Meet Kelley Raye: Life Documenter, Entrepreneur, and Future Beyoncé Photographer

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Photos courtesy of Kelley Raye

“One day...I wanted to quit!” Kelley Raye laughed while explaining how she went from working at a hotel to multiplying her corporate marketing salary by becoming a self-taught, bi-coastal wedding and lifestyle photographer. To date, her work has been featured on E! News and can be gazed at inside the pages of People and Elle Magazine.

When I met Raye at Emory Village’s Rise and Dine for eggs, bacon, and a side of an interview, I fully intended to get straight to work. But a few minutes into our conversation, as I sat pouring my heart out to the camera-wielding interviewee and soaking up her advice on every single one of my life’s current inquiries, it was obvious that feat would be impossible. I’m a firm believer that you should only take advice from people you fully intend to be like, and I knew as I shuffled a side of sweet potatoes into my mouth that I was in great hands. See, when Shakespeare said, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”, I’m convinced he was predicting a future where Raye exists.

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Photography was less of a career choice for Raye than a natural progression. She’d decided that a career in mixed media art might be her path out of corporate America at the time, and saw her inclination towards capturing moments with a lens as just part of her life. She shared, “I’d been doing it since I was little, just taking pictures, documenting, documenting.” That documenting led to booking a wedding from someone she knew at the hotel, then getting a part-time job hostessing so she could focus on photography but still bring in extra money. Eventually, she was making more money with photography than her hostessing gig. That was the moment she decided to turn a side hustle into a career. I asked her why she didn’t just leap into photography full-time the moment she felt the itch to do so.

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“I was trying to be reasonable,” she answered “I was like, okay, I know I can't work nine-to-five in Norcross and then figure out how to do photography, and no, I can’t just quit. My wife was working, but that was a huge risk to be like, okay, you do all bills while I try to build my business! That's why I got my part-time job. I wrote it down my goal. My goal was to eventually get to where I covered all the bills so that she could quit [her job] because we both wanted to be entrepreneurs. That took me like, three to four years, I think, because she quit her job almost a year and a half ago, so she could focus on her stuff, and I have been able to pay the bills. That was on my list. So I don't know. I think I was just trying to be realistic.”

Raye’s ability to pursue her dream while taking realistic and rational steps has clearly paid off, though, like most creatives, she has moments where she wants to put the camera away for good. When I asked her if she felt her career was validating, she explained that, even now, with all of her accolades and evidence of her ability in front of her, she still has her doubts. “I feel like they come in waves because I kind of want to, not quit every day, but there are days that are hard, and you're like, ‘I can't do this. I'm a horrible photographer. I need to go get a job.’ Then there are good days. It’s waves. It’s when somebody sends you a great review or when you can increase your rate and people aren’t questioning you about it.”

Raye’s photography pulls you into a different place; there’s a tangible emotion in the color, the unforced smiles, the wrinkles beside eyes and huge grins that decorate her client’s wedding days. But, even though she photographs all the parties you wish you were invited to, there’s business taking place behind it all. “You have to be everything: customer service, an accountant; you have to be everything and still pay all the bills. You want to be creative, but then you have to do whatever your clients want, and it's a lot that you're balancing.”

So, what’s her advice for other photographers looking to find similar success? Surrounding yourself with people who actually believe in you, including yourself. “I think they should focus on what they want and then focus on - and this may sound stupid - but believing that they can. I'm not listening to anybody who has anything negative to say. When you think, ‘Hey, I want to do this,’ you should only be surrounding yourself with people who are like, ‘Yeah, you should definitely do that!’ Whoever's your cheerleader, they should be there. And, if somebody is not, they need to go, honestly, because it's already hard enough to jump out and do it. It’s already hard enough to make those decisions. And then when you add on top of it a partner or a parent who's not supportive, it's just not what I need in my life right now. So I would definitely always try to focus on your self-esteem, and just move in baby steps.”

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There are a bazillion (trust me, I’ve counted) lifestyle photographers on Instagram, but Raye advises that, while finding your own path to success, be careful who you follow... literally and figuratively. “Don't compare yourself to other people. We have no idea where people are on Instagram, it’s only the highlight reel. Nobody’s an overnight success. So, maybe stay off Instagram when you’re first starting [your photography business] because it can be a real buzzkill in the beginning.”

Another huge key to Raye’s success is how she deals with adversity; instead of giving up or getting frustrated, she takes her career as an ongoing education. “Stuff happens all the time. I have to take it as lessons. Like, what was I supposed to learn? What didn't I do that I can do better next time? Shit be happening, but I come out, I come through, and I always learn. I always figure out what I was supposed to learn to do because I don't want it to happen again. I love rejection. I mean, nobody's perfect, so it just means you had something else to learn. With all the goals that I already have in place, I know I'm going to have more hurdles to get over and lessons to learn. You have to. I can't shoot Beyoncé if I'm making mistakes all over the place.”