“I was just out there going with my gut and when I saw something, I just kind of opened myself up to whatever it was. I really enjoyed that.” — Amy Ouellette 1/29/20
Who is Amy Ouellette?
Amy Ouellette is a professional photographer, a wife, a mom, and an all around cool person who lives in North Portland. I met Amy at a networking event, which we both hate attending, and that may be the reason we ended up talking with each other. That meeting, which must have been somewhere around ten years ago, led to multiple professional collaborations, which, among other things, included trips into the Pacific Northwest’s mountains and forests to photograph environmental portraits of people working to restore and conserve the region’s natural resources.
I went to one of Amy’s own websites to get this information about her work: “Originally from New England, Amy was drawn to the Pacific Northwest by it’s natural beauty and creative culture. Since moving to Portland in 1996, Amy has earned degrees in both photography and business. She has worked as a portrait, wedding and freelance editorial photographer since 2000. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, USA Today, Wine Country Living, Willamette Week and Portland Monthly Magazine.” And I will add that it’s not just her photography that’s stellar… it’s also the joy of knowing and working with her. Check out her craft at amyouellette.com.
J: Where are you from originally?
J: Where in Massachusetts?
A: I was born in Malden, then grew up in a small town called Middleton. It’s a little bit inland of the north shore… in between Salem and North Andover. A tiny rural town, which is no longer like that, but that’s how it was when I was growing up.
J: What year was that?
A: 1975. And then we moved to New Hampshire when I was going into seventh grade. Which was super rural. My dad wanted to move up there and build a house because it was getting too busy where we lived. Like, they paved our road, and he was just “that’s it, we’re outta here.” (laughs) And so he found a piece of property, and then he told me, “okay, we’re gonna go see where we’re going to build a house.” So he took me to Coleman, which is a sports store, and he bought us some wooden snowshoes, which made me a little suspicious. Then we drove an hour and a half north and finally turned down this dirt road. And he just pulled over in the middle of nowhere and had me put my snowshoes on. We snowshoed through the woods, and the snow was like this high (motions several feet high), which is a lot for New Hampshire, and then he just stopped. And he was like “this is it.” (laughing) And I’m, like, an eleven year old or whatever. I was mortified. So yeah… the second half of my growing up I did in very rural, very conservative New Hampshire.
J: Wow… what an incredible story. Seriously. So what did your dad do that allowed him the freedom to do that?
A: Well, he came from a working class family, and his dad had started a roofing company, so he was a roofer. And he was pretty successful at it.
J: My brother was a roofer, and he was the same way… very independent. Did what he wanted.
A: And my dad knew how to build. He had built our first house in Middleton, so he wanted to build another house. But when we moved, he got everything all settled, and then the recession hit. And so I think it was pretty touch and go there for awhile. Like, you know, we had a hard time getting groceries. And he had to get a job in Boston, which was like an hour and a half commute. And sometimes he would even bring a gun to work, because he had go out to these abandoned buildings, and it was dangerous.
J: I’m sure it was…
A: So he did that for a year or two. I remember it was so bad that he was making flyers for cleaning gutters. So, I think, you know, as kids my parents tried to shield us from that, but it was definitely some tough times there for a little while. But then, I don’t know how he pulled it off, but he did. He built the house.
J: That’s pretty impressive actually… that he was able to do that.
A: He’s a resilient man. And a libertarian. So you can imagine (chuckling) what happened with that relationship as time went on.
J: What did happen?
A: Oh, nothing all that serious… he’s just very conservative. And I went to Boston University, so I had my eyes opened fairly quickly to the world and different cultures and different ways of being. He preferred to have his own private world in the woods. So we were looking at life from completely different perspectives. Which I feel, in some ways, has been good for me because it gives me an understanding of where more conservative people are coming from, especially in this time when there is just so much hatred. There’s no more conversation between people who have differing opinions. It’s like we just can’t anymore. And I totally get it, but I come from that conservatism, you know. I probably was that conservative at one point in high school. So I definitely feel like it gives me a nice perspective.
J: I’ve had similar experiences with my family.
A: Yeah, I think most people have. But for me, a lot of conservative, libertarian type thinking doesn’t make as much sense as more socially oriented thinking. I mean, at one point I worked in a social service office, and one thing my co-worker said to me, which really made sense, is that you just have to accept that there’s a certain percentage of people who are just not going to be able to make it on their own. So we, as a society, need to decide what we’re going to do about that, you know. Libertarians tend to think they just need to take care of themselves.
A: And then the more socialist people are like, let them have housing and food. We know they’re not superstars, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to basic needs.
J: And you can look at it from different perspectives, but regardless of whether it’s a conservative or a more empathetic perspective, it’s always in society’s best interest to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Because if you don’t do that, crime goes up, because they don’t have any other option.
A: Yeah, so wouldn’t you rather just give the money rather than have it get stolen from you? Yeah, I agree. It’s pretty straightforward, but I think a lot of it is just people feeling like they don’t want to give away what they had to work for. Which, again, I can understand, but the problems need to be dealt with.
J: That makes sense to me. So, getting back to you… how did you get to Boston University coming from where you were?
J: So you were a smart kid…
A: Wasn’t the smartest, but I was a fairly smart kid. I could have gone to UNH or Boston University, and when we did the numbers, it was actually cheaper for me to go to BU. Also, when you visit BU, they take you on the tour of the brownstones, and it feels like a storybook. Then the reality is that you’re basically living in a dorm off of Comm Avenue, you know, so, I felt a little bit like I had been tricked. But still, it was a very formative experience. I had a lot of Indian friends. Plus there was a huge Arab population. And I remember there was a lot of tension between Muslims and Hindus. Like, it was just a whole new world to me.
A: It was kind of like a microcosm of the world… all on Comm Avenue. (laughs) So, um, yeah… so that’s how I got to go there.
J: How did you end up in photography?
A: Well, I dropped out of college after three years and moved out here. And then I just had no money, you know. Lived in a house with eight other people… that whole Portland experience (laughs)… and then, I don’t know… my dad gave me his old manual Canon camera, so I started using that and thought “oh, this is fun” Then I met a professional photographer, and I was like “you can do this as a job?” you know, which had never dawned on me. So I started taking pictures and went through a two-year program at Mt. Hood Community College. I started assisting, and then started shooting. And eventually I did end up getting a degree in business at Marylhurst.
J: When did we first work together?
A: I can’t even remember… that was a while ago.
J: I met you through Paula (a mutual friend)…
A: Yeah, I actually tell that story often because, as an introvert, I do not enjoy trying to get work. It’s like the thing I hate the most. And Paula, who I met through Marylhurst, was in some organization… it was like a marketing organization…
A: Yeah… and she was like, “oh, we need a photographer… you could come and network” and I was like “Ugh. I do not want to network. I despise networking.”
J: But you went. I remember meeting you.
A: I made myself do it, and then, yeah, I connected with you and maybe one other person. But it turned out well, because that first project we worked on together was like my dream project. That was really fun… going out into the woods and taking pictures.
J: I know. It was great.
A: Doesn’t get much better than that. (laughing)
J: And the water… when they were counting the trout…
A: Yeah, with those masks. Yeah, that was so fun.
J: It was. Anyway… looking ahead, what’s the future look like? Do you plan to continue with photography?
A: It’s harder to make a living than it used to be because the budgets just aren’t there. But I’ll continue with photography forever. I just won’t necessarily put myself out there and try to get work like I used to. But if somebody comes to me, then I’m happy to do it. And I think I might need to do something else, too… I’m not sure. I kind of feel like I’ve been in a holding pattern, and I don’t know how to resolve it. There’s a piece of me that just wants to do something ten or twenty hours a week just to make some extra money, you know. But then there’s another piece of me that feels like I’m only on this earth for so long, so why am I going to spend my time doing that. So I’ve kind of been going back and forth about that.
J: It’s a tough choice. You know, one of our neighbors several houses down… she’s an artist and he’s a musician/songwriter. And she does amazing illustration work, but she’s also been like the part-time accountant for a pet food store in the neighborhood for a long time now.
A: That’s funny, because that’s actually what I’m thinking about doing. Because that’s what I originally went to school for was accounting.
A: Yeah. I didn’t even know I was a creative person back then (laughing). Now I wonder how did I not know that?
J: Yeah. What happened?
A: Coming out of high school, I was just on this track. I wanted to make a bunch of money and be what I thought of as a successful woman, you know. Then at some point that just wasn’t really a good fit. But, yeah, I started as an accountant. And I actually kind of like it. Well, I like math. I think it’s like a puzzle. So for me, that wouldn’t be too bad.
J: Have you ever considered just doing creative work for yourself?
A: I have. When I was in a transitional period with my work, it was starting to feel just like a job. And I was like, where’s the joy, you know? Which is a real problem for a creative person if they make their art their career. You lose that connection to it. So I did a project where I just went out into the Gorge and… I don’t know how to explain exactly what it was… it was just seeing details. You know, everybody at the Gorge just sees big waterfalls and big green trees, and I just wanted to look at the details in it. So I did a black and white photo study. And I like some of the pictures a lot, but what I really enjoyed was how the experience felt like meditation, you know. I was just out there going with my gut, and when I saw something, I just kind of opened myself up to whatever it was. You hear people talk about art and music and how they’re just a conduit… that’s kind of what it felt like. I really enjoyed that. Also, I really love traveling, and I love taking pictures when I’m traveling. So for now, that’s where I get the joy.
J: So do you feel like there’s a chance that whatever you come up with to do next could relate to something other than photography?
A: It could. I mean, honestly, I’m really interested in trauma recovery, in terms of psychological trauma or PTSD. I’ve been reading a lot about trauma, and how we store it on our body. And I’m really interested in different ways people can overcome PTSD. The other day I came across a research project at OHSU… a woman is doing a pilot study with women who were in combat and had PTSD, I think from sexual trauma, and now they’re working with them to scientifically measure the results they get by having these women do yoga. There’s not a lot of scientific evidence backing mind-body connections, but studies like this one are doing that work. I would love to do something like that.
J: Why does something like working with trauma patients appeal to you?
A: Well, I have experienced a lot of trauma in my life. More specifically, I was in a car accident when I was sixteen, and I’ve never been the same since.
J: What happened… may I ask?
A: Yeah. I was riding home from a soccer game with my friend. Her mom was driving us, and her mom was really tired. She’d asked my friend if she would drive, and, you know, my friend was sixteen, so she said no to driving because she wanted to hang out in the backseat with her boyfriend. So the mom drove and fell asleep while we were driving. I was sitting in the passenger seat, and it was one of those old Plymouth Chrysler really bad cars… like, it wasn’t a safe car at all, and my side hit a tree. The car crunched. But I had two things happen to me.
The first thing happened before the accident. So, I should tell you that I’m extremely interested in mystical spiritual experiences, because I’ve had many mystical experiences. Too many to ignore. So, remember that this happened in New Hampshire and it was around 1989 or ’90… and their state motto was “Live Free Or Die,” so, naturally, we didn’t have seatbelt laws. Which means no one wore a seatbelt. But, for whatever reason, when we were getting on the highway that day, it was like a lightbulb went off, and I remember this so clearly, I just kind of went, “Oh” and I even think I said it out loud… “My seatbelt.” And I just put the seatbelt on. And even though I was so tired and leaning down into my lap and the seatbelt was cutting into me, I would not take it off. And then we crashed, which was the second thing that happened.
In the crash my knees got impaled in the plastic. They were like hanging from hooks. And I broke my hand on the dashboard… just cracked it. And I fractured the second vertebrae in my neck. So then I was in the hospital for awhile, and that was very strange… because I never wanted to leave the hospital.
I remember laying there and being like, “I just want to lay here. I never want to go home.” And I would not leave. And the doctor could see that something was going on (laughing) so he just let me stay until I wanted to go home. But I remember the pain. When I was laying in the hospital bed, my neck hurt and this hurt and that hurt. It would just go from zero to sixty… I was perfectly fine one second and then the next second second, everything hurt so much.
I was in so much pain, they gave me a shot of demerol. And that was also weird. As a sixteen-year-old, to go from so much pain to no pain. And I remember thinking, “I need some more of that.” Of course, it’s super addictive… and I was in the hospital room and I would say, “nurse, I’m going to need another one of those shots” and I remember, she would say “uh huh” and then hand me a couple pills and say, “take these and then we’ll see.” So I took them and then just laid there thinking “you gotta stay awake so you can get that shot.” I had no real awareness of what was happening, but, it was probably not a good idea to give a sixteen-year-old shots of demerol. To be honest, I think it’s kind of a miracle I’m not an addict. Because, yeah, ever since then, I’ve been in pain. Every day of my life, pretty much. And it’s not because my injuries didn’t heal. It’s a neurological thing.
I didn’t see it coming, but I no longer had any sense of safety. Nothing felt safe, you know. Eventually I got a diagnosis, and then I was able to kind of heal from it. Things like EMDR and other trauma recovery work helps, you know. And I’m just fascinated by the neuroplasticity of our brain. The fact that we can change our brain through things like meditation. And now there’s starting to be more scientific evidence that shows people really can make these changes. I just feel like it’s so hopeful for people who have struggled for so long, you know. They think there’s no escape. But there is. Maybe it’s never going to be a hundred percent improvement, but you can get better. That’s why I’m interested in trauma recovery.