Julia Hembree: Putting a Feeling Forward in Expressive Portraiture

All images by Julia Hembree. Used with permission.


“Moving to New York by myself was an idea that I many times said to myself ‘WHAT AM I DOINNNNGGGG???!?!?!?!?'” says Photographer Julia Hembree; a Brooklyn based creative that describes herself as always drawn to vulnerability. “I questioned if photography should be my career when I can get so fearful of failing, but what I have had to remember is that weaknesses can often be strengths. My personal work often deals with those weaknesses.” She loves nature, working with people, and finding a way to express herself through imagery. Using both surreal and project-based methods, her photography has a particular appeal to it that draws one in and makes them want to look at more.

“Shooting portraiture has become another way to identify and meet other people that fills me in a way that transcends where I live (although I do get to live in the best city ever) and what other side jobs I have to take on to pay the bills.” says Julia. “I am a recent graduate with the drive to create meaningful opportunities and experiences for myself and others.”

Julia’s story involves not only portraiture, but also a big move to the big city to get the big gigs.


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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Julia: Photography has taken me on an incredible journey these past two decades. I was introduced to the experience of taking photos when my parents bought me disposable cameras for Girl Scout camp in Missouri. My camera became a way that I made friends and allowed me to enter into social situations that I would have otherwise been too nervous to put myself in. And then I would sit down with my whole family at the kitchen table and go through the photos one by one telling them about every detail. It became a routine. I started learning how to process events and moments in my life by piecing them together with the photos I took.

When I was younger I never considered photography as a career. Everyone in my family had gotten a degree in music in one form or another, so I believed that I too would go that direction. But I had this itch to create, that got stronger as I  took more and more art classes in high school. I’ve always been introspective, and around this time I was beginning to grow more curious about morality, philosophy, and religion. It wasn’t until I ventured out of the midwest to go to school in Tennessee that my creativity began to intertwine with introspection and concept, bringing two essentials parts of who I am into photography.

Phoblographer: What got you into portraiture?


Julia: On a very basic level…that’s how I got started. I would borrow my sister’s Olympus camera to shoot senior portraits and family photos in grade school. Eventually, I saved up enough money from taking photos to buy my own camera. I was working cheap and getting experience in directing and learning how to make people feel comfortable with me and themselves, which opened my eyes to the importance of being sensitive. Sensitive not only to the environment and details, but also to people. When I shoot portraits, I am given a solid hour or more with someone who, often, invites me into their home or workplace and trusts me to make something of it. I don’t typically work with people that have a lot of experience being in front of the camera, and I love that. Instead of selling a product, a physical feature, or an ideal, I share the magic found in normal people, and that can be captured in anyone. It doesn’t take a lot of practice to take an inspiring photo of a majestic mountain or a designer outfit, but it does take a lot of creativity and practice to help people notice what’s already there in the small or commonplace. Portraiture allows me to find dignity, power, and magic in the ordinary.

Phoblographer: Portraiture is a very interpersonal and collaborative; so what would you say you enjoy the most about the process?

Julia: With my personal work, I like when I can take it further than just shooting a flattering photo. My photos lean towards the cinematic side. The image is still oriented around a person, but in a way that creates a mood, not just a headshot. So when I take a portrait within a conceptual context, it is not about that individual person, but about an idea that is attributed with their humanity.

“I would borrow my sister’s Olympus camera to shoot senior portraits and family photos in grade school. Eventually, I saved up enough money from taking photos to buy my own camera.”

The first time I experimented with this was a side project I worked on in college, the Sleep Deprivation Project. In response to the insane workload borne by my fellow art students and me, I decided to take before and after photos of art students who hadn’t slept in over 48 hours due to school and then a photo of them after getting a week of good sleep. My art classmates and I were pulling all-nighters consistently due to the volume of work and everyone was unbelievably exhausted. The before and after pictures were sobering accounts of the strain from  lack of sleep.  What began as a snarky project turned into a science experiment and really challenged the way I took on personal projects. Each person who participated mattered, but the concept of the project was front and center.

In the same way, when I approach the people I want to photograph for these types of ideas, they become more of a collaborator than a subject.

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Phoblographer: With most portraiture, you end up going into a project or gig with ideas and over time during the shoot those ideas bloom and evolve into something more creative. Tell us about a recent shoot you did where the ideas just kept free flowing and how the ideas evolved.

Julia: Most recently, I finished a side project called “White Threads” that is a series of photos accompanying a short story that I wrote for The Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project. You get two months to fill a sketchbook in any way that you want and then you mail it back to them. From there, they store it in a little library in Brooklyn where people can access and check out your book based on theme, location, or your name. The theme that I was assigned was “Hopes and Failures”. I decided to illustrate that theme from the perspective of a young child learning about failure and her relationship to her mother. I was addressing my own journey through dealing with shame and failure in a parable-like fashion.

Originally the images were going to be photo transferred into the sketchbook and the story would be handwritten in as if someone came across the girl’s journal. But, the project began to transform and change shape. I photographed my 9 year old niece in Missouri, who really brought a whole new feeling of unfiltered excitement to the shoot. She was full of ideas and at one point proceeded to assign her 6 year old brother Assistant Art Director.

I intended to shoot these images against white backgrounds so that I could transfer them to paper more easily, but when we got to the location we both became enchanted with that location. In the moment I had no idea if these images would even work with the photo transfer, but the space captured my idea so beautifully that I just gave my inner critic the day off.


Through the process, I got to have the honor of sitting down with my niece and talk about the larger ideas of the project. Because of a photo project, my niece and I were able to discuss why we feel shame and pain, but also got to talk about grace and love. And that is what I care about. What began as project to get my creative wheels turning, turned into an opportunity for  important conversations with someone that I love. In the end, I missed the deadline for turning in my sketchbook, but I’m not too upset about it. The process is most certainly the best aspect of these types of projects.

Taking photographs of people in a more relaxed and comfortable environment is a lot more appealing to me, and wedding photography has a lot of pre-set expectations and requirements.  I thought for a long while that shooting weddings would be the only way I could survive off of photography, but I didn’t enjoy it like I did other forms of photography. When I shot a wedding, all I would want to do is go off with the bride and groom and have a more intimate photo session. Shooting portraiture and photo stories allows me to focus on the person and not the event. Instead of thinking about how I need to take a photo of that cake before this 90 degree weather melts the icing right off, I can breathe and be more focused on the person and how to best capture them.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear you use.

Julia: I will start with saying that gear is not everything for me. My first camera was a Nikon D90 and I faithfully loved that piece of metal for seven years and still love that camera. It was exactly what I needed and I felt comfortable with it. But, I also learned to make the best with what I had. I could not afford a lot of the nicer equipment and lenses ( Gosh, I still can’t..) so I found hacks and ways to work around it. It made me become resourceful with given light and learn how to solve light issues in creative ways.

“Because of a photo project, my niece and I were able to discuss why we feel shame and pain, but also got to talk about grace and love. And that is what I care about. What began as project to get my creative wheels turning, turned into an opportunity for  important conversations with someone that I love.”

These days, I carry a Nikon D800, mainly go between a 50mm 1.4 and a wide angle lens for everything in between, carry a Nikon speed light with the Impact Hexi 24 soft box kit, and a gold/silver reflector for the added punch for the typical portrait session. I love using that speedlight/soft box combo for this type of shoot- super light to carry (an essential for me given that I don’t have a car in the city) and is just enough power for the look I am aiming for. Since this is my career,  I’ve found it extremely important and helpful to have an understanding of strobes, digiteching, photoshop, and the basic studio jargon so that I can ensure delivery and professionalism when larger opportunities present themselves. But if I could have it my way, it would just be me, my subject, and my camera.

Phoblographer: Much of your work is very bright, airy, yet minimal on color. How do you feel lighting plays a big part of creating your signature pieces of work?

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Julia: Oh, it is so neat to hear how you describe my work! I love the adjective “airy”.  When I first started trying to create a look that unified my work, I hopped on the muted blacks, low contrast, imitation film train. I created all of my images with that in mind for a year or so, but all the photos that I admired had rich color and high contrast, a crisp look that leaps off the page (or screen). So, I took the jump and created a whole new body of work in that look and haven’t looked back. Mikael Jansson is one of my biggest inspirations in how he processes his colors and tones. He shoots more black and white than I do, but his color images are incredible. The way he uses color is intentional and powerful. So when I am working through my own images, I aim for simplicity and intentionality when I use color, an awareness of how that color affects my message.

For personal work I tend to shoot solely with natural light. In fact, the majority of the images included in this interview are shot with natural light. One of my favorite images utilizing natural light is the one of the two children from the Wildwood Series. It was dusk when we were shooting and the woods were getting darker. We eventually reached a clearing where the light broke through the trees, and lit up her freckled face in the most incredible blue-tinted night light. It doesn’t get much better that that.

Phoblographer: When I say “There is a difference between capturing a portrait and creating one.” what does that mean to you?

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Julia: I view the difference between capturing and creating an image as the difference between being a craftsman and an artist. Capturing a portrait is a skill that can be fundamentally learned, and in a basic sense can be done by anyone. Creating an image requires intentionality and direction that would have otherwise not been created without that artist’s efforts and thought. I think of it similarly to if a person took a photo on their vacation to France of a night sky, compared to Vincent Van Goghs, Starry Night. The tourist is capturing what his eyes are seeing, the artist is capturing what his heart is feeling.

Phoblographer: So how did you go about making this into your full time job?

Julia: I could probably write a novel for this question!  In short, it required a lot of waiting and refusing to settle for less. When I graduated from college, I really wanted someone to tell me the exact steps it took to transition from college to photography as a career. I felt completely clueless on how to do this, especially in NYC. I read interviews of other photographers and sat down with creatives over coffee and asked that very question, and they all said in one form or another that there is no right way and that everyone’s path to freelancing is different. And I’ve found that to be true. For some, it’s a lucky break; some people have amazing connections; others get noticed from a project that happened to go viral, and others don’t get solid work until they are in their 40’s.


Practically speaking, though, there have been several pieces of advice that have stuck with me and really influenced my transition.  One of my favorite photographers, Chris Buck, gave me advice in a conversation that has stuck with me.  He said, “If you want to be a photographer, don’t get stuck as an assistant.” What he was explaining was not that being an assistant is bad, but rather-  if you want to be a photographer, then do it! It’s easy to want to be comfortable and not take the risk of making your own work, but you can’t let yourself get too comfortable. My first job in NYC was working at a coffee shop part-time that allowed me the flexibility to do freelance work on the side. And, I did work as an assistant at the same time for stop-motion/gif extraordinaire, Daniel Castro. I really learned a lot and enjoyed that position, but I also was trying to be mindful of pushing myself to keep going towards my goal, even on the side. I was extremely lucky to have worked with Daniel, who was understanding and encouraging; he knew I was working towards creating my own business. In fact he was a huge help and encouragement in navigating through how to do this. There were many months where I was not making a lot of money and got really nervous about making it, but Daniel kept reminding me not to settle for a job that would keep me from doing what I love. So I held on, worked harder, ate pb&j’s and ramen for lunch and dinner, and waited until I was able to be in a place that kept me in the photography world.

“When I graduated from college, I really wanted someone to tell me the exact steps it took to transition from college to photography as a career. I felt completely clueless on how to do this, especially in NYC.”

Phoblographer: How much of your time is spent shooting vs marketing, networking, editing, etc?

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Julia: Oh goodness, editing and administration take up the bulk of my time. I had NO clue how much time all of that took before freelancing after graduation. I am still trying to develop rhythms that will help my workflow in managing email, estimating/invoicing, and other time consuming elements of being a photographer that are really not fun. I usually spend several hours in the morning trying to answer emails and other messages. Editing I love to do at night while watching a movie or listening to a podcast. I always have a folder of images waiting to be retouched or old work that I want to refine, so I try to set limits for how long I spend on this. I love getting into the zone and processing through images after a shoot, but my eyes can only withstand so many hours of that.

Networking is my favorite here. I love hearing about people’s journeys and experiences, so I tend to make this more about learning and less about leveraging. (Not that I don’t want helpful connections, but I would rather get advice and have another creative friend in the city). I participate in a variety of creative events here in NYC: The Great Discontent Live (possibly my favorite creative gathering in Brooklyn), Photoshelter’s Third Thursdays, Working Not Working events, APA events, and other small gatherings I hear about along the way. I love this aspect about being a creative in a big city.

“Oh goodness, editing and administration take up the bulk of my time. I had NO clue how much time all of that took before freelancing after graduation. I am still trying to develop rhythms that will help my workflow in managing email, estimating/invoicing, and other time consuming elements of being a photographer that are really not fun.”

But I’m definitely still shooting as well. Since I have a variety of contract work along with random freelance jobs, I am shooting at least once a week, and I try to fit in as many test shoots as I can in between. And those often end up becoming some of my favorite images.


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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.