a little too old to have someone so young living with her; it was causing a lot of problems if I came home at, like, 11 pm. And sometimes I wouldn't even want to go out for the night until 10 pm, so there was friction. Because my relationship with my mother was so strained at that point, I didn’t want to lose my grandma, too, so I ended up moving into my friend's laundry room for a summer. It gave me nosebleeds from the mold.

Liz: Oh no.

Amber: I slept in my car for most of that summer rather than breathe that air in. Then I got a shitty apartment for about three months, then ended up dating someone and moving in with him, and when he bought a house, I moved in there with him, too. And then I married him when we were 25. I was a part-time barista and ended up being in a situation where I was clinging desperately to this relationship, which is not the best way to head into a marriage. But it was just where I was at the time.

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Liz: Was there a time when you felt the shift from life happening to you to you taking hold of your own life?

Amber: Any day now! (laughs) I guess when I turned 31ish it really started clicking? Before that, it didn't occur to me my life could be my own. I went from my parents to my husband, and the brief period of time in between when I was on my own was so shitty and difficult, so any sort of stability was framed in “I’m being supported by someone else.” On top of that, I was raised with the mentality of a woman’s highest calling being a wife "and an helpmeet" (no typo). [Literally this is not a typo; it’s actually “an helpmeet” not “a helpmeet.” No idea why.] My whole extended family on both sides was this extreme level of blue collar conservative, and I didn’t have any examples of people pursuing higher education or examples of women doing it for themselves. But I didn’t fit this at all.

And then I was on my own, and I was free from that, but couldn’t shake the burden of feeling like I was living "the wrong way," so I got married to this person by really pressuring him to marry me. At the time, it felt like I had pushed my life on the "right" path, but looking back, he so clearly wasn't the right person for me to marry, and I wasn't the right person for him to marry, either.

I started my business while in that marriage, but even then I didn't take it super seriously. It was, like, a thing that I did to "make a little extra money." Which is insane to me now that I didn’t think to have a job, but that's how I was conditioned to look at anything I accomplished.

Liz: Right.

Amber: So I didn't take my business super seriously until the last year or so of that marriage, and then I was suddenly single at age 30 and really didn't have anything else to fall back on, and it was everything. It will not surprise readers at this point to find out I never went to college. "You're a girl, you'll just get married and have a husband take care of you" was an exact quote. I ended up taking a few community college courses but I don’t have any degrees. So yeah, after the divorce, when I finally realised that I had to dig in and make my business work I started taking myself seriously. This led to me taking all sorts of things seriously: I started actually eating well and working out. It was a period of therapy and hard growth, but I came out of it this a really dynamic person that I really enjoy being. Finally, I was able to open up a part of myself and start dating for love, and now I’m married to someone else and it’s totally different. He’s wonderful, and I adore him, but I don’t have that “I could never live without you” feeling. It’s so much healthier.

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Liz: Do you think your photography business became somewhat of a life preserver as everything you were raised to believe and value began to fall away?

Amber: Oh for sure. It was for a long time the only, and remains the biggest, piece of proof I have that I'm a valuable, smart person. Which feels hella deep and sad, but it's not! I made something. I take photos that grandchildren are going to memorize and curl themselves around.

Liz: Yes.

Amber: Even if no one remembers my name, which is totally fine, they'll have my art imprinted on their childhood memories fifty years from now. And people PAY ME.

Liz: Which is super rad.

Amber: I can open up my bank account and see dollars that I earned. Having been raised the way I was, this is completely radical. So yeah — huge life preserver.

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Liz: Totally. So today you are a leader among wedding professionals who consider themselves "woke," or are otherwise progressive and perhaps alienated in their home communities. Can you tell us how this evolved — both your own awakening and starting this movement?

Amber: Oh weird. I didn't even mean to become a leader, but I guess I am. There was a racial kerfuffle in another really big online wedding professional group, and I started a whole new one for people who were more "woke" as a direct response to that. It just happened, and I was in Palm Springs when it did at a workshop with a lot of the folks who happen to be Catalyst readers, and I was sitting around a dining room table with other people who were looking at each other over the tops of their laptops like, "Are you reading this shit?"

I am hesitant to say I started a movement, though. I created the space. The people are the movement. They amaze me every day, and *corny alert!* I'm humbled to be speaking to them on a daily basis.

Being woke for me was always there and put me at odds with my family, but I don’t think it fully became something I embraced until recently. I'm also not super proud of this, but we'll keep it 100: I didn't really consider myself a "person of colour" until maybe a few years ago. I thought that black people would say, "you're not black enough," but the response was actually, "Girl, get your black behind over here! You're with us."

I'm nearly the same racial makeup as Barack Obama, but I look whiter because of genetics, and I often get people asking me directions on the street in Spanish. I've felt a little lost, but thankfully I live in the part of Brooklyn where it doesn't matter that much. And it was living here and talking to woke people online that really helped me see my own truth.

I am hesitant to say I started a movement, though. I created the space. The people are the movement. They amaze me every day, and *corny alert!* I'm humbled to be speaking to them on a daily basis.

I have no idea how I got woke though. I think I just always was. I asked my mom once how we knew we were right if Muslims thought THEY were right. And she said "the Bible," and I said, "What about their holy book?" and then I got in trouble. I was eight.

Amber Marlow is a progressive LGBTQ-friendly wedding photographer in Brooklyn New York

Liz: That critical thinking! So how do you incorporate being woke into your art and business?

Amber: Oh gosh. I was going to tell you I don't but I do — I just don't really need to think about it. My opening header on my website is “wedding and elopement photography in New York City for fun, creative couples who believe that Love is Love.” I mention trans people on my website. I talk about gender expressions. I talk about egalitarian couples and mention grooms, too, instead of that “it’s HER big day” nonsense. My clients are called “couples” not “brides.” There are same-sex and minority couples featured on my website front and center. I treat everyone the same.

Liz: Yes, you are disrupting from the inside. Is there anything else you would like to share about your own journey or words of advice to readers who may also be trying to figure out how to be themselves in this industry?

Amber: I think being yourself and having a clear message is the ONLY way to have a successful business in the wedding industry. Don't work weddings that don't line up with what you want to be doing. Pass it on to someone else. Be radically, unashamedly yourself.

Liz: I love it. Thank you so much, Amber

Amber: You're welcome!