Genevieve Russell: Sharing and Preserving Stories Through Images, Video, and Audio by Donna Poehner

Genevieve Russell: Story Photography

Photo by Genevieve Russell *

Photo by Genevieve Russell

Most photographers seek to communicate stories of some kind in their photography. Santa Fe photographer Genevieve Russell takes this challenge to a whole new level. Russell loves telling stories with photos, and her creations are true multimedia projects, encompassing images, video and audio. Learn more about Russell and her brainchild StoryPortrait Media in the Photographer’s Market interview below. You can also find more inspiring photography interviews in the 2014 Photographer’s Market.

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Genevieve Russell: Sharing and Preserving Stories Through Images, Video, and Audio by Donna Poehner

Photo by Genevieve Russell *

Photo by Genevieve Russell

StoryPortrait Media is the brainchild of Santa Fe photographer Genevieve Russell. Her website describes the concept behind her business: “StoryPortrait Media is dedicated to documenting, preserving, and sharing personal and community history through story and images. We work with clients to create beautiful, authentic, and timeless audiovisual portraits that touch the heart and endure through generations.”

By combining still images, video, and audio, Russell captures for her clients not only life’s traditional milestones, such as weddings, but she also creates mini-documentaries of their family life. For some clients she creates multimedia projects that document a typical day in the life of their family, which involve Russell taking stills, recording video, and conducting audio interviews with the family members. Russell then weaves this altogether into a “story portrait”—a five- to six-minute-long multimedia presentation that the family can enjoy and treasure for years. The families will also often buy albums or fine art prints of their favorite still images from the project.

A story portrait can also focus on one particular person, such as a grandfather who wants to preserve his stories for generations to come. Russell has also created a story portrait for a couple who discovered they were expecting their first child, documenting the process—from their initial excitement to the birth of the child and beyond. So the possibilities for story portraits are just about endless.

But that is just one side of StoryPortrait Media. Organizations, small businesses, and nonprofits also seek out Russell’s services. For these clients, the story portraits help the impact of their marketing message by adding an extra dimension to their traditional marketing efforts—that all-important emotional element. Many of these clients put the StoryPortrait to their websites.

Russell has completed projects for a variety of businesses and organizations, including Heart Gallery of New Mexico; Finding Forever Families; Global Green Indigenous Film Festival, The Power of the Image; Jazz of Enchantment—a 25-part series for public radio, profiling top jazz musicians in New Mexico; and Guadalupe Barber and Beauty Shop, which profiles a small, neighborhood business that has been run by the same family for three generations.

StoryPortrait Media also offers photography-only and audio-only services through their VisualPortrait and AudioPortrait packages. Russell also offers a diverse selection of media platforms: podcasts, web, CDs and DVDs, archival books, albums, and fine-art prints.

Photo by Genevieve Russell *

Photo by Genevieve Russell

Although Russell had been doing documentary photography since her introduction to it in high school, it was a workshop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, sponsored by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, that convinced Russell to incorporate audio and video into her documentary process. In San Miguel, she did a couple documentary photo projects, but when she got home she felt like she’d missed a big part of the story by not getting the full, journalistic details, such as the full names of her subjects and the interesting details of their stories. So, she decided to seek training and education in audio and video to round out her documentary skills. She went to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where she learned the basics of audio editing, interviewing, and video. She continued to take workshops to round out these skills.

She also met a radio producer, Paul Ingles, who helped her tune in to her sense of hearing. Russell says, “One of my pivotal moments for audio was going to Bosque del Apache, a wildlife preserve in New Mexico, with Paul. When the light wasn’t any good, and I wasn’t keen to photograph any more, he put a pair of headphones on me. He had a shotgun mike with him and just pointed it up towards the birds. I could hear so many distinct sounds—the flapping of the wings, the birds landing on the water. Sound became as textured as light. When photographing, we’re so used to looking that we don’t really hear or even listen, even though we may be asking our subjects questions.”

StoryPortrait Media has been operating since 2007. As the owner of a nascent business, Russell doesn’t have a staff—she basically does everything herself. Her background in web design, graphic design, and photography allows her to do just about everything her clients need, including interviews, image editing, video editing, audio editing. But Russell strongly believes in collaboration. So as her business grows, she brings in subcontractors when necessary—sometimes a sound person, someone to help work the camera so she can connect with subject, or an editor. Then, depending on the project, Russell pieces it all together herself.

Photographer Katie Macaulay recently joined StoryPortrait Media and is going to learn how to do some of the multimedia. Macaulay has been photographing people for many years, specializing in children and families. So far Russell’s marketing has mainly been through word of mouth. She joined local networking organizations in Santa Fe started by small business owners, but since she’s the only one doing everything in the business, she needed to take a break from it for awhile. Russell believes Macaulay will also be a boon to her efforts to market StoryPortrait Media to families. “She’s a mom with two kids and is connected to communities with families and schools,” Russell says. The two also plan to teach workshops together.

Russell has also begun a collaboration with Write Choice Network, a social change organization whose clients are nonprofits, NGOs, government entities, and tribes. In this new partnership, Write Choice Network will market StoryPortrait Media to their clients who need visual storytelling. Russell says, “As grant writers, they know the importance of having really compelling images. They need to be able to sell these nonprofits through the heart.”

Russell admits that the state of the photography industry today sometimes discourages her. Photographers are pitted against the consumers who think they can do it themselves—especially when it comes to publishing a small book or getting prints made. But StoryPortrait Media’s panoply of product offerings—from still photos to multimedia projects—is something rather new and different, and consumers and businesses may not immediately see the complexity of what she’s offering. Russell says, “It’s complicated; there are a lot of pieces to put together. We’re still in the education process.” She belongs to the Association of Personal Historians, and on her business card she lists her title as “personal historian,” which prompts people to ask, “What’s that?” Russell says, “There are a million photographers. Even saying that you’re a documentary photographer doesn’t click. But ‘personal historian’ rings a bell with them. Everyone knows the importance, maybe not of their own story, but of their grandmother’s story. I’m trying to get people to see that if they start recording their story right now, they’ll have it for future generations. I’m providing a service.”

Figuring out pricing for the story portraits can be tricky. “People never realize what goes into it—my time, equipment, what I’ve put into trying to learn this, and the costs,” says Russell. Post-production is often a lengthy process in itself. Sometimes the video is sort of a wash, but the products the clients buy later—albums, fine art prints, gift prints—pay for the video part of the project.

Russell says that sometimes she feels like she’s on an emotional roller coaster: “Part of me is really excited. Multimedia storytelling is a growing field that I feel people are looking for. They want that added element of audio and video online that they can share. Part of me feels really optimistic about my business and what I can offer to people.” She’s also excited by the prospect of doing things for iPhone, iPad, and other digital applications, which represent more avenues for content and distribution.

On the downside, however, Russell admits that it is very difficult to do it all alone. “There’s no sponsor like Nikon or Canon giving me equipment. The true costs are hard to bear alone.” When planning a self-funded documentary trip to Bali, she reached out to friends in her photo community, borrowing camera lenses and bags to make the trip happen. She says, “It’s so necessary for communities to bind together and figure out how to support each other.” Russell believes that it’s important to have friends you can share or split equipment with, so that you can all keep your dreams alive. “In Santa Fe everybody has many jobs. It’s a juggling act, trying to stay within the art that you love and basically solve problems for different groups of people.”

Russell does all of her shooting on location, so she doesn’t feel a need for a studio right now. Her garage has been converted into office space. She would like a space for collaboration with other photographers who are working on projects, a place where they could upload, do graphic design, video and audio editing, and teach workshops. This space could also double as a gallery or showcase where clients could come in and see prints displayed on the walls.

In addition to her documentary work, Russell has been an instructor at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for the past several years, teaching workshops on subjects such as photographing people and a video class for National Geographic. She stopped teaching for awhile because she felt she needed to re-energize her own work, but she’ll be teaching again in 2011. She also plans to propose some new classes to teach at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in the future.

Part of StoryPortrait Media’s mission is to seek out projects that celebrate diversity of cultures, beliefs, traditions, and geographic locations. Russell is proud of a couple of projects in particular, Jazz of Enchantment and Los Reyes de Albuquerque, because they fulfill this credo. Both were large projects and included a DVD, a gallery exhibition, and websites that Russell herself designed and put up. She’s also pleased that both projects were a result of collaboration with Paul Ingles, the radio producer who first introduced her to the layers and textures of sound at Bosque del Apache. He also wrote the grants to get the funding for the projects, which came from the New Mexico Humanities Council and the Urban Enhancement Trust Fund of the City of Albuquerque. Russell says, “It’s amazing that local and statewide funds for arts and humanities are still available…. There are great ideas happening.”


Donna Poehner, a former editor of Photographer’s Market, is a photographer, writer, and editor living in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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