Photos by Helena Price | Interview by Sandra Davidson
Helena Price may have photographed a U.S. President, professional athletes, and Silicon Valley CEOs, but her journey to photography began with a disposable camera from a Walmart in North Carolina. In 2009, Helena, a New Bern native, moved to San Francisco with $40 in her pocket after graduating from N.C. State to pursue a public relations job in tech. Her life took a turn in 2013 when she quit a position at a startup to pursue photography full-time. Since then, she’s built a career as an editorial, commercial and portrait photographer and been dubbed Silicon Valley's most wanted photographer. To date, her work has been featured in Time, Glamour, and Elle magazines, The Guardian and NPR.
Helena reflects on her artistic journey, the interdisciplinary value of the arts, and her North Carolina roots in our 50 for 50 interview.*
When did your passion for photography begin?
When I was about 6-years-old, my dad gave me a disposable camera from Walmart. My first subjects were my stuffed animals, my pets, [and] my little brother. By high school I would photograph everything. I didn’t even think about it as a creative thing...it was just more of this compulsion to capture and save these things, these memories, which I think is a pretty common thing now, but no one else was really doing that when I was growing up.
It did take me a really long time to think of photography as something that I could do for a living...or even as a creative endeavor. I just knew that I liked taking pictures. I’m from a smaller town, and at the time our arts education was a bit limited. We were told that if you liked art, then your one choice was to be an art teacher and to paint and to draw, and so that’s what I thought creative or artistic work was. As I got older I started to encounter the idea that people made photos for a purpose, but honestly it just didn’t even feel like a realistic option for me until halfway through my 20s.
You started pursuing photography full-time at 25, and quickly found your niche in Silicon Valley. Why you were drawn to tech?
I was living in New York at the time, and there were lots and lots of photographers trying to make it there, and there were a lot of people who were trying to quit their jobs to become a photographer because of Instagram. So I felt like I really needed to think hard about how I was going to find a sustainable business as a photographer.
I’ve worked in technology for years, and I love technology. I know it like the back of my hand, and when I first started in tech people almost shunned design altogether. It was very much about building a product quickly and getting it to market, but I had a hunch that Silicon Valley was just starting to become interested in branding and visual outlets. So I had a hunch that tech was starting to care about photos, but no photographers cared about tech, except for me. That felt like an opportunity, so I decided to move back to Silicon Valley from New York and really dig into a market that I wasn’t sure existed yet, but I had a hunch existed. Very quickly it became obvious that I tapped into a very large market that no one else was looking at.
Helena created Techies, a large-scale photo/storytelling project sharing 100 stories of underrepresented tech employees in Silicon Valley, over the course of three months in 2016. The project had two main goals: to show the outside world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech, and to bring a bit of attention to folks in the industry whose stories have never been heard, considered or celebrated. Since its launch, the Techies Project has been profiled on ABC, CNN, Newsweek, NPR, Fortune, Fast Company, The Guardian, Elle and more.
Helena created Banned, a multimedia project showcasing unique stories of Silicon Valley employees affected by new federal immigration policies. The project received recognition on CNN, Glamour, TIME, and more.
You are commissioned to do a variety of projects - editorial, commercial and portraiture, but you’ve said you particularly love portrait photography. Why is that?
I’ve always loved combining disciplines, and to me portraiture is this combination of technical skill...making the perfect photo that is perfectly lit, balanced, and exposed properly...and then you’ve got the other side which is psychological. You have a person coming into your studio, and they’ve probably never met you before. Sometimes they don’t even want to be photographed. [Maybe] it’s their assistant or their branding director who commissioned the photograph. They have their own insecurities as we all do. They have things they hate about themselves. They don’t want to have their picture taken because they don’t know me, because they don’t trust me. It’s a very scary thing, and they’re supposed to just stand in front of a plain background and let me do whatever I want with their image.
For me, it’s a really interesting and rewarding challenge. I have 30 seconds to take this stranger and make them into my friend, and make them feel comfortable, and make them trust me. Before they know it, it’s done, and they have a photograph of themselves where they look comfortable, where they look their best. That combination of technical perfection and psychological improvisation satisfies every bit of my brain. It's the perfect left brain, right brain combination. It’s such a challenge and so rewarding every single time/
So much of your work has taken place in the world of tech. What do the arts bring to that universe?
There are a lot of folks who think creativity is just something that artists have and that only artists need.
Being creative is good. Being creative is valuable no matter what you’re doing, whether you're a mathematician, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a painter.
Any of those careers would benefit immensely from creative thinking, and thinking outside the box. In reality, creativity is part of what makes something like Silicon Valley so successful. It’s not, ‘Can you paint something beautiful?’ It’s, ‘Can you problem solve quickly? Can you adapt to industries that are constantly changing? Can you market yourself in a way that’s really compelling to audiences that you want to connect with?’ All of the skills that are tied up in creative thinking have helped me immensely in my career, but could actually just help anyone — no matter what career they are in. These ways of thinking are going to help people survive in industries that are changing over the next 100 years.
When you are experiencing self-doubt or uncertainty in you work, what pushes you through?
I feel uncertainty with every single job that I do. The process is the same every time. It’s me being excited that I got the job, then freaking out wondering if I’m going to be able to do it. Then I go deep into a hole of despair where I question all of my work, and I feel bad about myself, and I think that I’m horrible, and I worry that it’s just for some reason going to be horrible this time. But then I just have to say, ‘You have to do this. You have a job to do. You need to do the job.’ I psych myself back into it, and I do the job, and it’s always fine. It’s just a funny cycle every time.
I think every artist goes through lows, constantly, of doubting yourself and feeling bad about your work and wondering if you’re actually capable of doing something, but then you just do it because you have no choice, and you prove to yourself time and time again that you actually can. It’s a roller coaster.
You seem very rooted in California, so where does North Carolina fit in you story?
Being from North Carolina makes me different from most people where I live. For a long time I supressed my southerness and where I came from because I wanted so badly to fit in in Silicon Valley, but once you are a business owner or your own kind of craft person trying to make a name for yourself, it’s all about being different. It’s all about how you can take your background and the things and the environments that shaped you as a person and feed that into your work to create this holistic picture that is genuinely you. I’ve become a lot more proud of where I come from, and how that has shaped me as a person. There are just parts of being southern that I’m really glad that I adopted...always being kind and very open to people, knowing how to relax, knowing how to enjoy just sitting on a porch or sitting by a fire or being outside. I feel these things really have balanced me out as a person, and I think will continue to benefit me for the rest of my life.
*This interview has been transcribed, edited and condensed
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.