“Some things in life just feel natural, they grip you and become second nature.” For Kara Mercer, it was photography. She carried a small disposable camera with her everywhere as a child, unaware of the fundamental role it would play in defining her as the photographer she is today.
Learn more about Kara and see photos from her journey through Jordan below.
How did you first get into photography, and what inspired you to make photography your career?
Growing up in Texas, I always had a disposable camera with me. I loved taking images of my friends and capturing life. I never thought of actually doing photography until I was in college. I quit cheering in college and was in school for speech pathology. The balance between science and art has always been something I love.
I met a close friend who was a professional photographer and started working with her. She taught me the beauty of documenting people and how adding mystery to photos through usage of light, angles, what you choose to keep in the frame or crop out, etc. I began to shoot weddings with her and before I knew it I was booked out a year in advance myself.
My business led me to many destinations and ultimately drew me to the west coast. As an artist, I gravitated toward the beauty of the coast and nature. There my work expanded to fashion & lifestyle brands, assisting with creative direction & strategy, travel magazines, and large commercial campaigns. Year over year my work continues to grow and take new paths. It has put me in unique and life changing experiences furthering my passion for sharing other cultures and countries.
Making photography my career was the only thing that made sense, as I had a very specific direction and wanted the autonomy. I love the freedom to make my business whatever I want it to be.
Pictured above: The Prince Street messenger in black leather
How do you describe your personal style and aesthetic? Are there 2-3 principles you always keep in mind?
My work is visceral, light intensive, and inspired by romanticism and an etherial feel. I love using shadows and light to set a mood.
I aspire to create timeless work that makes people want to take a second look. I love motion in photos and the moments in between. Some of my favorite photos I’ve taken are a quick snap in passing.
When shooting, three principles I work on would be: always find the light, ask enough from your subjects but give room for organic movement and feeling, and always look at every angle. It isn’t rare for me to lay in dirt or climb for a higher vantage point, because after all perspective is everything.
What inspires you? Where do you draw inspiration from?
I love psychology and understanding others, which has served me very well when shooting portraits and weddings.
I’m inspired by artists of many kinds- ceramicists, fashion designers, illustrators and more. A lot of my inspiration comes from conversations with friends, travel, books, magazines, and music. When I have an inspiring moment or idea for a shoot, I make notes and often these culminate in a shoot that draws on many thoughts and moments.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a photographer?
Creating the business you want! So much of my job entails working with clients of similar aesthetic. Whether I am photographing fashion campaigns or travel, having the client truly understand who I am and what I am about is key. When approach and style are aligned on shoots, I am in heaven and feel like my work speaks truly to who I am. So I am a true believer in working with people that believe in the dream you have and work along side you to realize those visions together.
Describe the type of project that drives your creativity.
I love projects that require me to see something in a new way. Travel makes me feel alive, because I love meeting new people. It is the understanding of something completely different from the life I live, which drives me to learn more. Any shoot on destination, with people is my ideal project.
You recently traveled to Jordan. Tell us about your time there. What made this trip unique?
Jordan was unreal! I was nervous at first, as our news and all the government sites do not share a lot of the positives in the middle east. I didn’t know what to expect, yet, I soon learned that the people of Jordan are extremely welcoming and warm. It is not uncommon to be invited for dinner or tea when meeting a stranger. They truly know how to bring others together over a meal and great conversation. This trip was the first time I had been to the Middle East. Whether it was the lunar like structures of Wadi Rum, textiles and interiors, amazing mezze style dishes, or spending the day with bedouins learning their traditions and culture, I was blown away each day. Everyday I would ask our translator to teach me new words in Arabic. It created a bond between myself and these amazing people to be able to speak some of their native tongue.
I’m already missing nights under the stars, sleeping around the fire, and waking up to the open desert in Wadi Rum.
What is your go-to camera and lens when traveling? Does this change when you’re closer to home?
Travel offers opportunity for landscapes, portraits, and documentary/lifestyle shots.
I am constantly changing what camera body I use, as well as the lens. My go to cameras for travel are a Fuji X-T2 and a Canon 5D mark III. I carry with me a lot of zoom lenses for travel work and a few really good prime lenses. For instance, having a zoom lens (24-70 or 16-35 mm) allows me to change my focal length quickly to grab the right frame when driving. When standing still to capture a portrait, I will change to a prime lens. I loved carrying my Fuji X-T2 in Jordan. It is small and easy to snap things quickly, as in some areas I did not want to draw a lot of attention to myself.
Does your approach differ at all when you’re traveling and photographing professionally versus shooting just for yourself?
At home, my work is more curated and involves fashion collaborations and a group centered approach. For travel, I tend to shoot more documentary lifestyle to show the story of what is happening around me. I love to introduce my audience to different people and how they live, as I am so fascinated by this. When you travel and see the way other people live, it forces you to re-examine the way you live your own life.
I think having a genuine fascination with life and people ultimately grows a portfolio full of work that speaks to who I am.
What is one thing that you cannot travel without?
All the ONA bags haha….but for real they keeps me sane. Organization is so important to being prepared for the next photo op. If you can’t reach a certain lens, memory card, or battery in time, then you lose out on so many great images.
I often travel with 3 bags of gear and that can get a bit cumbersome if not organized properly.
Do you have a dream project that you’d like to tackle in the next five years?
Within the next 5 years, I am focusing a lot more on travel & fashion work, sharing beautiful cultures and people from all around the globe. I love the blend of real moments and shooting fashion/portrait work in stunning backdrops. It offers context to viewers and helps an image stand alone as it’s own story. A few places I’d like to travel to for projects are Portugal, India, Morocco, and Chile.
What are the three items you carry in your bag at all times (besides your camera/lens)?
Music, I love putting on earphones and giving it a theme song or album. Then when I listen to it while editing, I am transported right back.
Also, having a pen and paper handy has taught me to put down into words the feelings surrounding what I shot. This helps me remember details of the scenes, smells, and atmosphere as vividly as when it was happening.
What advice do you have for aspiring professional storytellers, regardless of medium?
Everyday comes with moments of growth, that cycle never stops. Just as we are all human and changing, so will your art. Some days you will hate it and feel discouraged. Remember to give yourself grace and look at how far you have come, as there were many huge hurdles to get where you are. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and tell a story that only you can.
What advice would you give to a photographer just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask a stranger for their photo! When left without a model, I have gotten to know many awesome people just by not being afraid to say hello or feel awkward.
DREAM BIG!! This will be the hardest job and the most rewarding job you’ve ever had.
Be bold enough to try new types of photography and truly use your own eye regardless of the work those around you are creating.