Michaela Quan & the Journey of Self-Affirmation


In our latest interview, we caught up with Michaela Quan to talk about her faith and how she’s been able to balance it with her career, maneuvering in a male-dominated industry, preferring to work in Chicago rather than the coasts, and much more. Indulge below and make sure to follow Michaela on social 

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First things first, introduce yourself.

My name’s Mickey Quan. I am 23 years old. I’m a stylist and fashion portrait photographer here in Chicago.

When did you first pick up a camera and realize this was something you wanted to pursue professionally?

I was mentored into photography via an aunt when I was 13 years old. I was a homeschooled kid who carried this mini DV camera around all the time and I was really, really obsessive with documentation. My aunt noticed that about me and she just started having me bounce light and assist her on shoots. Before that, I was a serial hobbyist but they would all last for like a year. The first time I felt like I had something that I could offer to the world was when I had a camera. It was the most natural click I’ve ever had with anything. It was really powerful for me to be able to bring a camera to a family function and have something to give to them as a teenager. At first, it was just crazy amounts of documentation and then it became a narrowed way to give back. I started shooting events through my mom when I was 14 and had like, really weird gigs. But it was cool for me to be a young woman and have a source of income for myself.

MIKEY Portra (2)

Going into that, in one post you thanked your dad for not letting you pluck your eyebrows. So traditional, but really relatable! What role did your parents play in your early life going into photography?

I can’t believe you saw that! It was like when pencil brows were in and I wanted it so bad! My dad was like, “Don’t do it. You’re gonna thank me later.” It was super prophetic! My parents are ridiculously supportive. My dad is an IT project manager and always on the sidelines cheering us on, but my mom modeled for me what it meant to be a small business owner. When I was homeschooled I used to go on business trips with her and we’d go to trade show tours. She’d force me to have conversations with her clients so that I knew how to relate to other people, which is really good when you’re homeschooled because you could easily be socially inept in that setting. Even in high school, we had a snack business together. My mom has an amazing sense of hospitality. She made this snack that she’d bring to the trade shows and when we’d give it out to people in her industry it would make a solid connection which would differentiate us from other people. After like eight years, she officially turned it into a business. It went so well, we were taken on by Whole Foods in California and served in a Michelin starred business. When I was in 10th grade, she said, “Okay, I’m gonna have you co-own this so you can say you were a business owner at this point in your life.” It taught me so much about business management. My parents are everything.

Congratulations on graduating from Moody Bible Institute! What made you choose to study at a faith-based school rather than an artistically centric school?

Growing up, pretty much my entire identity was rooted in church and church values. That gave me an incredible sense of self in a collective way. Everything I cared about had to do with the church, church community and reaching others with the Gospel. But with that, I had an overwhelming burden always looming over my head that if I wasn’t doing ministry work, I felt like I was letting God down. When I was deciding schools, even though I knew that everything that brought me life had to do with photo work, I was just so burdened to go to a school that would reinforce those values that were put on me. But my personality type is to go with what makes people happy and it made my church and everyone important to me very happy to go to a school that would train me to go into Christian ministry. Even in high school, I was doing lots and lots of Christian services and my school gave me a scholarship for my Christian merit. That’s the kind of situation I was in. It was a lot of pressure to measure up. I put my dream of being a photographer aside for that, but when I think back it’s almost like a totally different person.

What was the point when you made the shift?

When I started Moody, I joined a church community that basically dismantled the idea that you needed to do things in order to make God happy. They preached the message that God favors everybody and there wasn’t anything you could do to get more of it or take it away. It’s just not in your power. That was an entry point, but not a lot changed for me until I left my ad agency job and I went freelance. All of a sudden I had this capacity to think about myself, which I had never done because it was always about the collective group and the church. Before, if I thought about myself for a little bit I would just have so much guilt and shame about it. But doing work at home on my computer and being with my thoughts all day, I had to confront myself and I realized that I had basically blindly assimilated into something that didn’t bring me happiness and weighed me down a lot. Growing up in the church is not a unique circumstance. If it’s the air you breathe, you just don’t know until you get out of that.

Have you found it difficult to balance your faith with your career?

I have in the past. I feel like it was hard to balance when I was part of a community that demonized the idea of being in the arts because it didn’t have the social impact that they wanted. I’d kind of describe my shift in the last year. I used to be so focused on what was right in the eyes of other people and now it’s about what’s gonna help me relate to other people and create real relationships the best. I feel like my photo work is the thing that brings me closer to others and gives me opportunities to take people in margins and give them a platform to be seen. This is just the first time in my life that I’ve been able to name how my art and work touches other people. I wasn’t able to articulate it before because I was so worried that I wasn’t doing the right thing.

Switching gears a little bit. In an industry that tends to be more male-dominated, the women tend to be the models and the men tend to be the creative directors. Do you feel that you have to push your limits more or be more aggressive when booking or directing gigs because you’re a woman?

Such a good question! And it’s all that I care about! Just for context, I feel like I grew up very anti-feminism. There’s so much that I need to do to deconstruct from that. All of us do. Church or not, I think that society is telling a message that women are less. It takes years and maybe our lifetime to undo it. For me, my heart knows what’s right and what women deserve. But then the patriarchy is so deeply ingrained in me that asks me to doubt that. That being said, I still feel that there are times when I’m being mistreated and belittled and I still can’t identify it. I do feel like because I identify as a woman I do attract women business owners to work with me, which is cool and powerful. I’ve been told by a lot of my clients that I was chosen specifically because of my ideas on feminism which is crazy because I still feel like I’m healing. It ungrounds me to think about how much there needs to be done in this industry. Just thinking about it is honestly overwhelming. It’s so important for me to take every opportunity to acknowledge the privileges that I do have and offer them to women who don’t yet.

I noticed your Instagram posts over the years have become more reflective of your creative spirit, showcasing beautifully funky outfits and your blond hair. How has your personal style evolved as you’ve gotten older and become more professionally established?

Literally in parallel with my whole journey regarding identity. Being blonde is honestly the first time the insides of me match the outside. It’s really nice to have this physical identifier that tells other people that there’s something that I wanna say about me. It’s nice! It’s something that I definitely wasn’t comfortable doing in my Bible school context. I was feeling very freed to do it as a freelancer. As much as I hate the shit that’s at the bottom of my Instagram page, I keep it there to be really honest with that season of my life where everything that I created was just a reflection of what I thought people wanted to see. It’s just what we go through. But now it’s the first time I’ve ever felt light about social media and about creating in general which I never thought I would get to. I know that eventually, I’ll go back to my black hair because embracing my heritage is becoming increasingly important to me.

Your work was displayed on the Spotify Fresh Finds feature for Iris Temple back in September and you styled Sen Morimento’s 88rising tour photo. Is there a difference between shooting for a client that expresses their personalities vocally (i.e. bands and musicians) versus a model or brand that solely relies on visual portraits to portray personality?

Actually, both of those weren’t meant to be featured. It’s usually the models and brands have an idea of what they want and are more vocal about it. But what I was able to create with those musicians went so well because we didn’t really have a specific product that we needed to make. It was made in freedom. I try to organize these small shoots with musicians as gifts to them. I know there’s not a lot of money in the beginning for them, but it’s important to have visuals to grow as a musician.

One of your most impressive accomplishments was styling for Glossier this year. How did you come across such an opportunity so early in your freelancing career?

One of my idols, Deun Ivory, was hired to shoot those portraits. I heard about it from one of my friends, Mia Ghogho, who modeled for her. Deun is like, a really cool big sister to me in this industry. I reached out to her and just wanted to volunteer as a photo assistant and she was like, “Yeah definitely, just show up!” She actually told me she wanted a stylist but they didn’t build it into the budget. I offered to bring some stuff from my kit to help her with that. She basically put it all into my hands to decide who was wearing what and how. By the end of it, she was going to give me a cut out of her pay because she appreciated me, which is just unheard of! But what happened was, instead of doing that, she wrote to Glossier and vouched for me saying that I was the stylist and she got me paid more than I’d ever been paid to style. And it was a volunteer position. That says so much about Deun and Glossier. I feel like people are usually looking to get the most for the least and that was just the most powerful experience I’ve had. It was an all-woman team so it made sense that it would work so well.

When doing work for bigger brands like Glossier, Radiant Health Magazine & Lululemon, what’s the creative process like for you?

Usually, when I get an inquiry I start conceptualizing what would make sense visually. I’ll make a mood board for myself to get my thoughts in order. I’m constantly saving things on Instagram into collections of different moods or words or themes that I feel like I’ll be able to use in the future. But sometimes I don’t do any planning at all. Like with Lululemon, they have a partnership with this peace house in Englewood called iGrow and they wanted photos that tell a story of what that peace house is doing in that community. There’s no way to prep for work like that because if you think too hard about it, then you begin imposing your own story on someone else’s experiences. So the creative process is always different.

Is there something specific about Chicago that keeps you based here as opposed to a heavily “creative” city like LA or New York?

There are seasons of my life where I just want to get up and run. Just run to New York and starve and be around really nice clothes and be happy about that and eat the fabric for breakfast or something. I hate when people make those generalized statements about what it’s like to live in LA or New York. All I know is that the paradigm shift that I was talking about earlier happened in Chicago and there’s something so comforting about being around people that understand you without you having to explain yourself. My overall experience in Chicago has been that your friends in the industry are constantly looking for opportunities to bring you up with them. I don’t know if it’s like that in other cities but I’m attached. I visit LA quite often, and I would feel a sense of something that made me question myself. I knew that as a kid and now that I’m in this industry I even notice that in conversations I have at events, clubs, and bars, people immediately go, “What do you do?” I meet people here in Chicago for the first time and they’ll be like “How was your day?” There is a difference and I’m not willing to trade that yet.

berry pentax

What’s a piece of advice you wish you’d heard when you were just starting out? What would you like other young freelancers to know?

There’s so much. Everything that comes to mind is so cheesy. I think that young creative people need to know that you don’t need to be afraid to use your voice even as it’s developing. I know that when I was younger, and I’m still like this now, I was really scared that I wasn’t ready enough or woke enough or articulate enough to say something. I have always struggled with feeling like I’m not ready to make an impact on another person’s life. I’m scared of that responsibility. The younger generation is our hope and they have so much more influence and so much more reach than kids in the past have ever had. Use it discerningly but don’t shy away from the responsibility of it.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t talked about yet?

I always wanna shout out my people! I’m also learning film photography. I’ve been doing digital photography so long that I got so stuck in my way of shooting others because I built up too much confidence about it. I met a friend this year, Phillip Tang, and he co-runs this business called Film Objektiv and they rent out film cameras for two week periods across the nation. It’s so important to put yourself in new learning positions and it sent me on this huge learning curve. It was all about not relying on the end product to satisfy me but to enjoy the process of creating a photo and relating to the person I’m shooting. It totally changed my world. Anything that makes me reevaluate is good. His generosity to allow me to learn something like that without it being a huge expense or burden was really cool and a gift to me in the past year. It’s that kind of stuff that touches me so much. I’m just waiting to be able to do a lot more of that for other people within my capacity.

grace pentax

Written by: Andrea Carrillo

Header Photo by: Evan Sheehan

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