LA-based Heather Hawke is the editor and owner of online and print publication Decorated Youth. Coming up on Decorated Youth's 20th issue, Heather looks back on her start and how she broke into the photography and publishing industries.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how your publication, Decorated Youth, came to be?
As a child, I never had intentions of doing photography for a career. On our family vacations, I was always documenting outings with either photography (went through a lot of disposable cameras), videos, or journaling. At this age, I wasn’t thinking about a career so it never crossed my mind that I’d be involved in the arts for a living. When I was old enough to start thinking about what my plan was after high school, the music industry was my true passion. I knew that I wanted to be involved with music; I just had to figure out a way to break into the field.
In 2005, at the age of 16 and when Myspace was in full bloom, I started to ‘friend’ people who worked in the music industry, focusing especially on record labels. I realized the challenge early on. When you live in a small city that has no record labels, one alternative radio station, a couple small (500 or less capacity) venues, a recording studio or two, with minimal tours coming through, and the nearest city that has those opportunities is located some 200 miles away, it’s tough to get your foot in the door. While I reached out to the local recording studios, radio station and various venues, responses never came. Then, I started reaching out directly to labels and others in the music industry, with little to no reply. Years passed as I was struggling to find my path into the industry. During the interim, I held various jobs in retail, studied business management and culinary arts, but couldn’t get excited about either of these fields.
In September of 2011, a girl who ran her own online music and entertainment magazine posted that she was looking for journalists for her site and I rushed to apply. Even though I had zero experience, she gave me a chance to be a contributor. I posted music news, wrote “Bands You Should Know” articles as well as album reviews. It wasn’t long before I immersed myself with email and phone interviews with musicians - some of which even ended up being cover features for the publication. I was finally contributing to the industry and getting hands-on experience all from the internet and couldn’t have been more thankful.
Some conflict came up in July 2012 with the magazine. I wasn't really a part of it but got stuck in the middle. I was in such an awkward position and knew that if I quit I’d be back to square one, and I didn't want to lose momentum contributing to the music industry. One day while working at my day job, I came up with the idea of starting my own magazine. The initial thought of it I was almost joking to myself because I didn’t think it was feasible since I didn’t know how to build a website or really know anything about how to run a site, but the longer I thought about it I knew it was what I had to do. I told the girl at the magazine my intentions, that I had nothing against her, and that I would finish all of my pending articles for them before I left. I proceeded to launch Decorated Youth Magazine in November of 2012 with 5 interviews on the site. As the months went by, I began to notice more and more online publications turn out digital and print issues and I knew that if I wanted to keep challenging myself I had to also start creating them. At this time, I had zero experience with creating and publishing digital magazines or doing any sort of graphic design. I didn’t know the first thing when it came to using InDesign or Illustrator so I spent many hours on Youtube researching and tinkering around in the programs to get a small grasp on it. I released the first issue in June of 2013 and, as time goes by, with the release of each issue, I gain more and more confidence and knowledge of how the programs work and what looks best when printed.
How's life as a woman in the art/photography world?
I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever been treated differently because I’m a female or, if I have, I haven’t been aware of it. I’ve definitely felt awkward in situations being the only woman in the room with a venue full of males when setting up for a show, but everyone I’ve worked with so far has been very respectful. I get the occasional questions from fans (of any sex) how much “access” the credentials give you when you’re a photographer, but I think people are just curious. I do know that’s not always the case for females/femme’s in the industry, especially when touring, which I haven’t had experience with yet. I’d say that now most of the photographers I’m friends with are female and it’s an amazing thing to both witness, and to be a part of.
The thing that I feel mostly sets me apart is that from the time I started first shooting live music in spring 2012 to right before I moved to LA in September 2017 (aside from meeting a few photographers during my time in NYC in 2015) is that I didn’t really have any in real life photographer or music industry friends. I know a lot of photographers/music industry people meet while they’re out on the road or because they live in the same city so they can actually form bonds, but since I didn’t have either of those to go off of, I remember having to really, really work hard at becoming friends with people online who I considered to be my peers. I really craved creative friendships as I didn’t have anyone in real life, so I would always try and start up conversations with people on social media platforms in hopes of it turning into something that wasn’t one sided.
I felt like I constantly had to prove myself, that I was worthy enough to talk to, to people I considered my peers. Every time we did get tours through my hometown that had brought out tour photographers, I’d reach out to those tour photogs beforehand to see if we could meet up for a few mins so I could introduce myself and most of them were kind enough to do so even though they were technically working. I know all those conversations, even the online ones, probably meant more to me than to the others, but it helped me see and respect the people who were kind to me when I had nothing to give them in return. I have met and made quite a few music industry pals now and because of my past, I now really try and be supportive and helpful to those just starting out.
Could you share any notable struggles or challenges you have experienced when you were creating Decorated Youth? What challenges do you encounter now and how does it compare back then? How do you overcome these challenges?
I started Decorated Youth as a way to break into and gain experience in the music industry while also supporting and getting to tell the stories of some of my favorite creatives. Up until 2015, when I started doing freelance work, Decorated Youth wasn’t really another avenue to share my work. It was the only way I could get access and credentials to shoot stuff or even do interviews. Nowadays, there are a lot of really amazing online/print magazines like Decorated Youth, but when I started they were still pretty rare. I knew of a one but they were sort of the competition with the former magazine I was working with and I didn’t want to draw bad blood. Starting this was sort of my only option to keep gaining experience in music photography and the music industry.
I moved down to LA at the end of August 2017, but before that, the city I lived in wasn’t the most encouraging for people in the music industry or even creatives like photographers, filmmakers, writers, designers, zine creators, etc. Since we didn’t get that many tours passing through, and I didn’t personally know of any photographers/writers/zine makers growing up, it’s been a bit of a slow climb uphill and has taken the magazine a lot longer to get at the level we’re currently at than say someone who started a magazine in a bigger city that fosters a music community or who grew up knowing that being in the creative field was an option.
In early August of 2014, I saw a posting online that listed a paid photo internship in NYC at a fashion magazine. I had been eager to start the career latter with an internship, but since I didn’t go to college, I never qualified or got a response for a majority of them. This one was different; I could qualify and it was paid. I applied for it and had a phone interview a few weeks later. I didn’t get the position, but I was told to keep in touch and to apply for the next one. I put the internship in the back of my head because of how hectic things got with my day job and also with thoughts of thinking the internship was too good to be. That November, I interviewed again. I landed that internship and every week day from January through May 2015, that was all I focused on. Being in New York, I had so many shows readily available. While in the city, along with going to shows and doing portrait shoots for Decorated Youth Magazine, I also handled four different shoots specifically for the publication. Altogether, I did a total of nine portrait shoots and went to 15 shows in New York City, which was at the time, nearly equaled to the number of live/portraits shoots I did since I had picked up music photography three years prior.
After that internship, when I wasn’t able to find a job so I could stay in the city, I went back home and worked remotely as a photo editor for them during the weekends along with being a part-time music publicist. Last fall, I accepted an offer to take on the duties of a music publicist at a bigger company, so now I would say the greatest challenge for the magazine would be time to actually work on it. However, thankfully, since 2015, I’ve brought on quite a few really amazing writer and photographer contributors (who are based all around the world) who I couldn’t be more grateful for. They truly help the magazine grow so much and make it feel so much like a collective and I know I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without them.
What motivates you to continue running Decorated Youth?
I honestly, love, love, music and love sharing new or old favorites with people. Plus, I love everything publications are made from; the photos, illustrations, fonts, colors, websites, etc. I love it all. I also really, really love telling people’s stories. I feel like hearing someone’s story and what their job entails if it’s a behind-the-scenes feature, is such a great way to grow and learn about ways of life that may be different than your own.
Who do you look up to or draw strength from?
As corny as it sounds, I think I mostly look for strength within myself. My parents instilled in my sister and me at a really young age to have a really good work ethic and to never rely on any one thing or person. I don’t recall my dad ever taking a “sick day” — he told us that if we ever felt ill, to get ready and see if you really couldn’t make it out of the door and if you still didn’t feel well, at least you tried as hard as you could. He retired when I was still in high school, but when we were growing up, he left for work at 6:30am and didn’t come home until about twelve hours later. My mom worked just as hard, although not quite as many long hours. I feel like having this grasp on what work ethic is has made me a really persistent person when I’m working towards something, even if it’s my own mental state.
For the longest time, I used to not know how to cope with certain situations or states of mind. I’ve always had battles with my mental health and my parents are at times tough to talk to as they are sort of shut off from showing emotions, so as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’ve had to teach myself how to cope and how to deal with my own mental state. It took me a while, but even when feeling super low, I’m always trying to put in the forefront of my mind the things I’m grateful for and ask myself what is it that’s making me feel this way and what can I do in the present to make it better. When it goes to my day-to-day thinking, I like to believe that you receive back the energy or effort you put into a task/job/etc, and if you do everything you possibly can and for some reason it doesn’t work out, at least you know for yourself that you did your best and you should feel good about that.
Sex and gender should not be the basis of someone's place in art and photography. What would be your advice for girls and women who are still starting out in the world of art/photography?
As much as I think to have supportive and creative relationships are beneficial, I also think it’s vital to learn stuff on your own; to prove to yourself that you can do it, that you’re in charge of your life. If you live in a small city right now and are struggling to find your place in the industry, start a blog/magazine so you can begin to network with publicists, sometimes managers, other writers, and photographers and get some experience. I do think it’s important to occasionally do passion projects (where you work for free/cheaper than normal) no matter how long you’ve been shooting. Doing art/photography just for money’s sake I feel can lead you down a rough road where all you see is money signs. I feel like I can say that easily as I’m not full-time freelance, but as long as you’re doing stuff you want to do and working with people who respect you and vice versa that’s what matters. On the other hand, you do have to know your worth so don’t let people take advantage of your kindness/willingness to work for free.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on this year’s International Women’s Day theme “Balance for Better”?
As I feel like I’ve been treated pretty fairly by people who’ve hired me for photo/video work, what I would say on this theme isn’t necessary towards the balance of sexes, but towards the balance of ego, no matter the gender. The one time that really jumps out at me is when another photographer (a woman nonetheless) who has toured with bands in the US, UK, and all over Europe and South America reached out to me in February 2017 to see if I was available to shoot a couple live shows for the bands she worked for. After I asked about compensation she said “Hey! Unfortunately (the band) did not allocate a budget for these.“ I replied back with stating “Hey, sorry but I have to pass on this then. I know you understand!” That’s when she replied with “Girl, nobody pays for live photos anymore. Especially three songs worth. Sorry!” The thing that makes me so upset about this is that all over her social media, she promotes photographers (and especially ladies) to stand up for themselves and know what their worth is.
I also know what she said isn't true, since most of my paid photography work now and prior to this comes from live music photos. During this same time, I also saw her tweet to a mutual friend of ours (who happened to be a male) that something along the lines of, “I would never ask you to shoot for free.” Before this, I really looked up to her and then knowing in return how she felt about me and my worth made me feel completely miserable. I think it’s a personal choice if you want to work for free, but no one should be shamed into doing it. There should be a mutual appreciation from each side (the photographer and the client). I know a lot of photographers love her and I just really hope she hasn’t told this to someone who doesn’t know any better and gets discouraged by the industry.