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Life & Business

Feminism and Photography with Carly Romeo

by Sabrina Smelko

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Carly Romeo is one busy lady. She not only runs Two Spoons Photography, is the co-founder of Catalyst Wedding Company — which publishes the feminist wedding magazine Catalyst — and produces (un)convention, an event for wedding professionals, but she also works at a feminist speakers’ bureau and runs Feminist Camp.

Hailing from a rich feminist background — from her academics, to her activism, to her career-path which included working at Planned Parenthood and as Gloria Steinem’s personal assistant –, Carly is passionate about equality and celebrating the love and union of all couples, not matter their age, sex or gender. Today, she’s joining us to chat about how she discovered her niche, her dreams and beliefs, how she balances her myriad roles, and the simple but profound thing Gloria Steinem said to her that changed it all. –Sabrina

Portrait photo by Jen Siomacco, Office photography by Meredith Hill


Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I started my post-college career working in the office of Gloria Steinem, which was a total dream. She is an amazing person and super kind and generous boss. However, after a few years I realized I couldn’t be an assistant my whole life — and there’s not really room for promotion in that context (congrats, you’re the new Gloria Steinem!) so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of thing would make me happy to do on the side, and eventually as my main gig! I’ve always been a many-projects type of person, so I started doing photography for friends, then families, then babies, and finally weddings! Once my wedding photography business was pretty well-established, I joined forces with my friends Liz and Jen and started Catalyst Wedding Company, which publishes a feminist wedding magazine called Catalyst. The freedom of working for yourself is necessary if you want to always have several projects simmering. 

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Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?

I wish I could say I picked up a camera as a girl and it never left my hand — but that’s not at all the case. I had an interest in photography for a long time, but I always talked myself out of pursuing it because “other people were doing it better/had been doing it longer,” and I thought I would never catch up. So I started renting equipment from a great spot in NYC called CSI rentals and using friends as guinea pigs. But even once I knew my way around a camera, I wasn’t sure what my niche would be. After I moved to Richmond VA from NYC, I looked at the market and thought, “the only way I can make money doing photography is by doing weddings,” which as an ardent feminist, kinda bummed me out. I even googled “feminist wedding photographer” and was so bummed out when I found nothing. But eventually it clicked — I could be that person! So I wrote an essay about being a feminist wedding photographer and put it out there, and things have been rolling ever sense! When Jen (who I’ve known since college) and I met Liz, who wrote an article about her feminist wedding on Offbeat Bride, we wanted to create something bigger than photography to bring feminism into the wedding industry, and so Catalyst was born.
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What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

When I was still working for Gloria, I confessed to her one day that I wanted to be a photographer, but I was worried about catching up to people who were younger and more advanced than I, and people who have degrees in art, photography, business, etc. She told me, “If you want to be a photographer, just start doing photography. Pick up a camera and learn it. Tell people you’re a photographer. If you don’t start, you’ll always feel behind.” It was so simple and yet so profound. For Catalyst, we invoked the same advice despite never having published a magazine before: we just started making it.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Getting over the fear of failure. What if I told everyone I was a photographer, and then had to quit? What if we said we were going to be magazine publishers, and then only had one issue? Ultimately, if you fail, you learn something, which is just as valuable as success to me.

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Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

For my personality, I learned that I need to have clear goals that I’m working towards. That applies to number of weddings shot (or amount of money made by my business), number of magazines sold, etc.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

Once, during my first year in the wedding photography business, I delivered a USB of files to a couple that were accidentally the wrong size files (they were much too small). Unfortunately, the couple didn’t realize the mistake until more than six months later, and when they reached out to me for the correct size, I went to get them from my backup drive and it had gone bad. Everyone involved was devastated. I ended up being able to send them prints of many of their images (just not huge prints), but it was not ideal. I now double-check files (and ask couples to check upon delivery), and have three backups of everything. So far, Catalyst hasn’t had many big snafus (knock on wood).

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What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

The biggest bummer about wedding photography is that weddings are typically on Saturdays — which means that during peak season I rarely have a weekend off. It makes maintaining friendships and relationships more difficult, but I like to think that I make up for it (somewhat) by spending time with friends and my partner during the week.

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Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

The first thing that comes to mind is our Catalyst kickstarter campaign. We raised over $12K for our first and second issue, and were featured on sites like TIME.com, Bustle, Buzzfeed, Yahoo, etc. The response was beautiful and so overwhelmingly supportive, and it really confirmed that what we are working on is needed in the world.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

My favorite book about being a creative entrepreneur is My So-Called Freelance Life by Michelle Goodman. I also work with a coach named Lauren Russo who is just amazing.

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Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.

Right after I graduated from college, I had a job at a non-profit that worked with queer youth. It was, in theory, a dream job (on good days I got to play Wii with teenagers and plan parties for them) but it didn’t pay my bills and I ended up getting a second (and third) job. After a while of working 80+ hours per week, I approached my boss at the organization for a raise; he basically laughed at me and accused me of being greedy (he actually said “well, you know, we can’t all retire to the lake like our parents”). I quit, but I was so afraid of looking like a failure that I told my boss I was going to grad school in New York City. I ended up just moving there anyway, but not for grad school.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

What are your goals? Is there a market for what you’re selling? Are you prepared to work your ass off?

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Sadly, nothing exciting: just my mail and Instagram — which magically just started letting us swap from account to account! Makes checking my photography account and the magazine account SO MUCH easier!

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

For me, the hardest thing about being my own boss is not having coworkers. I’ve had a job since age 15, and I was used to creating my social circles from people I met at work, so once I went solo it was a little bit of a shock. Now I have a Studio Manager for Two Spoons, and two co-founders for Catalyst, so it’s a little bit better. But the beginning of your new business can be lonely. Don’t be afraid to make friends with other Boss Babes!

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Comments

  • What an honest and inspiring story. “Ultimately, if you fail, you learn something, which is just as valuable as success to me” — I want to print that out and put it above my desk!

  • You are an amazing woman Carly, so proud of you! What a great article, you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t wait to see what else you have up your sleeve!

  • I love the sudden realization that you could be the thing you wanted but weren’t finding. Kudos for being brave and doing it.

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  • Love this! The power of the dual advice that you can’t be something until you start DOING IT – but that if you want to do something as a business, you genuinely need to evaluate the market – is so great!

  • Whut??????? Sitting back, watching you, I’m amazed. Your words were prophetic at age three: “Watch me and be amazed!”

  • Well done, Carly! As someone who has thought long and hard about branching out on her own, I thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Normally I’d think it wouldn’t be necessary to categorize oneself as a feminist photographer but after visiting a venue to arrange a repass for my brother and seeing wedding photographs in the lobby area with the bride’s posed as sleeping beauty, I’m glad to know Carly is in fact a feminist wedding photographer!

  • I really love this whole concept. I remember feeling extremely alienated from wedding culture around the time I got married. We eloped, in part, because I just couldn’t for the life of me see my values reflected on any stuff I was seeing on mainstream, popular wedding blogs. So great that there is this alternative out there now!

  • I’ve been following both Carly and Catalyst for some time now and this feature is such a great read to shine a light on such an inspirational talent. Love that you decided that “I could be that person!” – big steps to inspire the rest of us. Thank you:)

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