On Hustle: Photographer & Two-Time Entrepreneur Shawna Stanley

When Shawna Stanley isn’t busy running Shawna & Co.—her documentary photography business specializing in birth stories, day-in-the-life family sessions, and weddings—she’s preoccupied with being supermom to her brood of three and getting her second small business—a women’s coworking space and social club called The Vanguard House—off the ground. Between all the important things already on her plate, she also manages to carve out time to serve many of Block Club’s photography needs, documenting our portfolio of work—projects like Hotel Henry, Invest Buffalo Niagara, and Lexington Co-op Markets—for our own case studies and marketing purposes.

In our inaugural On Hustle profile, Shawna opens up about her photography ethos, her exciting new project for Buffalo’s hustle-minded women, and always being on the lookout for authenticity.

On the draw of documentary photography:

I love things that are genuine. I think that people are way more interesting when you let them be themselves and don’t try to manipulate them or their surroundings. It’s when you get to see who they really are, especially with children. When I do documentary family sessions, it’s so much fun to let kids be themselves—to capture them in their moments instead of trying to stuff them in clothes that you want them to wear and put them in posed positions. When I do day-in-the-life sessions, I’m there from the moment the kids wake up and they’re still in their pajamas until they go to bed at night, and it’s really cool to see who those little people are throughout the day and how it progresses. Pretty quickly, they forget that I’m even there.

On getting her start:

I actually began my career as a florist and event designer in California and then Arizona. I was gifted a camera because I’ve always been interested in photography. I never thought I would do it professionally, but one day I was setting up a wedding in Scottsdale, and I saw a photographer there. He was very different. He was following everybody around. He wasn’t directing them. He was capturing every little moment, everything in between, and I was wowed. So, I got his business card and started following his work on Facebook. Instagram wasn’t even around then.

It was probably two years later that I started photographing my siblings and their kids and then my friends, and through it all, I was still really drawn to this guy’s work. I reached out to him via Facebook Messenger and offered to assist him at a wedding. I was willing to carry his bags at that point; I didn’t care. I just want to see how he worked. He immediately messaged me back with three dates. That’s what really got me started on my path to being a documentary photographer. Then, about two years ago, I realized that my heart was really in documenting families. So, I started putting my time and energy in that direction, and then expanded to birth photography, too.

On her single favorite piece of work:

It’s an image of a mother who’s laboring. Her doula is sitting behind her with one hand on the mother’s chest and the other hand on the mother’s forehead. She had put essential oils on her hands, and she was talking this mother through her contractions and trying to help her manage these intense waves. It’s a very moody photo; there was hardly any light. And you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s a birth photo because you can’t see her pregnant belly. it’s just such a powerful image of women supporting women—a woman literally holding another woman.

woman and doula in labor
Shawna Stanley 2017

On connecting with her subjects:

I think personality type matters. Some people’s personalities click, and some don’t. I think that the clientele that is drawn to my work is naturally very open. Obviously, it’s not for everybody. Some people really just prefer to have posed photos.

A lot of it is learning how to read a room and knowing when to engage and when to take a step back. With family photography, I immerse myself. I’m not interrupting—I’m not moving things in the environment to make the photo look prettier—I’m moving myself to compose a better photo. So, people aren’t really distracted by me. I become one of them. With birth photography, I’m also very invested in the outcome of my clients’ experience. I’m another support person in the room. I’m another person that’s rooting them on. I’m a mother. I’ve been through this process before. I think that they see that, and they realize that they’re not just investing in photos.

On collaborating with Block Club:

Usually, when you think documentary photography, you don’t think commercial photography, but the commercial world is moving in the direction of wanting things to be more real and less posed. I think that’s the reason Block Club and I have been a really good match. I think that Block Club wants to see its brands in the space and situation that customers will interact with it. I don’t use lighting. I only use what’s around me in that environment to photograph Block Club’s case studies and portfolio of work. I feel like it has been a really awesome relationship.

On her latest business venture:

The Vanguard House is a coworking space and social club for women. It’s a hub where women can be productive and creative and make connections with other local entrepreneurs. It will also double as a place of relaxation and refuge, because women today do a lot, and women need a place where they can take a break and recharge and get back to finding their creative space.

Ideally, it will feel like a home away from home for women, with a lot of environments. There will be areas that are more comfortable that can be used for casual conversations. There will be a café. There will be areas that are designated more for actual work, whether it’s a hop desk that someone can sit at when she needs to just crank something out, break-out rooms where members can have smaller meetings, and conference rooms to gather a large group or give a presentation.

On realizing The Vanguard House might just need an infrared sauna:

It’s funny because the amenities side of things wasn’t really on my radar at first, and why would it be because I’m a mom and I work for myself, and I don’t take care of myself. It’s just this trap that a lot of us women fall into. But I conducted a survey and asked respondents the biggest challenges they face as working women. Something like 95% of responses said self-care. So, The Vanguard House will definitely cater to that need. There will be amenities women can use to escape, even if it’s just for an hour once a week. It might be a sauna or onsite massages or yoga classes–services that will give women that recharge they need to tackle the rest of their week or whatever it is they need to get done.

On the importance of branding The Vanguard House (and hiring Block Club to design its visual identity):

Your brand is your business’s first impression, and I feel like it’s super important for establishing a business that’s recognizable and appealing. I knew that Block Club was the right fit for me because I wanted something simple yet recognizable and unique, and I think that’s what Block Club does best.

On her dream photo project:

I definitely want to travel the world photographing families and immersing myself in different cultures.

On her proudest professional accomplishment:

Being true to myself and the vision that I have for my work.

On starting your own small business, whatever the business may be:

You just have to jump, and that’s the scariest part. Know that you are going to fail in certain areas, but out of that failure, there are so many lessons to be learned and you’ll do better next time. And don’t give up. If there are certain things that you need, and you go to people, and you ask for those things, and people say no, that’s not the final answer. You can go to somebody else and just keep pushing forward until you get the answer that you’re looking for.