Young St. C. Photographer On a Mission

At a young age, photographer Rachel Clarke realized beauty rarely presents itself in perfect poses.

She first started shooting photos at age 12 when her pastor’s wife passed down her old 1.3 megapixel point-and-shoot, which, Clarke noted, “is about 10 times worse than our phones now.” The smallest prints came out grainy. But she used it for three years until it broke, even winning first place for her portfolio in the Ohio State Fair with it when she was 14. “The judge came up to my dad and said, ‘You have to get this girl an SLR’ (a higher quality model). He said, ‘Oh, she’ll buy it.'”

And she did. She spent around $700 of her own money for it, a small fortune for a girl who grew up thinking a 25-cent gumball at the mall was extravagant.

“I was used to saving money. … I wasn’t used to spending money on anything. It’s just the way I was raised,” she said.

The money came from years of birthdays and Christmases, as well as from showing pigs at the county fair.

Now 20 years old, the homeschool graduate who lives outside of St. Clairsville has since sunk thousands into her business, which is thriving thanks to word of mouth and her eye for what she calls “raw, gritty beauty.”

She is grateful her parents, Peter and Martha Clarke, didn’t help her financially.

“It would have taken away my own ownership of the business,” she said.

Her success was swift.

Clarke shot her first wedding at age 15. It was for a close friend’s sister, someone for whom she’d already shot senior pictures and engagement photos. It was cold and rainy – October in Cleveland – and the post-nuptial portion of the shoot didn’t start until it was nearly dark. “My lens couldn’t even focus it was so dark. … It was a really hard wedding for me.” But she took her time, and the bride loved the results.

At 16, she attended a four-day workshop in Maryland at the home of a photographer whose blog she had been following for years. “The benefits of home schooling: The middle of spring, my mom drops me off (in Maryland), and she’s fine with it,” said Clarke, the oldest of five children.

She followed a lot of photographers on Facebook, but ended up “unliking” most of the pages because she was getting caught up in comparisons and starting to feel like her work didn’t measure up. She still follows some of her favorites but tries never to copy their work.

For the next two years, she continued shooting weddings, senior photos and family pictures.

After graduating from high school in 2013, she took a gap year to apply to art schools and do church mission work in a South African orphanage. Her heart was set on attending the Art Institute of Chicago. She visited and was enthralled. She worked hard on her application and portfolio. She completed the federal financial aid form but made sure the school knew she wasn’t getting a penny from her parents.

Clarke landed a $78,000 scholarship, but it still wasn’t enough to cover her tuition and expenses. Loans weren’t an option – from a practical standpoint, she couldn’t see going that far into debt to “pursue something I already loved doing.” Skyping with the school back in Chicago while she was in Johannesburg, South Africa, she convinced them to pony up more money. They offered another $10,000 and then shut the vault. Clarke’s heart sunk. She still couldn’t afford it.

But even as her formal education dreams crumbled, something better was taking shape.

While in South Africa, Clarke’s calling was thrown into sharp relief.

Her desire to do Christian mission work in a foreign orphanage had led her to the Door of Hope ministry in Johannesburg, which she found online and to which she traveled by herself.

“I love spending the money I make doing missions in the winter when business is slow,” she said.

She took photos of the babies when they were brought in so their future families would have them to cherish for years to come.

“It was scary at first, but it is one of the best things I have ever done. I can’t say enough about Door of Hope. I miss it every day.”

She also traveled to a Zulu village nursery school opened by Door of Hope, where she photographed 130 children going about their days, singing songs, playing games, enjoying life. That’s when things started to come into focus for Clarke.

“That really started my love of photojournalism. … Before that, I knew what (kinds of images) I loved shooting, but I couldn’t but my finger on it. Yet, going overseas, it made me see,” she said.

“I just love making people feel beautiful. It’s just my favorite thing, and it doesn’t have be perfectly posed to be beautiful. It’s that gritty, raw, natural beauty,” she said.

After returning from South Africa last year, Clarke said her business “blew up.” Even without getting a formal education, she began making enough money through photography to support herself and her business. In October alone, she had 25 shoots in 27 days. (She noted that, while she could move out of her family home, she stays because she enjoys it, and her parents like having her. “My dad says, ‘Just save up.'”)

She felt her success was God showing her He had a plan to provide for her even though school didn’t work out. “He was showing me I could trust Him.”

When winter came, Clarke packed her bags again. This time, after discovering a staggering statistic that 1.2 million children are enslaved in India, she and her best friend headed to Goa, India, with Rahab’s Rope, a ministry that provides a living wage for women making garments, jewelry and other items, and also pairs at-risk young girls with mentors to teach them self-esteem, self-care and Bible lessons to help keep them from becoming human trafficking victims. There also is a mother and baby ministry, a support group of sorts; Clarke likened it to Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) in the U.S.

Clarke felt drawn especially to take photos of the mothers and babies, and she was bold enough to ask if she could go to their homes for the shoots. It’s become her modus operandi: she wants her subjects to be in familiar surroundings.

The women were shy and not very friendly at first, Clarke said. But after taking their photos, when she returned the next week, they were “so excited to see me, and I realized after that how much photography and giving them a gift like that can bridge a relational gap so fast. And it showed them they were valuable, that I cared about them and they were beautiful.”

She handed out between 500 and 700 photos while in India, half a dozen to each of the mothers but also many to the women at Rahab’s Rope, to the girls in the mentoring program and even to random people living in the slums.

“It was just a culmination of everything that makes me feel alive. I love making people feel beautiful and worthwhile and documenting their relationship with other people they love. I love ministry and the Lord. And it was just a combination of all that. … When I got home, I cried looking at all the pictures.”

South Africa, she said, began molding her into what God wanted her to do. “India really cemented it.”

Her goal with all her shoots is to continue seeking that raw beauty she believes is present in all her subjects.

“I want people to see this is the way other people see you. It’s like you at your best, but it doesn’t have to be you looking your best necessarily because I don’t think beauty is confined or constrained by physical appearance. It’s the essence of your personhood.”

The way to capture that essence is to encourage people to interact and have fun with each other as if she weren’t there.

“Eventually, it does get to that point. Moms will tell me, ‘You made motherhood look beautiful on me, and I feel so messy sometimes.'”

Clarke plans to continue shooting photos and traveling as much as possible. She already has shot weddings in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Francisco, Nashville, Chicago. She spent three weeks in Scotland in April, during which she photographed a couple in the Highlands.

In July, she will take two weeks to make a promotional video in a children’s home in Honduras.

In September, she’s shooting a wedding in Denver, Colo.

She desperately wants to go back to South Africa this fall, and she also is pursuing a project to raise awareness for ebola orphans in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“I think I am just thankful to find exactly what makes me come alive, making people feel beautiful and see the beauty in their life and show God through all of it. … I just believe all good things come from Him and that if I can leave a little look into that somehow through an image, that would be my goal.”

Clarke can be found on Instagram using @rachelclarkephoto, and on Facebook by searching Rachel Clarke Photography. Her website and blog are online at www.rachelclarkephotography.com.