Documenting the world’s glories is what photographer Ashley Walters does best. Her interest in photography took off after receiving a PowerShot camera as a present from her mom. From there, Walters devoted countless hours to editing on pioneering platforms like Flickr and Tumblr, where she honed her craft and fell in love with the medium.
As a model herself, Ashley found that photography opened doors she never thought possible. She had a plethora of incredible mentors who taught her the craft, and she never looked back. Her goal, whether it be behind the lens or in front, is to capture the essence of beauty and energy, and ultimately, to make her subjects feel good about themselves.
“Being in front of a camera is hard! Having that experience of not only how to move in front of a camera, but also the psychology of being fully comfortable with a camera in your face, helps me coach others through it,” she shares. “The way I see it, the camera is supposed to serve as a mirror more than anything. The best work happens when the model forgets I’m there too, just totally comfortable and focused in their element.”
Ashley loves to capture joy in her work, and she feels that film is the best way to do it. She started experimenting with film about five years ago, and now the Portland-based photographer shoots all of her projects in 35mm. Her work frequently resembles that of vintage fashion magazines ever since she mastered the art of striking a balance between capturing light and emotion.
“Whether I’m creating that or finding it, I just want people to really feel the energy in the room from the moment I shot a photo. Like a vibe translator. I see so much damn beauty in everything,” the creative explains. She adds, “I still can’t shoot without gassing people’s tanks all the way to full and capturing it.”
For our latest interview, Ashley walks us through her introduction to photography, storytelling elements in her work, fave projects, and much more. Continue scrolling to read our conversation!
Out of curiosity, how did you start getting into photography?
Honestly, MySpace. My friends and I wanted to be the coolest kids online. My mom had a new PowerShot so I naturally ended up being the shooter. Once I started playing with it, it all steamrolled and I fell in love quickly. I’d spend hours on Flickr, Tumblr and all those early editing apps. Around that same age, I started modeling and that opened all kinds of doors for me too – I had a lot of incredible mentors. Since then I haven’t stopped naturally chasing it, I can’t help myself.
When you first started, how did you want people to receive your photos? And in a similar vein, what do you hope people take away from them now?
When I first started I didn’t know the answer to that question. I think what drove me was that shooter-model connection -it’s like a dance- and how good you could make people feel by showing them beauty in themselves. It felt like this exciting mini superpower, I was having fun connecting with people. And in a similar vein, I guess that’s what I still want people to take away, but not so surface-level. Now it’s about honoring the energy and communicating it.
Whether I’m creating that or finding it, I just want people to really feel the energy in the room from the moment I shot a photo. Like a vibe translator. I see so much damn beauty in everything! I still can’t shoot without gassing people’s tanks all the way to full and capturing it. Joy is my favorite thing to capture. And pure confidence. I want people to receive that more than anything.
Could you give us a little background on your 35mm projects, and what the experience of traveling around Portland whilst taking photos has been like?
I started messing with film about 5 years ago just for fun and now I shoot 90% of my projects in film. It just translates differently, I like it better every time. I’m blessed to have such beautiful creative stylish friends, I just stay strapped with my film camera and capture my day-to-day. Often my life just looks like an editorial because of them.
Sometimes I’m like, did we watch too much Sex & The City? (Impossible). At times I’ll still curate projects where I conceptualize based off some clothing, or a location, or (more often than not) a bar in a song that sparked a whole mood inside me – so I’ll plan a shoot with a model or a whole team. But lately it’s been a lot of presence vs planning.
Portland’s a creative city – the energy here is just different. Largely because of all of the nature around us. I know we sound crazy always saying, that but it’s true. It’s easy to feel grounded here and it translates into the style of the city. So much beauty and creative community here. Plus, the city really supports art and creativity. I’ve talked myself out of a lot of trespassing tickets.
From time to time, you’ll also step in front of the camera and be the muse of your own work—how does modeling provide a new perspective on the way you view photography?
It helps me be a better director. Being in front of a camera is hard! Having that experience of not only how to move in front of a camera, but also the psychology of being fully comfortable with a camera in your face, helps me coach others through it. You really have to help your model forget the camera is there. The way I see it, the camera is supposed to serve as a mirror more than anything. The best work happens when the model forgets I’m there too, just totally comfortable and focused in their element.
Your photographs radiate with color and a life of their own, how would you describe this current state of your work?
A lot more raw and imperfect. I went through a phase for a couple of years where the commercial work was rolling and the money was so good, I put myself in a commercial box. Which launched me into a trash creative rut for too long, until I got some extra “f*ck it” in me and started shooting recklessly trying to unlearn all these “rules.”
It’s definitely more fun this way. And forcing me to be more creative and less worried about anyone else wants. It’s more in-your-face and uninhibited. It’s funny to reflect on my work through different phases of my life because I can always see what I was going through showing in my work – I guess I’m in an unhinged phase now 🙂 and I like the danger.
Though so long ago, one of my favorite photoshoots is this bathtub scene you shot of Amelia—what’s the story behind these photos?
This was just one of those days where everything flowed. I met Amelia through mutual friends and of course, HAD to get her in front of my camera, so we each packed a duffel of clothes, met at my friend Sammy’s apartment and vibed. He’s this incredible artist so we had a lot to work with. We had no plan, just formulated on-spot.
The only concept I had going into it was really catching the energy of the apartment building – it’s an artist space, super classic old Portland, kinda weird – so I wanted to keep the shoot weird. Amelia’s gorgeous no matter what she does so I tried to see if I could take it a little uglier and weirder. She killed it. I love when models can match my energy and take it further.
How do you approach working with different subjects and styles, such as personal projects in comparison to commissions and editorial work?
On personal projects, you have full freedom to do what you want so I really let loose. We have a lot of fun, there is a lot more wiggle room to mess around and try new things. Commissioned projects are always with a whole team so I can’t make the creative decisions alone – and I can’t twerk significantly as much – so it’s a lot more controlled Ash, but I still bring a lot of energy to every set.
It’s just humbled energy. Team player energy instead of main character energy. But in every shoot I just really try to focus in with my models and create the exact energy we’re supposed to capture. For example, if it’s a high-energy shoot, I’m showing up amped. Dancing, screaming lyrics, cracking every dumb joke I can. If it’s a moody shoot, I’m much more mellow, having deeper conversations with models trying to bring out more emotion. The energy in the room is always what translates on camera.
With that being said, what are some roadblocks you’ve had to overcome since starting your photography career?
The constant imposter syndrome will really get ya. I’ve freelanced my whole life so I haven’t really had a definitive way to measure my “success” or a clear “ladder to climb” so it’s easy to fall into the self-doubt black hole. The whole “chase” of contracts can be tough too – knowing how to market yourself and ask for the money you’re worth, or even knowing your worth at times. Every project is different and client needs change constantly. It’s anxiety-provoking not having consistent income, you get what you put in. The autonomy makes it worth it but freelancing is not for the weak. But I like that challenge.
Although seemingly far out in regards to its impact on art and film, AI has been the center of conversation as of late. Do you see it having a meaningful influence over the industry?
Oh absolutely. I already can see it happening. It feels like this futuristic, digitalized style is what’s trendy in the art and fashion world. It’s going to recreate the industry altogether but we knew this was coming. I can’t say I’m particularly excited about it – and I’m curious how the world is going to protect artist rights and value human creativity – but it’s influence on the industry is inevitable. I constantly think about how I’m going to grow with it.
Having curated a unique portfolio for several years now, do you have a favorite project or set of photos?
I have too many favorites but for different reasons. My favorites aesthetically have to be either my day with Kyla in the pool or the shoot with the girls at The Empress Estate – all collaborations with close and talented friends. I have a few favorite projects that felt like major stepping stones in my career, whether it was my first with a bucket-list client or shooting someone I idolize.
I have a heavy basketball background and I’ve gotten to work with NBA and WNBA players I grew up studying, those shoots always stuck out to me. My favorites sentimentally are all of my shoots with Kevin, whether he was modeling or assisting me, but mostly the ones it was just us in the room. We lost him this year and it’s really deepened my purpose in being a photographer and understanding the value of documenting life and people you love.
The past several years, you’ve been able to establish yourself and show the world what you’re capable of. What do you plan to make of 2023?
Just keep going, but with more urgency, intent, and focus. I’ve been blessed with opportunities across a wide variety of industries but now I really want to zone in on shooting what I love most and growing within those realms – and cities. I have some big client goals. I’m feeling more confident than ever. It’s time for me to really push, I can feel it. And ya girl is ready.