Photographer and art director Esther Lee celebrates and captures the beauty and joy of everyday life through her photography. Notable works and experience include shooting for Fossil, Cult Gaia, Marie Kondo, and more.
Esther is also a co-creator of Indwell, an 8-step mental health guide on how to heal, reclaim your true self, and live with purpose. In this Creative Chat, Esther talks about her new book, her healing journey, her craft, and how she gets inspired.
Creative Chats are Clubhouse events where we invite creatives to speak about their creative journey, lessons learned, and industry tips. We just wrapped up our spring series, so please stay tuned to hear about our upcoming programs!
This Creative Chat is for you if...
You're searching to find your passion and purpose in life
You love photography and find joy in the simple things
You're debating whether you should take a leap of faith
You're on your mental health journey and healing
In this Creative Chat, we asked...
Regarding your journey, did you always know that you’re creative or that you like photography?
Yes and no. I grew up being interested in art and always liked fascinating pictures, but I didn’t think I was creative in any way. I grew up an only child in a strict family and my parents were always working. I wasn’t allowed to watch too much TV so I literally grew up staring at the wall, finding stuff around the house, keeping myself busy, imagining things, etc. I thought I was an awkward child because of that, so I was forced to be somewhat creative in my own way.
I got my own camera in 2010 and went on a mission trip to Kenya and this was when I really discovered my passion for photography. This was around the time I got my first phone so I took pictures for fun and documented everything. My friends saw my potential and suggested that I should be a photographer.
Before I got into my photography career, I was interested in art. However, coming from a family where all my cousins were getting into top schools for law and medicine, I felt like the black sheep of my family. My parents also used to compare my life with my cousins’ and their friends’ children’s lives. I kind of just became numb to that and lost confidence in myself. My parents never really sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do for a career. “Lawyer,” “doctor,” and “pharmacist” were the only three words I heard growing up which meant success. I decided to go into law enforcement and I was just super miserable because that was never what I wanted to do.
In 2010, I just told myself to forget what my parents and other people think and just go for it. My heart jumped for joy and I just really felt like myself. It’s been 10 years and I’m still here working as a photographer. I definitely went through a lot of hiccups, hit rock bottoms, and failed at a lot of things, but I felt like I learned how to be persistent, never give up, and work really hard from it. This is all because I followed my passion.
What advice would you give to someone who is having trouble making the leap and following his or her passion?
Be flexible and open to learning new things. I just went out there and connected with people who have the same goals and purpose as me. I don’t see them as competition; I see it as building community. It can become dangerous when you become too prideful and think that you need to be on your own as an artist to be successful.
Life isn’t always about running and succeeding. Having empathy for others is also really important. Apart from working in order to make money, I also work on my own personal projects by collaborating with others. You learn so much about your strengths, weaknesses, pace, and how you handle stress when you work with others.
You just never know when these unpaid hours working on personal projects will come in handy. Someday when you’re on a professional shoot, those hours of unpaid practice will come in handy and you can say that you’ve done this before.
Would you say that your values of having empathy for others and taking moments to pause are shown in your work?
I haven't really been posting photos on my social media account of the work I’ve been doing. My Instagram posts are just of what I enjoy everyday. It’s my purpose on Instagram to give hope and joy to those who are having a bad day, even if it’s a picture of a flower or plant. It sounds so basic but sometimes it can make someone’s day. Just looking up at the sky and capturing a simple cloud can bring joy. I get messages from people thanking me for making their day with a simple photo. At the end of the day, this is how I want to help others.
Do you have tips for young creatives or students on how to get better at photography? Are there any resources, books, or exercises?
Find a community, practice your skills, and collaborate with others. When it comes to developing my style, I like to look at different brands, watch films, and look at their different colors and angles. Some artists want to stick with their signature tone and colors all the way through. For others, it’s constantly about developing their style. For me, I like the feeling of being uncomfortable and challenged. I search for things that are different and difficult to create. If it’s something I want to try and I am inspired by, I'll try creating a similar vibe but a totally different concept. I just try to utilize what I learned. It’s hard because you’re trying to not copy them but make it your own style. It’s hard to be creative all the time; my brain does get tired.
I also want to share with you my journey on social media. In the past on Instagram, my colors were all pastels and white. Even though I felt like that was me, I also felt like I wasn’t stretching myself as a creative. The word “creative” feels overused…sometimes I don’t really like saying the word “creative” because I question whether I really am creative. This word to me means to constantly develop and be innovative. Something that used to pull me back from being creative on social media was that I was so focused on my follower count. People don’t want to see something completed different; they like to see patterns and familiar things. They don’t really like change. Even though I wanted to try new colors and styles, I couldn’t get myself to do that because I was just afraid of losing followers. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and expand creatively.
There is constant pressure to try to increase your follower account while also expanding your own creative boundaries and trying new things. How do you balance this?
I still struggle with that. I set a time limit of 30 minutes to an hour to browse on Instagram. Putting a timer on really helps. Sometimes, I take breaks and won’t go on social media at all.
How would you describe learning the other side of freelancing and business (e.g., being your own accountant, contracts, etc.)?
You just got to do it. No one really taught me how to do it. I just write everything down and plan everything out. This is also my weakness and I’m still learning. Putting together art and money can be hard and that’s why they say the phrase “struggling artist.” I feel like my brain is so wired to think visually and about the creative process that when it comes to contracts, analytics, and responding to emails, my brain is just like wtf. I’ve managed to survived with the little knowledge that I do have about business.
About her book, Indwell...
How did you come across this opportunity? We want to hear about your full journey.
I got the opportunity to work on this book through my two partners, ReeJae and Hatty. Hatty is a psychotherapist and ReeJae is a life coach. We met through church. They’re the ones who had the idea of creating this mental health book. They approached me last year to ask if I wanted to create this together, and of course, I said yes.
After the Zoom call with them, I actually broke down in tears because I’ve been praying really hard the last few years asking the Lord about my purpose in life. Even if it seemed like everything was all good on the outside, I was actually really lost and depressed for a while. I was so focused on my outer appearance, success, and fame that I felt like I lost myself and didn’t know who I was anymore.
I actually grew up in LA and I have nothing against LA, but I think I wasn’t able to handle my experience very well when I was living there. I got so sucked into media, popularity, being on the move, appearances, and social networking. I felt like I had to have everything put together everyday. Eventually, I hit rock bottom, fell into a really bad depression, and felt like I was two different people battling each other. I was so mentally and physically done. I was so desperate to become happy and healthy. God told me to just drop everything. Even though I had all my clients, friends, and family in LA, God told me to let go of everything and just strip everything away. I was so scared about giving up everything without knowing what would happen.
In November 2018, I moved to Seattle and started fresh. I only knew two people and had no job lined up, but God gave me comfort that he would take care of everything if I let go of all my needs and put him first. Two months later, I felt so light and like I didn’t need any of these fancy things to be happy. I feel like God had connected me with Hatty and ReeJae to work on something intentional and to share my testimony.
What is the mission and purpose of your book?
Indwell is a mental health guide. In each step, we provide psychoeducation, journal prompts, guided exercises, and you can explore all that happens within yourself - mind, body, and soul. We chose the name “Indwell” because home is more than a physical place; it’s a means of being present. We introduced this vision of coming home to yourself where you can truly be who you are and feel worthy of belonging with a sense of purpose in this world.
Hatty is the psychotherapist and writer. ReeJae is the life coach and designer. I did all the photography and anything photo-related on social. We created this guide thinking of our younger selves and it’s something we all wish we had growing up because mental health was never really taught to us in our homes or communities. We didn’t want to create a book that was too intimidating filled with only information, so we included journal prompts and guided exercises as well.
I feel like there’s still stigma with the word “mental health.” People tend to tie mental health and mental illness together, and I think they’re totally different. We want to take care of our mental wellness like how we want to work out and take care of our body. This book invites joy and beauty into the mental health process and offers education and practical skills to start this journey of self-discovery and purpose.
If you're interested in owning this 8-step mental health guide, please visit their Kickstarter to pre-order this book.
Where do you see yourself from now on, professionally, personally, or anything else that you view as important?
I never really thought of myself to be someone to plan out my whole life. I know a lot of successful people say you need to plan out your next three or five years in order to be successful. I still see myself doing what I’m doing now, maybe in a different way. I want to be open to the different possibilities that the Lord wants for me.
Don't be afraid to take the leap and follow your passion.
Be flexible and open to learning new things.
Constantly work on developing your style.
Sometimes you just need to let go of everything and start over to find yourself.
Take the time to practice your skills by working on personal projects.
Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and expand creatively.
Life isn't always about running and succeeding.
Find a community to practice your skills and collaborate with others.
Follow Esther! @eslee