Kelly Kline - Sports Photographer + Studio Entrepreneur

Wed 19th Sep, 2018

Posted by APA Atlanta Director

Kelly Kline interview by Sherrie Berger

Kelly, I understand that you're having a super busy week shooting Steph Curry for Under Armour. That’s an awesome way to start this conversation right out of the gate.  Thank you for making the time for this conversation.

Yes. I go on spurts just like most photographers do, but I do stay pretty busy. I am very fortunate in that respect. 

Well, this is where I thought we jump in. Let’s walk through your website. And then we'll see what springs from that.  It appears that you've got a pretty robust business - and it has many rivers running through it. You've got your commercial work, editorial work and then the whole studio enterprise. The two businesses: Being a photographer and running a studio. Where did that start? Is it all good? Are there inherent problems? Is it necessary or it's something you chose to do?

It's something I chose to do, I really enjoy having a studio because it really gives you opportunity to embrace people in the market, other photographers, artists. You start engaging with producers and photo editors and professionals on a level that you weren't able to engage previously, purely by having a rental space.  I think it opens up some new lines of communication.  I think one of the biggest challenges in the industry as a photographer is that photo editors and agencies and art directors are just so inundated with noise these days.


It's very hard to break through. And that wasn’t the business plan behind opening a studio, but it's a secondary benefit that I've realized after doing it for five years.  On any given week you could be emailing with a photo editor or agency that you’ve never ever been able to connect with before.

That’s great. It sounds like you had a master plan before you had a master plan.

I don't know if I would consider it a master plan. But for me, my career as a sports photographer has always entailed a huge amount of travel.  And after doing that for about 10 or 15 years, I started to get exhausted by the travel and after awhile you’re sad about how many cookouts or dinner parties you miss because of the travel.

Over time, I was really looking for ways to drill down in the Atlanta marketplace and do more work at home. I was also wanting to change focus a little bit, and do more commercial work. So that’s how I decided to open a studio.  I financially planned for it for about 15 months, because it is a startup and there are definitely overhead and startup costs to opening a studio.  

Right.  Well that's a brilliant way to keep one toe in the same world and then become an entrepreneur at the same time.

Yeah. I’ve learned that the physical space itself increases your presence and visibility in the community and in the marketplace.

I originally started out in New York City and then I moved to Atlanta for family and personal reasons.  I found the marketplace was very different in Atlanta.  It's smaller, it's very segmented. I just found it very, very hard to connect with Atlanta agencies and companies that would potentially need photography.

Can you please drill down into that a little bit, because I think most people would think it would be harder in the bigger city.

I was very fortunate, in New York I was able to work with some great photographers who introduced me to a lot of people. And in New York City, there is a very large photo community.  Meaning, there are always arts events, photography shows, book signings, or somebody's throwing a studio party. As an assistant, if you get on with a good photographer, your ability to mix and mingle with some of the best in the industry could happen fairly quickly.  When I first moved to Atlanta in 2009, it was challenging to figure out where all of the higher-level productions were happening or who the top photographers were in Atlanta. There just wasn't the same connectivity in the industry. So I decided to open a studio, which some people might think is a terrible business plan.

Except that it's working for you.


So it's good you didn't get some random advice in the beginning, and you just went forward.

Yes, that’s my personality. I'm not one to ask permission. If there's something I feel strongly about, I just go do it. I figure it out.

That's great. Here’s where we can transition to talking about your photography, because there's a lot of power in your work and there was a lot of power in that statement you just made, of knowing who you are and what you can offer in your photography. The obvious question we have to address is - sports photographer as a woman.  You have this innate power, which is obvious in your work, but what has your experience been? I realize it's not like you can compare it to another experience, but can you address some of those issues?

It's an interesting question, because there are very few women in sports. I think my background as an athlete ... I was a collegiate basketball player, and I think that athletic experience for me, gave me the mindset of just always wanting to be competitive, wanting to work hard.  A failure wasn't a failure because there's always another chance to bring the ball up the court.  I hate to use corny sports analogies, but all of those things and that mindset matter in the business world.  I'm a fighter, I know how to overcome a defeat. Telling me “no” won’t stop me.

I have the discipline it takes to put a team together and work for a common goal.  Those are skills that fit so well in the photography and production world.

Absolutely. You are the team captain of every shoot you do. 

And I think there's another piece of my background that plays into this. I have a degree in broadcast journalism and for eight years I worked in television as a reporter and anchor.  The experience and mentality of working in a newsroom, to work under pressure and under deadlines, to have to ask people tough questions, all of those experiences, have really shaped my perspective and have made me a better photographer.

I think there's a certain fearlessness in both fields, in being an athlete and being a photographer – a confidence of power and a fierceness in being an athlete and it's certainly the same in journalism, as we're seeing more and more today so that's very relevant background.

And I would say that while on paper I look like I've had a lot of success it doesn't come without a lot of hard work and sacrifice and tough decisions and all of that. But fearless is probably a good word.  I would say that's in my personality.

That's awesome. It’s kind of inspiring actually. 

I want to go back to maybe where the question started about being a woman. I don't think there are enough opportunities for women in sports photography and in the photo industry in general. I do feel strongly about that and I think that I have faced some challenges because I am a woman - it definitely takes a little louder knocking or knocking a little longer or more conversations because sometimes people do pass right over you. In athletics, the whole infrastructure is very male.  It's a very male dominated industry.

I shoot a lot of basketball. On any given day I could show up for a shoot and literally I might be one of two or three women in a room that has 30-40 people in it. So just by virtue of looking around the room, it's pretty unusual that I'm even there.  That dynamic is very, very loud and clear for me that I am at times the only woman in the room... And I think I've had an evolving point of view on myself as a woman in the industry over the years. When you're young and ambitious you're like, "Oh my gosh. I'm working for Nike” or “I can’t believe I have a contract with Under Armour. This is awesome." And you're just so excited that you're doing it, you’re just grateful to be there.  But just because you’re in the room doesn’t mean you’re being treated equally.

As time has gone on, I have started to recognize that the playing field isn't level for women.  And I think for me, I had a real ah-ha moment this year when I read a New York Times Article that reported on how women who worked at Nike conducted a secret internal survey among women in the company.  And a lot of the women within Nike felt that they were not advancing the same way as their male counterparts were, or positions would come open and they wouldn't even be considered. That there was a lot of inappropriate behavior happening on business trips and they'd go to HR with complaints and it would be ignored or just not recognized.  
After reading this, I had to admit that I had experienced some of the same things.  That there have been times where someone else who came in after me has gotten the job, or who didn't have as much experience.  Or we were both in the same room and we both were qualified ... but I was never made aware of the opportunity.

This is a very universal theme. It's even magnified by the fact that sports is such a male dominated field. But there's not a woman on the planet today that would not relate to what you're saying. 

I think what the Nike Survey did for me was it help me recognize the depth to which I am experiencing these things.  Because sometimes in the back of your mind you're like, "Did I do something wrong? Did I not work hard enough? There must be something wrong with the imagery."  As women we always question ourselves - Can I do better?  But despite working very hard, we have to recognize that women haven’t been given an equal opportunity in certain situations. Us admitting the problem to ourselves is half the battle.

As women, we have to admit, "Hey, it is a big elephant in the room. What are we going do to change it?  First and foremost, we must always be working on our creative craft and improving ourselves as photographers.  But secondly, women must support women! Now, I take the point of view I that I can be part of the solution by actively supporting other women in the industry.  As a photographer and studio owner, I have the ability to hire and refer who other people hire.  Collectively as women, we have the ability to change the hiring practices if we choose to support our own.  We have to harness our own power.
I think for me when I opened the studio, having a physical space allowed me to host gatherings.  I started connecting photographers and creatives and particularly women in photography in Atlanta. 

Three years ago I helped co-founded a group with several other women in Atlanta called Pinspire. The group is affiliated with APA and is specifically for women in the photo industry.  The goal of the group is to elevate women in the industry and to create more opportunity for women to win jobs and become leaders in the industry. Not just photographers but stylists, hair and makeup, art directors, graphic designers. If you're a woman and you're in the creative industry, we want you to come meet with us so we can grow professionally together, so we can work together, and pass work back and forth between each other. 

How would you say you came up with the name?

The concept is for people to bring work, a tear sheet, or a new piece of work, or something you shot recently and “pin” it up on the wall. 

Got it. 

That's the first half. We want you to come and show your work. We all get really inspired by other people's work. Just seeing good work on a regular basis is inspiring. 

Then, the second part is … we have a guest speaker, or a panel discussion. The topic is always related to the photo industry and ways we can develop professionally. The goal is to bring women together, for us to be networking, meeting each other, encouraging each other and working together. The same way men in the industry do.
The concept has so done well in Atlanta, that APA San Francisco has started organizing a similar type of event. So we thought that was pretty cool. So we'll see where it goes. But women supporting other women is the key to changing our place in the industry.

This conversation ... we started with the studio, we went to the elephant in the room, and now we're back to the studio again and that's fascinating.  Intuitively I wanted to talk about the studio first because it sounds like it really allowed you to plant a flag and say, "I'm here. You can't ignore me."  And the way you access new clients, because of the studio - it sounds like it was a very smart plan.

I would say that I follow my gut.

And you're doing it. You're doing it well.  Thank you.

See more of Kelly Kline's work:

Kelly will be at PhotoPlus Expo on Saturday, October 27th 2018
Seminar: SA5  A Seat at the Table 
Sign up here;     APA members use your 15% discount to attend. 

Interviewer’s note: 
Kelly Kline is a volunteer photographer for Canine CellMates, a non-profit program that rescues dogs from shelters and partners them with incarcerated men in the Fulton County Jail for a10 week training program that transforms the lives of both the dogs and inmates. 

All images © Kelly Kline




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