We sat down with La'Quitia Denson of Beyond the Pond Photography to discuss her intersectional identity, why she decided to start working for herself, and how she broke into the photography industry.
Liz: Could you tell us a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you?
La'Quitia: I was born in Munich, Germany, with my twin. My father is an African American in the military, and my mother is a Panamanian immigrant. I was still a child when they returned to the States, and like any military family, you move around a little. West Chester, Pennsylvania is where spent most of my time growing up. It was annoying to tell you the truth. (laughs) I got picked on for being quiet. Bullied for being different. In high school, there was this group in that was supposed to about Latinos and community, and it was nuts because I wasn't "latin" enough, even though half my descent is from Central America. Fun times.
Liz: That sounds hard. I'm sorry to hear you were bullied. Was this in West Chester, PA?
La'Quitia: Yes. I went to elementary, middle, and high school with pretty much the same kids. There was no real "fresh start" as I moved up through the grades.
Liz: So what was your transition into adulthood like after high school?
La'Quitia: I graduated from high school at 16 and went to Moore College of Art and Design with a major in Fashion and a minor in Graphic Design. I learned after a while that school was just not a good fit for me. I did come out of it with a few great friends though! I felt stuck staying in West Chester, which I refer to as Bars and Banks, PA. Adulthood hit me pretty fast when I moved to the state of Delaware a couple years afterward. Thankfully, I learned how to cook when I was eight, so that part wasn't a challenge. I owned my first car at 22. Every place I've lived in has been in my name. And I've experienced my fair share of domestic violence. Most of the time I worked at the University of Delaware, through Aramark, in one of their dining halls, which isn't as horrible and cafeteria lady as you would think. After I had surgery to remove a serious cyst from my ovary, I ended up losing my job, flagged with "job abandonment." Simply because I couldn't call in at 6 am every day as I was instructed to until my FMLA came in. Imagine being bedridden, having stitches on both sides of your abdomen and belly button, and taking Tylenol #3 with codine AND having to wake up from that. When I recovered and couldn't find work with the flag, I decided I wanted to work for myself, and here I am.
Liz: Wow. That is a powerful story. So what was starting your own business like?
La'Quitia: Scary exciting. It still is. (laughs) My biggest fear was failing, and that made me question if I could really do it. I went online and looked at which camera I thought would be the best for me to start out with and asked for suggestions from a few photographers I already knew. I settled on the Nikon D5200. Music photography was my foot in the door to learning about photography. I took online classes to learn more about the industry. At one show, I ended up being pushed into a speaker, injuring my hand and my lens. At that point, I decided I wanted to look into a more controlled environment. That's when I realized I knew of one of the most amazing photographers in my area: Marisa Zimmerman of Marisa Taylor Photography. She taught me a lot of the behind-the-scenes and hands-on things you can't learn in a course: interacting with clients, posing bodies, natural lighting, and adjusting the settings...TAXES! etc. I was ready to dive into this portrait photography world! That's when Beyond The Pond was born. My friend, Lisa Pham, whom I met in college, helped me break things down and hammer out the name and my logo. Advertising and graphic illustration is her thing, so I'm fortunate to know such a talented person.
Liz: Awesome. So when did you officially launch Beyond the Pond, and how did you choose the name?
La'Quitia: I launched the business, officially registering my DBA June 6th, 2016. I chose the name for a few reasons. I was born "across the pond," which references the North Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe. I also chose the name because I'm not like every other shutterbug (can I say shutterfish? laughs) in the photography pond. I enjoy being a big thinker when it comes to sessions and while clean, airy, and crisp are gorgeous and work for some people, I want to get those kinds of clients that are odd, quirky, and think outside the box! I want that engagement session that can get a little weird. I want to work with a concept that some might find nontraditional or is considered too involved. I'm not sure if it's noticed, but the colors chosen for Beyond The Pond are an uncommon and bold pairing. I looked up unique color schemes, again, wanting to go beyond the norm. I consider myself quite interesting, so why shouldn't my business reflect that?
Liz: Totally. So today is Woke Wednesday. Do you consider yourself woke, feminist, or otherwise a social justice advocate?
La'Quitia: Yes, absolutely. I have always wanted to get myself involved in things that not only affect me, but others—whether it's sexual orientation, gender, race, or for some of my friends, it's religion. But I had a hard time finding my voice. As a bi Afro-Latina woman and first generation American in my family on my mother's side, I've seen and heard and felt a lot of things. I went with my friend Lisa to one of the protests in Philadelphia during the travel ban. There was a family being held at the airport. Lisa was a child refugee, so this was important to her. Some of my family has since been worried that they could possibly be sent back, so this was important to me, too. That was a real frightening moment just because it was my first protest and ended up being a sit-in. It was overwhelming, and I just didn't know what would happen next. Thankfully, it ended without any injuries or problems. But the support I received from my friends and family for involving myself in something felt great. I felt great. I've found my voice since then and have been learning about other ways to get involved. A big thing that I've noticed a lot is this problem with some makeup artists or photographers not having enough diversity in their portfolios, or they culturally appropriate. I'm working on a photo project that shows you CAN have models of different backgrounds, you just have to be willing to find them. I'm hoping to follow suit with some of the photographers I've gotten to know recently that are working on some amazingly inclusive projects. I'm glad to be inspired by such wonderful and strong individuals.
Liz: My follow up question was going to be how do you incorporate your values into your photo work? Could you say more about the project you are planning?
La'Quitia: I'd love to! It may help get some buzz going! My photo project uses the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and I've matched the symbols with specific cultural attributes. For example, for Scorpio the scorpion, I have matched it to the Middle East. The scorpion has been associated with the Sun, an omen, a healing sign, and even a ward against evil. I have hired two models of Middle Eastern descent and posed them to depict a mate dance of the scorpions. It is considered an exotic dance of passion and control. The specific pose I chose is from the movie Desert Dancer. And their clothing is inspired by the fashion of that region of the world, staying away from anything that would be considered traditional or stereotypical. Each sign and model are matched in this way. So 12 signs. 12 cultures.
Liz: Wow. This sounds pretty epic. I can't wait to see the final result! Is there anything else you would like to say about the photo industry or your social justice values?
La'Quitia: I think as creatives we should know how to properly represent cultures and the people associated with them. Accurate representation matters. I'd like to see more photographers work with people they aren't used to. Some have issues with properly editing darker tones. Some photographers are uncomfortable around same sex models/clients. Explore why you have these feelings and why you side step the opportunities. See what you can gain from the opportunity. I know some don't want the "drama" or anything like that, but at the end of the day, we are all on this rotating ball of dirt and water together. Be involved. Start breaking those societal norms, wherever you are!
Liz: I love that. Thank you so much, La'Quitia!