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Depth of Field: Life through the lens of Michelle Loufman


The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.

- Ansel Adams



Summer of 2020 and I had a problem. Having studiously avoided getting a headshot for the first twelve years of my career, I needed one. Not a filtered selfie, not a "good enough" one taken by a Snapchat savvy friend. I needed a professional portrait. During a stay-at-home order in the midst of a pandemic.


Oh, and I needed it yesterday.


Online searches led me down a rabbit hole of graduation photographers who predominately worked at a 45-degree angles in front of rustic barns, generic headshot offerings more in line with passport photos, and a wall of options guaranteed to make me look less like a serious author and more like the third page of a Shutterstock image search.


I had just about decided it would be easier to pick a new career than a photographer, when I found

Michelle Loufman's landing page, featuring a body positivity shoot she had just completed: twenty-two women who had never posed naked before.The shots were remarkable: natural, elegant, luminous, original. I later learned that Loufman had less than ten minutes with each woman. And yet each hastily arranged shot held the casual grace of a woman walking from her shower to her closet, catching her reflection out of the corner of her eye, and realizing she liked what she saw.


As a writer, that's the kind of portrait I understand. One that captures what someone looks like unobserved, the face you show your friends and your partner, the one your kids get homesick for, the candid version that you recognize. It's also the mark of a talented visual storyteller, someone who understands that the intersection of photography and journalism is truth. Loufman doesn't just take pictures, she crafts stories using light and shadow, using her talents for advocacy and nonprofits, artists and entrepreneurs.


A meeting with Loufman is like opening a nesting doll. Each question, nudge, snap of the camera leads you to a smaller, safer space until you realize she's effortlessly led you to a room deep inside yourself. In that way, her work spaces are a reflection of her work manner. Both her home and warehouse studio are comfortable sanctuaries, little nooks that feel a bit like you've blinked into the magic lamp living room from I Dream of Jeannie. She puts you at ease, seemingly without trying, with meandering yet steady conversation. While talking about my work and inspirations, I found myself sharing one of my earliest memories -one I don't normally share- about witnessing a violent argument and assault with an axe when I was five, the words slipping out before I quite knew I was saying them. I found myself telling her how I had taken a troubled childhood and turned it into a strength: my work as a writer. The conversation moved on, shifting naturally to more benign territory but in that moment, I realized how profoundly that incident had impacted me, both personally and professionally. I've no idea how we arrived there, but Loufman had gracefully found an honest image of me peering deep inside myself, one that had long lain hidden. And like those twenty-two women, I studied at my reflection and realized I, too, liked what I saw.



Interviewer

How does storytelling affect your process of capturing images?


Michelle Loufman

The combination of writing and photography forced me to think about how to capture emotion through both mediums. Images quickly show emotion or account, but writing elaborates on what a photo can’t. It poetically invites readers into the mind of the subject. I have to storyboard during the creative process to make sure I’m not missing something big -- sometimes I’m reactive and sometimes I miss things. Entrances and exits depicted in images are essential to visually demonstrate beginnings and endings. I always forget to capture those details!




Interviewer

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a photo essay?


Michelle Loufman

I do preliminary research and short discovery calls to first see if an idea could turn into a meaningful article, maybe a few hours at most. If a story idea shocks, surprises, angers, or intrigues me, we’re off to a good start. If the subjects I interview are both articulate and logical, I’m more comfortable moving forward. If I sense that the story is just an opinion column, I decide to move on before I’ve invested too much time and energy. If I consistently ask, “How do you know that?” and I don't get an intelligent answer rooted in experience or fact, I drop it. I feel a journalistic responsibility to tell the truth, but some articles have a longer profitability path. I’m not getting paid by the New York Times to fact-check or do hundreds of hours of research each piece. I have to draw a line somewhere. I ask my subjects what they think is interesting to document and ask them to share it truthfully. It’s their story.

I also do continuous research during the story development. Once I’ve uncovered the theme, I do additional research -- anywhere from 4 to 10+ hours over the course of the project. I also cross-check information with my trusted network. I’ve not yet experienced pregnancy or childbirth or understood the pain of a miscarriage. Still, I can name dozens of women who can walk me through the emotional trauma, treatments and financial toll.



Interviewer

What is the name of your newest project?


Michelle Loufman

Like any good creative, I have several projects in the works, but the one I’m pushing myself to finish in early April has a working title of, “Would You Let Another Woman Have Your Baby?” It’s a human interest story -- a mini-publication, really -- combining my photography and interviews of two families and their surrogate journey.


Interviewer

Give us the elevator pitch for your story.


Michelle Loufman

How long should you hold onto a dream? When should you decide to let it go? A woman struggles to carry pregnancy after pregnancy to term. Although she already has two beautiful boys, her family feels incomplete and she endures painful procedures, more miscarriages and emotional trauma to bring life into the world. Give up, the world says. Whether you call it fate, serendipity, God, or the universe, she meets the human vessel who will carry her third child. Then the real story begins. It’s a creative nonfiction article documenting the surrogacy journey, the complex challenges and risks to both families involved, and perseverance in the name of love.


Interviewer

What inspired you to begin work on this new project?


Michelle Loufman

I felt something was out of alignment with my career, so I’d been pursuing storytelling, but I need to be clear about what I’m selling as a storyteller, and this project was the catalyst for my platform. I want to show non-profits, advocacy brands and mission-minded individuals how they can use resonant stories to profoundly influence and motivate their audiences toward relational understanding. Studies prove that emotion sells, but not in the smarmy way we view traditional advertising or sales. Ultimately, stories can rally people around a cause or motivate them to donate, which benefits the recipients who need help the most. This particular project challenges me creatively while also showing a proof of concept of what I can offer to my own clients. Few photographers are gifted writers. Few writers are talented photographers. Rare is the combination of a writer and a photographer with the acumen to activate real human interest stories into effective marketing. Regardless of how my professional life unfolds, I’ll always pursue my dream of growing a community of storytellers and story lovers.


Interviewer

How long on average does it take you to complete a photo essay?


Michelle Loufman

It depends on the complexity of the story. Is the theme powerful enough in an image-dominant format or is the story incomplete without copy to add context? Can I capture my essay's subject in one day or is this a series that builds over time as a life event unfolds? This surrogate story has been unfolding over the past eight months, from planning to creation. I’ve transformed more than 100 pages of rough interview transcripts into a manageable, written article. I’ve taken 3,000 photos, culled and edited them down to about 300 images. Of those, I will choose my top 10-15 to place in the article. I’m currently working with my editor to fine-tune the piece, requiring more follow-up interviews, more writing, and one more photo session to capture the right emotion. And then I’ll place it into a magazine design. Although the process is longer than this sprinter likes, I have to be patient because the story is still unfolding, even now. Although I anticipate it taking 10 months from start to finish, stories like this are not typical. A brief photo essay covering a one-time event that doesn’t need much copy can be planned, created, and delivered in 3-6 weeks.



Interviewer

How long have you been a photographer?


Michelle Loufman

Although I’ve carried a camera since age 11, I became more dedicated to my craft 8 years ago and quit my full-time job to pursue what I sense is my calling. As most businesses go, someone thought my photos were worth paying for, and then I started an L.L.C and have been growing since.





Interviewer

Tell us about your transition into storytelling.


Michelle Loufman

I like to say I’ve been at it for 34 years. My mom gave me a Hallmark diary lined with pink pages and secured with a combination lock as a birthday gift. I look back at the scribbled handwriting of a child who was, as a six-year-old, just learning how to hold her pencil properly and form simple sentences. Growing up, I was a somewhat shy, socially awkward child so I found a lot of solace in reading books and writing in journals to process my feelings and record life events. I translate my skills as a photographer and writer as a storytelling strategist. My mission is to create human interest stories and photography projects for mission-minded businesses and individuals -- those who understand that relational understanding can genuinely motivate action around their cause. I wanted to be a journalist but chose a safer, more stable career in marketing. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn for 20 years, but as I evolved in my career, I realized I was leveraging my greatest strengths and gaining invaluable experience during that time. Those years trained me to be a more impactful visual and written storyteller as I helped clients find the crux of their story or headline and ensure that communications flowed seamlessly from first glance to final purchase.

Interviewer

Do you want each project to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each project?


Michelle Loufman

I’m so early in activating storytelling based on my long-term vision, so I’m foggy on the theme. Building empathy. Suffering and misunderstanding without wallowing in misery is a theme I tend to gravitate toward. Social media tricks us into thinking our friends have charmed lives. The more I talk to people, the more I realize we’re slogging through the same hard life. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s miserable. We find solace when we understand we’re not alone. In addition to the surrogate story, I’m working on a story of a woman’s oppression in Iran and contrasting it to her life here. I have a few short stories of very young women struggling with severe chronic illnesses. I also have a dream of honoring people who have achieved success later in life.




Interviewer

What would literary success look like for you?


Michelle Loufman

Success would be twofold for me. First, rebuilding empathy: If even a handful of people read what I produce and say, “Thank you for sharing this. I went through the same thing and I finally felt like someone understood me,” that would be a win. Until I endured chronic illness and the stages of loss I experienced, I didn’t understand how traumatizing it was. I am much more empathetic to the symbolic weight of burdens others bear while carrying on with their lives unbeknownst to coworkers, friends and family. Second, getting published in a large regional or national platform would be a win. I’d love to see my story (even as a pitched idea) get coverage or have the honor of a publication buying my photos for a feature. It’s not always financially lucrative but it further legitimizes my mission.



Interviewer

What is your work routine?


Michelle Loufman

I generally keep a 9 to 5 schedule and rest my mind and body to avoid burnout. Burnout, not motivation, has always been my Achilles heel. But I also allow flexibility for the natural ebbs and flows of energy and creativity into my work week. There are two excellent pieces of advice I’ll never forget:

What gets scheduled gets done.

Don't rush the urgent at the sake of the important.

I time block my schedule as much as possible and avoid overcrowding my plate. I’m notoriously distracted, so I have to trick myself into working on the hard stuff but reward myself when I push through a challenging task. It might be treating myself to a smoothie or taking the rest of the day off, so I don’t let the dread of a task overshadow doing the actual task. It's akin to working out: 75% of the battle is just showing up.


Interviewer

What is your relationship to the finished product when you are working? Is it a thing you are building in real time or do you feel the thing is already in there and you are just clearing away the dirt?


Michelle Loufman

I liken my projects to driving a car with a dirty windshield and low wiper fluid. I see enough of the road ahead to drive safely, but I don't have the clearest view. I press on, run the wiper blades, drive a little further and eventually reach my next destination.




Interviewer

What about your early life influenced your work or your journey toward becoming a photo essayist?


Michelle Loufman

I have a poor long-term memory. I’ve been afraid that I’d forget the beautiful parts of my life so my journals and photos helped me preserve those memories. I sometimes struggle with depression and naturally recall more painful memories than pretty moments, and I want to cherish as many of the happy times as possible.




Interviewer

What is your favorite childhood book?


Michelle Loufman

The Polar Express. I was very young when the book was first published and it was magical. I specifically remember picking up the book as in my elementary school library, with its embossed “Caldecott Winner” sticker on the cover. I was enchanted by the illustrations and the story transported me to a world outside my small Ohio town. I even remember the smell of the book’s printed pages.

What I remember from that book is that words transport the imagination. But the combination of words and imagery leaves a powerful, lasting impression.



Interviewer

What is your connection to Cleveland?


Michelle Loufman

Interestingly enough, I have no connection to Cleveland. I transplanted from another state in a rushed attempt to be in the same geography as my mom, who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer at the time. Back then, I was a marketing professional and quite literally had one Cleveland connection -- an acquaintance at best -- when I took a job at a downtown advertising agency. I hate to say it, but I was influenced by Cleveland's negative stereotypes and thought the city was just a road bump on an otherwise straightforward path for my life. My plan was to stay for two years at most.

The allure of Cleveland’s rich history, impressive architecture and friendly people proved me wrong. I eventually met my blonde-haired, blue-eyed husband and what should have been a short stint turned into 15 years and I’ve never found a reason to leave.


Interviewer

How does your environment shape your work? Does your Cleveland connection play a role?


Michelle Loufman

My stories tend to supersede geography. I’ve traveled to developing nations and I’ve learned that no matter the language, no matter the environment, humans are all the same. We have an inherent desire for safety, freedom, peace and purpose. Like most cities in a country as large as the United States, we can be insular. The human issues I like to talk about are more significant than Cleveland, but relatable to anyone.



Interviewer

What are the challenges specific to living and working in Cleveland or the Midwest? Are there any benefits?


Michelle Loufman

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll be “found” here. New York, LA and Chicago have never appealed to me in terms of quality of life, but they do crank out some big players. Will I always be a small town girl doing small-town things? It’s absurd when I think about it. I prefer anonymity while wrestling with feelings of insignificance.


Interviewer

What is a common trap for aspiring writers? What trap do you find yourself falling into and try to avoid?


Michelle Loufman

Finishing strong is hard. I love beginnings and endings but the middle sucks, quite frankly. It’s funny that I’ve been talking about my surrogacy story because I compare writing and the creative process in general to pregnancy. My emotions and work ethic range from expectant to miserable. It’s a painful birthing process. However, there’s a beautiful reward at the end of the journey: a finished, visible example of a dream I had long before conception. I have to remind myself of that analogy almost daily.



Interviewer

What is the title of a book that has really stayed with you?


Michelle Loufman

I’m a sucker for a great title, but the marketing skeptic in me knows it’s the substance that counts. I am a reflective person so I’ve always been one for the classics, and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo will forever be seared in my memory. I was 16 years old when I read it for an Honors English assignment. I remember heavily sobbing in my bedroom as I finished the last paragraph. If anyone had walked in, they would have thought I’d just gone through a bad breakup. A novel written nearly 200 years ago exploring the plight of the miserable ones, the outcasts...the wretched...had the power to move me to tears.


Interviewer

What is the title of the book you wish everyone would read?


Michelle Loufman

I love social commentaries and Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard is one I highly recommend. It addresses our shifting societal reverence toward early achievers, thereby undervaluing those who live a very normal and explorative life trajectory. We’re supposed to “figure it out” by age 18 and live based on a superficial version of success, yet wonder why we’re unhappy. The takeaway: You’re right where you should be. And if you’re not, you can work toward getting there no matter what your age. Don’t let my abbreviated summary prevent you from reading this life-affirming book. The author is much more articulate. How could I have known at 18 that I’d combine an interesting career in writing, photography, and brand storytelling to further a movement in relational understanding? Finally, a book that understands me!


Interviewer

How has your role as a reader informed your role as a writer?


Michelle Loufman

I’d call myself a consumer of communications. My career really directed what I both consumed and wrote. Marketing communications taught me to get to the point, write catchy headlines and benefits-driven copy to hook in readers quickly and make it relatable. Visual branding helped me understand how to create a cohesive look and feel and that using the wrong fonts and colors can quickly cheapen a sophisticated brand. Public relations helped me quickly find and pitch the best story -- one that editors actually respond to and feature in a publication.Photography taught me how light, tone, mood, and even making subjects feel comfortable matters. I also learned that one single image has the potential to move someone to tears in a way words can't.



Interviewer

Does your work energize or exhaust you?


Michelle Loufman

Writing energizes me in the “bookend” phase, but I am a typical creative. I love kicking off an idea but start to fizzle out once I get to the hard stuff. I have to time block my schedule and focus, and even then I’m prone to self-sabotage. Photography excites me but I am admittedly still learning a lot and advanced studio lighting is very challenging. So I teeter between loving what I do and resenting the painful learning curves. As long as I’m improving, and see the impact of my mission, I am energized.


Interviewer

Do you believe in writer’s block?


Michelle Loufman

Block, pit, torture. Call it what you will. Yes. I believe writer’s block exists but I think we like to kid ourselves into thinking that no other industry faces the same issue. When I was in marketing, I remember times when I’d stare at the same strategic plan for an hour, which required a certain mindset and focus. There’s no such thing as creativity “on demand” but discipline goes a long way in any job role.



Michelle Loufman is a photographer and storyteller. Learn more at michelleloufman.com or follow her on Instagram @michellemloufman Photo credit for all accompanying images @Copyright MML Photography, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved




Dana McSwain is a bestselling author and principal at Webb House Publishing. @writersofcleveland is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of Cleveland writers. 2021 All Rights Reserved.

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