Memorial Portraits that Honor the Dead: Aly Elliott Q&A
November 1, 2023
Aly Elliott's exhibition project Hireath (pronounced heer-eyeth) is a Welsh word that means "longing for a place that no longer exists." She conceived of the idea when she was pregnant with her most recent child and had a desire to create a family portrait that included her child who had passed away at birth. The project has taken her across the nation as she works with families in grief. (Scroll through to see images from both of her exhibition projects.)
In many parts of the world, people commemorate their departed loved ones through celebration at appointed times of the year. Fine art photographer Aly Elliott‘s project Hireath creates legacy memorial portraits that include family members who died early, sometimes at birth. She creates images of the child with composites of other children in the family and parents so that they can be included in family portraits. For many, it has been a powerful way to process long held grief and honor those family members who they have always missed and longed for. Aly’s other exhibition project, The Right Way to Drown also looks into grieving the loss of loved ones.
In addition to her fine art exhibition projects, Aly also runs a fine art portrait studio for the living in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. She recently spoke with The Portrait System Podcast host Nikki Closser about all aspects of her business including her two projects: Fine Art for the Bereaved: Grieving the Departed. In the Q&A below, Aly discusses her artistic vision and process, and gives advice to other photo entrepreneurs.
What has been your biggest breakthrough in business?
My biggest breakthrough was when I became cognizant of my ability to tell a story no matter how simple the image seemed on the surface. I can tuck meaning into every pixel, every flicker of light, every subtle expression. Some images have deep, thorough imagery with a long-winded narrative. Other images rely on very little visual information but can accomplish exactly what I set out to tell. I started looking at every image as a complete story and each person has countless stories to tell, so I felt as if I was encompassing their entire personality into their galleries.
Most artists have had a point in their life when they knew this was meant for them. Do you have that moment?
Truly (there is no way to say this without sounding contrived), there are so many of them. It will be a sad day when I stop having them. I strive for a moment of knowing this is the right place for me with every single session. When I see my work on the wall of an exhibition, when a client sees their gallery for the first time, when I work on a storytelling image and step back to “see” it for the first time, all of those moments make my heart swell. I know this work matters. It matters to me, to my clients and subjects, to people who share the stories of those subjects, to the next generations.
How did you push past fear when building your business?
The fear has always been outweighed by my desire to compete with myself. As an entrepreneur, whether I succeed or fail, it’s on me. I take the responsibility for it all. I like that pressure, and it motivates me to keep pace with those who’ve been in business before.
Making a connection with your subject is one of the most important parts of a great portrait. How do you make lasting connections with your clients?
This is one of the best parts of my work, I believe. My best connections with clients came after I gained the confidence to allow myself a certain level of vulnerability and welcomed them into parts of my own story. Through exhibitions and fine art works, I allow my viewers/clients to see every aspect of my life through the artwork I produce to tell stories. It’s really cool to have people open up and share their life’s stories with me to enable me to tell their story visually. I saw this tremendously with the exhibition Hiraeth; even people who hadn’t experienced the death of a child were able to come to me and share what they had gone through so we could produce art for them.
For someone starting out on their photography journey what advice would you have for them?
My best advice for someone starting out is to be persistent. To succeed in this industry, what you do has to be rooted in love; love for the art, for the people, for the stories. You will have hard days, blood, sweat, tears, and all of that, but your love will be what brings you back. Let the love for it all take up more space in your mind than the hard days.
Do you regret any decisions you have made in your business?
I would love to say I absolutely do not regret any decisions I’ve made in my business. I’ve done little things, of course, that I’ve corrected with time. However, I truly believe that where I am currently is a culmination of learning from a lot of little mistakes through the years, and I love where I am now. I have a long way to go, but the beauty of the arts is that there is no finish line. I can continually find new goals to one day achieve. If and when I achieve those goals, it won’t be because I didn’t make any bad decisions. It will be because I learned from them.
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