We had the good fortune of connecting with Lauren Neal and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lauren, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Ironically, risk has been a common thread throughout both my personal and professional life. I say ‘ironically’ because I am innately a very fearful person. Ever since I was little, I’ve always looked at my glass as half empty. Could I overcome this challenge? Could I embrace this hard season? Would I be equipped to handle all of life’s curveballs? Was I strong enough, talented enough, capable enough? My own limiting beliefs often hold me back from pursuing the very things I know to be true about myself. And yet, the thought of settling has always scared me more than the risk itself. I have spent nearly half of my life traveling to and from Haiti, and I spent four years there full-time. From transferring colleges, to changing majors, to moving to a foreign country, one risk has always led to the next. It’s both utterly terrifying and beautifully rewarding simultaneously. When I found myself back in the States at the beginning of 2018, working a 9-5 in corporate America, I felt suffocated by the stagnancy of an office job. My life in Haiti had been filled with so much purpose – so much risk – and suddenly I was drowning in the mundane. The comfort of a conventional life became stuffy, exhausting, and I’ll admit, mildly depressing. Around that same time, I officially launched my photography business when a good ole Facebook page, because that’s the definition of official, isn’t it? I remember feeling the weight of imposter syndrome as I called myself a photographer. Who was I to carry such a title? Was I skilled enough to do this? I didn’t know anything about running a business at that point. I just knew I loved to create. Slowly but surely, that simple Facebook page evolved into something much greater, career path that has taken me to the other side of the world, quite literally. Particularly in America, we are promised and persuaded into comfort and convenience. But there is nothing comfortable or convenient about risk. In fact, I once heard that we should do one thing every single day that scares us. I try to be intentional with that advice every day. Time and time again, I’ve watched as I’ve released and submitted my fears and weaknesses, and I can feel the process of refinement unfolding before me. Am I the most talented, the most skilled, the best at what I do? Certainly not. And I never will be. But when we choose to step out of our comfort zones, when we say ‘yes’ to the hard things, and when we embrace a life of risk, we will always be better because of it.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My art ultimately reflects the transformative power of human connection. Whether I am photographing a project in Haiti or a family in the United States, it is my goal to connect with my subject, to make him or her feel valued, seen, and dignified while standing on the other side of my lens. I want every story to be represented in a way that is honest and true, and to illustrate the extraordinary beauty of this life in all its diversity. The road to this career path has never been easy. As a self-employed creative freelancer, it is a daily challenge to mentally motivate oneself. There is no team to lean on, no co-workers to brainstorm with, and no boss to report to. But the ability to express oneself through art and the freedom to pursue a passion-led and purpose-filled career is invaluable. The reward far exceeds the fear of risk. I have learned comparison truly is the thief of joy, that social media is entirely deceptive, and at the end of the day, there is room for every one in this industry. Every photographer, every artist, and every creative has something unique to bring to the table. No two perspectives are the same. No two voices sound alike. On days when I feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I have to intentionally remind myself that our worth comes not from a number of likes or comments or followers, but that it comes from the connections we form with others and the impact we leave on them. I have had the privilege of meeting so many incredible people from all walks of life, from all over the world. These stories and these people inspire me to keep going, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Because I am still relatively new to Virginia and it’s challenging to meet people and visit places during COVID, I thought it might be more interesting to paint this picture in Haiti. I love being able to show people the real side of the island and give them an authentic experience. Often, when Westerners visit Haiti, it involves some sort of service or humanitarian effort. But there is so much more to this country than week-long mission trips and voluntourism. First, I’d introduce this visitor to my closest national friends who know the country much better than I do. And together, we’d indulge in some of my favorite Haitian cuisine – rice and beans, fried plantains and chicken, all topped with a spicy slaw called pikliz. We’d sip on a cold Prestige, Haiti’s signature lager, or my personal favorite, a Rhum Sour, made with fresh squeezed juice and Rhum Barbancourt. I might even buy a fresko off the street, the Haitian version of a snow cone. It’s best enjoyed with pistach, or peanuts, mixed in. Don’t knock it until you try it. One cannot visit Haiti without a trip to the beach. About an hour and a half up the coast from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, lies Côte des Arcardins, where the crystal clear water laps at the shore of beautiful white beaches. There is nothing more majestic than a view of the sweeping mountains meeting the Caribbean ocean, especially with a Haitian cocktail in hand. But a trip to the coast is only best complimented by an experience in the mountains. Haïti quite literally means ‘land of high mountains.’ In fact, it is the most mountainous nation in the Caribbean. Just up the road from Petionville, where the temperature drops about twenty degrees and the clouds practically meet you on the road, are the towns of Kenscoff and Furcy. On a clear day, you can even see the Southern coast of Jacmel, a quaint, artistic beach town. If time permitted, I’d take someone to some of my other favorite cities, including Port Salut in the Southwest, and Cap-Haitien in the North where you can tour the Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortress in the Americas. Unlike museums and exhibit in the US, you can actually touch historical artifacts which still grace the premises, like the cannonballs which still sit in pyramidal stacks. But traveling aside, every day life in Haiti is pretty exhilarating if you ask me. From the bustling street life to the open markets, from the motorcycle taxi to the most vivacious music, there is always someone to hang out with and something to enjoy. The culture is warmer, the people are friendlier, and no one ever seems to be in a hurry. Life is lived day by day, fully present. And that experience is a gift in and of itself.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I wouldn’t be where I am without the people who have supported me along the way. From my parents who constantly encourage me to follow the unconventional route, to my friends who serve as active cheerleaders, and even strangers who offer timely words of affirmation, my success is a reflection of those who have journeyed alongside me, pushing me to overcome my limiting beliefs and embrace my potential as a creative. But there is one particular individual who recently made a profound impact on my professional career. I photographed Dani Troyer and her family in Haiti on April 13, 2019. One week later, on April 20th, she died unexpectedly in a hospital in Port-au-Prince from a severe asthma attack. No one saw it coming, not even Dani. To say it was tragic would be an understatement. Though our time spent together was brief, the words she spoke over me that afternoon ultimately propelled me to take what has been one of the greatest risks of my career. Prior to our time together during her family’s session, I had met Dani once while I lived in Haiti. She and her husband, Kyle, had built a life together on the small Caribbean island. They’d welcomed two sons into the world, had cultivated a close community of friends and comrades, and had integrated into the country and culture like it was home. Through a mutual friend, Dani had heard I was coming into town that particular week and she wanted their life documented. In fact, she messaged me the day before, “…Truly just want to capture us in all our mess and noise. We had a crappy year last year, and I want photos that capture this sweet new season of peace and love in our home. I know that sounds super cheesy.” But to me, it wasn’t cheesy at all. She wanted to remember the season for what it was, moments that might not look so glamorous to the eye but ones that carry invaluable significance, especially in the years to come. Little did we know just how much weight those memories would have just one week later. I trailed her boys, camera in hand, as they chased one another in their yard, wanting to catch that “mess and noise” in all its glory. I felt so deeply inspired that despite my long list of to-do’s that week, I edited and delivered her gallery in three days. Just for perspective, my typical turnaround time is four weeks. I actually debated sending it, hesitant that she might assume the quick delivery meant I rushed through the photos. But the truth was, we had created these memories together and I couldn’t wait for her to see them. I’m so glad she did. Dani spoke words of life and affirmation over me that day, words I will never forget. I remember sitting face-to-face with her in the yard as the setting sun seeped through the trees above and cast a glow upon her. It was, in many ways, a tangible depiction of the light she so naturally exuded. I watched in the weeks following as her friends and family across the world grieved her loss. The gravity of her legacy was undeniable. It’s been nearly two years since her death, but very few days pass in which I don’t think of her. She reminds me why I do what I do and that taking risks, despite how terrifying they may feel in the moment, will fulfill us in ways we could never plan for or predict. Our time on this earth is so precious. We ought to expend our unique gifts and talents for the sake of our purpose, to live every day as if it’s our last. Just a couple months later in August, I left the stability and comfort of my 9-5 job to pursue photography full-time. I thought of Dani that day, longing to thank her for the impact she had made on my life. Though it’s far from easy, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it has been absolutely worth it, and I would do it all over again without hesitation.