Interview with Mary Claire Stewart
A few months ago I reached out to one of my favorite photographers, Mary Claire Stewart, for an interview. I am so in love with her work and it's definitely an inspiration for me when I am shooting. She captures weddings beautifully and creates some really amazing documentaries. Take a look at her photos, read about some travel stories and then head over to her website to watch her videos!
Unsweetened almond milk, or water from my Nalgene water bottle (it’s covered in stickers).
Favorite artistic mediums
Well photography is my passion (and profession), but I grew up sketching and painting, and still have a deep love for painting with acrylic paints. something about the brushstrokes, and the focus required when painting is so therapeutic for me!
Gear of choice
I shoot with a couple of Nikon d750s, and I absolutely love the Sigma ART series of prime lenses. currently my favorite is the 50mm focal length.
You have an incredibly wide range of work on your website. It is all so beautiful. What do you like to spend the most time with?
I think my favorite outlet for photography is simply going outside on a hike, or even just in my backyard - and photographing nature. I love working with sunlight (especially late afternoon “golden hour” light) and I never get bored watching and photographing sunsets. I also love photographing people: not so much posed portraits, as documentary-style work and environmental portraits. I love capturing the raw, diverse, and imperfect beauty of human beings. I think every single person is fasicantating and beautiful in a unique way.
It looks like you’ve gotten to travel a lot while documenting humanitarian work. Do you have a story of something that really humbled you on your trip?
When I was in the Dominican Republic, I was documenting a team of doctors who were providing medical care for Haitian migrant workers. the conditions they were living in were pretty horrid. I brought my polaroid camera with me, and a few packs of instant film. one day I decided to take pictures of the kids and give them the photos, and as soon as they saw what I was doing, I was immediately surrounded by a swarm of about 30 kids - pulling at my arms, yelling, anything to get my attention so I would take their photo. of course, I quickly ran out of film, and many of the kids never got a photograph. I think this experience was really humbling and eye-opening for me because I sensed such a deep level of desperation in their eyes and voices, seeing that even a simple film photograph was precious. in our world of smart phones and Instagram, I think we take for granted the accessibility of photography in our society. encountering people who don’t have the ability to photograph themselves or each other was pretty revealing. it gave me a new perspective on being a photographer.
What about a really funny story?
Also in the Dominican Republic, I was filming some interviews with medical providers to use in a video for the organization I was working for on the trip. to say the conditions were not ideal for filming would be an understatement - every few sentences, I would have to pause and wait for a noisy tractor hauling sugarcane to rumble by, or because a horse was neighing, or a bunch of mischievous kids were poking their heads around the corner of the building we were next to. although a bit frustrating, there was nothing to do but laugh at the impossibility of the situation! somehow, we were eventually able to record all the necessary footage in between the plethora of unusual distractions.
What are some tricks that you use to make people relax, feel comfortable, and laugh in front of the camera?
Usually my strategy is twofold: I try to engage them in conversation about something they’re interested in, or sometimes I tell them a funny story from my day - just something to lighten the mood and divert their attention from any nerves they might feel about having their picture taken. then, when I’m actually clicking the shutter, I usually just state the obvious - I tell them to laugh at the fact that there’s nothing laugh about, or to laugh at their photographer who’s not very funny…anything to lighten the tension they might be feeling and help them relax a little. I talk them through the poses and directions as clearly as possible, and avoid long periods of silence. I encourage them along the way - “these are looking SO good”, “wow, you’re beautiful!”, or “you’re killing it!.” things like that. confidence and laughter are the secrets to taking good portraits, so if I can instill a sense of confidence and/or make my subject laugh, I’m sure to get a winner.
Who is someone that you draw a lot of inspiration from?
From a career standpoint, I’ve been really inspired by Esther Havens - she’s a humanitarian photographer and has literally traveled the globe working with countless non-profit organizations. I love how she intentionally photographs her subjects in such a way as to highlight their dignity and strength, instead of exploiting their poverty.
Is there something unusual that you find inspiring?
I’m not sure if it’s very unusual, but music is really inspiring to me. I’m not musically talented at all, but I love listening to good music. sometimes a particular melody will be some overwhelmingly beautiful that I feel simply compelled to create something that mirrors my emotions. my faith is also really important to who I am, and to my work, so my beliefs about God and poems from the Bible are incredibly inspiring to me.
Do you have your next big project in mind?
The dream would be to work with an organization that helps refugees. I’d love to tell their stories and give them a voice to share their experiences.
How do you come up with ideas for your personal projects?
I haven’t had a lot of time for personal projects lately - between shooting weddings, working with humanitarian clients, and several other videography clients, I’m doing pretty good to simply stay on top of everything! but usually my personal projects are a reflection of my inner self - what I’m thinking or feeling on the inside. I like taking self-portraits now and then, and photographing my friends is always really cathartic and an enjoyable change of pace. last year I set a goal to climb a small mountain that I live nearby 50 times, and to photograph each hike. that was a fun challenge, both physically and creatively!
How were you able to achieve this level of success being a photographer? Do you have any advice to give?
I think most importantly, I’ve focused on excelling as an artist above anything else, and cultivating my passion for photography. it’s never been about the dollars or followers or any other numerical measure - it’s always been about the art. I’ve also been intentional about surrounding myself with other creatives and photographers who share my passion and push me to try new things, and encourage me when I’m in a creative rut. I’m a big proponent of “community over competition”- I don’t see my fellow photographers as my competition, but as my community. there’s always plenty of work to go around, and life is sweeter when it’s shared. I think that’s the best advice I could give: don’t go at it alone. surround yourself with like-minded people who can both challenge you and cheer you on to success (as you do the same for them).
What character on Friends would you be?
I’ve actually only seen a few episodes throughout my life, so I honestly I have no idea! I almost never watch television or movies, as I much prefer to spend my free time outside, or at the gym, or curled up with my kitty and a book :)
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