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Entrepreneurship
fall 2021

Calling The Shots

Photographer Maya Darasaw’s Lessons in Making an Impact
Written by: Louis Carr

Great photographers don’t just know how to work a camera; they know how to work with people. Lighting, location and looks are important, of course, but there also has to be something between shooter and subject, a sense of connection, to turn a moment’s snap into a timeless shot.


Maya Darasaw calls it “the dance”—one she has done with celebrities like tennis great Serena Williams and senior Netflix executive Bozoma St. John (when she was with Uber), and for clients including Ebony magazine, Google, Reebok, Starz and WayMaker Journal (photos of founder Louis Carr).


“I want everything to be a dance,” Darasaw says of her work from red carpets to receptions and studios to street corners, knowing that a one-time encounter could produce a lifelong memory. “I want to dance with my client on camera. And so I create an energy, I create an ambiance so that they can dance with me… If they’re coming in with maybe bad energy, low energy, maybe not even feeling well, they’re relying on me to make them look good.”


She learned the craft of connecting at her first job after college, in a portrait studio working with parents and their children. “For a long time, I thought that being a photographer was a hobbyist sport, until I realized that this is something that people actually do for a living.”


Telling a story
“I just became the girl with the camera, from the school newspaper to the magazines,” she says. “When I joined my sorority [Delta Sigma Theta], I had all these wonderful women to be my muse, and I kind of started owning my craft.”


Like many photographers, Darasaw has shot her share of weddings—one of the most high-anxiety assignments there is in the industry. “This is literally one day you cannot repeat,” she notes, “so there is a lot of pressure.” Once the ceremony and the formal photos are over there is the “we can breathe now” moment.


Her MAD Works Photography studio—the business name is a play on her own, Maya Ayanna Darasaw, and a nod to how she is “mad-passionate about my work, mad-committed to this”—is in Los Angeles, but she shoots wherever works best for her clients.


Part of making that call is about telling their story: “If you’re a dentist, maybe we’re going to do it in the studio, in your office building. If you’re an executive, maybe you want to do it in your building.”

If you want to be taken seriously as a brand, your imagery is a big part of that.

MAYA DARASAW


Building a brand
Preparation is an important part of the creative process—consulting on not only the vibe clients are seeking, but talking through preferences like colors and clothing. “There are so many things that you want to consider,” she says. “Who is going to be seeing these images? What is it that you’re trying to get across?” Even what time of day do you look at your best.


“I will be your honest eye. I will hold your hand as often as you want me to, in the process of getting us to that day of photographing together, and I will keep it real,” she says. “I’m going to be your sister, I’m going to be your friend. I’m going to be whatever it is that she needs…”


People may be taking more photos than ever these days because almost everyone has a camera on their phone, but it doesn’t mean those pictures are any good. Naturally, Darasaw believes many people could benefit from a professional photo session.


More and more, people “are their own brand,” she notes. “The first thing people are introduced to is their image, whether it’s through social media or through a website, so if you want to be taken seriously as a brand, your imagery is a big part of that.”


So how often should someone consider updating those professional photos? “I say, you get a haircut, you call me,” she laughs. Then, more seriously: “If your image is changing a little bit, let’s shoot. I like to get in front of a camera at least once a year, just so I can kind of keep up with how I’m developing as a young lady.”


Partly it depends on how active you are: “Maybe you’re doing a lot of speaking engagements or whatever the case is… people go through those pictures fast, and so they want to keep up their brand and their imagery. So maybe it could be quarterly. It just really depends on their activity when it comes to their personal brand.”


Leaving a mark
When the portrait studio she was working at went under during the 2009 economic downturn, Darasaw took a leap of faith and struck out on her own. She credits her parents for their support: “I had a lot of clients, I had a skill set, I had the relationships. I had to have someone that believed in me and I literally looked at my parents like, ‘Can I do this?’ and they believed, and that gave me all the ammunition that I needed to move forward.”


Darasaw also references her own belief. “My faith system has been the most important part of my business growing,” she says. “I started my business all on just like, ‘You got me, God?’ Like, ‘You gave me this gift; I’m going to trust that you didn’t give me this gift for losing.’”


Launching MAD Works Photography was a business crash course in many ways. “I had to realize that, as an individual, I was no longer representing Maya Darasaw, I was no longer representing my parents, I was representing my company,” she says. “And in that moment, every step that I made, every conversation that I had, every move was representing my whole brand. And so I had to learn early on to be a brand. That meant… being a professional at a very young age.”


An early career goal was to have her work in every household—whether on someone’s television, in one of their photo frames or in one of the magazines on their coffee table. Dream one-day subjects: Barack and Michelle Obama (she has gotten to shoot him at a Howard University commencement) and Vice President Kamala Harris. Comedian Kevin Hart “looks like a lot of fun, and I enjoy having a comedic aspect to working.”


But it’s not just about celebrities. “I just want to be able to know that I’ve connected with some really honest people, made them feel good about themselves and kind of left a footprint in their lives.”


From an interview with Louis Carr