How "Spider" Meka Hemmons went from photoshopping to capturing natural beauty
“Spider” Meka Hemmons went from working as a professional designer and photo retoucher for Oprah to starting her own photography studio documenting women as they show up in real life. We linked up with Spider to learn more about how and why she made the switch and built her photography business.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what is SpiderMeka Photography?
The question, "Who am I?" has an answer that's always evolving. Right now, I am The Spider. I'm owning my womanhood. I'm owning my position as creator of a small business. I'm owning my skill and vision as a photographer. I'm weaving my webs of network and net worth.
SpiderMeka Photography is a unique space in the way that since I am the service, there will never be another portrait experience quite like mine. There are plenty of portrait photographers in Chicago, but the things that have happened to me and the fiery mission that I've embarked upon because of them makes me approach what I do in such a way that my business is much more a fulfillment of life than just a way for me to make a living. SpiderMeka Photography is a portrait service as well as an invitation to recognize, create or heal a part of who you are.
When did you start SpiderMeka Photography and how did you do it?
The idea of SMP began in 2013. I'd been crying into my breakfast every morning for years, sitting alone at my desk at Harpo Studios. My eight year stretch of working for the Oprah/Harpo team as a designer and photo retoucher was winding down (though I didn't know at the time that Oprah would leave Chicago in 2015), and because my position had stagnated, my self-esteem had depleted, and because my talent as a celebrity photo manipulator made me a direct contributor to our societal problem of comparing our real bodies to the unrealistic "beauty" of magazine pages, I was very, very depressed.
After work on a particular Friday, I'd had enough of the crying, and I went home, resolved to figure out what my actual future could look like. I barely bathed, slept or ate for the entire weekend. Through some serious list-making and self-questioning, making definitive choices about what I wanted back in my life and what I was not willing to live with anymore, the mission emerged to work for myself, becoming the photographer who frames the stories of everyday people, helping them recognize their own self-worth, and celebrating their natural features.
I went back to work the following Monday with a sense of hope and purpose. I built a website. I researched what it meant to be incorporated or an LLC. I opened a business bank account. I started mindfully selecting certain pieces of camera equipment and having them delivered right to my work room to sniff and hold and imagine possibilities with in-between work assignments. Every waking or otherwise idle moment became a time to fill up notebooks with creative ideas and marketing plans and photo-making techniques. I photographed people I knew. I laid the foundation of what I knew in my bones I'd be doing for the rest of my life.
Mid 2015, the first wave of employees got our 30-day notice. I took my savings, and after some much needed decompression from eight years of frenetic demands, officially opened the physical and virtual doors of SMP on January 1, 2016. The beginning was exciting, slow, and not at all green in profit, but what I did not have in networking or business knowledge, I made up for in raw determination. I collected a couple of mentors. I dug into my craft and learned those business skills. I recognized my strengths and practiced them even more. It's been three years now, and there is still much to learn, yet my intent is strong as ever.
Portraits by SpiderMeka Photography
Starting a business is really hard. Why did you choose the entrepreneurial life?
Before I even knew what the word "entrepreneur" meant, I did know that there were people "out there" who worked for themselves. I liked that idea very much. Creative fields were always my jam. I once imagined myself a famous children's book author or starting a web and design company… never did I think of photography as a career. Now, I know it's the only thing that makes the most sense. I get to exercise quite a few of my skillsets – writing, design, retouching, motion graphics, videography, website-building, color theory, advertising, communing with people, sewing…
Unfortunately, the environment I worked in had long since pushed my creative tendencies toward robotic and disposable. I missed having fun. I knew it would be hard to start from nothing and build something grand, but other people have done it, and I deserved the chance to add my name to that list of successes. Yes, it's really hard, but you know what was harder? Feeling like my work was harmful and deceiving. Feeling like I didn't matter. Feeling like I had no grounding or direction in life.
That weekend I spent questioning who I was and how I saw my future was the first time in my life that the seemingly random experiences suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, giving me answers and the Gestalt Ah-ha! to why certain things showed up in my life. I know not everyone feels they've found purpose to their journeys, and I don't take this gift for granted. This gift awakened me. Where I once felt suffocated, I saw an open arena to gulp new air. Where I felt submerged, I saw I could fly. Where I felt dirty and lied to, I saw purification and truth. Where I had a capped income, I saw a lifestyle and ability to share that those paychecks did not allow for. Entrepreneurship was the gateway to receive all these things and more.
Why do people come to SpiderMeka?
Some people come to SMP because they're tired of not recognizing or liking themselves in photographs, and they're ready to finally own a portrait that they absolutely adore and are delighted and eager to share. Others come to SMP because they are curious to see if this photographer who claims to transform the way they see themselves in the mirror can really hold up to this statement. A few come because they've seen my work through a friend or family member and have heard about the experience of being catered to physically and cared for emotionally, and they want a part of that.
What’s broken in the photography industry and what are you doing to change it?
There are two things I feel strongly against in the portrait photography industry, and those are photo manipulation and the false sense of security and complacency with digital files.
Before I retouched the images of Oprah and her A-list celebrity peers, I spent a decade professionally retouching lesser known artists of the stage, music and dance industries. That makes 22 years of which I've been asked to thin hips and fill lips. Get rid of laugh lines… no, wait, all of the facial wrinkles. Stretch necks, reduce massive amounts of pounds, "shave" legs, transform skin, swap heads, wipe drippy shiny sweat, lift butts, re-shape boobs… I even spent a full two weeks once replacing the eyeballs of an entire popular television show's cast members in multiple promo images. They were high resolution, which simply means it was not a quick job and it was imperative that they look realistic.
I will say for the record there were many times where I impressed myself with the outcomes of these requests. Still, with women everywhere knowing that magazine pages where "photoshopped" but nonetheless lamenting that their bodies weren't rail thin or their skin like porcelain, or being told, "Meka, [she] is actually starting to think she looks like this," I made up my mind that as the person behind the lens, clicking that fate-determining camera button, I would study light and angles and anatomy, and make the choice to stop the trend of manipulation with better guidance and empowering instead. Every photo needs some extent of retouching – that's not the problem. But you'd be surprised how much less I need to retouch saggy clothing or puckered bellies or slouchy boobs simply by making someone feel important enough to sit up straight. One person at a time, I'm out to change this poisonous idea most of us have that who we are and how we show up in printed, documented form is not good enough just because we're not someone else's standard of beauty.
SMP is a strong promoter of printed images. It makes no sense to me that going through the time and care of having professional photos done can only then exist later as a file subject to corruption or deletion on a system that is always changing. I hear too many stories of files getting lost, and images never printed. I had a conversation the other day with another photographer who is miffed by younger generations only wanting their wedding photos posted on Instagram. Seriously?! What happens in 10 years when Instagram is replaced by whatever next trendy app comes along? What do you tell your adult children when they want to see photos of your wedding or their childhood? Let me find my old Instagram account password?!
No. Print your photos. Exist in your own life. Be encouraged every single day by that incredible framed triptych of yourself with your daughter and her grandmother. Be enamored by that stunning for-your-eyes-only canvas hanging in your bedroom.
What do newbies need to know before hiring a photographer for the first time?
Do your research and ask all the questions before booking your photo session. Nothing is worse than investing time and money into an experience where you're blind-sided and end up regretting what should be a lifetime of renewable joy and memories. Hire a photographer you connect with. Getting portraits made is a very personal event – it doesn't matter if it's a business headshot or the birth of your first child, listen to your instincts and only allow someone you feel will honor those moments to create with you.
Which of your photographs are you most proud of?
The photograph I'm most proud of is a fairly recent one I have with my mother. She provides more reasons why I turned to portraits and documentation as my life's work. She taught me photography, unknowingly gave me great respect for mother/child relationships through raising myself and my five sisters, and is a catalyst through which I am reminded to love and see the unique beauty of others. Yet, the two of us have few photographs together that document our own lives and bond. That photo is a moment with her that represents the core of my business and my mission.