Colleen Bies, a 13-year military veteran turned wedding photographer, walks us through her story of turning rejection into a full-time business. You may recognize her incredible work from the Rising Tide/HoneyBook trip to Laos last year when we partnered with Pencils of Promise to build a school. As a second generation immigrant from Laos, she helped give our team a beautiful first-hand perspective of the community while there. And we’re not crying, you’re crying, at her description of her favorite memory from the trip.
Tell us a little about what makes your world go ‘round!
Well, my name is Colleen Bies. I live in Neenah Wisconsin and I’m a photographer, entrepreneur, and educator.
I’ve been running my business officially for 8 years, unofficially for 9 years. I started with film photography in high school and fell in love. After college, corporate life, and then my tipping point of being deployed to war in 2009, I started my journey to be my own boss. And photography was the perfect outlet for me.
Your career journey is pretty unique. You served in the military and used to work in finance, so how did you end up in photography?
Growing up, my family struggled. My parents, immigrants from Laos, had very little. We were a full family, living in a small home, with barely a single income to support us; we had no room for any indulgences or frivolous expenses. Having a camera was the last priority. So I knew I had no chance of “making it” if I followed my dream of being a teacher or photographer.
I was so afraid to fall into the same life I had growing up that I chose to join the military and go into a career field where I wouldn’t have to worry about money and would always find work. I earned my BBA in Finance and then later, my MBA. But ultimately, my heart wasn’t fulfilled which brought me back to my original passion. I felt I had missed the boat on teaching, so I picked up my camera and went full steam ahead.
What was the biggest challenge you faced early on in your business? How did you deal with it?
When I decided I wanted to start with wedding photography, my biggest issue was not even knowing what a “wedding” was like. Not having grown up around anyone that had western weddings, I had no clue what to expect. I reached out as help for several months to other photographers, and made as many relationships as I could. All of which failed.
I was turned down at every ask and even had photographers tell me that I would never succeed and I should give up now. I didn’t give up and kept trying and finally found a break when a photographer/teacher allowed me to shadow her at a wedding. It was perfect and allowed me to understand the flow of a wedding day and build my portfolio. *
How has the Rising Tide benefited you in your career as a photographer?
When Rising Tide came around, I was pregnant with my son and starting my 2nd year of full-time photography work. It was a rough first year as I felt so alone and had no one to share my experiences and my work with. I longed for a chance to have that human interaction and to share my journey with folks on a similar path. I actually started reaching out and luckily, found a friend who had that same feeling. She started an intimate female group that actually aligned with many of the Rising Tide values. It was as if we were all searching for it, and then it made itself appear. Rising Tide helped me get out of my funk and into a space where I felt like I finally had peers and colleagues.
Tell us about your favorite job you’ve been tasked with since being your own boss. What made it so special?
One of my favorite and probably most successful jobs is actually one that I just recently finished. I befriended the director of a prestigious organization in our local area. I was tasked with producing a television commercial. It was one of the most exciting and fulfilling roles I’ve every done. I was able to organize, cast, direct, and produce the entire thing and I loved every moment of it.
I think I loved this project so much because it was unexpected and perfect. For years I’d been working on passion projects for free and simply making relationships with folks out of the sheer desire for connection with like-minded business professionals. I never imagined that all my time and energy would funnel into something so wonderful. I’m so thankful that my actions, without any regard for seeking attention, gained traction and allowed me to take on such a beautiful project. *
Let’s talk #photographygoals, what would be your dream project? Location, concept, genre… it can be anything!
So many!!! But if I were to pick only one photography goal, it would be to travel the world with my family and make a pictorial journey book featuring photos of my son traveling and seeing the world from his perspective.
What is your favorite memory from the Pencils of Promise trip to Laos?
In Laos, there are many cultural groups residing there, but there are three main groups. The Lao, the Hmong, and the Kamoo. I am Hmong. My favorite memory was the second day that we were visiting schools.
We had come across this pre-school and saw children in a circle sitting and listening to their teacher. They all got up to start a fun dance and I immediately recognized some of the students as Hmong. This little Hmong girl dressed in green Hmong clothes looked up at me, and in Hmong, I asked Today you are in school? She nodded. And do you like coming to school? She quietly said “yes.” And that was all it took for the tears to start flowing and I couldn’t stop.
It was the first time I was able to talk directly to a student who was Hmong, and in my native tongue. I still remember that moment so vividly.
Your photography from the trip is stunning. Was there anything you had to do differently to get those shots?
One of the things I knew going into the trip was that having tangible items was rare. So having an actual photo that you could hold and touch was going to be so much more real to these people than looking at images on the back of a camera that they likely would never see again. I firmly believe in give and take. And if I was to take and take and take by way of photographing without giving anything back, I would feel incomplete. Hence, I decided to take a polaroid camera with me and lots of film. I started by taking photos of the kids and giving photos to them in exchange for them allowing me to take digital photos of them for myself, Pencils of Promise, and Rising Tide/HoneyBook. I loved seeing all the natural reactions and smiles and the love these kids have on their faces.
What’s your favorite HoneyBook feature?
I’ve used HoneyBook for over three years and love it. My favorite thing about it is being able to keep everything in one place–all conversations, contracts, and any other ways of communicating. It’s my one-stop shop.
I had tried several other business management tools as a trial run and hated them. When I got HoneyBook, it was so easy, plus I got so much help from the HoneyBook team. They didn’t just hand over a blank program, they actually took the extra step to make sure I implemented it and used it. They made me accountable by helping with the tough stuff of setting things up and it made me stick with them.