“Every family has a story” – that’s the headline on the homepage for Jess Rotenberg Photography. Jess, who lives in Raleigh with her husband and two sons under two, left a forensics career with the State Bureau of Investigation to tell family stories through photography because “I wanted to see photography become fun again,” she says on her website. She’s no fan of stuffy, posed portraits, preferring instead to capture real-live people in the midst of real-live moments. We talked to Jess about juggling a creative career with two little kids around and about how to help your family (and yourself!) look best in your own family photos.
Q: What town do you live in, and what brought you here?
A: I'm a Raleigh resident and settled down here with my husband after studying Biology and Latin at NC State. Before that, I grew up in Fayetteville in a family with strong Yankee roots.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, and about your family.
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A: Since having my two sons (who are both under 2), I've become pretty crunchy by embracing hobbies that aren't mainstream quite yet. I enjoy babywearing with beautiful woven wraps, cloth diapering, and even making some of my own cosmetics. I really enjoy cooking dinner for my family and while I could never create a restaurant dish, I'm a great home cook (we do have a weakness for take-out pizza, though). Our favorite family activity is a wander around the block in the evening.
Q: You left a job in forensics to become a photographer. When did you make that move, and why?
A: I chose to leave forensics so that I could carve out a job for myself that allowed me stay home with my children. Although the SBI was fulfilling work, I knew that it would ultimately leave me unhappy working full-time after having children. Photography has allowed me the flexibility to work as much or as little as my time allows while spending the days with my boys. It also gives me a break from the difficulties of being a mom. I'm able to take time for myself by editing sessions, blogging and chatting with clients.
Q: What ’ s your approach to family photos? Is there some way you do it that sets you apart from other photographers in the area?
A: I take a "play-based" approach to family photos. My goal is to capture a few traditional portraits in the midst of mostly casual images that show family members interacting. Because each child and each family is different, part of my job is to figure out the best way to achieve that for each of my clients.
I also have a strong focus on printing the images I take. I think purchasing a disc with the final images is great but more often than not, discs collect dust because it's overwhelming for most people to decide which images to print and how to display them. I work with clients one-on-one to design and print photo displays for their homes. I think the most important thing you can do with family photos is display them proudly in your home.
Q: Got any tricks you can share with the rest of us about how to get kids to hold still for a photo?
A: Actually? Zero. Kids don't like standing still and I'm comfortable with that. One of the ways to ensure to a child will run away and avoid posing for your camera is to ask them to sit down and say “cheese”! The best way to convince them to is to never ask in the first place – a little reverse psychology, if you will. I use that trick more than any other.
Q: And what about tips to make sure mom looks her best?
A: Moms look their best when they are able to take a breather and don’t feel responsible for the success of her photo session. Most kids are not particularly good at following directions, particularly when the parent gives them – it's absolutely normal. I usually ask parents to take a short stroll, let me be in charge, and watch me photograph their children from a distance. This allows them to increase their trust in me and adjust their expectations of what a perfect session looks like.
As far as appearance goes, I recommend simple clothing for sessions. Just about anything that a mom feels stunning in is fair game. Layers are usually flattering, as are simple dresses with one or two small accessories.
Q: What are some of your favorite locations for photo shoots around here?
A: I generally hold my sessions at places with less "photo traffic," like college campuses, downtown nooks and crannies, or a family's backyard. My favorite Raleigh parks are Oakwood Park and Joyner Park due to their rustic appeal.
Q: What ’ s your favorite photo of your own family?
A: My current favorite is the photo I took of us to announce our second pregnancy. I took it with a remote and tripod while we were at the beach last year. The look on my son's face is priceless. (See photo with this post.)
Q: You ’ ve got something on the blog page of your website called “Rainy Day Ideas for Tired Moms.” Girl, we ’ re all ears. What is that? Why do you offer it and how did you come up with ideas for it? And how can we get it?
A: Having two under two means spending many afternoons at home, and this winter was rough. I started exploring many ways to entertain my older son that was more "fun" than his usual toys. Because I am also the type who tries to make things from scratch (remember, hippie mom here), I started collecting ideas on Pinterest and made my favorites available as a download on my blog. I continue to add more to Pinterest as I find them.
Q: Work aside, what's your favorite thing to do with your whole family in the Triangle?
A: Hands down, the outdoor play space at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. If you haven't been yet, it entertains my older one for about three times longer than any playground we've ever been to. Plus, it's free.
Q: What's your favorite thing around here to do when you get a few hours to yourself?
A: My husband and I love walking the trails at the N.C. Art Museum and going to Bella Monica for dinner. If I were alone, I'd invite a girlfriend and head to Waraji for sushi or Dos Taquitos for Mexican. We love supporting local restaurants.
Q: What's the best parenting trick you've picked up?
A: Empathy. It's not as easy as it sounds but it works wonders for us. Children feel EVERY tiny life event so strongly. As adults, we tend to dismiss their concerns with sayings like "But we've been at the park all morning so it's time to go now." I've found that by acknowledging their feelings, it's easier for them to move on. "I know you REALLY want to keeping playing because this is your favorite place."
Q: What's the best advice someone has given you about being a mom?
A: First, take time for myself. It's so important. Second, talk to kids like you'd talk to adults. We use big words, chat about scientific stuff, and try not to baby them. I really think it's important to respect them like small people instead of treating them like children.
Q: What's your least favorite part and most favorite part of mommyhood?
A: My least favorite part is the moments where my husband and I feel like we are ships passing in the night. I'm looking forward to when it will be easier to leave the boys with a sitter and resume regular nights out alone. My favorite part is the hugs and kisses. I'm a hugger by nature and having an endless supply of snuggles is a dream come true.
Know a Triangle mom with a story to tell? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration for a future “Meet” Q&A.