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Life & Work with Irene Abdou

Today we’d like to introduce you to Irene Abdou.

Hi Irene, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
The funny thing is that when my dad offered to buy me a camera before I set off on my Peace Corps Volunteer journey to West Africa after graduating from college, I said to him, “What a waste of money! Why would I ever want a camera?” (I bet you moms and dads out there can relate to your kids responding to you like that!) Of course, he knew more than I did because two weeks after arriving in Niger, in the heart of West Africa, I asked him to please send me a camera. And that began my love for photography, although it wasn’t until a decade later that I started to make a concerted effort to learn the art of photography.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2007, twelve years after first setting foot in West Africa that I launched my photography business, and then it was three more years (in 2010) before I left my established career in international development and humanitarian aid to pursue photography full-time. When I made that decision, it was because photography had become the air I breathed. It was… and is still… my passion. It had taken over my life. Making that step was a scary one, but when I made it, I distinctly remember feeling a wave of relief pass over me because I knew that I had found my true calling.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Has the road for any entrepreneur ever been smooth? Quitting my job in international development / humanitarian aid in 2010 was a leap of faith. I wasn’t earning enough money through photography yet to support myself. I went from a 6-figure salary to a very low 5-figures at the time. It was scary! But I trusted in myself. I had that self-confidence, and I never looked back and have never regretted my decision!

Most photographers become photographers because they love the art of photography. Like many others before me, I jumped into the business of photography without really knowing much about the business of photography. I had to learn that along the way, and it took a while!

In late 2014, I opened a beautiful new photography studio, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer six months later. That began a 2-year ordeal, during which time I continued to work but without trying to grow the business.

Then 2020 arrives, and suddenly, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the likes of which I never expected to see in my lifetime. Fortunately, in the ten years since I went full-time, I’d already had the opportunity to build a thriving portrait photography business that has been able to weather the storm.

So no, not a smooth road, but when is life ever smooth? What’s important is that we look beyond the bumps and continue to move along.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I specialize in portrait photography, that is, photographs of people! I photograph people in all stages of life and for all different reasons – from maternity/newborn photography to family photography to senior portraits and couple’s portraits, headshots, online dating portraits… even boudoir photography.

What I’m most proud of, though, is the superpower I’ve discovered and developed along the way. As I mentioned earlier, I launched my professional photography business nearly 15 years ago because I loved the art of photography and I loved being behind the camera. But over time, I’ve come to realize that one of the most rewarding things about being a professional photographer is that I have an amazing power, and that superpower is to make people feel good… no GREAT!… about how they look! I discovered that I have the power to influence self-image and BUILD self-esteem and confidence!

I have photographed countless women (and men also) who initially thought of themselves as unphotogenic. Many had very few photographs of themselves that they liked if any at all. Some confessed that they dreaded being photographed. And when I actually get them in front of my camera, I inevitably find that all they really need is a photographer who makes them feel comfortable and relaxed… someone who can bring out their natural smile and identify the most flattering angles, lighting, and posing for their face and body type. I love photographing people who are dreading being photographed because I can then show them that it’s fun to be photographed, and yes, it is more than possible to create portraits of themselves that they love! It’s with these people that I can make the greatest difference!

In 2020, I launched a new project called the “50 Over 50 & Fabulous” project (https://landing.ireneabdou.com/50-over-50-and-fab). My goal is to photography 50 women age 50+ and embrace the beauty of aging. I am interviewing them throughout the process to share their stories, and at the end of the project, I’ll be putting on a gallery-style art exhibit of the portraits and publishing a lookbook with the portraits and quotes from the interviews.

Some of these women, when we first speak on the phone, tell me that their primary purpose for participating in the project is to create a legacy. They’ve gotten to this age… 50 or 50+ or 60+… and they’ve realized that they don’t have a lot of portraits of their own mom at this age. And they remember the reasons… she gained weight… she didn’t like how she looked… she hid from the camera… she refused to be photographed. And they regret not having more portraits of their mom. They don’t want their own children to have those same regrets, and they want to set an example of self-love at all stages of love.

And I realized that the lack of self-confidence in a woman’s own beauty and image doesn’t happen overnight. It starts in the ‘teen and ‘tween years and carries over into womanhood. Maybe kids are making fun of them at school and say they have a big nose or a crooked smile.

In my previous life as a Peace Corps volunteer and then working for non-profits in international development and humanitarian aid, I worked to make a difference overseas. Now, I want to make a difference here at home. And so I just recently launched the “Confident Girls, Empowered Women” project (https://landing.ireneabdou.com/cgew), in which my goal is to photograph ‘teen and ‘tween girls, grades 6-10, and give them the confidence to know that they are beautiful… to help them see themselves the way their loved ones see them. If I can help girls build self-esteem and confidence as early as in the ‘tween and ‘teen years… if I can help make a ‘tween feel less awkward or bring a ‘teen out of that self-perpetuating spiral of low self-esteem… then I have truly made a difference.

How do you think about happiness?
Just a month or two ago, I worked with a man to create some new dating portraits for his online dating profile. Ten days after I delivered his images, he came back because he wanted to purchase more images from his session. Of course, I asked if he had replaced the old images on his profile with the new ones I created for him and what results he had seen. He replied that he was getting a lot more women reaching out to him. I asked if he could quantify it: was it double? Even triple? He said it was a 6x increase AND the women reaching out to him were more of the type of women that he wanted to meet! WOW! I had thought double or triple would be amazing. 6x blew me away! And that made me happy.

So in summary, what makes me happy is: helping someone meet the love of their life… helping families build a portrait history for themselves and future generations… helping men, women, girls, and boys feel good about how they look… and, of course, simply creating beautiful images that speak to my soul, and, I hope, to other souls as well.

Other things that make me happy? Cats, racquetball, dancing, and singing!

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