The Wrap

Dec 04 2020


Community Voices: In Conversation with Chloe Jackman

Community Voices is a series shining a spotlight on Black-owned, small businesses in the Bay Area. We talk about the COVID-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and how living simply and empathetically is our future.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Chloe Jackman Buitrago. I’ve been a photographer in San Francisco for about 12 years. I specialize in people, events, weddings, and family portraits is really how I got started. And then I moved into just event photography and then events ended with COVID. So now I’m pursuing more lifestyle/branding/storytelling for small to medium-sized businesses. 

Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a photographer?

I went to college in Santa Barbara, without any idea what I wanted to do and I ended up getting an undergraduate degree in law… which is an easy jump to photography! Obviously, that makes a ton of sense. I was in my third year and my parents were like “You’ve got four years to figure it out.” And I said, “Well, I really like Law & Order the TV show, I'll just do an undergraduate law degree.” But then I graduated and decided that I had no desire to be a lawyer. And I never wanted to be a police officer or detective because I felt if you see the worst in the world all the time, how do you ever let anybody you love go outside and do anything?

So, I got a grown-up job at a mortgage company and then layoffs came. And in the meantime, I had been traveling a bit and taking photos of landscapes and my friends kids birthday parties and stuff like that and I was like, Okay, I could maybe do something with this, and it just evolved and evolved and evolved. Eight and a half years ago I moved to San Francisco from San Bruno, and within six months of being here in this neighborhood, I was able to launch my business full-time. 

Were you self-taught?

Yes. I would do workshops and things like that. I had a photographer that I kind of helped out and trained under and assisted. But I only did it for one photographer and if I could go back and do this all over again, I would have assisted multiple photographers just to get a wider breadth of training and opinions and ideas and all of that.

But I'm a bull in a China Closet. I'm stubborn. When I get my mind on something, that's where I go. So, I just did it and pursued it, and I did all kinds of free shoots and made all kinds of mistakes and figured it all out. I watched a lot of classes online and just kept going. I faked it a lot until I made it. Faked it A LOT. And here I am.


What's your philosophy or approach when it comes to a photo session?

I always tell my clients, especially the ones who start the conversation with, “I'm the worst! You're not gonna want to take my picture.” I tell them that it’s easier than going to the dentist which leaves me a really low bar to be better than, and I just approach it with humanity. I’m very good at reading the room and reading people and understanding how to pull the shy part of you out. I make myself very silly and ridiculous often, and that just helps create an authentic laughter and a breaking of the ice. I'm very encouraging.

I tell people for weddings, “If you want the wallflower photographer, I'm not the person for you.” There's plenty of wallflower photographers, I'm just not that one. I know when it's time to shut my mouth, but I also am a part of your story, a part of your day. And your clients and your guests will talk about me because they will have interacted with me, because I make it a point to connect with as many people as possible in one way or another.

I'm very personal, I really want to get personal with people, and make them feel wonderful and amazing and I want them to leave the session feeling beautiful.

Do you have any favorite subjects to photograph?

People. I love to travel. My husband and I are really good road trippers. There's something very cathartic about being out in nature and shooting. We actually did a lot of photos of the city as it shut down. I love shooting events. I shoot for Salesforce a lot and I’ve gotten to meet some really amazing famous people like Gabrielle Union and Natasha Polanco and Issa Rae. And I get to hear these powerful talks, and then I get to interact with all these people that I would not otherwise meet.

But what I’ve always wanted to do more of, is what I've been able to do more of now, in this time of quarantine, in this time of the world's shutting down, is to figure out creatively what I want to create. That is leading to doing more of this lifestyle and branding and storytelling for businesses. Just taking the time to do the things that I want to do. 

I'm working on a Pride Series right now. It just came to me at the end of June. I was like Pride happened, but I missed the parade because I usually shoot the parade for the Bay Times, so I had some couples and some Queer people come and I was able to do a photo of every color of the rainbow. 

So now I'm going to evolve that into potentially a calendar or coffee table book, and however I sell that, some of those funds will go back to The Trevor Project. Just doing things that are fun just to do them! It's a lot of work, but it's not really work because it's beautiful and I'm excited to do it. 

What challenges have you faced as a small business owner?

All of them. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, but it is challenging to be a small business. It's challenging to be a small business in San Francisco, in the most expensive city in the world. To be a Black woman running a business.

How often have I heard, “Oh, you're the photographer?”

“No, I'm just carrying two, five thousand dollar cameras around because, you know, I'm holding it for the white guy over there who's actually shooting... Yes, I'm the photographer."

I’ve spent many years not spending a lot of time with my friends and not doing the free time things that everybody else was doing because I was working. I was working all day, all night, all weekend. I don't get to turn this off. This doesn't shut down at five o'clock because I'm done, you know. It’s constantly mulling around in my brain “What can I be doing?” and “Why am I not doing enough?” And I've gone through moments of, especially with social media, “I'm not doing enough” and “I should be doing better” and you know, “Look what everybody else is doing” and that whole comparative thing which isn't good. 

There’s been a multitude of challenges but I’ve just taken each one as “It's not going to kill me right, it’s just gonna make me stronger.” And to keep moving forward and to keep growing. And here I am in an 800 square foot studio around the corner from where I live, on a street in a neighborhood that I am obsessed with, and it's all been for this. Do you know what I mean? The blood, sweat and the tears. And I have had so many tears, SO many tears. I’ve dropped cameras and had gear stolen and lost memory.

Figuring out how to evolve and grow the business and get bigger… that's a hard thing to do right? Having a kid… but you know, here we are and it feels all so worth it. And when we had a launch party, my friends and family were just like “Yeah Chloe, of course you were going to end up here. I mean, look at how crazy you are. You were so determined, of course this is where you were going to end up.” It's been a long, hard journey and I'm grateful for it, because if it wasn't hard then I wouldn't be so appreciative of where I am.

What do you love about being a small business owner?

I am the master of my own destiny. I am the creator of my own joy. And I think that is the thing that I like the most. The only glass ceiling that I will ever have is the one that I put over my own head. And so far, I have shattered every one that I ever thought was going to be there. I mean, I guess there's glass ceilings that are put there by society or whatever, but it's not something that's ever gotten in my way, you know. Try and get in my way, see what happens. It usually doesn't end up going well for the person on the other side of that. So, I just love it.

You guys asked to do this video and it gave me the chance to collaborate with Morgan from The Golden Hour and Rachel from Tonle and my friend Jamella who I met two years ago on my friend’s music video shoot and she was exactly who I knew I needed for today. And with everything going on in this political climate, I knew that there was an essence that I wanted to have and so I collaborated with the creatives in my life. And I said, “Here's the vision.” And in an hour, it all came to life. 

It's amazing, because there's nobody telling me what I can and cannot do. However, it's also challenging right? Because how much time should I spend just doing creative things? How much time do I need to spend running the business? How much time do I need to spend making sure that my bills are paid and that the emails are answered and all those other things, you know, like there's a lot to that. Sometimes I wish that I had a clone of myself who could be the manager and then I could just be the artist. Being a creative and being a business owner is a challenge in the sense that most creatives aren't really good at business.


You have a toddler, and you’ve moved homes during this time. What are you doing as far as self-care?

So, I have not been very good. So, having a 14-month-old baby, and we moved units in my apartment building, and we've been in quarantine, and yada yada yada, all of these things have culminated in having a hard time finding the self-care. Actually, for the last year I haven't really been doing a lot of self-care, post baby. My son was born May 14th. He was in the NICU until June 10th, and I got the keys to this studio on July 1st. So the last year of my life has just been go go go go go. These two things have been my priority and actually it was not until quarantine that I really decided that it was time for me to focus back on myself a little bit more. That all fell off the rails with the Black Lives Matter Movement and, you know, George Floyd and all of this really came to a head, I kind of fell back off again. 

But I've been taking more time to work out. I just got my hair done which was a really nice transition to putting more energy into myself, right? Sometimes you just change one thing about yourself and it really can inspire these things in you. And moving was great because it helped me clean out my closet, my best friend came over and we spent the entire afternoon cleaning out my closet and then I found that I did have clothes that I could wear because I was literally wearing leggings and a sweatshirt every day for the last year. My son and I do YouTube workout videos in the morning and by “we” I mean, he makes me pick him up while I do squats. This shake-up in my life has really shifted my energy back inward. And then doing these creative projects in my business, all of that energy is just flowing through me in a way that does feel like I am taking care of myself again for the first time in a long time and it feels good. 

How have you modified your business during this time?

I've pivoted in the time of Corona. It's like one of my hashtags that I use all the time #pivotinginthetimeofCorona, to focus on small to medium-sized businesses and to help them with their branding and their storytelling because this is what business needs right now, you know. If they haven't been online up until this point you need to get online. You need to put the energy and effort into being online. And if you do that, then you have a good chance of succeeding and when things do reopen then you have two revenues and two streams of business that you can be doing because you'll have this online presence that you spend all this time and energy on and then people are back into your storefront.

So, it's been really important to me to support my community in doing that. If all these small businesses close, where are you going to go on a stroll? Where are you going to go eat? Where are you going to go when you need to get a last-minute birthday present? How are you going to do all these things if the city loses all of the things that makes San Francisco what San Francisco is? It’s really important to me to help keep the heart of San Francisco beating.


During the coronavirus shut down how have you stayed connected with your community?

When we first shut down I used a social media company called Potluck Consulting and my friend Rose runs it, and she hit the ground running when this started. Like I was waist deep in a bottle of wine and she was like, “No! We're going to use all the images you’ve been taking of the neighborhood and you're going to be promoting all these businesses. Let's find out what they're doing.” So we hit the ground running, telling the stories of all the businesses in the neighborhood. What are their hours? What are they selling? How can you get in touch with them? How can you promote, how can you help in really creating this space around supporting small businesses. And that was really a wonderful way to keep me connected and keep me going forward and keep me motivated.

And also giving other people some joy and light, you know, because this Merchant’s Association, it's amazing. Like I don't know what I'll ever do if I have to move studios or to a different part of the city because I love Clement Street so much and I love all the people who are here and supporting them. This little community has been amazing, watching us all struggle and survive and thrive, has been a really powerful thing. We're all going to be better people on the other side of this, God willing.


Tell us about the photo project you're working on with UCSF?

I had a client who got married and she wanted to only hire Black vendors, and so I was found. She is a gynecologist at UCSF, so then a couple years after her wedding, she had a baby and then I was part of that. And then a year or two after that she helped start a program focusing on supporting the Black community that works and is a part of UCSF and working with the Doulas and the Midwives who help the Black and Brown community.

I shot a conference that they had and then eight months after that, I got an email from that same crew and they were like, Hey we’re starting this preterm birth initiative. Black women have a disproportionately higher rate of death during labor, during birth, and in the days after birth because they're not properly taken care of, they're not properly supported in the medical community. Or a lot of times what I understand it to be is that they're not listened to in the hospital, you know what I mean? And without having that kind of support system, they're not flourishing. There's this great organization and collection of Doulas who are mostly Black and Brown who focus on Black and Brown women. So I've been taking photos of the women who are part of this project so that they can create profiles for each woman and help elevate their voice in the community. It’s been really beautiful to have these women come into my space.

It's amazing to be a Black creative right now, and the last few years I have been found often as a Black photographer and I am rehired because I'm good at what I do. I'm not just getting in the door because “Oh, let's give her some charity. People are hiring me because they want to support Black businesses and then they continue to support my business and it's just a beautiful thing because then there's a different access that I have when I'm in spaces, you know.

When people want to make sure that there's representation at an event of Brown people and Black people it doesn't work as well when a white photographer walks up to a group of Black people and is like “Hey, can I take your photo so I can equally represent what's going on in this event.” But I can walk up to them and be like, “Hey, I found the 12 Black people that are at this entire conference. Can we get a photo of you guys together? Because I think it's really important you have your faces seen, so that next year maybe more people who look like you will come. Hopefully they'll use these photos and promote your faces so that people feel like there's a space for them all over the place. Representation matters and any way that we can elevate that is important. And so, I have this access and this ability to do that and I am grateful for that.

I feel like that's one of the other reasons that I'm doing this job is to help, and so that also people see that a Black woman can be a photographer and be a good one and you know see me year after year after year. People at Dream Force are like “I remember you from three years ago!” So, it's just good. There's something about representing and being able to connect with people who look like me in spaces where there's not a lot of us. It's good. 

What would you like to see from the Bay Area and Across the Nation in terms of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement?

One of the things that I've been telling people most, is that the biggest shift is going to happen in the smallest ways. I would say that I have several white friends who don't have any other Black friends besides me, I'm probably their only one, and this Black Lives Matter movement has been exhausting. You know, we've been going through this right? It's been happening and happening but we needed this crazy clashing of everything in order for it to happen in the way that has been happening now. We needed to have this horrible person running our country. We needed to have him do such a bad job at quarantining the country that we ended up in this crisis. We needed this crisis to reach a boiling point so that when these people were murdered senselessly, it enraged an entire planet, because it has enraged the entire world and it all had to happen this way. 

Had we had a different president, had the situation all gone differently, I think we would have had a week of protests and this would have continued on and we would have carried on business as usual as we have been doing. This was different. I had people reaching out and saying I didn't realize my own racist tendencies. I didn't realize how privileged I was. I didn't realize how hard life was for you on a day-to-day basis.

It's like when people ask how you're doing, they don't actually want to hear how you're doing. They want you to say “good” and keep it moving, right? People don't want to hear that I get followed around stores. People don't want to hear the micro-aggressions that I run into all the time or the major aggressions that I run into. People don't want to hear it. They don't wanna hear about it at the dinner table. They just want to know that their world is perfectly fine and they can tuck it away at the end of the night and keep on with their day, right? So, this brought it all to the surface. And the way that people are going to make a difference now is by having those hard conversations. I'm done having the hard conversations. It's not my job anymore. It is white people's job. It is Asian people's job. It's whoever else’s job. It's not my job, because at this point, if they haven't listened to a Black person, they're not going to start listening to a Black person.

But if you’ve got a racist Uncle or a shitty racist cousin or whatever, it's your job to then call them out. It's your job to make people feel awkward. It is your job to feel awkward. It is your job to feel shitty. It is your job to feel uncomfortable as long as it takes to help change the minds of the people whose minds need to be changed.

For the people who are like, But what about blue lives? And what about all lives? And what about white lives? And what about my dog's life? Those people still have some potential to grow and to learn and to evolve and to understand that we are not saying that your life is not important. We are just saying that until all lives matter, until Black lives are important, until Black people do not get shot in the street and murdered by cops... say their names Breonna, Elijah so many more names that I can't even pull them all up because it's too much to deal with. Until OUR lives matter, all lives cannot matter. They will not. Cannot. It doesn't even make any sense to say that all lives matter, if Black lives do not. 

We cannot be less than for one second longer. We are done being less than, and if you want to send it our way about that, then this is what's going to happen. We're going to bring the whole country down, we built it. Slaves are the ones who built this country. And I don't really agree with the looting, I don't think that's good. But at the end of the day, when you've been ignored and pushed aside and treated like garbage on the bottom of your shoe for generations, what do you expect people to do? Nobody’s listening! They’re listening now! Shit is changing. It is happening. And it had to happen in this way. And the people who have died for this movement are some of the most important people in history because we will talk about them. My children will know about them. I hope that most people that I know in my circles will tell their children about them. Even if they choose to keep writing this out of history books. Their names are not going to be forgotten, and their stories, and their sacrifice because they're the ones who are making this happen. 

I've been posting a lot of videos on Instagram and things like that, because it's all I could because people kept reaching out and wanting to talk to me and I just didn't have the space to have individual conversations. So when a feeling would come over me, I would post a video and it was really amazing to see how many people reached out and were like, I need to look at this. I said “The first thing that you can do is stop worrying about the big picture, start smiling at the Black person you see walking down the street. Stop acting like they're going to rob you. Stop pulling your purse close to you and stop crossing the street when you see a Black person. Acknowledge us, make us feel like humans. That's the first thing that you can do. The second thing you can do is talk to your racist family, and your friends. And if they're not people that can hear you and learn from this, then you need to stop being friends with those people and you need to be able to make those cuts, right? And that's happening.

People are drawing hard lines in the sand and families are having hard conversations. 2020 is a pivotal year. It is hard. I can sit here as this person who has this beautiful space and has food in my belly and can feed my child and can put clothes on my back and I can say this is a pivotal year, but there are people who are starving, you know, people are literally starving to death and dying needlessly all over the planet.

This is a really powerful time and it's an historical time and is one of those things that is going to be talked about, and written about. My son is going to be like “Mom, tell me more about what was happening that year?” And I'm gonna be like “You were driving me crazy.” He wasn't driving me crazy. He's actually really good. He started walking on Juneteenth. My son started walking on Juneteenth! 

But one of the cool things I want to say about what's happening with Black Lives Matter is that I am also relearning my history as a Black woman. I am reinvesting in my history because it's not a history that we had a lot of access to anyways, right? It wasn't told to us. It was like a chapter in this book and a chapter in that book and I took Black history in college and things like that, but this is giving me a chance to reinvest in my community and my people and myself and my heritage and my history and my story and my journey and that has been really powerful as well. So while it's a great time for every other ethnicity and race to support this movement and learn more about Black people, I think it's also helping Black people learn more about Black people and create more community within ourselves and that's been really powerful and important too.


Who inspires you and why in business activism life politics photography?

My son Alonso. He was born with a birth defect called gastroschisis. So his intestines and part of his insides were born on the outside of his body. And he had to go straight to the NICU. I didn't get to hold him or touch him. I got to see him for two seconds and then they took him straight to the NICU and he spent the first month of his life in the NICU. It was hard. There was some really horrible, horrible days and he is just thriving as a human. You know what I mean? Like you would never know that his life started out so challenging and so hard. He claps for himself often and I really have this feeling that if we could all clap for ourselves a little bit more, the world would be a better place. I mean, he takes a bite of a banana and he's like “clap clap clap”. I am in awe of how unaffected he is by the challenges that he has faced.

And I wish that we could all tap back into that youthful magic, right? And that nothing can stop me feeling, right? And I think the other thing I will say then is that the youth of today are inspiring the shit out of me. I did some walkouts when I was younger. But these kids are standing up to gun violence. I don't remember her name, but I will never ever forget her speech. The beautiful, young woman with the shaved head. When I think about her speaking in front of a 100,000 people maybe, she gave me chills as she named the names of the students who had been murdered and paused and took a breath and you could tell that she was at the edge of everything inside of herself, you know, and this is a 17 year old girl who's got the passion of somebody who’s three times her age and the eloquence, these are the change makers. These are the people who are going through this crazy time. I can't imagine what it'd be like to know that this is the world that I have ahead of me. 

We're leaving these children a horrible planet, screwed up politics, and they have to change it. And they are! They’re making the moves and they're standing up and they are organizing, and speaking out, and going to the government, and speaking on the steps of political buildings to political people who are four times their age and who they're told they're not supposed to stand up to and they are, and it is amazing.

So I think I will leave it at that because the youth of today continue to inspire me, they are the reason that I think that things will be okay. And I tell my son all the time, his middle name is Barack for a reason, he has a lot to do. I say all the time, “My baby, I'm sorry, but you've got a long road ahead of you, you've got a lot of work that you are going to have to do with your friends to fix the mistakes of others who've been ruining everything for so long, but you'll do it. That's why I named you Barack.


To learn more about Chloe visit Chloe Jackman Photography.