Q&A: Maria del Rio on Undervaluing Yourself (and Other Challenges for Women Photographers)

March 18, 2019

By David Walker

©Ellen Marie

Photographer Maria del Rio

The Oakland, California-based fashion and beauty photographer talks about the struggle to launch her career after six years of working as a photo assistant, and the value of women photographers as role models. This interview complements our story “How Fashion & Beauty Photographer Maria Del Rio Got Her Start.”

PDN: You said you assisted for about nine years?
Maria del Rio: I did. I think I assisted way too long. The first photographer I assisted for 6 years. I learned about the business, organization and personal projects. After him, I [assisted] Alex Farnum for two years. He taught me the most about lighting.

PDN: Why do you think you assisted for too long?
MdR: I could have [gone out on my own] sooner. Technically I was ready. But mentally I was holding myself back. I talked myself down, saying: I’m not ready. I was too nervous to say I’m a photographer, It felt like bragging or showing off. I wasn’t happy at end and I should have recognized that earlier.

PDN: Being unhappy pushed you out of being stuck?
MdR: I think so. I would say no, no, I don’t feel ready. And Alex Farnham said: “I think you are ready, you should try to get jobs on your own.” It was a confidence thing, and he helped with that.

[Also], I [assisted] Alex and a few others who were supportive, but that wasn’t enough to support myself financially, so I had to [assist] other photographers, too. I ended up working with photographers who are not very kind. That started to wear down on me. And I was making $150 for a 10-hour shoot. It was physically exhausting, and on top of that, I was not treated great. And I was usually the only female. That became tough over time.

PDN: What was the transitioning process like? Did you quit assisting cold turkey?
MdR: It was definitely gradual. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to assist for people who made me feel awful at the end of the day. My ultimate goal was to shoot for myself, so I thought, even if have to struggle for a while, I’m going to say no to things that are not fulfilling and work twice as hard to find my own work. On Craigslist, I was responding to anything that seemed creative and cool. I was reaching out to friends saying, I’m going on my own, so if you hear of anyone needing photo shoots…

PDN: What were some of the first jobs you got?
MdR: I got some small fashion jobs on Craigslist. The key was responding: I looked a couple times a day, and I would try to respond first, and make a mood board of images that seemed similar to the brand. I think that kind of helped put me above some other people who were responding on Craigslist.

PDN: How did you step up from there?
MdR: The Refinery29 internship really helped. They posted a notice for an internship, and I responded right away. They said, We usually hire people who are still in school. I said, I don’t care, I’ll do it. I’ve wanted to work with you guys for years, please give me this opportunity. And I got hired. That helped introduce me to local designers, shop owners, people in fashion industry in San Francisco. If hadn’t don’t that, I wouldn’t have been able to meet so many clients that I know today. I was working as hard as could, and even though it was $10 an hour, it was really important to me to treat it professionally: show up early and deliver more than they expected. They recognized that and made me a freelancer quickly.

PDN: Was there any particular assignment that you consider your big break?
MdR: I would say Refinery29 was the biggest. I haven’t shot for them in about one-and-half years, but I still get people emailing me about articles I shot years ago. The first commercial shoot I did on my own was for Murad skin care. It was sink or swim. I had just signed with an agent [Lola Creative] and we were in over our heads.

PDN: What happened? How did you figure it out?
MdR: They wanted us to do shoot in LA, so thee was a travel component, and I think [our estimate] came in way under [the client’s] budget. We were shooting in downtown LA, and we didn’t get permits, but in hindsight we should have, because we kept getting shooed away by security guards. When we started to shoot, the client said, Did you get permits?

We made a lot of mistakes on set. It was very stressful. I was exerting all my energy, trying to impress them, do my best, deliver what they wanted, and at the same time I was not 100 percent sure about what they wanted. But the mages appeared in Marie Claire. [Murad was] happy with it. But the way we shot it, it was not seamless, there were a lot of bumps along the way. We learned so much.

PDN: How would you handle your transition differently it in retrospect?
MdR: Often new photographers email me, and I do tell them: if you’ve taken time, put in the work, and you feel ready, then you are. Don’t talk yourself out of it. I think a lot of my lack of confidence came from not seeing a lot of female photographers in the industry. If I had seen more women who were successful commercial photographers, I think I would have felt more confident to do it. That’s shifting. Up-and-coming female photographers are going to see [more role models].

PDN: What other advice do you give aspiring photographers?
MdR: The other thing I say is [about] working as hard as you can, whether the job is a small shoot or a large shoot. If you’re committing to a job or doing personal work for yourself, you should give it your all. Also, it’s about being nice. Alex wasn’t afraid to show me his books, show me his lighting techniques, show me his post production. You don’t have to be that open, but be kind to other people. You never know when you’re going t see somebody again.

PDN: Who are your biggest clients?
MdR: I just a shot a lot with eBay two weeks ago. Benefit Cosmetics is probably most consistent large client, I think I’ve shot for them 6 or 7 times

PDN: Tell me more about the eBay job.
MdR: That was for eBay Fashion’s social media. I’m finding that a lot more clients want shooting for social. I did two shoots for eBay. The first was for their holiday campaign: social images for New Year’s, shot in a bar in San Francisco with two models. It was all about New Year’s looks you can find on eBay to go out for the night.

The second shoot was with an influencer. They were the subject. It was fitness-oriented: a post- New Year’s social media campaign about healthy habits and things you can buy on eBay to support that—Vitamix, a yoga mat, things like that.

PDN: How involved were those productions?
MdR: I’d say they’ were mid-sized. I had two assistants, a digitech, and hair, makeup, wardrobe stylists, who all had one assistant. For the second shoot, we also had video, with a videographer and a sound tech. Art direction was from in-house at eBay. So the crew overall was 18 to 20 people. It was pretty big, but I’m used to those sets. Fashion tends to be a little more collaborative, so they tend to have bigger crews.

How Fashion & Beauty Photographer Maria del Rio Got Her Start
How Several Female Photographers Got Started in Today’s Photo Market
The Power of Mentorship in Photography: Sim Chi Yin on Her Three Most Important Mentors

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