The morning of September 11, 2001, Puerto-Rican born photographer Frances Otero received a phone call from her boss saying that she didn’t need to go to the office that day—her boss was working from home, so Otero could do the same. The call came just seconds before Otero, who was supporting herself at the time working as a financial analyst in New York’s World Trade Center, planned to step aboard a subway train scheduled to arrive at the Twin Towers at 9:04 a.m. “I escaped death by a phone call,” Otero says. It was from this point that she decided to re-shape her priorities. “I’d been taking photographs as a hobby since I was 12 years old, but after 9/11, I decided to get serious about it,” she explains.
Soon after, Otero moved with her family to McKinney, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. “My children were going to college there, and after 9/11, I didn’t want to be so far away,” she explains. When her husband found out he had cancer, Otero took a full-time job as a database programmer so they could have access to comprehensive health care; on the side, she began taking pictures of friends and co-workers. After eight years of shooting for free, she decided to place a small ad in the Classified section of her local newspaper close to Christmas—she offered a mini holiday portrait session for a menial price to see if she could get any new clients. “It just snowballed from there,” she says. “I found myself with a lot of clients and a lot of work.”
Around the same time, she discovered that the local hospital was having some problems with the photographer it had contracted for newborn photography. “A crazy idea hit me,” she says. “I pitched the hospital to vie for the contract.” She landed the job, and seven months later, was so busy that she quit her full-time programming position to concentrate entirely on photography. “It was a huge leap of faith,” she says.
Four years later, Otero owns Frances Otero Photography, a business so successful that her husband was able to quit his job and work for her. Roughly 40 percent of her business comes from the newborn contracts she has with two local hospitals (for which she’s hired additional photographers to help with daily deliveries); another 50 percent comes from families who like her work so much that they continue to hire her to take portraits of not only their first baby, but also their second and third. She also photographs weddings occasionally—she estimates roughly 10 percent of her clients are brides and grooms—but believes that area of her business has yet to expand because she doesn’t market herself as a wedding photographer.
The way that she advertises her skills as a newborn and child photographer is unusual—thanks to her contract with the hospital, large-scale prints of her images are displayed in the labor, delivery and post-partum areas of the facilities. “People are frequently taken with them, and they ask the hospital who the photographer is,” she says. The hospital gives these potential clients Otero’s number.
Still, in a market flush with portrait and wedding photographers, Otero has a relatively small business. She likes keeping things intimate, because she feels it allows her to portray her subjects in a different light. “There are some really great photographers in Dallas who take the shots that everyone wants to put on the mantelpiece,” Otero says. “But those images can start to look sort of mainstream, because they all have the same poses.”
Rather than having her clients pose for portraits, she works with whatever is going on in the moment. “I have a theater arts degree that still runs strong in my veins,” she says. “I try to make every subject feel like they are the star of their own show.” Because she doesn’t have a large studio, she usually travels to her clients’ homes to take the images outdoors. She brings along props, beanbags and blankets so that they have something to work with while she takes their photographs.
“I make it fun and every family leaves telling me that it was nothing like they expected,” she explains. “Especially the husbands who say things like, ‘Oh, wow this was actually fun. I thought it would be painful.’” The pleasure of the experience keeps her clients hooked.
And for some parents, her work is especially poignant because it serves as the only visual documentation of their baby. She sometimes takes photographs, without charge, of what she terms “demised babies,” or babies that doctors know won’t survive long after birth. “One time, the hospital called me in to get images of a newborn that was delivered via C-section,” she says. “I took a picture of the baby’s only breaths, and it was extremely humbling.”
Otero also donated her time to the 2012 Texas March of Dimes, where she took portraits of 30 children who were born prematurely or with birth defects. “I became a better person for having the opportunity,” she says of the experience.
Keeping her business relatively small is actually what allows Otero to keep doing the charity work that brings her the most satisfaction. “I have incredible flexibility that allows me to pursue other interests,” she explains. Rather than worrying about staying on top of a huge staff, she can shoot on a project-by-project basis.
Although she doesn’t have any big plans to grow her business, she would like to improve her website to make it more user-friendly. She would also like to find a studio space in downtown McKinney—a town she describes as charming and booming with new business since she first arrived—“where I can meet my clients,” she says. “I would also like to not have to travel so much to do shoots.”
In the meantime, Otero is just grateful that her leap of faith paid off. Twelve years after September 11, she is doing exactly what she promised herself she would—living every moment to the fullest.
Pricing for Sessions: $350 to $7,000
Days of Week Spent Shooting: 2 to 3
Annual Income: Around $150,000
Gear: Canon 5D Mark II, lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, Canon 85mm, f/1.8
McKINNEY, TX FACTS:
Population: 141,000 as of January 1, 2013 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)
Number of Newborn Photographers in Town on Yelp: 39
Average Amount Spent on a Newborn Shoot: $850 (according to Otero)
Fun Fact: In the August 2012 issue of Money magazine, McKinney ranked no. 2 on the biennial “Best Places to Live in America” list.