When you are a child, people always ask you what you want to be when you grow up, but really how are you supposed to even have a clue? I wanted to work with animals but a few weeks of work experience at a vets ruled that one out for me, and I fell in to what I would describe as my ‘career specialism’ as a happy accident. We all change during the years, and with that so do our likes, dislikes and skills. I am a firm believer that you can change jobs or careers several times in your life (read my article about how you know it might be time to change career here) and that should be celebrated, not seen as a failure – and this is why I love sharing these career profiles so much (See previous ones here and here).
I love to see people embracing happiness in their working life and choosing their own route to make that happen. Being happy in your working life plays such a big part in your day to day life, and that makes it so important to get right.
So, without any more from me, read on to find out more about Alethiea from Xander and Thea – my very talented wedding photographer, kindred spirit and inspirational business owner who wasn’t afraid to switch her specialism until she got it right.
Career profile with Alethiea from Xander and Thea
Tell us about Xander and Thea?
Xander and Thea is a wedding and lifestyle photography boutique focussed on creating a beautiful photography experience as well as providing artisanal products for discerning couples. Each shoot is designed around the bride and groom or family so that we showcase their unique relationship and story. I don’t have a formula/set of poses I use but rather let each shoot unfold (with guidance to help with nerves) so that my couples receive artwork that is truly theirs. My portraits are romantic, natural and timeless. My ethos is about celebrating love, creating beautiful memories for the couple (it is my job to ensure having your photos taken never feels like a chore) and providing high quality products that are stylish and high quality, standing up to inquisitive little hands of future generations.
How do you differ from other wedding photographers?
Although firmly not a wedding planner, I do love to actively seek out ways in which I can help my clients, specifically in ways that that aren’t photography related. It goes back to wanting to create a seamless experience for them. Whether it’s recommending suppliers, advising on timelines, areas where they can save so they can splurge on the things they really want, like a fab pair of shoes or advising how best to navigate the sometimes tricky family situations that occur at weddings etc. Despite knowing the wedding industry well and having been involved in countless weddings, I found planning my own wedding last year a little bit of an overwhelming experience and so I can only imagine how my brides and grooms can feel. I like to save them time and stress and give them an outlet that they can go on about all their details (sometimes friends and family don’t have the same enthusiasm throughout). When they book me I want them to feel like they have an ally, someone they can call on for honest advice. It’s a wedding photographer/ friend/counsellor/ advisor all rolled into one!
What led you in to photography, and wedding photography in particular?
I specialised in sculpture for years before discovering photography in any serious kind of way. I focused on large scale (6ft+) metal and marble sculpture before and whilst studying Fine Art Ba Hons at Newcastle University. In the lead up to my final degree show, my mum gifted me a book on fashion and travel photography. I had always had an interest in fashion and different cultures but the power of those photos, the fact you could be transported to another place really caught me off guard. I decided I wanted to be a fashion photographer (inspired by the work of Tim Walker in particular) and convinced my tutors to let me extend my course so that I could graduate specialising in photography.
Upon leaving I worked and studied Fashion photography at Central Saint Martins whilst also assisting a wedding photographer. I was becoming disillusioned with fashion photography and wanted something more real. My boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to go to Madagascar, where we worked for an American NGO, which focused on child malnutrition. The work in Madagascar was heart breaking. I sat thinking about the types of photography I had experienced and realised wedding photography made me so happy. It was the perfect mix of glamour and emotion, details and relationships. I decided there and then that I’d come back to the UK and start my own business and a month later Xander and Thea was born.
Why the name Xander and Thea?
My name is long and difficult to spell so I knew short of buying every combination of web domain, I’d have to come up with something a little easier. From a marketing perspective I thought if people can’t say it then it could interfere with word of mouth referrals. After a little research I realised I loved names that were short and had two parts to them. I decided to create a business name that was a play on my first and middle name: Alethiea Alexandra. It hasn’t actually been as plain sailing though, my husband gets called Xander by stranger’s all the time!
What made you want to take the leap to setting up your own business?
I can’t really recall a time where I made a decision to start my own business as such. I always just kind of assumed that I would work for myself. I wanted flexibility to work anywhere I wanted; I wanted each day to be a little different. I didn’t want to have to worry about being assigned only so many days off a year or having to ask permission to take time off to go on holiday. I love the spontaneity of working for myself.
Of course, shooting weddings is a huge responsibility, which I take incredibly seriously and I’ve had to shoot a wedding upon hearing a loved one has passed away, having stitches in my hand, being ill etc. It’s truly something I think I can say on behalf of all the photographers I know; we will not miss your day for anything! But during the week when I am not shooting weddings I love that I can work from home in my Pj’s, a café or abroad. Running my own business largely lets me create my own schedule.
Were your family and friends on board? If not, how did you bring them round?
Luckily they were all very on board. They have always been supportive of my creative pursuits and have always happily been roped into them whether its as an assistant behind the scenes, helping me create backdrops, modelling for me or sanding gallery walls until 2am. I come from quite a creative family of artists and the process of creating isn’t something new to them. I am also known for being quite stubborn so perhaps they knew it was just best to support me as once my mind is set on something there is no going back! I am very grateful to them, especially to my husband. When our friends and family meet up in summer for BBQ’s and reunions, he has without complaint missed them so that I get to do what I love.
What has been the greatest challenge so far?
Without doubt the most difficult thing about running your own business is the lack of having a sounding board. In the beginning making decisions by myself, without being able to really determine the outcome was a scary prospect. It became even more daunting when money was involved. What will give you more bang for buck? Investing in marketing, new equipment, web design, wedding fayre’s etc? The possibilities are endless. I have formed a global circle of photographer friends and having an ear to listen when needed or having a network where you can share information and equipment/ software reviews etc is invaluable.
And the greatest success?
The greatest success is when you are recommended or recognised for your work. I had a ‘greatest success lightbulb’ moment not too long ago as I was going through cleaning up all my old hard drives and seeing all the client files of couples who have entrusted their day to me over the last four and a bit years. The realisation that I have built this business by myself from absolutely zero was such a proud moment for me. The reality is that running your own business doesn’t give you much time to stop and contemplate. You can plan to slow down or take time out but I usually find that quite hard to do. Working on one creative project stimulates a whole set of other ideas and right there, a new project is born. The momentum can be quite addictive.
What’s a normal day for you?
I wake up around 8am. (I know that’s quite late. I have always been a night owl but I am trying to work on that this year). I get ready for the day and have breakfast. We have a lovely bay window at home, so if it’s sunny I’ll try and relax there a little with my cup of tea. I then will do a few mundane chores like empty the dish washer, load the washing machine etc. before I start working around 9.30am. Usually I try to get through all the admin first as this is usually what takes up the most space on the ‘to do’ list. It’s emails to clients and colleagues, quotes and invoices, sending album and print orders off to the studio, organising couriers and replying to submission requests. Once that is out of the way I will usually be working on editing images before stopping for a quick lunch and another power tidy of the house. In the afternoon, I plan my social media or blog. I tend to work better if I do everything in chunks and scheduling rather than lots of little bits throughout the week. I usually finish work at 6.30pm for my husband coming home. Sometimes the day is a balancing act between trying to be proactive (grow your business) vs. reactive (ensuring your clients are well looked after).
What’s your favourite part of your job?
It is such a cliché but it really is such a privilege to be chosen to photograph someone’s wedding and I really enjoy getting to know each couple and their unique stories. As the years have gone by, I have noticed the couples that choose me are more aligned to myself; we usually have lots in common so they really feel like friends by the end. The speeches are my favourite part of the wedding day, they aren’t specifically my favourite part to photograph but I love getting to know the couple more through their nearest and dearest. I am a lover of stories and hearing the speeches always give you a much better understanding of your couple and their journey. I adore shooting the couple portraits and all their thoughtful details.
Do you have any future plans for Xander and Thea?
There are quite a few plans in the works to grow Xander and Thea over the next 18 months. We are expecting our first baby in April so I will be taking a month or so off to get accustomed to the lack of sleep and general life changing situation that comes with a baby before I am back to shooting weddings in June. The next three months are busy finalising plans for a new feminist lifestyle blog (a personal project) and my darling mum is coming on board for the next Xander and Thea adventure, which focuses more on artisan tangible products for brides and industry suppliers. We are both really creative and have wanted to join forces for quite a few years now and with a baby on the way, it is the perfect time to do this. I’ll still be focused on wedding photography but really wanted something physically creative as I really enjoyed my days sculpting.
Do you have any tips for our readers who are thinking of setting up their own business? Or for getting in to wedding photography?
Don’t think you have to be a certain way. I worried a little at the very start that I didn’t have the typical start to photography that seemed the norm. I wasn’t given a vintage camera as a child and didn’t have a life long fascination with photography. I fell (happily) into wedding photography and thought that would hold me back but it didn’t in any way at all. Own your story! My background in sculpture, fashion, renaissance art and Italy really helped me create a more unique identity and shaped the way I see the world, of love, of what is important in my business. It does definitely take a bit of time to get used to being so fearless but you will gain more work standing out, than you will blending in. I now barely follow any photographers on Instagram and I don’t look what they are writing on their website as I don’t want that to influence my own. Look outside your industry for inspiration. Look to art, architecture, fashion, nature, and your own house/wardrobe. Find what inspires you and then surround yourself with that. Running your own business is very hard work and continuous. Don’t be fooled by thinking everyday is a holiday or as glamorous as an Instagram feed. Having a hobby and running a business have two very different sets of requirements in terms of how much time, patience and investment is needed.
And just for fun…
What are your favourite flowers? I love the elegant and soft look of a pale pink ‘gentle hermione’ English Rose. They smell beautiful and a little vase of these roses on my desk always brightens the place up! My mum is a florist so being surrounded by fresh flowers as a child was something I definitely took for granted but appreciate lots now!
Favourite thing to do on a Sunday? If we aren’t travelling back from a wedding, we like to wake up early on the weekend to try and make the most of the day. The day starts off with a little cuddle before heading downstairs before our breakfast and newspaper arrive. We love to read the FT weekender as it has finance-y and corporate news for the husband (his industry) and a great art and interiors section for me to delve into. We’ll then get ready and around late morning we’ll go for a walk in the country, stop for lunch somewhere, before heading home to cook dinner and watch a movie. We both plan for the week ahead on Sunday evening as Monday is easier when you feel more in control of what you have on!
Favourite travel destination? Florence is so close to my home in Italy so I feel like I should perhaps be more adventurous but I simply love it! It is such a rich city culturally, the history, the art, the grand architecture, the fashion. My love affair with Florence started when I was an odd nine year old with a keen interest in Leonardo Da Vinci’s work and continued through to and beyond University (where my dissertation was on none other than Renaissance Florentine feminist art). One of my Xander and Thea career highlights was shooting a couple in the Boboli gardens.
Favourite way to relax? This is definitely an easy answer because I adore being near the sea. Whether at home in Italy or back up in Edinburgh we always lived on the sea front (or at most a short walk to the beach). I come from a family of sea goers, my dad was a Chief marine engineer so it has always been a huge part of our lives and so moving to the Midlands was a big shock for me. There is just something so calming about watching the waves roll up the shore, the fresh sea air or the water softly lapping against the rocks. I love filling a flask and picnic and heading to the beach.
Favourite blog or Instagram account? I really tried to choose one but struggled so I thought I’d share my top 4 Instagram accounts.
Because I adore people’s stories, Humans of New York is my bedtime read and a mixture of heavy and light hearted moments. It is such a simple idea but it works so well.
For Grecian travel envy, Corinanika. Designer, Corina’s turquoise watered images always have me wishing for summer.
Ignant is my go to for all things art, design and architecture. I prefer to look outside the wedding industry for inspiration and Ignant is full of wall worthy imagery and interesting ideas.
For chic Italian fashion and beautiful destinations, my style inspiration has got to be Eleonora_Mararo. Every shot Eleonora posts of herself is beautifully styled and I just can’t get enough of her wardrobe.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given? My mum’s favourite quote is “This too will pass” and I have remembered it well during times of difficulty. It is rather calming and either reminds me to be resilient or to strip away the noise and fully enjoy the moment I am in. It is equally applicable in the good times and the bad.
What do you think? Are you inspired by Alethiea’s story?
Find out more about Xander and Thea here.
All photography by Xander and Thea except where otherwise stated.