Born and raised in NYC, Isora Lithgow owns and operates Isora Lithgow Creations LLC. After spending a summer in VT with The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF Program and visiting UVM through her high school, she selected UVM and now feels, to some extent, that this is her second home base. Her foray into photography began in NYC, where she was part of the NYC Salt Photography Program that led to photography shows, scholarship, and even sales of her work.
We asked her about her experience as an BIPOC entrepreneur in Vermont.
As much as NY is my home and love, I feel like VT has slowly and surely become that for me. VT doesn’t have a lot of things but it also has a lot of things that other places don’t. I’m grateful for the community that I have hear and it’s community that I’ll always have.
I always tell folx, especially entrepreneurs who are starting, I think it’s OK to do a few things in the beginning (not too many!) that are free and it’s OK to be picky with those free things, too, because that’s what’s going to build your clientele or portfolio or your examples.
I do everything: the marketing, the business, the accounting, management, all of it, creativity, client management. It’s been a challenge, doing it all, and it’s felt like a slower process for me but I think it’s also been awesome to learn all the components. If I ever hire someone, I’ll have more gratitude for the work that they’ll be doing and I’ll be better at explaining it because I’ll have been in their shoes literally!
As a young Black woman entrepreneur in Vermont, what has that experience been like?
Interesting, I’ll say. I’m immensely grateful for the folx who have appreciated my work. It’s different because I’m providing a service with a product, so it’s me and who I am. It’s so layered and intertwined. I’m a big proponent of therapy (God bless my therapist! She’s amazing!) and I’ve had to work through separating the service from myself; just because someone doesn’t book me, doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of me and my character, my worth.
I don’t give prices out to prices to people; they’re all customized to the needs of the client. Prices will be similar and it might fluctuate depending on how many locations, how many people are in the photo. I want to talk to my client around what it is they’re looking for and what is it that they need. Taking and editing a photo for Instagram is different from “I want to blow these photos up and hang them in my living room”. Quality, editing… I always meet with the client by phone or in person (before COVID-19) to see what they’re looking for and their vibe, and then I come up with my pricing based on their needs. That also allows me to be flexible.
I’m thinking specifically about our entrepreneurs. These are folx who are making money and investing money in their business. They may not always have a bunch of money they can spew out for things like this but it’s really important to them. I appreciate folx who have really looked at my work and are choosing me and my work because they’ve seen it and understand my editing style. The last thing I’d want is for people to book me and not like how it turned out because they wanted it to be photoshopped. That’s just not me, and my prices reflect that because photoshopping takes more time.
I photograph a lot of people and a lot of them are BIPOC folx and they come to me because I am a Black woman photographer, which I think is special because it goes to show the work that white people need to continue doing in that if people don’t feel comfortable with you or trust you or they don’t know you. When they look at your page and don’t see themselves reflected in it, how do they know you’re going to make them look good? People are putting themselves in the most vulnerable place where you’re taking photos of them and giving you all the control of editing, etc.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
For the most part, it hasn’t. The beginning halted my business because I wasn’t trying to put anyone in harm’s way but once the restrictions loosened, I established some parameters that were safe for me and that I thought clients would appreciate and find safe as well. The good thing about photography: most of the work is social distanced anyway. I’m never in your face so it wasn’t too hard to pivot to wearing a mask, being more cautious about getting to close. Normally I would go up and fix a flyaway hair or fix a tassel or whatever but now it’s more about learning vocal communication so they can emulate what I’m asking for. It’s been a learning process.
I’ve been more cautious but not turning people away, just spreading it out more so it’s not back-to-back-to-back. I’ve also been getting tested regularly to make sure I’m being safe for myself and for my clients. I’ve been meeting folx on the phone. I’m grateful that folx are still interested and wanting to take photos and capture their time.
It’s been a good season and I’ve been able to balance clients. Looking towards the future, I’m excited to see what’s to come.
How can VT be more supportive of BIPOC entrepreneurs? How can they be supported in general?
There are so many avenues. A big one is money but money that isn’t hard to attain. I’ve seen a few grants and things by the state or nationally. Provide this, provide that, provide your whole life and I don’t have the energy. I’m trying to run a business by myself and do all this other stuff and give back to my community; I don’t have time to write 30 essays and tell you why I need money. Just keep it simple and call it a day. Why is it so hard? There are already barriers there for us.
And I think that’s what people don’t understand, in particular businesses that want to write a sap story about helping a Black entrepreneur. Can’t you just be humble and just know that you are doing great things and folx will be grateful and repay you in their own way. Not necessarily monetarily but promoting during interviews, etc. It’s just interesting.
Do you have advice for young BIPOC who are trying to start their own businesses?
Reach out to other BIPOC folx who are in similar fields. For the most part, at least for me, I’m open to sharing my experience and what I’ve learned because it was hard enough for me. We’re trying to break generational curses, right? We’re trying to uplift each other and if I let you fumble in the same way that I did, how am I actually helping to elevate our people? Why would I let you make the same mistakes or struggle in the same ways when I have the knowledge and it’s simple as a 30-minute phone call that could really change the way you’re navigating it?
Knowing your clients and your clientele. Who is that? Don’t do things just because they’re coming your way. What’s going to benefit you? Be OK with not taking every opportunity. Think about what is it that you want to be doing, what’s going to help and elevate you and not just taking everything because it’s there.
Have a contract and READ your contract. I cannot emphasize that enough. They’re legally binding and with that, once you feel that you have a good footing, establish yourself. Make sure if something goes down, you aren’t liable as a person. You’ll have business insurance and you’re not personally liable because the worst thing that could happen is if someone sues you for so much money! Covering your back especially understanding your legal rights. That’s where the contract comes in.
Supporting other BIPOC is really important. This goes back to uplifting each other but also supporting folx. Me and Ferene (@AllHeartsInspirations) are always supporting each other and bouncing ideas off each other. I got her her first catering wedding. Just being able to reach out and support folx and the many awesome things that they do. I’m always going to Maria’s place (@CafeMamajuana) now that she’s open and I was helping her before that. It just feels good to support each other because who’s going to watch our backs but ourselves and our people.
Did you have that kind of mentorship you mentioned?
I wouldn’t say there has been one person or one thing but a culmination. Even though my higher ed and photography experiences don’t feel like they go, in higher ed you learn a lot about people so when it comes to client management, that’s where it comes in. I have also been able to put myself in positions that I’ve learned a lot from other folx. Ferene [of All Hearts Inspirations] was my former supervisor at UVM. I’ve known Ferene for so long. From the very beginning she’s been a great inspiration. Being able to have her as someone I’ve always looked up to and work with her in a different capacity and learn from her. I’m an observant person so I’m always soaking things in.
Working with Maria [of Café Mamajuana] has also been a great experience. Seeing how much work and time goes into creating a whole restaurant; it’s a whole other entity from my business and I appreciate her. Her ability to be open to new ideas or different perspectives has been awesome. It’s nice when people give folx the time to share their ideas even if they don’t take them. She was someone who was open to listening to my ideas.
What do you see for your future? Where do you go?
I gotta use this degree so I envision staying in higher ed at least for some more time as I build clientele and skills. It feels good right now having a full time and I like what I do. Definitely building my business more, doing more weddings, bigger projects. I want to grow enough to maybe leave the field or do less in the field and more in photography. It’s a lot to think about: salary, benefits… That’s something folx don’t think about when they’re paying for a business. This is someone’s livelihood. They need to pay taxes, themselves, insurance, so much goes into it. Right now, I wouldn’t be able to switch over fully but that is the hope that maybe some point. I wouldn’t do it unless I had a solid plan.
I want to figure out a more structured year for myself establishing how many projects to book each season. Right now, I’m taking things as they come…I like that flexibility because I’ve been able to do great things. I want to grow enough to maybe leave the field or do less in the field and more in photography. It’s a lot to think about: salary, benefits… That’s something folx don’t’ think about when they’re paying for a business. This is someone’s livihood. They need to pay taxes, themselves, insurance, so much goes into it. Right now, I wouldn’t be able to switch over fully but that is the hope that maybe some point. I wouldn’t do it unless I had a solid plan.
What are your services? Where can people find you?
Folx can find me on my website where you can see lots of great examples or on Instagarm for the more recent work. DM me, fill out an inquiry. That’s where folx can start and give me as much information as possible to get a better idea of what you’re looking for. We’ll go from there; a phone conversation, book your session.
Right now, I do a little bit of everything, from weddings, elopements to family portraits, graduation, senior portraits, entrepreneur branding…I don’t do infants. They’re so precious and so beautiful but, especially in COVID times I’m not trying to touch your baby. Infant photography involves touching and maneuvering of infant by the photographer so I’m not doing that at the moment.
This fall, early winter has been a little roller coaster with restrictions changing. Corona, when you’re gone the game is gonna be elevated and I’m so excited.