Twyla Hall, photographer and mother,
was struggling to achieve balance.
She had just begun her photography business when her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism. As she searched for a vision of hope for her son, she found a new purpose for her photography. “I wanted to be able to have a business that allows people to step out of their hard lives, and appreciate what they have in this moment. Because that is honestly the only thing we have for sure - this moment, right now.”
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, photographer Julia Kelleher said, “Let’s turn somebody’s life around.” Three months later, Twyla Hall won the Ultimate Studio Makeover - and set out on a path to define
The Makeover had its origins in a photography business bootcamp taught by photographer and CreativeLive instructor Julia Kelleher, a successful portrait photographer based out of Bend, OR. Building her enterprise wasn’t easy. It took her 10 years to painstakingly collect the skill base, resources, and savvy to feel confident in her business.
Photographers have a great sense of visual aesthetic and design, but they often don’t know how to build a business. So many people close shop after the first few months of their venture.”
- Julia Kelleher
Over her years as a CreativeLive instructor, students had approached her to ask for private mentoring as they struggled to launch their businesses. She had considered the idea, but for most fledgling photographers, the cost of flying out to Bend for lessons was prohibitive - and Julia couldn’t cover all of their costs on her own.
Even if she could, it isn’t only mentorship that prospective business owners need. They need deep knowledge of the systems, both material and interpersonal, on which they will base their commerce. They need momentum, strategic thinking, charisma. Julia began to conceive of a plan to condense her years of experience into a powerful boost for a student. So one day last August, she called CreativeLive Content Producer Jim Catechi, and told him that she had a plan to give something big back to the photography community.
With some help from Jim, Julia pulled together an amazing prize package. She rallied twelve sponsors around the idea of giving a photographer with dreams the opportunity to realize them. CreativeLive donated eight classes. TimeExposure threw in its signature sales software package. White House Custom Color awarded a $1500 gift certificate for its printing services. Julia offered a 2-day mentorship session in her own studio, and agreed to pay for the travel costs of the winner. Overall, the Ultimate Studio Makeover was worth over $10,000.
CreativeLive called for video submissions from entrants explaining how the prize would transform their photography practice. The response was slow at first, but in the final hours of the submission window, they received nearly 250 videos. Jim and Julia said it was nearly impossible to narrow it down to just a few - they wanted to support them all - but when it came to the finalists, one of them stood out beyond a doubt.
Twyla first began her photography business in an effort to rediscover a part of herself that was being left behind in the daily hustle and urgency of parenthood. She had recently welcomed her youngest, Kieron, into the world. Her husband, Jonathan, had been promoted at work and was spending more time on the road. Opportunities to meet new people and connect to the outside world were dwindling amid the tide of responsibilities.
“So much of my life is focused on my kids,” she says. “There are a million-and-one chores on the list, and nothing is ever totally done. The one thing I have for myself is my photography. It maintains my sense of self, and it helps me deal with all the things that seem too hard to face. I really do believe that being able to do something creative for yourself keeps your soul intact. Everything these days is so hurry-hurry-hurry - sometimes it feels like being ripped, you’re pulled in so many directions all the time. Photography recenters me.”
To Twyla, photography has been a welcome break from the pressure of being not only a parent, but a good parent. Parents are expected to have answers for everything, and an action plan to confront every new obstacle. Inevitably, forces outside of your control upend your plans and expectations for your family. When that happens, the self-recrimination is intense. You feel judged. You feel under-equipped and outmatched.
But no one can tell Twyla that her creativity is right or wrong. It simply is. And when the unexpected did happen, a scant three months into Twyla’s new business, her photography helped her find a new purpose.
A little over a year ago, Twyla’s son Ronin was diagnosed with autism. He was 3 years old. The revelation sent Twyla and Jonathan reeling. “It was hard. There was some denial. We were like, ‘no way.’ We had been taking him to the pediatrician, and everything was ok. You want to hang on to conventional norms, that belief that, yeah, he’s just like the other boys. ‘Oh he’s just an inquisitive child. Oh, Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4. Oh, kids are all different.’” But Ronin didn’t do what everyone said he would do.
“After I was done being stunned, I was so sad - worried, you know, about the potential limitations this places on his life.” Twyla didn’t know what to expect for Ronin’s future after the diagnosis. She’d heard stories about Autistic children: how they never talk, throw violent fits, make loud outbursts, and live in their own little worlds. She’d also heard about them being math geniuses, piano prodigies, and master artists - but never about how they could be “normal” kids, too. She found herself mourning his future. He’ll never sit still for a full conversation! He’ll be bullied! He’ll sit on the bench during games! Because he plays by himself instead of with other children, he’ll never have a true friend.
But as the new normal established itself, Twyla saw that though the label applied to Ronin had changed, Ronin had remained the same. “I started thinking, well, no - there’s nothing to be sad about.
There’s no point in placing these supposed limitations on someone before they’ve even had a chance to experience life.
He’s obviously very smart and special, but even if he wasn’t - he is who he is. I realized I should just be happy about that. He’s amazing the way he is. He’s just happy to be himself. Happy to spin wheels on a train and look around and jump around and give hugs and be silly.”
She began to realize that the experience of his diagnosis, as challenging as it was, allowed her to have greater appreciation for who he actually is as a person. Rather than worrying about what he may someday not be able to do, she appreciated with all her heart the things he can do. After all, he was still the curious, intelligent, zany kid he had been. And as with all children, time did not slow down for Ronin. Twyla watched him continue to grow and evolve, and as many parents do, she felt compelled to document his childhood on film before it vanished into the past.
As she followed Ronin with her camera to capture his day-to-day ramblings, Twyla began to notice a gulf between the portraits she made for customers and those she took of her son. Her clients preferred the kinds of family portraits that we are all accustomed to seeing. The perfectly coiffed nuclear family, intentionally arrayed and ranked. Children, with smiles carefully painted, in various states of cheery wholesomeness. Bewildered toddlers trussed up in twill.
Her images of Ronin, by contrast, are unique. Her lens stands by patiently, quietly, watching as he follows the whim of his curiosity. It captures the wonder at the world he encounters. She evokes his spirit expertly. Twyla realized that her definition of beauty - and true selfhood - was changing. Instead of capturing people as they think they should be seen, she felt called to capture who they are. The first time I spoke to Twyla, we were video chatting on her ipad. The subject of beauty animated her so much that she walked me to the bathroom to illustrate her point.
She pulled a portrait she had made off the wall.“So, you see this? These are my kids on the toilet, right? I put this on my wall. Then I looked at the work I create for other people, and a lot of it was what I thought they wanted to see. If this image of my kids frozen in a real, normal moment really speaks to me, why shouldn’t something with this kind of authenticity be ok for someone else?”
“Beautiful is beautiful. When I take a picture of Ronin, or of anyone’s kid, I want people to feel something. I want it to invoke passion, feeling. Nostalgia. Capture something that we’re not going to get back. I want to capture who they were, what they did. Weird Habits. They way they dig their hands into the dirt. They’re not going to do that forever.”
In the year since Ronin’s diagnosis, Twyla found a new purpose for her business. Her new drive became showing people the things that they’re too busy to see for themselves. She helps them slow down, enter the given moment, and appreciate the things they would overlook. “I want to help people realize the importance of their family, and to accept the way that they are. I want to help people realize that it’s always worth it to take a family portrait - even if their children have special needs, and can’t sit for a traditional family photo.”
Twyla began to envision a photography organization that would provide portraiture for families with autistic and other special needs children. It’s no simple feat to afford behavioral and developmental therapy for children with special needs, and insurance companies often argue that coverage for such treatment should fall outside coverage. Having a beautiful family portrait can be a powerful incentive to carry on in the face of the adversity. Twyla believes this is doubly true when it reveals the essential core of a child who the family might not otherwise believe could sit for a traditional portrait.
After winning the Makeover contest, Twyla began the long work of making that vision a reality. And she’s discovered that she doesn’t have to do that work in a vacuum. In February, she flew to Bend and spent 3 days with Julia at her studio. “She was incredible. I learned so much. And it was awesome to see that other working professionals, their work is never done either. Everybody has a journey. It made me feel less alone. I feel now that there’s actually a community I can tap into, I just have to extend the olive branch. I don’t need to be so afraid to go out on limbs.”
“Having met her, and watching her get excited for my dream, I realized that there’s an opportunity not just to grow in a community but to create a whole new one.”