Published on 09.15.2021
Riley Reed is a photographer, writer and storyteller living in Austin, Texas. As founder of the photography studio Woke Beauty, she aims to empower women everywhere to get comfortable in front of the camera, get in touch with their truest selves and awaken the beauty within.
How has your family helped shape your career?
My dad played professional basketball. My grandfather played in the NFL. I was a tennis athlete for 15 years. My dad always felt tennis could be used as a tool to help me mature and develop a mind that had strength. My mom always felt like I was an artist. They were both right. I think there is some crossover between the two forms.
What about photography drew you to it as an art form?
When I first began studying photography, I did my best to explore sociology — why people are the way they are and why we care so much about our identities. Photography, for me, starts with people. It’s about getting to know a person and aiding them in getting to know themselves. It’s about a story, about an image that will last forever and potentially stand the test of time. That's what legacy is.
“Photography, for me, starts with people.”
You’ve also worked as a spokesperson and model. What was that like?
I love performing, but there have been unfortunate experiences in front of the camera. I’ve literally been in a group image and been told, “My camera won't expose for you, I need you to step out.” I've looked orange in post-production. I've had my skin ten shades lighter and felt worse about myself. It can be disappointing and frustrating, but if I go there, I allow those people to affect me further. I'd rather use it as fuel to disrupt.
How did those experiences affect you?
Standing in front of a camera, you rely on the person with the tool to see you in the way you want to be seen. I didn’t always have confidence in my style. I’ve allowed other people's opinion of what's fashionable to affect me. As I've figured out more of who I am, I’ve deciphered the kind of clothing that goes with those ways of showing up. My personal style has evolved.
“Woke Beauty is a photography movement that serves to question the lens of beauty and power.”
How would you describe your style today?
A lot of my colors have shifted into browns, beiges, greens — you know, the sky, the trees, mountains, canyons. I love the earth, and I love being outside. I want to reflect my love for the world through my style. I feel like Dockers® can really integrate into different environments, into different events, amongst different people. That's a big part of who I am.
What inspired you to start your own photography studio with Woke Beauty?
It's really important to me to empower women to recognize that they determine what beauty is. It's up to them. Typically, when people feel insecure about themselves, it's because of experiences that they've had in their life. We're not born like that. Woke Beauty is a photography movement that serves to question the lens of beauty and power. It's about healing those traumas and working through those experiences.
What do you hope the people you photograph take away from the experience?
Am I beautiful? Do I deserve to be recognized? Do I deserve to be seen? These questions come up in almost every conversation I have with a client. Oftentimes, Black women, in particular, aren’t granted that privilege — to occupy a space just because we want to feel seen. I really want to help people — all people — recognize that if they’re closer to themselves internally, a photograph becomes more about their essence. It can capture something that's way more important than a body.
“By holding a camera, you have a lot of power. You should respect that power, and therefore respect the person on the other side of the camera.”
What do you hope fellow photographers take away from your work?
I don't know if I'm necessarily an educator, but hopefully the way that I show how skin should be edited has an effect on other photographers. Hopefully in my writing, they'll feel convinced that they need to understand: by holding a camera, you have a lot of power. You should respect that power, and therefore respect the person on the other side of the camera.
What does it mean to have your success celebrated?
It's truly an honor. And to be featured in the Recognize series means that I get to continue to build a legacy. Building a business is really hard, especially for Black women. Three percent of us actually build mature businesses that last. We're up against a lot. I’m proud that I've stuck with it. I feel very blessed that the people around me have cheered me on. And as far as success goes, I don't think success has anything to do with money. I think success is about people. It's about loving people. At the end of the day, that’s all I care about. You can have everything else. I just want my people.
Recognize is about celebrating inspiring community members, contributors and influencers making a difference with their distinct perspectives, style and commitment to finding purpose in their passions. Through Recognize, we will amplify Black stories, employ diverse talent, and invest in opportunities — throughout the year and beyond. This is not a campaign. This is a celebration of Black excellence.