The most accurate way I can think to describe my relationship with married wedding photographers Helena and Laurent is that I have a work crush. Everything they touch seems to turn to art, and that is not a quality I normally possess myself. Having first discovered them through their work here on APW, I slowly became fascinated with their semi-nomadic artist lifestyle and wanted to know more. I mean, who just photographs their own Las Vegas elopement? Or travels to Vietnam with nothing but their backpacks and cameras for a three-week long motorbike tour of the country? Not this guy.
One of the best parts of our partnership with Squarespace this year is getting to sit down with small business owners and peek behind the curtain of their working lives (is it really as fancy as it looks on Instagram?) And last week, as a continuation of our #PinkEntrepreneurship Series, I had the chance to sit down with Helena & Laurent in their Oakland studio (which one Yelp reviewer described as being perfect for people who “like unicorns and skepticism and… art and circus and have a healthy dose of snark”) and do just that. I wanted to know: Is being married to your business partner fun? Challenging? How do you make a three week long vacation happen when you’re shooting nearly fifty weddings a year? What is it really like living and working with the person you love?
APW: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were you business partners before getting married?
Helena: We were together as a couple first. We found wedding photography together. A friend asked me if I could shoot her wedding. And she couldn’t afford another guest, but I was like, “What if Laurent helps me shoot it?”
APW: What challenges did you face when you first started moving from a personal relationship into a working relationship?
Laurent: You’re building a foundation. And not only that but, for example, the first time you process a wedding and the other person says, “Oooh, honey, those look kind of green,” that breaks your heart. Because everything is so important at first. And every job you lose, the other one is like, “How did you lose that?!” In many ways, though, it helped our learning because we had each other to tell us, for better or worse, what things were really like. But that’s hard. It’s hard to get criticism from someone you love. And I mean, having a relationship with someone is hard. Running a business is hard. So both… both are hard. It’s twice as much communication.
APW: Would you ever save each other’s feelings at the expense of the work?
Laurent: I think as we’ve gotten further, we’ve gotten more relaxed about things. Now it’s more like, “Well, if you feel really strongly about this, I’ll ride along.”
Helena: We’re still totally honest with what we think about things with each other, but now it matters less. I’m not as attached to images as I used to be. Because we’ve shot so many photos, and there are so many photos that I love, it just doesn’t matter as much.
APW: Do you guys have specific jobs within your business?
Helena: In the beginning we looked for advice on how to run a business together, and that was one of the big things we found: have jobs. And don’t interfere with the other person’s job too much. So Laurent is all client management, he’s kind of the voice for obvious reasons.
Laurent: I do the marketing, websites, social networks, contracts, clients, PDFs. Anything design… technical stuff.
Helena: And I do the editing. [Laughs]
Laurent: Yup, Helena sits there and edits all day long. [Laughs] You know, there are all these things we’ve figured out. As it turns out, most couples seem to be complements. We’re not the same. We fit together. And that makes us a great team. But these are all things that have been figured out through conflict: trial and error. You know, you butt heads and you go, “Okay, we’ve gotta figure this out.” One thing in particular that kind of took a while is, in photography, you get frustrated. It’s just frustrating sometimes. And when you’re working so closely with someone else, you get frustrated at them. And they get frustrated at you, and as we’ve gotten closer and we’ve worked more and more on our communication, learning to really talk and listen to each other, I think we’ve tried to at least accept that.
Helena: Which is also just an interesting thing that we have to go through in our marriage. Not even working together. When we’re hungry, or we’re tired, or we’ve had a fight, just being newlyweds and figuring out how to be like, “Whatever.” And then applying the same to our work.
Laurent: Yeah, now we bring snacks and water bottles to work. Because we gotta take care of our inner babies, you know? Gotta keep ’em fed. Gotta keep ’em hydrated. [Laughs]
APW: How do you carve out space when you live and work together?
Laurent: I really enjoy riding my bike. And I play video games too. I like my motorcycle. I have hobbies! [Laughs] Oh man… I feel like the fantasy when you enter into a business partnership and a relationship is that you’ve found something perfect. And that’s never the case. You’ve found something that you can make into something perfect. And that’s where the work comes in. But I think we share a goal.
Helena: That’s what our therapist says. [Laughs] We have the same goals, so that’s good!
Laurent: Therapy. The answer to all your questions is get a therapist. Get some help.
APW: Are there any other techniques you use to balance your time?
Laurent: We’re not really 9 to 5 people in who we are, even before we met each other. And it’s really nice. Helena is my best friend and even though we probably spend too much time together, the alternative, seeing each other five days a week for dinner, I don’t think that would really be enough. The other thing that’s really wonderful is we share the same offseason. We get to travel together. We get months off together. And we share the same work schedule too. So when we’re working (and we do need to be in our own space when we’re shooting a wedding. As much as we love seeing each other, we’re both there as our own photographer doing our own thing), it’s nice that we’re on the same page, I guess.
APW: Do you always run your business as partners, or do you ever have to default to “I’m just running the show right now.”
Laurent: I mean, there are areas where we back off a little more. Like, with processing, in the end, it’s [Helena’s] final call. I can give [her] feedback. And a couple times with clients I’ve pulled that card. I’ve been like, “Honey, this is ultimately my choice and I think this is what we should do.” So for the areas where it’s our unique jobs… yeah. It’s rare though.
Helena: But actually shooting the weddings, we’re…
Laurent: Yeah, when we’re shooting, neither one of us is the boss. But if anyone asks me, I always tell them Helena is the boss.
APW: You know, I was really surprised by how frequently people deferred to my husband as the boss the few times we shot weddings together. And I was curious if you guys experience that at weddings?
Helena: I’ve had crazy situations where I’m standing in the room with the planner, have made eye contact with her, am covered in cameras and the only other people in the room are bridesmaids, and she goes, “When your photographer gets here, ask him to take a photo of this.” And the bride will be like, “This is my photographer right here.” Yeah, that does come up regularly. People are like, “Well when THE photographer gets here.”
APW: One of the things we talk about a lot on APW is sort of feminist distribution of labor within the home. And I’m curious how you guys balance your work life with your home life. Is that still very fifty/fifty?
Helena: I think it’s pretty fifty/fifty. Laurent does all the cooking. I do all the dishes. I do most of the cleaning because I’m more anal about that.
Laurent: And you do the plants.
Helena: Laurent buys things on Amazon for us. He’s kind of the buyer.
Laurent: You know, I am the buyer for both our home life and our business. If we need something, I am good at researching stuff and products. If we need a camera, or a dish rack…
Helena:…He’ll find the best dish rack.
APW: What lessons do you feel you’ve learned the hard way?
Laurent: Lessons learned the hard way? Um, all of them? I think mistakes were sort of integral to us figuring out what worked for us. We learned real quick that if we didn’t declare a time our offseason that we could work all year round and that we had to kind of set that aside. We learned that we have to be a lot more selective about the jobs we take. Because it’ll be a year later, in the middle of your season, and you’re like, “Why did I take this wedding?!” So you really have to be thinking ahead like that.
APW: Do you have any wedding horror stories?
Laurent: We’ve had some arguments where we couldn’t talk to each other the rest of the wedding. But that stuff was early on. But you know, I think the fact that we’re married is actually like a glue for all of these things. Because if we were just business partners or just boyfriend and girlfriend, it would be harder because it would be like, “This isn’t working, see you later!” But instead it’s more like, “We’re stuck, so we gotta figure this out.” I’ve worked with a lot of artists, but there’s one who I worked for specifically who would always say that in art people would always quit right when it gets difficult. But I see that in our photography, you know, you have to push yourself just further than you feel okay with. Our business, we’ve grown it because we’ve pushed ourselves, just to see how far we can go. And our relationship too, it gets really hard, but when you make it through one of these conflicts, when you make it through a complicated business decision or figure out where the couch is going to go (because that’s up there with complicated personal life choices…).
Helena:…Just as big as deciding how much you’re going to charge for a wedding.
Laurent: Yeah, what’s your base pricing; where does the couch go? When you make it through one of those difficult times, you get somewhere, you get closer, you get to this something incredible, you get to extraordinary, it’s back to the reward.
Helena: All the best things in life are hard.
Laurent: We recently took a trip where we rode motorbikes up the coast of Vietnam, and it was so challenging and scary and you realize you don’t really get a reward by just watching Netflix. You just keep putting time into it and you’re like, “Where’s the ultimate joy? Where’s the feeling of peace and satisfaction that I expected out of this?!” [Laughs] You know, that actually really comes out work, out of challenging yourself. So I guess this is why you do the stupidest thing you’ll ever do in your life, like get married and start a business with your partner. This is why you jump, fool heartedly into these endeavors. You know, they pay off.
APW: So going back to the advice bit. If you were going to give advice to someone who is thinking of starting a business together, what kind of advice would you give?
Helena: Don’t do it. [Laughs]
Laurent: Of course, the advice isn’t really don’t do it. I mean, what would you say to two kids who were thinking of getting married and running off to Vegas together? I mean, do it. Of course do it. But I think it’s the same advice that you give that couple. Like, look. Do it, but know that marriage is hard. Relationships are hard. And they take work. And you’re going to get what you ultimately want when you put in the work. And what you have now is great and enjoy it. I think going into business with your wife is a decision that you kind of make with your heart. And then you gotta do the work to make that dream actually real. Because if not, then it’s just a dream.
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