Can you tell us about you and what inspired Tiny Atlas Quarterly?
I began my photography career by shooting travel and portraits, and then moved into lifestyle advertising photography (even though I graduated with a degree in English Literature). As an advertising photographer, many of your portfolio images are made on commercial shoots, and these images do not represent your creativity and perspective as much as personal work. So after I had my son, I was itching to do something new. I decided to set up a big lifestyle production shoot for my book in Montana.
But when I was done with the shoot and looking at these beautiful photos I had invested a good amount in creating, I had to ask myself, "What did I just do this for; why am I doing on this?" I knew I didn't want to start a blog because I didn't want to write about myself for a living. I decided that one way I could showcase this work was in a digital travel magazine format. When I was shooting more editorially, I had always found that travel magazines were missing a personal perspective on travel, and then when I shot for ad clients, all of the people who worked on the productions were never publicly credited and the work was less creative. So Tiny Atlas Quarterly, and what you may know as, "My Tiny Atlas" began. It was a way for me to highlight my own take on a place as well as the vision of the creative teams that put together these shoots as well as highlighting the local people that we so frequently collaborated with.
I started with a couple of stories that I produced myself. I did all of the art direction and photography, while my husband helped with the development of the site itself and a designer friend, Liz Mullally, created the original branding and design elements. For the first launch we had just two feature stories. Right away, though, a number of photographers reached out to me and wanted to contribute. My husband suggested that I shouldn't have other photographers in my personal "promo" magazine, and though I understood his concern, I realized that I couldn't make all of the creative for a magazine myself. I would have to let other people in. Since I had been a professional photographer for many years, I knew many other talented creatives who were interested in participating.
Early on, our online magazine and our print annual received some great organic attention, I think because the quality of the work for a "blog" was astronomical and also because when we started lifestyle content was not yet really that big. In addition, at the end of our first Kickstarter campaign (for a print annual), I started the hashtag #mytinyatlas. I reached out to a couple friends who had strong Instagram followings, we met for a drink at a bar in SF, and they agreed to post a couple of times to #mytinyatlas. I started to curate the hashtag with photographers that were interested in showing their work as a nice way to let a broader audience of emerging photographers and photography aficionados join the community of the magazine. And from there, the tag just took off. The #mytinyatlas feed was beautiful but really personal and real, and people gravitated to a new style of travel image that they had not yet seen much of.
You’re a wife, a mother, and now a business owner. have you experienced challenges with Your Own Balance?
I am so lucky to do what I do, but as any mother who is a business owner would tell you, it's hard to strike the right family/work/life balance. I'm a mom first. I have a kid to get ready for his day, pick him up, hang out, figure out dinner, put him to sleep — and these are all things you also want to enjoy. There is always more work to do, but you have to just decide when to stop working for the day. I think if my husband never had to hear about Tiny Atlas again he would not mind. It's a lot to be a founder. It takes a toll on those around you, because founders often dedicate too much time to their projects.
I think that an important part of my story is addressing and admitting to the struggles that we have as women. I do not talk about my personal life on the Tiny Atlas Instagram because I don’t feel like it's the right platform for it. At the same time, I don't subscribe to this sometimes-false perception of constant success and ease.
On the TAQ Instagram we show what our community's doing, who our group of photographers are personally, what the magazine specifically is creating. We celebrate beautiful places in the world. But, as a woman, I do think we need to talk more about this notion of work/life balance and figure it out.
Since TAQ has a pretty big influence, in the political state we are in, do you ever bring political dialogue to your feed?
Because of our audience and the size of our following, in general I shy away from it. We focus a bit on climate change and protecting our planet, because we have such a visual, beautiful natural feed. It just ties in with what we're doing and the reason why people are interested in #mytinyatlas. In the imagery we are sharing a planet worth protecting, so it is an easier point for us to make.
Occasionally if there's a major political crisis that I feel like I can't not say something about, I may, but also, in bringing that to the table, one can get in trouble with people for it. I got so upset about Trump when he was elected. I tried to start another account that was about looking across the aisle and connecting. I'm based in California and Trump’s election was whiplash for us; we really did not think it was possible. It was really hard to come to terms with, but I couldn't focus on that other account, because it just made me feel so bad.
Obviously everyone loves to travel, but you're going into more remote communities within countries around the world that we may not have heard of. How do you select the places you highlight in TAQ?
Before Tiny Atlas, as a professional editorial and ad shooter I had traveled a lot already. And many of the choices we make for coverage come from my own interests. So sometimes we are returning to places I am familiar with and know will have alluring qualities for our needs. And often we are going beyond that first look because I have already seen more recognizable places and am curious about digging deeper.
That said, we do feature destinations that are awesome and unique, but not impossible to get to or war zones or disturbing. We choose to share places that you would want to go on vacation but maybe wouldn't have seen much content from before.
What advice would you give to other women in business or just traveling along on their own paths?
I would give the advice of not doing what I did. Ha. People often tell me that they want to start a magazine, and I tell them, don't do it! I just mean that if they know that they want to start something, they should plan more than I did. This being said, I also think that there is a way to grow something organically, I think, instead of just jumping in — and I'm the jump in person, But I think if I could do it again, I would definitely like to have another year of preparing before the launch.
Also, start online and make something beautiful; get people to like it. Build something on Instagram; get people to like it there. If you are really well connected and have a cool idea, create a prototype and pitch it to potential partners who will fund it. Don't pay for it yourself.
Be sure to really listen to your audience that you are trying to grow. Don't keep doing the same thing if your audience isn't responsive. One important lesson is to be open to change. I am a very flexible person in life, and I think this flexibility has allowed my business to evolve in some good ways. I listen to myself and to our audience. If we try something new because it seems like a good revenue source but it doesn’t feel right, we don't pursue it. Contrarily, if our audience seems to really love something, we try to engage more in that area.
Listen to your audience. Listen to your community, and do everything you can with integrity. Something else I would stress is to approach your creative business like a business and not a creative project. If you are starting a business and don't have a plan to make money, it is not a business; it is a hobby and you need a job.
Finally, even though I started my own business, I worked (freelance, but still) for others for a number of years first. I think there is a lot of value in working for other people or companies and learning how industries work. If you don't know how you're going to get from point A to point Z, find your mentors and let them help you, and listen to what they say. I probably ignored some really good early advice because I was too focused on my own ideas. Listen to your elders!
Travel image on front page by Emily Nathan
Emily is a photographer and founder and director of Tiny Atlas Quarterly. She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and son.
Words: Emily Nathan
This interview has been edited for clarity.