A New Hope: My Journey to Becoming a Professional Photographer

Aug 27, 2021
Denise Birdsong Boudoir Photographer and Digital Photography Course Educator

My name is Denise Birdsong and I am a professional portrait, boudoir and wedding photographer, who is working to revolutionize the way that the photography industry views and actually executes our work.

I want to share with you the journey that brought me to becoming the artist and educator that I am today. I love helping people let go of their fears and step into their true authenticity as artists and creatives.

I love my work. I love working with my clients in the studio. I love the connection, the intimacy, the beauty, the humanity, and the human condition that I'm able to capture and truly create beautiful, meaningful art.

So how did I get here? 

I was raised by an amazing mother. She was such a beacon of light. She was so incredibly beautiful, creative, talented, artistic, loving and empathetic. She was incredibly open-minded and nonjudgmental.  She just had the most amazing outlook on life, and an incredibly beautiful heart. She also had a bit of a rebellious streak and an irreverence to her that was absolutely gorgeous.

My mom taught me how to be vulnerable and is a huge part of the woman that I am today. She taught me so many things about life and how to live a full and rich life. 

At the very wise old age of 17, I decided that I was going to embark upon my own journey.  I moved to San Francisco, and discovered all of the things that I wanted to discover and have all of the adventures that I wanted to have and live this incredible life that my mom had kind of primed me for. 

I was ready for all of the adventures that life had to throw at me. I was able to do things like watching Alan Ginsburg do a live reading, celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco with Metallica, I even had a party of my own where I kicked out Kirk Hammett and his girlfriend. I mean, it was bananas. I met so many amazing and interesting people.

I was living my dream, all of the people I surrounded myself with were creatives. They were all engaging in some form of creativity. And I got to be completely immersed in it. And it was just such a wonderful, wonderful experience. I was living my dream and I was working as a stylist and a model and also going to college. It was this perfect mix of creativity, art, exploration, and academia.

One Doctor’s Visit That Changed Everything

I loved being in school and learning so many new things, and I loved exploring all of the creative things that the world had to offer. Then one day, I went to the doctor and in that one doctor's visit everything changed. In the blink of an eye, I was pregnant and my world was turned upside down. 

Everything was about to change. I transferred schools, I changed my major, I moved back to the suburbs and I started preparing myself to not be living the Bohemian artistic, creative lifestyle that I had been living, but it was now time for me to be a mom.

My focus shifted to bringing a child into this world. This beautiful, beautiful child who is one of the most amazing things that I've ever done in my life and one of my great loves. It was night and day, a totally different world. I had a difficult time getting used to it. 

In the process, I completely lost myself. And I imagine that there are many of you who can relate to that in one way or another, whether it's, getting into a committed relationship, starting a family or starting a career. We start losing ourselves and our passions and our desires. And that's what happened to me. I spent the next 17 years of my life living far too much of a half-life.

I had a very high-power, high stress job. My identity became my work and taking care of the people that I loved. I was so busy being a super employee and supermom. I was very much taking care of everything and everyone else but myself. 

That went on for about 17 years and then everything changed again. I had my son, my beautiful little man who is amazing, but he's also on the autism spectrum. And my identity was completely in question again, I couldn't go back to my corporate job. I had to take care of my child that needed me. 

My mom had always really championed and cultivated and nurtured all of my artistic endeavors and she was pushing me in that direction. It didn't even cross my mind that I could do anything creative and artistic anymore. I felt that the artistic part of me had been buried so deep inside and tucked away for so long that I'd completely lost touch with it. 

I knew that I needed to do something. I had to have some kind of purpose and I really did want to contribute to my family as well. So with the encouragement of my dear mom, one day I picked up a camera to try and connect with that creativity again. 

I Never Dreamed of Being a Professional Photographer

I never dreamed of being a professional photographer. I'd always spent my life on the other side of the camera but from the moment where I interacted with my subject and my gear. I knew this is what I was going to do. 

I had this incredible mind blowing realization that maybe I could do something that I loved. I could be creative. I could bring beautiful things into this world and get paid for it and make a living. I could do this and support my children and manage the responsibilities of my life.

I built an awesome wedding and portrait business. We were serving upwards of 50 wedding clients per year. We were seeing up to 30 boudoir clients a month, year round.  It was incredible. I was making great money. I was winning awards. I was being asked to shoot covers of magazines and editorials. I was being published regularly. I was being invited to educate at WPPI and PPA and many other leading industry events. It was a fairy tale in the best of ways. 

Keeping My Mother’s Legacy Alive 

And again, in an instant everything just kind of slipped through my fingers. On Mother's Day, my mom died. The person who was my biggest cheerleader, my champion, the woman who gave me the wings to fly and believed in me, was gone.

It happened rather suddenly. It's not something that we had been expecting. We went to the doctors after having some tests done, and her doctor told her that she had two weeks to two months to live. 

I was scheduled to teach at WPPI a week later. My initial reaction was cancel, I did not want to leave my mom’s side. I asked my team to start making arrangements, to cancel our trip and reach out to WPPI and extend our apologies. But my mom stopped me, she said you can't stop because I'm leaving. You have to keep going. She told me that when we die, all we have is the story that we've told. And that story should be of beauty and of love.

And that I was her story and everything that I did from the time she died forward was her legacy. And so my job was to go out and affect as many lives as I possibly could to keep her legacy alive. And that was her wish was for me to go and teach this class. She told me that I could stay and work at my studio and affect one client at a time but if I go out and teach I will be able to affect multiple people. 

And those people are going to go back into their businesses and they are going to affect multiple people. Essentially my ability to affect a change in the world was much greater by actually teaching than by just seeing my clients in the studio. We both agreed. I still needed to see my clients because it's a part of my job that I love so much, but there was a tremendous amount of value in continuing with being an educator.

But after she died, I just fell apart and everything around me fell apart as well. And I know I'm not the only person who experiences tragedy and difficulty. And I imagine that many of you can relate to this on some level, tragedy befalls us and difficult things happen and mistakes are made and sometimes a lot of mistakes are made. And so that's what happened to me. 

My mom taught me so so much in life. I'm so grateful for having had her as a mother and carrying her heart with me and being that really exceptional extension of who she was. Having the ability to be extraordinary because she taught me that it could be, it's taught me so much in life. She taught me even more about myself in her death.

I learned a lot about myself through that process. I slowly began to get back on my feet, I have become so much more clear in my purpose and my desire and what it is that I want to do with my gifts and my talents. Thanks to my mom. 

Now, I want you to be rooted in your value as a creative and as an artist. I want to help you grow and walk this path with you.  My deepest desire is to help other photographers step into their true authenticity and create work with heart and soul that fills them with value and pride. 

I invite you on this journey. If any of this has resonated with you and you are ready to discover your true authenticity and create work that feeds your soul join my community here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/StrippedDownBoudoir

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