Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Jess Stevenson is a talented photographer across multiple disciplines who also has quite the modeling career. I was fortunate enough to know Stevenson during college as we were both fine art majors at the University of Delaware. I got to see Stevenson really develop into a professional while we were students, mastering her work with the camera, being active in fashion shoots and publications, and bringing her artistic adventure to life in a multitude of ways. We actually spent a summer working in the same grant program, which is where I got my first in depth look at her work, and it was one of the first times I found myself really interested in a model shoot. I think shooting models can become really dull or repetitive, but Stevenson is great at capturing a message, capturing emotion, and making a photo feel like a snapshot of real life and not a set up, overproduced mess. Using the camera to really convey a message or capture life in a realistic way is a skill that’s a lot harder to obtain than most people think and Stevenson has really come into her own in terms of telling a story through image. Since graduating in 2018, she has developed quite the professional career in the fashion industry through photo, modeling and a badass blog all about what she’s doing! I’m almost envious of her as she was the first one from our graduating class that we really saw make a career in an artistic venture, but that’s awesome! I got to have a chat with Stevenson recently about all that she does and is doing and she can give you a hell of a lot more insight on her career than I ever could. She was an awesome interview and we hope to get to work with her more in the future. Enjoy!
1. First things first, give us a little background on you as an artist and an overview of your work. What got you into art/fashion? Where did you go to school? What inspires you to be the artist you are?
Since I was super young- and I mean like 3 years old- I have been into fashion. Dress up was my favorite activity and I was always making something out of nothing with the clothes I had. I remember always dancing around my house in sparkly costumes, taking my brother’s superhero capes and tying them into dresses and cutting up old clothes to create new looks. I high school I made it a goal to wear a different outfit every single day of the year. I took back to school shopping very seriously and was often teased for dressing outside of the Uggs/Northface uniform. During my sophomore year my high school began offering apparel and textiles classes and I was so ready to learn to sew and design. It was in this class that I learned sewing was not for me. I was actually probably the worst in the class and dreaded threading the tiny needle on the machines. I continued with the class anyway and simultaneously took some art classes. One art class in particular was heavily digital based and I was taught how to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I switched out my point-and-shoot camera for an outdated Nikon DSLR and started shooting some photography. I fell in love. I carried my camera everywhere and tried to learn as much as I could on my own. When it came time to apply for college, I decided to go for it. I was accepted into the art major at the University of Delaware and explored art more formally. Towards the end of my college career, the Instagram platform became super influential to my work, which I acknowledge sounds a bit silly. My boyfriend and I would spend our weekends roadtripping to cities in the tristate area to do photoshoots for fun. Eventually we discovered that we could get free products (clothes, cosmetics, etc.) from companies in exchange for their products being featured in the photos. To me, this was the coolest thing. Little did I know a year later I could be getting paid hundreds and thousands of dollars to shoot ad campaigns for Instagrammers. This whole idea bridges together my interest in fashion and art and advertising and visual story-telling. Now Instagram content creating is my full time gig and I am loving every second of it.
2. You worked with the organization UDress while you were in school, how did that affiliation help you gain access to the professional fashion world? How important do you think this organization and others like it are to students looking to take that path?
I think participating in UDress helped me photograph more people and fashion. Before UD I was mostly shooting landscapes and portraits but not so much fashion photography. UDress forced me to shift gears and start conceptualizing shoots more. To be honest, I think UDress has a ton of untapped creative potential and could be pushed to greater limits but I do credit the organization as a good starting point for someone interested in that creative path.
3. You recently made the move to make Instagram your full time job, was this a challenging decision? How has it been so far?
In September of 2018 I had the opportunity to attend the Made in America Music Festival in partnership with Abercrombie and Fitch. I was working in visual merchandising for Nordstrom at the time and took the weekend to shoot content at the event. I met tons of other creators, some who I had been following for years, and felt I crossed into new a territory. This was the biggest campaign I had participated on and it really validated my work. Following the festival I was invited to attend some shows during Paris Fashion Week, which would be my second season there. Naturally I felt that I had to go and was granted time off from Nordstrom to attend. After the trip, I quit my job immediately. The uncertainties of money was a little scary at first as I am technically on freelancer. But I also had been feeling so conflicted because work had been taking time from my creativity and ability to grow with Instagram so I knew making the switch was the best decision which truly has paid off now (figuratively and literally).
4. Modeling has become a big part of your work in the fashion industry, has your background in photo been a big part of that? Are you heavily involved in the shooting and editing process?
It’s so weird to refer to myself as a “model” but I guess that is what I do. I do both shoot content for ‘influencers’ and am an ‘influencer’ myself (I hate the term influencer but we’ll role with it). I think what has made me most desirable to the clients that I shoot is that I know what they’re looking for. Since I work both sides of the business I can visualize what that influencer wants and what companies expect. I am constantly shooting, every. single. day. Influencers generally shoot several looks during their time with me so they can plan their upcoming posts for the next week. I personally have an archive of upcoming posts planned for the next month so that everything is ready for brand deadlines. I also want to note that I edit all of my photos that appear on my feed.
5. How has it been working with the companies that you do? Do they give you a lot of artistic freedom when you're promoting their products?
Some companies can be super awesome to work with and others can be really irritating. Usually the bigger brands allow for more creative freedom and flexibility surprisingly. They give you general guidelines and let you take creative reign. I think this is because they WANT to work with you because of what you bring to the table as an individual. Smaller brands working on a smaller budget are often more needy and more restrictive. With all brands I generally have to pitch a concept proposal that fits within the campaign guidelines but I ultimately get the creative freedom. The brand I work with and content they want has to mutually fit within my own brand as well.
6. Do you credit your art degree in helping you get where you are?
I absolutely credit my art degree in getting here. While I did feel criticized at some points for my art not being “art enough” the lessons I learned in the process of getting the degree shaped me to be more well rounded. Even though having a degree isn’t necessary to do what I do the education behind it transformed my eye.
7. Any further plans in the fashion industry beyond what you're doing right now? Or would you like to push what you're doing now to a further point?
I know that Instagram isn’t going to be around forever. Who knows what the next big platform will be. For now I am going to ride this wave and keep growing in the fashion community. This role gets me into fashion shows, events, publications, hell I even worked on a project with MTV this week. I hope to one day apply all of the skills and connections I’ve made with Instagram to start a fashion line or maybe even work for a fashion magazine. I think I’ll always be doing something involving fashion whatever the next thing may be.
8. Any other photo pursuits you've considered tackling? Or are you all in on what you're currently doing?
I’ve recently been doing a ton of shooting for some pretty big clients both on IG and tv personalities. It has led me to some cool opportunities in other media outlets and also to a lot of travel. Travel has always been important to me and I’ve recently had the opportunity to do it for free/get paid to do it and I want to keep that going. In August I’m being flown to South East Asia for 10 days between Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. I’m hoping this will get me back into documentary/landscape photography and maybe lead me to more travel work.
9. Any advice for students or recent grads looking to enter your industry or take a similar path to yours?
If you want to be an “influencer” don’t do it for the money or the free things or the clout. Do it because you want to shoot and express yourself and your ideas. The market is getting very saturated because this job is associated with lavish experiences and fortune. That is not the case at all. I’ve been doing this for 3 years and I am just now starting to truly reap the benefits. Those above me have been doing this for 6-7 years. It’s hard not to compare yourself. BUT if you’re doing it for YOU and for the right reasons you will succeed. Passion shines brightly in this community and there is room for everyone who is willing to commit and share themselves.
10. Finally, where can people find you? Any exciting new projects coming up? Plug yourself!
Y’all can board the Hot Mess Jess Express by following me on IG @jessicataylorstevenson. I just moved to NYC a couple months ago so I’m really working on improving my content and trying to show the city in ways that haven’t already been done before. August is packed with travel leading up to Fashion Month (September) and I am hoping to be attending Fashion Week in Milan, Paris and New York this season so stay tuned for all that! Thanks so much for listening to all this and I am happy to answer any other questions you may have! Don’t hesitate to reach out!