Check out our interview with Heather Jowett and Meghan Kindsvater, wedding photographers and Midwest Gathering creators and founders. And Heather and Meghan were the sweetest to offer our followers a special discount code for attending the conference! Find that at the end of the interview.
Tell us about yourselves. How did the two of you meet and start working together?
Heather (H): I was born a small, wrinkled child on the shores of the Chesapeake … actually, I’ll skip forward a bit. Meghan and I met after I moved from Virginia to the blue water area sometime around 2005. I don’t remember the exact moment of our meeting, but we had a lot of mutual friends and as often happens when that is the case, we just kind of found ourselves knowing one another one day. I had preceded Meghan into wedding photography by a few years, but once she started her business we started to see more of one another, getting together every few weeks to edit weddings along with some of our other self-employed friends. I think while we have different approaches to some things, we have similar work ethics, and that has really helped to build a bit of a mutual affection. We’re well suited to be doing this together because we have pretty complimentary skill sets. The business side of things is not my forte and I feel so lucky to have Meghan with me on this because that’s honestly where she excels. I know how to make stuff look pretty and how to interject fun. Meghan knows how to open a business bank account and get an event insurance policy.
Meghan (M): Before ever picking up a camera myself, I remember clicking through Heather's galleries repeatedly (often obsessively) and being in total awe of her work. I felt incredibly honored when she asked if I would be willing to be a part of Midwest Gathering and am still a bit in shock that she felt I was cool enough to partner up with. I spent seven years working in non-profit administration before leaving to photograph weddings full time, so it feels good to dig back into event planning and spreadsheets. I second Heather regarding our complimentary skill sets. She is charismatic, so well integrated in this industry, and really, really great at picking out fonts and essentially all the design elements and special details that make this event desirable for our community.
What is Midwest Gathering? How did the idea for this conference come about?
H: Honestly, Midwest Gathering was born out of a frustration with a lot of what I saw going down with other conferences. In addition to being a photographer, I have a really strong desire to want to see the world be a more equitable place. I attribute this tendency toward fairness to my grandmother, who was known to count the individual M&M’s she put in her grandchildren’s Christmas stockings. I saw so many conferences putting out the same sort of lineups, almost always all male, almost always all white. It frustrated me because I know that our industry has a lot more to offer than that. I spent about two years starting conversations with these conference organizers, trying to encourage them to care about representation, but often was either met with deaf ears or with the same kind of conspiracy about how they didn’t mean to have an all male / all white conference, it just worked out that way, they didn’t think about race or gender, it was just a coincidence, and what did it matter anyway? These were the best photographers they could find and isn’t that what should matter? That last but really frustrated me the most. It was almost as if these conference organizers were completely ignorant to the talents of a large part of the photography community, if when they thought about the ‘best’ photographers, they could only come up with white male names. For 2 years I had this conversation and then I got sick of having it and decided to start my own. I see the tides starting to change, slowly, and there have been conferences who have been putting up representative lineups for years, so I don’t want it to seem as if I have some illusion of grandeur about sailing into unchartered territory. I just think more lineups like this can never hurt.
M: After traveling across the country to attend conferences, I was immediately charged at the idea of having an educational opportunity like this taking place in my back yard. When Heather came to me with the idea it brought an entire new awareness. I was familiar with several staple conferences and had even attended a few, however I was completely blind to the lack of diversity on stage, as I am sure many organizers and attendees unintentionally are. Heather will share these frustrations and consistently uses the phrase "Do Better." And it's not a scolding or criticism, but an opportunity to look harder at how this industry is represented and be a part of the change.
What are your experiences with photo conferences? What are you hoping to incorporate from similar events and what is going to make this one stand out?
H: I’ve been lucky enough to speak at quite a few conferences and attend a few more, and we’re not fully reinventing the wheel here. It’ll still be amazing photographers on a stage talking about something they’re passionate about. We’re not having them incorporate modern dance or anything (unless they really want to). It’s honestly hard to know what exactly will make us stand out until it’s happened, but we’re excited, mostly, to be bringing a lineup like this to the Midwest, to a city that is so often overlooked. I also solemnly promise that we will include long lunch breaks. My number one pet peeve at conferences is short lunch breaks. I want people getting out into the city, eating at our restaurants, seeing what Detroit has to offer, and I don’t want anyone to have to choose between cutting a conversation short and missing the next speaker. Connecting with other people who go through the same things you do in business and life is one of the best fringe benefits of attending one of these things, and we want people to have the space to do so.
M: I've always left conferences feeling refreshed and re-inspired. Midwest Gathering is taking place at the tail end of most wedding seasons and it's important to recharge and gear up for future projects. I really want Midwest Gathering to feel inclusive and that everyone there feels comfortable and connected to those around them. Hosting a panel and letting attendees participate in Q&A's so that they can learn from presenters as well as each other.
We love Detroit! How did you decide to host this event in this city? What drew you to the Jam Handy?
H: Well, we’re both Michiganders who work in the city almost every weekend at weddings and have both known for years that Detroit has a lot to offer. There’s something romantic about Detroit, not in a love way, but in a black and white movie way. The city still, for the moment, has it’s heritage. It still has it’s Art Deco skyline (with the exception of the renaissance center, which I admittedly HATE). It’s one of those cities that has a tangible soul when you walk around it. Detroit has always been a hub for creatives and art and music, and we want to carry on that tradition (we’re not bringing it back because it never left). The Jam Handy just felt like a natural choice. It’s history as a movie studio made it feel like the right place to bring together a bunch of producers of visual art. It’s also just a beautiful inspiring space. We won’t have to do much to make it look incredible because the bones are already there and they’re good.
You have selected such an incredible group of people for your conference panel — what was this decision process like?
H: A little of this, a little of that. For this first year, I drew heavily on relationships I already had and tried to balance bigger names who have already proven themselves to be incredible speakers with people who I knew would be if given the chance. We wanted a wedding focus but not exclusively a wedding lineup, because we have so much to learn from one another and diversity of thought can be a real boon to creativity. All eight of our speakers inspire me. All eight of our speakers are compelling, good, ethical people. Honestly, there wasn’t much of a decision process. These are the people I had in mind from day one and I’m just so happy all eight of them said yes.
What part of the conference are you most excited about?
H: Honestly, it’s not so much the conference that excites me, it’s what comes after. I hope this conference can lead to a real community of people who are going to continue to be there for one another after the last day. I’ve made so many friends from various photography communities and have been lucky enough to have those friendships evolve into real friendships where we don’t just talk about a couple we were frustrated with or changes we’re going to make to our contract for the following year. I also hope this conference really puts out a good image for the city of Detroit. I want our out of town attendees to walk away feeling like they know and love the city now, so hopefully they’ll go forth into the world and say nice things about Detroit.
M: I agree with Heather, the idea of cultivating and strengthening relationships between creative professionals feels good. I can attest to the friendships I have made and maintained over the years with individuals I have met at events such as this. I was actually once told when contemplating purchasing a conference ticket that the education itself wasn't incredible, but that the people you would meet and connections you would make were. Both parts of the statement turned out to be true, but I'm confident that with Midwest Gathering attendees are going to walk away with some pretty powerful knowledge, inspiration, and many new friends. Secondly, as ticket sales continue to grow, I am super excited for that first morning. To see all of the guests pile into the Jam Handy, take their seats, and for the day to begin. Really just to watch all of the planning unfold.
What do you hope participants will take away from Midwest Gathering?
H: Some new knowledge, some inspiration, some really tangible nuggets of solid wisdom (Nessa’s talk is my favorite for this), new friendships, a desire to come back next year, and hopefully not too bad of a hangover.
M: As well as a whole new appreciation for the city of Detroit.
What’s your favorite aspect about the Midwest? Why do the two of you choose to live and work in this region?
H: The people in the Midwest are what makes it for me. Having grown up in the south (a region that thinks it has a corner on hospitality and niceness), I can tell you, no place in the US that I’ve seen is friendlier than the Midwest. Also, the summers are probably the most divine summers you can find. The blueberries are pretty damn good too. I live here for a lot of reasons, but the biggest practical one is living in the Midwest allows me to afford the others things that make me happy. The Midwest is still underrated enough that you can live here for a fraction of what other regions will cost you, and then take that extra money you’re not sinking into the real estate bubbles of the Pacific Northwest and the Bay Area, and use it to do some incredible things. I wouldn’t be as well travelled if I lived elsewhere. I probably wouldn’t have been able to take the financial risk of starting my own business elsewhere. Maybe you shouldn’t print this. I don’t want other people getting any ideas and messing up the Midwest for the rest of us who got in on the ground floor.
M: I've been fortunate enough to travel and work across literally the entire country, yet I still continue to return to the Midwest. I will admit that I try to escape the winter months and head south, but there is really nothing like a Michigan summer. Maybe because the nice weather is so limited, it is appreciated more by everyone that lives here. Wedding season feels relaxed and primarily focused on the celebration. Backyard parties are abundant. I also appreciate the comfort of swimming in water and hiking through forests without the concern of wild animal attacks. We have a close and supportive community of talented folks that I have yet to find in any other region I've had the opportunity to work in and that is truly a testament to people in the Midwest.