icole Ashley has made me laugh, shot at me from across a crowded room, and seen me naked. All in all, I’ve had a fairly interesting cocktail of experiences with Nicole, a few of which presumably lead to some follow up questions.
Shots fired were, of course, through a camera lens but were no less devastating (she’s good…she’s real good). And the other stuff…well both happened at the same time and place in a well-lit environment. Others were involved.
She’s a gorgeous girl with enormous talent, but she doesn’t see it that way, not in those terms anyway. The tag #girlboss drives her crazy, and she’s determined not to be cast strictly in stereotypically feminine colours. The palette she chooses to paint with is effusive of this – moody, dark, Romeo & Juliet melancholy. That’s her forte, but she’s not celebrating the morose.
It’s the nature of work like this as photography is often a portal into the artist’s internal perspective, which becomes a pervasive theme throughout their work, forming a balancing act with what they are trying to achieve creatively. In that vein, her work is centred on the celebration of people – whoever and however they may be. With a sensitive lens, she applies herself wholly as a highly extroverted introvert to the task. Those immortalized in her photos are smiling, pausing, chasing, wanting, discovering, hurting, recovering, in love. In a word, her subjects appear exposed without being stripped of their emotional clothing, the harsh spotlight glare banished in favour of a softly lit embrace of vulnerability. This is perhaps the most honest portrayal of inner perspective reflected in her work: all people are beautiful, and their portraits have a story to tell.
And when you ask her who she’s trying to reach and how she wants her work perceived her response is simple, “I just want people to look at my photos and feel something. If a person can look at my art, at a stranger in a photograph, and feel something? That’s amazing.”
BANDWIDTH ERA caught up with Nicole to talk just that, the quintessential elements in her work that converge to create the feelings she wants to evoke.
BANDWIDTH ERA: What are the three most common things that pop into your head on a daily basis?
NICOLE ASHLEY: Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. I drink copious amounts of it! I figure I don’t smoke or drink a lot so if it’s my worst habit, its not too bad. Sometimes I take breaks to do things like organize my socks…[laughs] stupid stuff like that.
BW: What three words describe you best?
NA: Ahhhh [laughs]. Sarcastic, dedicated, and passionate.
BW: What one thing most pisses you off?
NA: Being unintentional, no follow through. Intention is important. If I say it, I mean it.
BW: I would agree that intention makes all the difference between failure and success, though success can look effortless to those who are just observing. But you end up battling opinions and obstacles others know nothing about…thoughts?
NA: For sure…it feels easier only now in last couple years, because I have a groove. But it wasn’t when I started. Working for yourself, it all balances out…but working endless hours, making hard decisions, investment of time, energy, money, and resources, missing out on special occasions because you have to work…second guessing everything you do…it’s all part of it.
“Intention is important. If I say it, I mean it.”
I’ve been very fortunate in my short career to have very supportive family and friends. Still…
BW: And I can imagine when you come up against negativity it can be discouraging…
NA: Definitely. If you’re in a creative industry and are actively putting yourself out there, you have to have thick skin, be comfortable with criticism. Not everyone is going to say you’re amazing…not all have the same aesthetic taste and that’s fine. There are times when I put things out there and I’m choosing to do that, either to show off work for a client or to see how people are taking it, to see if it’s a good fit for what I’m working on.
I’m in a lot of different photography groups with other creative’s, and I’ll say, “This is really different from my average stuff…these are the pre-sets I used or this is how I went about it. Sometimes I get positive feedback and sometimes I don’t, and it’s really hard in creative industries not to take everything personally because it is so personal for you. But you just can’t do that.
BW: Yeah, I get that. How you do you deal? How do you thrive?
NA: Taking things with a grain of salt, not having a big ego, and being like, ok, they don’t like this or someone doesn’t perceive my work as I hoped, that’s fine. There may be stuff of theirs that I don’t think the same way of…and I’m still growing as an artist. I’ve only been at it six years, which in the creative world is not very long.
Getting that kind of feedback is important. I look at it very objectively…are my colour tones off? Is this happening? Should I have tried something different? Sometimes looking at it and just being like, “I like it that way and this is my opinion about it.”
BW: And there are going to be times when you have to trust your own instinct…to leave your own imprint.
NA: [Pauses] Yeah, I think going with your gut trumps all instead of always trying to please other people…when you start creating stuff that you’re really passionate about, you’re going to gain your own little cheerleaders and people who support that.
BW: …and it can’t be someone else’s voice coming through. It wouldn’t ring true.
NA: Definitely. And I think you can tell when an artist is creating to get a certain kind of reaction (or attention) from others or they’re generating disconnected work that isn’t genuine. When people aren’t interested in, or passionate about what they’re creating, it’s pretty obvious.
BW: Well the talent was obviously there, what was the defining moment when you said, “f**k it, I’m going for it?”
NA: Thanks! [Laughs] I think I realized I actually had to do it when I began publicly telling people I was going to become a full time photographer…by announcing it I gave it power. And I didn’t want to go back and have people be like, “Oh, she defaulted…and did whatever.”
Having that accountability…it forced me to kick it into high gear…I started actively shooting more and educating myself on it.
BW: Was there an inciting incident or was the decision gradual?
NA: By the time I finished my degree I realized that I was waking up and spending time studying stuff that no longer made me excited and I wasn’t passionate about…it was literally right after I got the hat and the paper that I was like, “I’m done. I want to wake up and be excited about what I’m doing.” In that last semester I began more actively shooting and was discussing and showing work online. So, it was more of a slow fade, a build up.
BW: How did you feel about your decision at the time?
“Not everyone is going to say you’re amazing…and that’s ok.”
NA: Really scared, like, vomit scared [laughs]. I was amazed at how unsupportive some people were about it. A lot of people said, “Every girl wants to be a photographer.” It wasn’t taken very seriously by some people.
BW: Yeah, sometimes people project their unintentional crap; sometimes the subtle things creep in. Do you just take a deep breath and brace yourself through some of it?
NA: With certain people, for sure. But the most supportive people were Jon (husband) and my parents. I remember when I told my parents, and this is right after I finished school (I paid for my own schooling so they couldn’t really say too much)…their reaction was, “Yah, that makes so much more sense. I couldn’t imagine you having to wake up every day to be somewhere and not doing something that isn’t fully committed to creativity.” I mean teaching is creative too but…
BW: Just a more systematic environment…
NA: Exactly. Having people in your corner who believe in what you’re doing is key to actually making it.
BW: When I look at an artist’s efforts, I often wonder what the artist thinks about their own work. What would you say about yours?
NA: That is a really tough question! Being the person behind it, you’re always going to look at it really critically and always wonder what more you could have done, how you could have changed it. I’m very critical of my own stuff and always surprised when certain things are well perceived over others just because you know in your own mind, little details about it…
BW: So, what piece of you shows up in your work? When you look at it, what do you innately recognize of yourself in each photo you put out?
NA: [Pauses] It’s kind of funny to think about, and a bit of a juxtaposition that way because I’m very…I think of myself as pretty loud and outgoing, and sarcastic and funny when I’m out with people…I like to have fun. But my work reflects a more introverted side of my personality. It’s more quiet, and a little dark…you don’t see a whole lot of happy, smiley, bright colours in it so people are usually surprised when they meet me. They think I’m going to be this quiet, tortured artist. It’s so funny how people think…but your work doesn’t show all sides of you.
That’s why I love the different social media outlets, like snap chat…I can show the funny side of myself.
BW: Which aspects of your personality serve you best on the job?
NA: I think because I’m outgoing and find it easy to strike up conversations with strangers, that really helps make clients quickly feel comfortable with me.
BW: Is it more difficult to shoot a guarded person? How do you find a way to connect with each individual?
NA: Yes, I find it challenging when photographing a more guarded person, but I also find it that much more rewarding when I can crack through that shell and showcase intimate sides of their personality. Asking sincere questions to get a person talking sparks genuine conversations, allowing me that connection.
BW: Is there a message behind your work? Who are you trying to reach?
NA: Everyone, though my audience is more for 18+! I wouldn’t say my work is necessarily centred on a message, I just like showcasing the quiet and subtle interactions people have with each other. I recently had someone say they enjoyed that my photos leave a sense of mystery…it’s always interesting to hear how others feel about your work.
My style being more moody and quiet, I try to evoke a photojournalistic feel with that style to create narratives people feel they are experiencing first hand. I just want people to look at my photos and feel something. If someone can look at my art, at a stranger in a photograph, and feel something? That’s amazing.
“If someone can look at my art, at a stranger in a photograph, and feel something? That’s amazing.”
BW: Your work reflects a wonderful sensitivity towards people of different backgrounds; portraying them without prejudice towards ethnicity or sexual orientation…how do you want your work to impact society?
NA: I can only hope that my work helps to break down any barriers that exist today. I am very open about this and showcase a lot of diversity in my work as often as I can.
BW: What has your journey taught you about yourself?
NA: [Pauses] …that anything is possible if you really put your heart and soul into it. I can’t say I grew up feeling special or thinking I would ever do anything spectacular with my life. The fact that my work allows me to meet new and interesting people everyday and that I get to create for them is pretty spectacular.
BW: Who are your influencers?
NA: I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors in the #yeg community and beyond! Some of my mentors are photographers, hair/makeup artists, designers, musicians, etc. I have a wealth of friends in the creative industry that have provided guidance and support throughout my career. I’m very lucky!
My mom and dad, and my husband Jon are hands down the most supportive people in my life and really encouraged me to follow my dreams and to take the necessary risks to make them reality. I am so grateful for them.
BW: Of the renowned photojournalists, whose work do you love most?
NA: James Nachtwey’s work is gut wrenching and can be hard to look at, but it’s so powerful. I’m also a huge fan of Joseph Lawrence (“Joey L”). His portraits are so ridiculously beautiful!
BW: As your work continues to gain international recognition, where do you see yourself fitting into the landscape of photojournalism? Where are you headed?
NA: I never imagined I could have a career that would allow me to help others and be creative at the same time! The spirit of real everyday photojournalism that you see in the news really resonates with me and I want to incorporate that photojournalistic style into my weddings and portrait work…
I’ve recently been asked to speak at several photo conventions so this is definitely a new chapter for me. I’m excited that I get to share my knowledge and passion for the industry this way!
As many can attest, making it amidst a sea of competing interests and highly accessible online content can be harrowing for even the bravest among us. What has made Nicole’s work stand out above the fray may just be her most winning quality; genuinity – the heart and soul of any passionate artist’s work, and rare to boot.
Nicole’s final word about it? “There were times of doubt, deep sacrifice, fear, and endless amounts of hard work. Brick by brick I built the life I wanted and now I am here, living my dreams. I wouldn’t trade my world for anyone else’s.” That’s real.
Founders, creators, adventurers, can you relate? Share your thoughts!