Life rarely goes as perfectly as we plan, but that’s the beauty of it, according to Canada-based photographer Jennifer van Leeuwen. TSGG spoke with the entrepreneur and new mom to find out how she’s dealing with the curve balls life has thrown at her.
TSGG: Tell me about yourself and what you do.
JM: I’m a photographer who runs Jenni Marie Photography. I’m a wedding photographer based in Abbotsford, British Columbia in Canada, serving a region called the Fraser Valley. I’m also a wife and new mom. One of the perks of what I do is the relationships I get to build with my clients. My goal is to be an encouragement and support to those who hire me. I think that is something distinctive about my business, especially when you think about how we live out Christ in our entrepreneurial endeavours. That it’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m going to wear a T shirt that says I follow Christ’. But it’s ‘How am I going to live out everything I do in a way that reflects who Christ is and what Christ has done for me?’. Building those great relationships along the way is a bonus, a part of my job which is really cool.
TSGG: Let’s start from the beginning why did you decide to pursue photography?
JM: So it all started when my dad gave me a Pentax K1000 camera for my 16th birthday. This camera is as a manual as they come. I had to learn everything on film manually. It was just a hobby at that point. In the meantime, I got my degree in Political Science and was working for the US Congress, but I was finding that my creative artistic brain was not particularly inspired or finding joy in working in a political government job. So I started taking more pictures on evenings and weekends. And that gave me life and kept my brain active in that season, when I was just doing this job that I thought I really, really wanted, but wasn’t as fulfilling as I imagined it would be. In the early days, I begged friends to let me take their pictures and somewhere along the way, people started begging me to take their photo. And pretty soon I had to figure out ‘Yeah, I should probably charge for this because I have to have a life to have to value my time.’
TSGG: How did the passion turn into a full time job?
JM: Well, going back a little bit my husband is Canadian and up until we got married I was living in North Carolina. After our wedding, we road tripped across North America and set up life in British Columbia, Canada. Suddenly, I was faced with the reality of having to start all over building a life and a business. I decided to quit my day job almost three years ago now and have been fully self employed ever since. It’s been a circuitous path and definitely not an easy one, but certainly worth it in the end.
TSGG: You’ve now added being a mother into the mix. How has that transition been?
It has been nothing like I expected it to be because my daughter was born one month before pandemic life began. It was about the time that I was ready to emerge into the world of normalcy that everything shut down due to Covid-19. And so instead of having a three month maternity leave before my wedding season began, I ended up with more like a six or seven months maternity leave. Instead of having the community around me to be able to balance this working mom life, I’ve had to do most things alone. I joke that I was never able to separate pandemic life from postpartum life. However, as far as the transition into motherhood, I believe being an entrepreneur made it easier and in some ways better, because instead of trying to jump back into being at work for the entire day when she was three or four months old, I was able to wait a little while. To sum it up, I’d say the transition has been rocky and not what we prepared for, however it has also been very gentle and a forced slower transition.
TSGG: What are some of the challenges and rewards of the job?
JM: Now that I’m a mom one of the joys of the job is that I’m really only away from the house for maybe one full day per week or a couple partial days. I’m able to do most of the work at home. The challenge with being a working mom is that your attention is constantly being challenged and you have to learn to balance the things you need to do with what you want to get accomplished. It’s been a real learning curve.
TSGG: How has becoming an entrepreneur strengthened or tested your faith in God?
JM: How did it not strengthen or test my faith is really a better question! Because as wonderful as it is to be self employed, there’s always the question mark of well, what is the next contract going to be? Will I have a wedding season in 2021? So we ended up not only having to trust God in the process, but also in the day to day. That refrain of learning to trust, it never ends. And I keep hoping that someday I will reach some pinnacle where I always believe God now, know that He has everything in my best interest and has a better plan. But it doesn’t work that way because I’m too fickle. I am too much of a flighty human to always remember that. I’ve had to learn to lean into His faithfulness as an entreprenuer.
TSGG: Let’s talk about your early faith. Can you tell me why and how you decided to walk with Jesus?
JM: So I had the joy and the luxury really, of being able to grow up in a Christian home. So my knowledge of Christ started from a very young age and for that I’m incredibly grateful. I remember being six years old and asking my mom questions like: ‘What does it mean to follow Jesus?’. It was then that I decided to dedicate my life to Christ and my mom and I prayed that He would be my Lord and Savior. Then around age 12, I remember having to face my inadequacies, and that I needed to not just be a Christian, but live that out. So as I walked through my preteen and teenage years, I was able to really claim that as my own. I chose to become baptized at that point, I was able to start working and serving in the church as well.
TSGG: How do you define success?
JM: That’s a powerful question because I think that the reason it’s hard is because success is different in different seasons. Not only is it different among different people, but each season has a different definition of success too, as you have different goals and have to juggle all the different pieces of the puzzle. In this current season, success is keeping the baby happy, and teaching her as she gets older to love Jesus. But also keeping my keeping my clients, making sure my clients know I care about them and want to do a great job for them. In other seasons, I’ve judged my success on how many weddings I can book or having weddings at the prestigious locations and venues. But I think one of the things that 2020 has taught us is that I don’t have to be shooting massively large weddings and all these events full of pomp and circumstance to be able to invest in the brides and grooms that I get to meet and show them how much I care for them. I don’t only want to deliver beautiful images. I want to create a calm and safe atmosphere for the couples I work with. I’ve been reading through some of my latest reviews and the ones I love most are where couple say ‘I knew everything was going to be okay because you got it all under control’. And that just shows me that I am able to live out a successful business, even in the middle of a pandemic and wearing a mask by loving on the people around me and serving them.
TSGG: What advice would you give to someone else who was maybe starting out, who had an idea or passion and wanted to use their gifts for God’s glory, but just needed to take that that leap?
JM: What I end up telling those who I mentor is to value progress over perfection. I know that as women and Christians, we want to do it right the first time, to have success with that very first blog post, very first endeavour or that very first gig. But sometimes, I would say even most times, that doesn’t happen. We have to start somewhere and the number of mistakes that I’ve made along the way, the ‘Why did I spend money on that tool? Or why did I take that gig? Or how did I think that marketing plan was the right fit? I can look back now and see how much I did wrong along the way, but I can’t say that it was bad that I did it. Because I learned and every step I’ve had to recognise that the journey I’m on has brought me to this point. So to someone who’s starting out, I’d say of course do your research, get advice and hire a team to support you. But most importantly you just have to start. You just have to do it.