Monday, March 21, 2011

Annie Ray: A Life of the Party

I met Annie Ray over a year ago. It was a fun event – one of my friends had a kickoff party for one of his startups in downtown Austin, TX. Annie installed a fun photo booth at that club and was taking pictures of the guests of the party. I remember it was a lot of fun not because of the pouring alcohol, but because of Annie’s unique ability to open people up and make them laugh. Annie has a precious gift of connecting with people.
When we met with Annie at the local coffee shop in January, she told me a story how everything started. She discovered a talent of a photographer in her Senior year in high school. Her grandfather, who passed away when her dad was twelve, was a professional photographer.Her dad told her stories about her grandpa, but she never had a chance to meet him in person. Nevertheless, inspired by the family history, Annie began to take pictures of her friends and random people on the streets. Sometimes, she would dress her friends up in ridiculous costumes accompanied by a silly makeup. Yet, people’s real personalities were always shining through disguise.

After six months of experimenting with her camera, Annie decided to submit her photographs to a contest at the University of Texas at Austin. To her surprise, she won the first place leaping ahead of 600 contestants.

As many creative people, Annie struggled with a traditional school system. For instance, she suffered greatly with English classes. She was also diagnosed with a learning disability at first grade which simply means that she needed to learn in a different way. Richard Branson, Tom Cruise and many other successful people fulfilled their dreams in spite of the learning disability stigma. So did Annie.
Annie was told at early age that she would never learn a second language. As an old proverb says, never say never. And as Frank Sinatra added, the best revenge is massive success. Annie excelled in many areas including her fluent bi-lingual skills. She now speaks English and Spanish. And her heart nearly missed a beat when she saw the front page of the Austin Statesman with her photographs placed on the Wall of Fame at her middle school to show other kids that they CAN accomplish anything they dreamed of. She believes that “if you work really hard and you can see what you really want, you can make anything happen.” Annie says that her parents were and still are a big inspiration and support for her. Her mom always cheers her up and reminds her to dream big and to overcome her fears.
I was curious to know more about the photo booth project. Many Austinites are now looking forward to the parties where Annie shows up with her camera and props. Annie said that she started her photo booth project about three years ago at the local club during Austin City Limits Festival. At first, it was very intimidating. She went to the party hoping that she didn’t have to do it. Later that night, she became comfortable with taking pictures of people at the party. When she returned home, she thought to herself “This is amazing!” She recognized an opportunity and created a unique niche of capturing cheerful moments and real people being silly at the social events. There are a lot of party photographers but nobody takes portraits like Annie. Even though her images are so contrasted and bright, she does minimal Photoshop processing. She uses the shift lens to focus on people’s faces and also blur the background and edges of the frame.

It is a brilliant model of gaining exposure and driving traffic to a website of a photographer. Hundreds and thousands of people are attending these parties, and everybody sees Annie and her work. Annie usually hands a card with her website after she photographs people. A few days later she uploads the images from the party, and people can save these web-quality silly portraits and share them via social networks. In fact, I’ve seen so many Facebook profiles with Annie’s images that I lost the count. People are welcome to purchase the high quality prints from her website as well.
I asked Annie if she feels that she has become an Austin icon now. She responded that once she saw a TV interview with a famous photographer David LaChapelle who said “Every photo shoot I do I always realize anybody can do that. I am not anybody special.” Annie was deeply impressed by how he sees himself “I think it is such a human thing to say. He is incredible!” Annie said she could relate to LaChapelle’s viewpoint. Her credo and a message to creative folks is “being yourself and being comfortable with what you do and knowing that you are not perfect.”