Tamara Lackey: Changing The World One Frame At A Time

Growing up, a career in photography wasn’t ever on Tamara Lackey’s radar, and as an adult, she never even thought about becoming a photographer. With a background in management consulting and executive recruiting, it wasn’t until she was on maternity leave in 2001 that she had the desire to improve her photography skills.

As she began taking pictures of her newborn, she experienced what she describes as “a sense of frustration” not being able to capture with her camera what she saw. With this new motivation springing from her yearning to take better pictures of her daughter, Lackey devoured every photography book she could get her hands on.

“It was the first time I had taken off of work so I had the time to do that,” she recalls, especially since her baby slept a lot. “I just got better and better. And I began to think I’d like to take pictures of other families, too, so it was very organic in that way.”

It didn’t take long for her to determine she had found her passion and she slowly built a photography business, “learning on the job,” as she says, for the next three years. She then gathered all of the things she had learned along the way and wrote her first book, The Art of Children’s Portrait Photography. Her mission was, she notes, “To put, all in one place, all the things that I felt I could have used in a book, things that might have helped me skip ahead a few years right at the beginning.”

Sharing valuable insights with those who might be just starting out in children’s portraiture seemed like a way to give back to the growing portrait photography community that helped her on her own journey.

That first book, though, was far from the only thing Lackey has done to give back. She and her husband have always been focused on children’s charities, and they chose to give 100% of Lackey’s book profits to benefit the organizations Save the Children and the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.

One book grew into five books over the course of the years, with her most recent title being the newly self-published, The Family Posing Playbook. Her career has continued to grow, from shooting, to writing, to a coveted position as a Nikon Ambassador. After being introduced to Nikon equipment rather late into her photographic career, she soon developed an affinity for the gear. As with many other things in her life, she surrounded herself with information on Nikon gear and photographers, and in March 2013, she received an invitation to be a part of the Ambassadors program, something she’s truly proud of.

“Being there with them 24/7 for a few weeks, you get to know a lot about these kids.” Lackey was so insistent on capturing the spirit of each child that she would often shoot one day and turn around and reshoot days later, after getting to know the kids a little better every day.

In talking with Lackey about the many facets of her work, one is not only charmed by her warmth and authenticity, but also impressed with the plethora of projects she’s involved in. It’s no wonder that the advice she shares with new photographers is to “try to find a way to diversify.”

Beyond her portrait work and her work with Nikon, Lackey’s unique partnership with Fundy Software’s Designer line is continued proof of her ability to diversify. An evangelist of getting images out of drawers, off of hard drives and into tangible photo albums, it makes sense that she would partner with album company Finao to create her own line of products to satisfy the needs of her clients. Her Tamara Lackey’s Lush Albums are everything she was looking for—eco-friendly, aesthetically impeccable and created with software that makes the whole process simple, eliminating the time-consuming and often aggravating back and forth she had previously experienced with other album companies. It took 17 months of work to get it right, but she says it was worth it.

Tamara Lackey always planned to have a family where she would adopt children, but she didn’t expect she’d use photography to improve the lives of so many orphans in the United States and in Africa. Her work as a renowned child and family portraiture educator helped gain exposure for her not-for-profit Beautiful Together.

Her most passionate work, though, is with the not-for-profit she started, Beautiful Together (beautifultogether.org). More than anything else, this organization seems like the perfect culmination of all the things that matter most to Lackey and the focusing point of her resolve to use her photography to give back to the world.

While she hadn’t envisioned becoming a photographer, even as a child she had a plan for a family that included both birth children and adopted children. It was always what she pictured for herself. The Universe, working in mysterious ways, brought her husband, who was, in fact, adopted (as was his sister). Laughs Lackey, “That’s not why I married him,” but she admits, “It’s a lovely tie-in.” And just as she had always envisioned, a few years after the birth of their first daughter, they adopted a son from Ethiopia.

It was when she and her husband spent a week there in the adoption process, living at the orphanage where her son spent the first nine months of his life, that Lackey says the statistics of how many orphaned children there were in the world “really began to crystallize to this face and that face and this face.” And when they got home, they agreed they would continue to grow their family through adoption.

Lackey and her husband adopted another daughter, a three-year-old from Ecuador, and are currently in the process of adopting another son, a five-year-old from Ethiopia. Today, her kids are 14, 11 and 10, with her youngest still in Ethiopia while the long adoption process continues. With an undeniable passion for children and family, she and her husband were actively donating to a variety of child-focused causes when they decided to create something themselves as “a way to funnel those funds from everywhere into one specific area that was just in support of children waiting for families,” says Lackey. That’s the focus of Beautiful Together, and while it’s not a photography project, the photography tie-in “is massive,” she notes.

The photographer recently shared a story on her blog about a portrait project she and her husband did at the Ethiopian orphanage where her son still lives, awaiting the completion of the adoption process. When asked about it, Lackey explains, “It wasn’t even going to be a big project. It was going to be a side project that we would do because we were there, but it ended up being the thing that had the biggest outcome.”

During the process of adopting her own children, Lackey saw that small projects could make a huge difference. Her organization has wired classrooms for electric lights, removed broken and dangerous fences, and renovated unclean and unhealthy bathrooms.

The idea was simple—to photograph the children and hang thei
r portraits on the walls of the orphanage to bring warmth to an atmosphere that Lackey describes as “austere.” As the idea evolved, she took it upon herself to use the portraits as a way to tell as much as she could about each child.

“Being there with them 24/7 for a few weeks,” she says, “you get to know a lot about these kids.” Lackey was so insistent on capturing the spirit of each child that she would often shoot one day and turn around and reshoot days later, after getting to know the kids a little better every day.

A project like this might not seem like one with great challenges, but there was a lot at play, being at an orphanage in Africa. “I couldn’t just put up what I wanted to put up, like beautiful wood frames or something,” she says. “It had to be something safe, in case something fell off the wall, and it had to stick to any surface and be coated with a protective coating.” When the day came to hang the prints, something that hadn’t been anticipated as being a big event, the response was overwhelming.

As each box was opened and large prints were pulled out, the children screamed out with excitement and delight. And as the work went up on the wall, nuns and caregivers were reduced to tears. “It was the best photography reception I’ve ever had in my life,” Lackey remembers. “I’ve had the fortune of displaying my photographs in some neat places, but that was nothing like this. It just blew everything away! It was such a powerful way to share what photography can mean. And it was unexpected. The actual unveiling turned into such a ceremony of sorts—it was a very powerful experience.”

Lackey hopes that by sharing this story, it might inspire other photographers to do something similar because there’s so much need for good photographic work. And she should know. Explaining a disconnect in the adoption process, Lackey shares, “Having looked at so many children online that are waiting for adoption, it’s stunning how poor the photos are. The photos are where you feel it, the ‘I can connect with you,’ and there’s so much of that missing because sometimes they’re so poorly lit, you can’t even see their eyes or their face, much less get any sort of idea of what their spirit is like.”

Lackey admits that it’s not easy to make change happen, even when you’re doing pro bono or philanthropy work for a cause. “It can take a lot of work and effort,” she says. “What I’ve learned doing philanthropic work, everyone is so stretched in the space of caring for children and family—foster care, group homes, orphanages—that even trying to do something good can be really hard.”

But, as her work can attest, when you have an exciting idea, the fortitude to shape it and the determination and drive to do what it takes to get it off the ground, amazing things can happen.

Lackey has hung exhibits all over the world, but she never has had a reception as enthusiastic as the one from the children in the Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Ethiopia. The experience helped change how she views the power of photography to make a difference in people’s lives.

The same goes for a career in photography, or any other business you’re looking to create. Once you’ve resolved to create something, you have to keep working at it and you have to keep giving back. Lackey acknowledges that so much of what she has learned about building a photography business over the years has benefitted the building of Beautiful Together.

It’s as if all of the work Tamara Lackey is doing, whether professional, personal or philanthropic, is woven together seamlessly, her hard work and her heart equally evident in every photograph she takes. 

To see more of Tamara Lackey’s photography, visit her website at tamaralackey.com.

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