Amy Hildebrand, Photographer

Editor's Note:  Oh Amy, Amy, Amy...where do I begin???  Should I start at the literal beginning, where you were born without eyesight as a result of your albinism?  Or halfway through, where you overcame this hurdle to launch your own photography business?  Should I start at the part where you gave up 'yourself' to raise your three children?  Or should I begin at present day, where you seem to have it all, harmoniously figured out?  I suppose the bottom line is this:  your story inspires me.  YOU inspire me.  Your journey, no matter where I begin, is epic, and I'm completely, utterly honored that you were open to sharing it with DRIVEN.  Thank you, Amy, for you tenaciousness, positivity, and willingness to never look at your life as anything but exceptionally normal.

Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Amy's story is not about albinism. Admittedly, that's the narrative I thought I was going to get when we began chatting, but nope. Not even close.

Amy’s story is about a girl who stumbled on a career in photography and happened to be really, really good at it.  Sure, there is something to be said about the fact that she was born blind and took up a career so dependent on vision, but when you talk to Amy and hear about her career, that part of the story is such an afterthought you forget it was ever an obstacle.

Amy as a child / photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Amy as a child / photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{a family affair}

When describing Amy as an ‘inspiration’, you become aware very early on that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Amy’s parents are pretty remarkable too, raising six children, five of them biological and one adopted.  Three of the five biological siblings have albinism, the adopted child does as well.

“My parents decided very early on that they weren’t going to let albinism define me, my brothers and my sister.”

Devoted to encouraging her daughter to live the most normal life possible, Amy’s parents enlisted the help of a young doctor fascinated with the albino eye while she was a baby.  The doctor outfitted Amy with contacts, unsure how her young eyes would react.

“Up until that point, my eyes would never lock on anything and I was unable to focus, but after a few weeks of wearing the contacts, I started grabbing for my parents faces and the sunshine on the floor.”

Am y with childhood friends  / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Amy with childhood friends / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{more than meets the eye}

Her vision improved, and through a series of glasses, contacts and patches, she started to see more and more of the world around her.  In high school, Amy underwent another innovative surgery, this time to help correct the nystagmus, or shaking, in her eyes.

“Honestly, I just wanted to be able to drive {laughs}.  But really, looking back on the surgery I can’t believe I just walked right into it.”

The surgery was a success, and is actually considered a fairly easy procedure nowadays.  But at the time, Amy was considered a pioneer, proving to doctors that there was a procedure that could impact the lives of patients suffering from visual impairments.

"As a result of the surgery, the shakiness in my eyes had been drastically diminished, which was the main point of the surgery.  But up until that point, my brain had been compensating for the fact that because my eyes shook I wasn't able to focus very easily. Once this hindrance had been lessened my brain had a hard time adjusting, if that makes any sense. It was like sensory overload at times.  Bottom line, I didn't gain much sight as a result of this surgery, but that wasn't the point."

Most recently, Amy's vision has been labeled as20/200.  She describes it best: for someone who has perfect vision, they see something that's 20 feet away, and it's actually 20 feet away. For Amy, it looks like it's 200 feet away. 

Amy {and baby bump} shooting with her husband / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Amy {and baby bump} shooting with her husband / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{behind the lens}

When I asked Amy about how she discovered photography, I waited with bated breath for her brilliant and life-altering explanation.

“Oh no,” she laughed “I can’t tell you, it’s embarrassing!  The reality is that in high school I had to choose between chemistry and photography and I chose photography because I HATED chemistry!  But in reality that was a really dumb assumption, because there is so much chemistry involved in photography, I just didn’t know anything about it.”

Photography was the right fit, she says, thanks to her heightened senses. For example, working in a dark room came completely naturally to her because she already knew how to function with limited sight.

“Photography came so naturally and easy to me, and it ended up being this amazing outlet of showing people how I saw the world.”

Amy and her husband, Aaron, the day before they were married / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Amy and her husband, Aaron, the day before they were married / Photo courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{degree, hubby, baby, photography}

Amy decided she’d run with this talent and pursue it in college.  Her parents weren’t as easily convinced, questioning whether their daughter who was still considered visually impaired should focus on a career that relied so heavily on eyesight.

“We carried my portfolio to three or four different colleges, and the professors were impressed.  I think when my parents saw their reaction they realized that I should just go for it.”

She enrolled as a photography student at the University of Cincinnati, and while she was studying, met her husband, Aaron, in one of their photography classes.

“I always knew I wanted to have kids really young, so when my husband and I met we decided to get married our junior year of college and have our first baby right away, walking across the stage six months pregnant during my senior year!”

Image from her blog, 'With Little Sound' / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Image from her blog, 'With Little Sound' / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{a blog is born}

The couple graduated, moved to the suburbs and had their second baby right away.

“It was wonderful, but I was feeling a little stifled artistically.  I felt like I had lost myself, all I was doing was changing diapers, feeding, and getting thrown up on!  You start to ask yourself ‘who am I anymore!’”

Amy describes the feeling as a ‘storm brewing inside of her’, and told her husband she needed to do something to calm this anxiety.  Her solution was to launch a blog, ‘With Little Sound,’ where she’d take one photo a day, for 1,000 days, that represented the mood of the day.

 “Sometimes they sucked, sometimes they were good, sometimes they were really grainy or boring….but I wasn’t trying to impress anybody, and I think that was refreshing to people.  We’re so caught up in the ‘perfection’ of social media, and while I wasn’t trying to show that in my blog, I think that’s what people recognized from it.”

Photo from their dream wedding giveaway, 'Happiest Bride on the block' / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Photo from their dream wedding giveaway, 'Happiest Bride on the block' / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{say yes to the con-test}

The blog snowballed, as did their business.  Clients began reaching out to Amy, asking how they could hire her to shoot images similar to the ones they saw on her site.  In fact, business became so robust that her husband decided to quit his job and jump on board.

Looking for a unique and quick way to scale their business, the duo decided to host a ‘free wedding giveaway’, enlisting various regional sponsors to donate their services in return for incredible free advertising in regional and national magazines promoting the contest.

“We had people coming to the website daily to vote for who they thought should win.  Not only were our vendors thrilled, but we were thrilled.  It really set a precedent for people knowing our work.”

Best Day Ever Photography / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Best Day Ever Photography / Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{best day ever}

Since then, Amy and Aaron’s wedding photography business, “Best Day Ever”, has taken off.  Between managing their regional clients in Cincinnati, Ohio, their various speaking engagements from coast to coast, and their boisterous ‘party of five’ family, the woman who at one point was labeled as “restricted”,  seems to be doing it all.

Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

Photo Courtesy Amy Hildebrand

{DRIVEN q&a}

What do you see when you look through the lens of your camera? 

"If you look at most of my work, it has a relatively shallow depth of field. I do this on purpose because this is how I see, (I don't do this all the time, but often enough so that I think it gets the point across). For awhile on the blog I was experimenting with collage and putting images together with shapes and lines to help show what I saw too, because what I really see more than anything is shapes and lines. 

I was recently at a conference in California where I was asked a similar question.  I pointed to a girl probably about four feet away from me and said, 'I can tell you are there, because I feel your presence. I can see your shape. Your hair is dark and is in contrast with the white wall behind you. I can see where your eyes should be because there are dark shapes, and your mouth for the same reason. Other than that I can't make out much of anything. I can't tell if you have makeup on, or if you're wearing earrings. I can tell when you smile though,  because that shape represents your mouth changing.' It all sounds archaic in a way, but I have picked up on so many cues throughout my life that my brain compensates lightning fast. Like, I could tell that girl was wearing overalls, because I saw the contrast of her straps against her light colored shirt, and I knew that overalls are super trendy in the hipster/indie/hippie scene, and that this conference was filled with people like that, haha. And it was honestly all a guess, until I got closer and saw that, yes, she was indeed actually wearing overalls."

When your first two kids were born 18 months apart, you say you felt like you lost yourself a bit.  SO MANY WOMEN CAN RELATE TO THIS!!!  What is your advice for someone feeling ‘in the trenches’?

“It’s just a phase! I know that’s like the worst thing you want to hear right now because all you can think is- NO! IT'S NOT A PHASE! I WILL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS DIAPER INFESTED TRENCH! . . . But you will, and you will be a better person because of it. When I started my blog I was trying to escape the clutches of motherhood, but you know what? Now there are times when I long for those days where all I did was lay on the floor with my babies. I did lose myself, but what I found was much greater than I ever imagined, and I owe it all to my children. Without them I wouldn’t have pushed myself as much as I have.”

How does your business strategy as a photographer differ from other photographers?

“We’re unique in that we don’t talk about money until we’ve met the clients face-to-face, because we don’t want that to play in how they approach us. We don’t want them to walk in thinking ‘oh we can’t afford them, or they’re too cheap, or whatever their presumption might be.’  We want to get to know them first and then figure out if it’s a good fit.  And when I say ‘good fit’ it’s ‘am I genuinely interested in this person?  What do I find interesting about their story?  Can I invest myself in them emotionally?’  It’s a lot to ask a photographer to invest themselves in you, to tell your story with you as the main subject! 

Your business had a few ‘jump-starts’, a blog and a contest.  What advice would you give other women on how to jump-start their own new business?

“Think about doing something crazy, and then go for it. When I told my husband about my idea for a blog, I asked him when I should start. He said, “tomorrow sounds good.” He said it in such a 'matter of fact' way that it made me think, “Why the heck not?” For me, over thinking kills a lot of my dreams, so I have taught myself to not think too much about my crazy or child-like ideas. I’ve recognized that there is too much truth in them to let them get weighted down by adulthood and reality.”

You mentioned that people were always interested in your photos because they were interested in how you see things differently.  How do you think your photography differs from your peers?

“It's funny you should ask me this, because I am in California teaching this class as we speak, and when we get home I’m going to be teaching two additional classes specifically to teach people how to connect with another human being on a real, genuine level.  And I think that’s what people are getting out of my photos, because that’s what they keep asking me to talk about. I think I’m just always trying to connect with people and understand them on a genuine level, and I don’t care about how long that takes and whether I’m getting the shot or not getting the shot, but what’s more important to me is really understanding the subject matter.  I can’t do that without putting down the camera and talking to them for awhile and getting to know them.  A lot of times I’ll pretend I’m shooting for the first 45 minutes just to allow them to get comfortable with us.”

At first, your family was apprehensive about you jumping into your career. What’s your advice on pursuing a career that your friends and family might not understand or support?

“When I was a young girl, and my parents shared with me the list of things the doctors said I would never be able to do, it lit a flame in me. Who were they to tell me I could or could not do something? This desire to prove the statistics wrong has been a huge influence in my life. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Sometimes it’s led me into situations where I am in way over my head; but at the end of the day it has made me who I am.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Never go to bed angry. I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s seriously the best advice I have ever received. I have to be okay with who I am, I can’t be angry at the world, or genetics, or God for the way my life has turned out. In this wonderfully written article it makes it sound like my life is peaches and cream, but there is a ton of bad stuff that has happened, and I’m sure will happen. So, every night I can either go to bed angry about things (like why I can’t seem to get my taxes done, or why the dog peed on the new carpet, or why I can’t drive) or I can go to bed accepting that this life was given to me and it is my job to make the best of it. Never go to bed angry. It will only make you weak.”

To visit Amy’s photography website, ‘Best Day Ever’, click here.

You can also follow ‘Best Day Ever’ on Facebook

Next week, meet Harmony.  She's always been into weddings but never wanted to be an actual wedding planner.  Instead, she launched a business that literally transformed the wedding industry.  Her kick-ass story is up next, on DRIVEN for Women.  

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