Have you met Jamie Smialek?
Did you know she is a self-described wedding rolled up into a person, that she will climb a tree, lay on the ground, even fly across the country to Seattle to get the perfect shots of a wedding—more specifically, of your own, uniquely yours, wedding?
“I can laugh and cry within a five-minute timespan, I love my family, I love dancing, I love things that are special—I think that’s really why I love weddings,” she said. “Every day is different. Every day is super important. There’s not one thing that I do that is low-priority. Everything is absolutely the most special day of someone’s life, every weekend.”
Damn straight, she did
Smialek came into her love of photography early: Both her mother and uncle pursued it as a hobby; and in sixth grade, she declared her goal of becoming a photographer when she grew up, though she did lose a few points for spelling the job title “photo grapher.”
She even remembers saving money from a summer job for her first digital camera, which was shoebox-sized and used a 3-and-a-half-inch floppy disk.
After finishing high school and spending two stints in India teaching English and doing relief work, the Louisville, Ky., native move to Chattanooga to attend Covenant College. Four years later and with a bachelor's degree in photography under her belt, she decided to make her passion a full-time job.
Smialek founded Our Ampersand Photography on May 15, 2010—a week after graduation.
For the first year, she “begged, borrowed and stole” to get work. She advertised on Craigslist. She drove to weddings. She worked for rates staggeringly lower than what her photography was worth. She did whatever she had to do and managed to build up a six-wedding portfolio.
“I lived in a camper and didn’t have a job, [but] I knew what I wanted to do,” Smialek remembered. “I could have made more money at Taco Bell, but I was enjoying myself.”
The next year, she moved up to 21 weddings and was able to ditch the part-time job at a flower shop. Now, three years later, she celebrated her 51st wedding shoot on May 16, 2013.
Though nuptials are the mainstay of the business, Our Ampersand Photography services include engagement, personal and family portraits, and style shoots. Smialek recently shot the new look book for Chattanooga apparel company Sweet Cycle, and she is the primary shutterbug for Chattanooga Whiskey. She also maintains a blog for Our Ampersand Photography, manages her chicly bossy fashion blog with the help of a few contributors and offers event-planning expertise through Crossed & Dotted.
The new kind of “wedding photography”
The key to Smialek’s work is the bond she makes with the couples whose big days she documents. She finds the relationship she builds with them is an avenue by which to “sincerely connect with people on a really deep level really quickly.”
Many times, that connection not only brilliantly informs the photographs but also forges longer-lasting friendships—more than one of her contributors to She Wore It Anyways are brides from those 51 weddings she’s captured—as well as leads to more and more jobs.
With the Craigslist advertising a thing of the past, Smialek frequently is contacted by brides and grooms who have seen her work through friends, friends of friends, co-workers or other word-of-mouth methods all over the country.
She may be based in Tennessee, but in the recent past and near future, Smialek has traveled and will travel to Louisville and Lexington, Ky.; Florida; Seattle; and Portland, Ore.
A natural light, documentary-style photographer, she typically figures out the couple’s style and then adjusts accordingly.
“One of the things I love to do is pick a location that the couple loves or that I love. We’ll brainstorm and walk around and explore, so it’s not so planned,” she said of engagement photo sessions. “I like doing things that exemplify who they are as a couple and what they love and a lot less of the pretty cheesy prom pictures.”
Some of those locations have included Flagstaff, Colo.; Pearl Street in Boulder, Colo., where the groom and bride, who are both musicians, put on a street-corner performance; and The Honest Pint, where two Irish Chattanoogans toasted a pair of Guinness pints.
However, despite the breadth of her capacity for the artistic and creative, Smialek always remembers to get the posed, smiling-at-the-camera shots for Mom and Grandma.
In thinking about the wedding industry and her profession’s place in the grand scheme of things, she noted that there has been a growing emphasis on photography. She cited that along with the dress and the reception as what couples are most willing to invest in monetarily.
She’s also noticed the desire for more personalization in the day, even if it means straying from the traditional wedding must-dos. One couple didn’t care for cake, so they cut a pizza. One bride wasn’t big on decorations, so she put three hydrangeas in a mason jar on each table for centerpieces. One bride didn’t like flowers, so her and her bridesmaids’ bouquets were arrangements of rosemary and thistle.
The same is true of photography. Smialek explained that although the professionals who arrive with a van full of equipment and go after the textbook “wedding shots” that can be found at every wedding still exist, their services are less and less in demand.
Rather, couples are looking for pictures of their wedding, their style, their friends and the moments when they became an “&.”
“I’ve taken a little bit more liberty to be 'This is me taking pictures at your wedding, not necessarily wedding photography,'" she said. “I’ve seen a shift in people being less afraid to be themselves in weddings. There’s less commitment to the norm and more commitment to who they are and what they like."