Katie Sikora graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in Visual Journalism and worked as Photo Editor in Wisconsin, a Media Strategist in Chicago, and as an Archivist at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, before pursuing her namesake photography business shooting everything from shark tagging research to vodou ceremonies and—you guessed it—weddings!
Her photographs have been published by The Chicago Sun-Times, The Times-Picayune, Houseshow Magazine, Thrillist, NBC Chicago, and the World Wildlife Fund amongst others. She is the creator and director of The Sexism Project, an ongoing portrait and interview series featuring the stories of real people in real industries experiencing real sexism.
Photo by CJ Sikora
The world we live in is beautiful and gritty and painful and showing it in it’s true form is something that is always on the back of mind whether I am shooting a vodou ceremony in the Bywater, shark tagging off the Florida Keys, hitting the road with bands for months at a time, weddings, or traditional photojournalism.
How did you get started as a photographer?
My dad is a photographer. He worked in factories and shipyards when he was in his 20s and 30s and started as a documentary photographer because of the locations he had access to as an engineer. He then shot weddings for many, many years–I remember waking up every Sunday morning to two slices of wedding cake in the fridge for me and my mom. As he got older, he got involved with Equality Illinois, a nonprofit that fights for LGBT+ rights in Illinois, and moved up to sitting on the board of the organization and shooting activism photography to highlight their efforts. Equality Illinois did much of the work that made discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex/gender illegal, passed civil union legislation, and eventually made marriage a right for everyone regardless of who you love. He is also a giant nerd and loves shooting photos of birds whenever he can. He was the first one to put a camera in my hand when I was a tiny child and while I am still not sure why he trusted his equipment to a toddler, I am grateful he did.
Photo by Papa Sikora
I shot for fun throughout middle school and high school and was given my first professional camera for my 21st birthday (can you guess from who?). I majored in Visual Journalism (with a second major in Marine Science and a minor in Theatre) at the University of Miami in Florida and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Communications. I got a gig working as the Photo Editor at the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living Magazine in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin fresh out of undergrad. When my contract ended, I moved back to my hometown of Chicago and created the position of Digital Media Strategist for myself while working for Levy Restaurants, a large restaurant group that caters to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, and other highly popular destinations in the city. It was during this tenure that I decided to pick up and move to New Orleans on a whim which is ultimately what led me to working with musicians and bands, creating my first photography niche here.
How would you describe your photography style?
While I truly enjoy shooting a plethora of different types of gigs/assignments/projects, my style will always lean toward that of documentary. The world we live in is beautiful and gritty and painful and showing it in it’s true form is something that is always on the back of mind. Our reality is so complex that sometimes I think this is the only possible way I can make sense of it even if just for myself. Some people make Facebook statuses when they have specific thoughts about the state of world, I shoot.
Photo by Alana Adetola
When did you realize you wanted to make it your full time job?
In college. I thought I was going to graduate and find a job at a newspaper or journalism outlet within a few months and get to it. But at the time, the journalism industry as we knew it was just starting to burn to the ground. While I still wish my professors had given us more insight into being free agents, I learned so much practical information while getting my degree, most importantly that this was definitely what I wanted to do. I graduated in 2012 and 2020 will be my first full year as a freelance photographer without any other side hustles.
What is something you’ve had to teach yourself as a small business owner?
Nothing happens overnight. Nothing happens overnight. Nothing happens overnight. To this day, I am constantly reminding myself that building a freelance business, especially one based in the creative arts, is the slowest burn in the world. I am naturally impatient as well as very sensitive so learning to a) WAIT and b) be kind to myself about my growth as an artist and a business owner is a constant battle and has been incredibly humbling. Teaching yourself how to be ok saying “no” as well as walking away from supposed opportunities that do not actually serve you or your mission was and is a really hard one too.
Photo by Sam Weil
You shoot a lot of different types of events! What would you say is your favorite and why?
This is a tough one to answer because every type of gig presents a different mindset to work with as well as a different skill set to use. This in and of itself is something I very much appreciate because it keeps me on my toes (and happily exhausted) most of the time. But ultimately, I think anything that has to do with documenting something that is happening in real time–like live music or visual reporting for publications–is my first and true love. That said, my very favorite type of event to shoot may very well be one I haven’t had the chance to shoot yet! I will never stop evolving and growing and gaining new interests.
Tell us / show us your most memorable photoshoot to date.
THERE ARE SO MANY. Based on the amount of hard drives I go through (there are 12 on my desk alone right now), I will never remember all of my shoots in any sort organized way so here are a few in no particular order:
- Working as the photographer on a shark-tagging and research team in the Florida Keys for three months
- Being welcomed in to shoot a Haitian vodou ceremony by the m’ambo asagwe (priestess) AND being allowed back a second and third time
- My first time shooting for Big Freedia at Jazz Fest in 2018 (I cried from sidestage because it was such a powerful performance)
- Being one of the photographers on the first day of legal civil unions in Illinois
- The Sexism Project and all associated photo shoots
Photo by Benny White
What is one piece of advice you’d hosts when hiring a photographer for their special occasion?
The first things you should be asking yourself BEFORE booking a photographer is what kind of photography you are looking for. There are so many different and talented photographers across the globe who all have a unique way of approaching their work and it is ok if some of those do not fit the vibe you are looking for. If you treat your photographer as hired help and not someone who is there to help you capture and execute your desired visuals in an artistic and efficient way, they will likely treat you as just another customer. While the photographer is obviously responsible for the work, it is the client who sets the tone for what can either be a positive and fruitful or a negative (and lame!) collaboration.
What is your favorite New Orleans location to shoot engagement or wedding photos?
For weddings, Race and Religious is one of the most gorgeous venues I have shot in although a lot of the smaller boutique hotels around town are giving it a run for it’s money in that sense. For engagements and proposals, I like a good outdoor shoot: City Park is pretty much unbeatable.
Your photography has taken you to create a very special project, The Sexism Project! Tell us more about how that started?
I’ll just start at the beginning: I had been dreaming up a project where I interviewed 5-10 women in the New Orleans music community about their experiences with sexism both inside and outside of the industry. I was going to complete those interviews, write an article, self-published it, and be done. I had had a few (read: a ton) sexist experiences since moving to New Orleans that were specific to my work as a photographer in the music industry and as I mentioned before, my way of dealing with more complicated issues is to write/shoot something around that topic. But when I began my interviews, every single person asked me if I had spoken to so-and-so yet. I would say I hadn’t, they would pass along that person’s information or I would reach out myself, and another interview would be underway.
Photo by Sam Weil
During the process, three of my subjects—Alexis Marceaux, Morgan Thielen, and Katie Budge (my best friend and partner-in-crime–people actually refer to us as The Katies a la The Ashleys from Recess on One Saturday Morning)—expressed interest in being involved with the project which is when it really began to take shape. The exhibition that ensued was hosted at Preservation Hall and showcased what turned out to be 59 portraits and interview excerpts with female-driven bands playing throughout the weekend.
The #MeToo movement broke about 2 weeks before the exhibition opened and it was just the most magical and heartbreaking-and-rebuilding time to be a woman. People from all over the city (and the world) saw that work and those words and I am so honored to have been the conduit to bring it to the public. Once we closed the exhibition, I swore to myself that I would take a break and then I didn’t.
At the beginning of 2018, a good friend who is a stripper gave me a crash course into the legislation that was being railed against strippers and sex workers in New Orleans and across the country (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, consider yourself privileged and go do some homework) and asked if I might think about doing a sex worker themed installment of the project to which I immediately said yes.
While the second installment featured less interviews than the first, I gained so much knowledge and empowerment from the people I spoke to. I learned how to be an actual ally to people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to voice their own struggles and promote their own fight due to fear of prosecution, persecution, abuse, and sometimes death. Please go read these interviews if you have not.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve faced sexism yourself as a female photographer? How did you deal with it?
This is a really hard experience to think about not because of what happened but because of how I barely reacted at all.
When I first moved to New Orleans, the founder of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra took a liking to me (or my ass rather) and hit on me every chance he could, even as he prepared to hire me as the staff photographer for NOJO in 2015 and 2016. I’ve grown up enough now to know that him thinking I was hot is what opened that door for me and not my work at all, but I digress. His sexual harassment of me continued much longer than it should have and came to a peak when he–a 40-something year old man in a position of professional power over a 24-year-old woman–texted me that I should come to his house because he “wanted to play me like his trumpet”. This is a really hard experience to think about not because of what happened but because of how I barely reacted at all. The conversations we are having now surrounding equal rights, minority empowerment, and making predators actual pay for their crimes were not happening then. I was young, naive, and had come of age amidst the “cool girl” phenomenon–a tactic designed to pit women and girls against each other in their efforts to be cool enough to hang with the guys. When I ultimately declined the job because he was and is a fucking creep, he called me to berate me, telling me to call him in five years to let him know if I had made the right decision. Seeing as he is likely going to federal prison for his crimes against the people of New Orleans, I think it’s safe to say I did make the right decision.
What is one thing you can’t live without?
My parents, my coffee addiction, and my street-turned-house cat Lucy.
For more info on Katie or to contact her please visit her website katiesikora.com.