Conversations aren’t like they used to be. How have we digressed from it being the most important part of the day to a simple, “How’s it going?” Which prompts a formulaic, “Good.”
It’s like we’re guarded. Thinking this person doesn’t really care how I’m doing anyway. Or we’re simply too distracted with the infinite voices amassing into an endless scroll on our phones. Siri is great, but she still doesn’t navigate to the Boundary Waters when I say, “Directions to the most beautiful place on earth.”
Conversations that teach you things, inspire new ideas and leave you with a sense of good feeling, well, they just don’t happen that much anymore and that’s a shame.
When I sat down with Bethany Schrock, the photographer known as BethCath, it was mid-September. We were sitting at Spyhouse in the North Loop surrounded by the minimal aesthetic of the coffee shop. Clean lines, crisp whites, and heavy blacks. As black as the dark roast coffee I ordered.
It was that same clean and minimalist aesthetic that made me want to chat with Bethany. I loved her work shooting for Bogart’s Doughnuts, Gatherware, and Coffee Cart Mpls particularly, and asked her to meet up.
Conversations are how the stories we write happen, but her energy across the small circular table we placed ourselves at made this discussion feel different than an everyday conversation. It had more life, it was easy, and I learned a hell of a lot.
It was the kind of conversation I imagine to be commonplace years before our time.
“Never ask a woman her age,” I’ve been told by older and wiser people in my life. And I didn’t ask Bethany. But she is young. So, when I asked her about where her photography career got started, it wasn’t surprising that it began when she was in sixth or seventh grade.
“My first shoot was on an exit ramp,” she said to shoot senior photos. “Like when you exit off the highway, there’s that tall grass. So, I brought my friend there because I wanted the tall grass and sunset. There were cars flashing by but I was like, ‘This is so cool!’ I got to make it look the way I wanted it to look and no one knew we were on an exit ramp.”
She did quite a few senior photos and at 14 she was asked to shoot for a wedding. What an awesome move by the wedding couple to give a kid a shot, I’m thinking as I ask her how it went.
“I did such a bad job. My settings were totally off and I didn’t know what I was doing but it was really fun,” Bethany says.
“How did the wedding couple feel about them?” I ask.
“They didn’t like the photos. They were so bad. So bad. They were blurry and I failed so bad but my parents were always so encouraging. So that’s kinda how I got started.”
Yet, as she’s admitting where she fell short, strong points and career aspirations sprout up just as quickly. A minute or two later she’s telling me how the dream is to work for Design Sponge or do a styled photo shoot for Martha Stewart or shoot lifestyle images for Madewell or Nike. And while she calls it an unachievable goal right now, she’s already shown, at such a young age, that she knows how to fail.
“How did you decide on those goals?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to get to an achievable goal. I wanted a goal that was unachievable so I would never feel like I had made it. And I don’t think I have made it and I don’t think that I ever will make it. I know I’m not the best and don’t think I’ll ever be the best but I know that every shoot I’ll be a newer, better version of myself.”
She credits her constant drive to improve herself to those she surrounds herself with. Her parents were the inspiration in the beginning. Senior photos, weddings where her dad was her second photographer and random portraits with her friends back in grade school. Now, it’s her friends.
“I have really incredible friends,” she says. “One of my friends started a non-profit and bought a house at 19. Another started a custom pottery company. My husband is a songwriter. So it’s like ‘I gotta get myself in gear.’ Whoever you surround yourself with is who you’re going to become so I’ve surrounded myself with some pretty amazing people.”
“So are your conversations a bit loftier in nature?” I ask jokingly.
“I wouldn’t say loftier,” she says laughing. “But some of our Friday night conversations are like, ‘You know what would be the coolest business strategy ever?’”
We both laugh a bit at the idea.
“With all these encouraging people, are there an equal amount of judgmental people telling you you shouldn’t do this full time?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had anyone be like, ‘Oh you should stop shooting.’ I’ve had disappointed clients and that could come from taking on too much. I have that problem where I say, ‘yes yes yes’ and I just work until 2:00 a.m. and then wake up at 7:00 a.m. and work until the next morning. Being a people pleaser has been kicked out of me,” she says with a laugh. “And I still struggle with it because I want to do it all. If people are reaching out to me asking me to do something, I’ll say, ‘Yes I’m honored. Of course I’ll do it.’ Even if I don’t have time. So, I’ve had disappointed clients but that’s helped me every single time to refine how much I can really do. And I’ve learned to say no to projects that I’m not passionate about. I used to say yes to everything because I was like, ‘Oh it will stretch me even though I hate doing family shoots or newborn photos.’ I could shoot 15 products in the time it took me to relax a baby. So I’ve learned to say no to projects I’m not passionate about because I get burnt out.”
It’s the simple growing pains of building a business at such a young age, but her awareness of her capabilities is pretty inspiring and people have noticed. Recently, she’s completed work for Cheerios, Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream, and a whole host of others.
By this time in our conversation, sitting in Spyhouse with our drinks almost gone, half an hour has already passed. And yet, it feels like it’s been five minutes. How does she make the pastime of good conversation so natural?
Which gets me thinking. “When you’re doing a shoot with people, how does it go?”
She responds with, “Usually the first five minutes, it’s kind of awkward because they’re uncomfortable, but by the end of the shoot they’re like hanging out. They feel so good, their personality starts to come out and then we get to do all these crazy, weird ideas that normally they wouldn’t think of.”
“How do you get them there?”
“Making them feel really comfortable and making them feel really confident. In my shoot, I’m pretty verbal so I’ll be like, ‘Oh that looks awesome. I love that. Now let’s have you turn.’ I love reminding them that they look killer, that I’m doing a good job and that these photos are gonna be awesome. So I feel like whenever I’m done, I hope that they feel ten times better about who they are and their unique qualities with what I did.”
“My friends kind of joke that BethCath is my Beyonce/Sasha Fierce. When I’m on a shoot, I get in this work mode where I have a structure and I have a flow and I’m like on it,” she says snapping her fingers. “Which I need to be.”
“So is it just as much about the experience as it is the end result?” I ask.
“Oh totally!” she responds. “After all my shoots people are like, ‘I had so much fun, thank you!’ Which is super cool and affirming. Like I’ll shoot you,” she says to me, “and you’ll see what I mean.”
And she’s serious.
Normally shy on camera, it seemed remarkably normal that we were going to have a mini photoshoot once the conversation in Spyhouse was done.
Outside we went. I listened attentively to how I should stand, what my facial expression should be and where I should look. Weeks later, the result was fantastic and I couldn’t believe how well done the photos were.
But the experience was the highlight. She made jokes the whole time and I couldn’t keep from laughing. The entire time she was behind the camera, all we did was talk. When we sat down, neither of us had an intention of having the photo shoot. At least I didn’t. But I walked away feeling ten times better about who I was and the decision to approach her for a coffee and a chat.
The amount of fulfillment from a conversation like this is a rare thing these days. But when you talk with Bethany, it’s as commonplace as the air we breathe.
All you have to do is appreciate it.