“My success doesn’t have to exclude yours” - Naila Ruechel
Naila Ruechel is a celebrated model, stylist, video director and fashion photographer whose work has appeared in Harper's Bazaar and New York Magazine among others. In this episode she talks about what diversity and representation means in the creative industries and how she has navigated the world as a Black woman. She cares deeply about mentoring young people and creating opportunities for people of color and in this episode she also shares her top advice on how to make it as a freelancer in the fashion industry.
Have a question or comment? Email us at [email protected].
Topics discussed in this episode:
Diversity and representation
Mentoring and paying it forward
Business of fashion
Resources mentioned in this episode:
Naila’s website (link)
Hidden Figures (link)
The Glass Menagerie by Tenessee Williams (link)
TRANSCRIPT EP3 - NAILA RUECHEL
This text has been edited for clarity. Please don’t quote without listening to the recorded interview.
00:07 PORTIA So Naila I'm so excited to be talking to you and we have so much to talk about because of some really incredible work you have been doing, and I really appreciated the conversation we had a few weeks ago.
00:37 POR I want to talk a little bit about what success means to you and how has your definition of success changed over time.
00:50 NAILA First of all Portia, thanks for having me on. I'm very excited.
00:53 POR: Great to have you here.
00:55 NAILA Thank you, well you know the definition of success for me has changed dramatically with time. Right now for me success means knowing that I'm putting out a quality product and having confidence in that. Twenty years ago in my 20s I relied on validation from other people as an indicator of success and the pitfall of that is that you know when you work in an industry like fashion and advertising and there are a lot of strong personalities and not always on the same page with you if you're waiting to be validated by someone else to define your success I think it can lead to a lot of emotional upheaval whereas now I have the calm and the confidence to know that the only thing that determines my success is if I am 100 confident and sure that I'm putting out a quality product so for me that's it. If I've created a photograph that I think is beautiful and successful that's success for me now.
02:03 POR I love what you say about not relying on the validation of others because I feel like especially when we're young women we're taught to want to please others and make other people happy and sometimes even subjugate our own needs to others so I think that point you make Naila about “hey, I don't need to have anyone else's validation” is a really important point.
02:35 NAI Absolutely it's really hard to do when you're young but I hope to help cultivate that sort of thinking in younger women if I have any influence on them because I think the earlier you start the better off and I don't think it's impossible it's just I don't know that we nurture and encourage our young women enough to believe that they have the confidence to feel that way and I think that's something that as a society we can work towards changing.
03:04 POR Your career has taken a really interesting turn over the last few years. You've been a model, you've been a stylist, you are a director and photographer and I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that evolution and was there a particular point or points in your life or career where you thought “you know what, this is what I want to do, this is what my vocation is”.
03:33 NAI Well it's funny that photography was actually my first love. I got my first camera when I was 10 or 11 years old.
03:40 POR What kind of camera was it?
03:42 NAI It was a Pentax k-1000 so a little manual camera with a little meter that went from side to side and when it sat in the middle you knew the exposure was right. It was a 35 millimeter film camera and I learned to develop my own film and print my own picture so I started out with traditional photography at a very young age. I lived in a house with my father, [who] at the time was a TV-producer and he later became a commercial photographer and now he's an artist with photography as his medium but when I was growing up he made TV-shows and then I was doing commercial photography so I've been around photography my entire life and it just so happened that when I was 16 people started asking me to model and then I got a contract and I was traveling all over the world and I knew it was potentially a short-lived career, I mean I admire Naomi she is to me the greatest.
04:39 POR She is epic, she's iconic.
04:43 NAI She's iconic. But I knew I was not going to become Naomi so I started exploring styling and I was lucky enough to have a very long lucrative 20-year career as a fashion stylist in New York and did amazing campaigns, worked with the most amazing people, styled the Obamas and you know Maya Angelou, Dr Maya Angelou I should say, and some really incredible people I got to meet and work with. But at some point I decided to go back to my first love of photography because I realized that I was contributing to someone else's vision and I was never feeling quite satisfied. I always thought if I you know I brought all this fashion here and it's never in the end was realizing the vision that I had in my mind for it so I basically just wanted to take control of the narrative and that's when I said “you know what, I really have to start focusing on my photography” and I slowly started taking less styling projects and committed to doing more photography.
07:27 POR So you are a bit of a unicorn photographer, a Black woman working in the highest levels of fashion. Fashion is a notoriously, or maybe it's just to us outsiders, pretty closed club and I'm wondering what do you attribute your success [to]?
07:50 NAI Well first of all I have to say, I have to give a shout out to other Black female photographers who are really working at the top of their game in fashion right now; Melanie Daniels, Shanika Jarvis, Saya Jordan. There are some, I mean Saya I hope I'm saying her name right, just did a cover of the Washington Post Magazine so there are other women like me working at a really high level in this business. You are right in fact, it is not very diverse. The fact that I can probably name all six of us in a world where there's millions of photographers. Yeah, it's not a diverse club as diverse as it ought to be but it's slowly becoming so. I'm seeing those changes.
08:45 POR Yeah it seems really interesting and perhaps it's a sign of the times that we're living in. We saw Vanity Fair just had its first Black photographer in its history, Dario Calmese, Viola Davis, that gorgeous cover, and I don't think Vogue ever had a Black photographer shoot their cover until Tyler Mitchell shot Beyonce. She brought him, from what I understand from reading because I don't know Beyonce personally, that she brought him on to that particular job. I'm wondering if you have a perspective on where fashion is in terms of diversity? And particularly, we mentioned Naomi, there are a number of very prominent Black models from around the world. I'm wondering your thoughts around behind the camera, styling, making editorial decisions, where do you think fashion is right now?
09:48 NAI We certainly have a long way to go but we have people like Edward Enninful running British Vogue and we have Samira Nasir about to start at Harper's Bazaar.
10:04 POR Which is super exciting.
10:06 NAI Which is incredibly exciting and so there are starting to be positions of power held by people of color in the business now and we see with that the color of magazines changing in terms of including more and a wider array of models of color. So I know we have a long way to go, I mean we have a history of these exclusive clubs, but I see the change happening and it is beautiful. I mean you look at the new stand today and the covers are...
10:44 POR It's amazing, isn't it?
10:47 NAI ...Lots of black celebrities photographed by lots of talented Black photographers so there's definitely a change in the air and I am very hopeful and positive in believing that it is not a moment, it's not tokenism. I think it is an acknowledgement that there has been a strong deficiency in that arena and that people are taking steps to right that wrong and it's really incredible and incredibly beautiful to be a part of that and see that happening right now.
11:18 POR I think you're so right Naila, I'm really excited about that. My day job is as a marketer. I happen to work in the manufacturing industry now but I spent many years in the agency world and what I'm seeing now in the agency world I worked in two large global public relations agencies and have worked with a lot of advertising and branding firms. The thing that I'm seeing that's different now is the awareness of “we need to have better representation” making editorial decisions, making creative decisions, running big accounts, running the firms, hiring the talent. I am happy that that message finally seems to be coming through on the creative side, on the agency side because it's really long overdue.
12:11 NAI Absolutely, I mean we certainly I have to emphasize that we do have a long way to go and I have the good fortune to have the ear of some really powerful women in the business who have been assigned the task of being sort of the queens of the diversity and inclusion mission, meaning they're not doing the work but they're being consulted on some of the decisions. Whenever they ask my opinion or I'm in a position to coach them in any way I say “focus on areas in which you can actually have impact” which is creating economic opportunities for people of color as well creating mentorship and internship situations for young people of color. I take mentorship really seriously. I spend time at high schools in underserved neighborhoods and I talk to the children, I go to career days and I think it's just important for them to know, sometimes these kids don't know anyone who works in branding, and so they don't even realize that these are career potentials. I think that kind of grooming needs to start really early and companies can't just wait for interns to apply and people have to proactively make sure that the internship is diverse and that people are giving opportunities. That's my focus with having any part to do with diversity's mentorship as well as encouraging my friends who have powerful positions to make sure that they create spaces for people of color to have jobs and encourage their careers so that they can grow in their careers and get into bigger and better and more important positions so they're part of making these decisions.
14:01 POR I'm so glad that you're saying that because, especially in industries like fashion, especially in the agency world, I remember being in the agency world and even still when I talk to some of my agency friends, there are still very few people of color and getting into those firms you need internships. It can be very difficult otherwise and so I think that's such great work that you're doing and I'm wondering since you mentioned mentorship, have mentors been important to you in your own career? Do you still have a mentor? You're so successful now but I'm wondering if mentors are still important for you?
00:45 NAI Well you know, I did not have mentors. I had my family, I had very successful people in my family that I could look up to for advice and whatnot, but I didn't have a dedicated mentor per se and that's why I think it's really important to share myself in that way with people who I believe are wanting success and wanting to work hard. Mentorship right now for me really looks like the group of successful women that I'm friends with. We support each other honestly and really with each other's well-being in mind. I have female photographer friends that I work with in terms of sharing info or resources or whatnot and sometimes they're like “why are you doing this, I don't understand. I've never had anyone to ask these questions to” and I'm like ”why does my success have to exclude yours? It's like “no, bring everyone along”. Don't be threatened, create more opportunities for more people rather than feeling like someone is a threat or a competition to you. Again, I'm confident in what I'm creating is quite unique and because I put the work and the time and the energy and effort into creating a unique vision I feel secure. If someone wants to hire me for that, that should not affect another Black female photographer or I shouldn't feel threatened by her because her talent is unique to her as well so it's more friendships supporting each other and on all different levels of success but all very hungry and ambitious women.
02:32 POR My heart was leaping when you were talking about bringing other women along because I believe in carrying as you climb and women supporting women. I remember when you and I were having our conversation a few weeks back and you had those beautiful flowers behind you and you have your friend who's a florist. I love that you bring your female friends close to you and have that ability to also share your success.
03:55 NAI Yeah, I think it's really important and I do that as much as possible. You also want to be really comfortable with the people around you who are helping you achieve the vision that you have and it's nice to give them space as well. I mean Miko at Seasons and Hudson, I say to her “I want unusual” and she's done it a few times now where she gets in and she surprises me and I try to give her that freedom. I'm not a floral designer and when you try to control things too much you get what you want but you're not necessarily getting that “wow I didn't think of that” so I love relying on friends because the more you work together the more they understand you and the more you can create an unique atmosphere together.
04:45 POR You talk about unique atmospheres. I want to talk about storytelling because your photos do tell really beautiful stories and I'm curious what kinds of stories interest you the most right now?
05:02 NAI Right now stories that interest me are stories that portray a woman of color in a really positive light. I think it's no secret that our bodies, our image have not been fairly reflected in Hollywood and media in the current storytelling climate and in the past. I don't think Black women have been given a fair shake and so I think our image is kind of marred and we leave out the beautiful stories and achievements of the astronaut that went into space you know. Where's her story? Why don't we know her story?
05:54 POR Mae Jemison.
05:57 NAI Exactly, Mae Jemison. Where's the Mae Jemison movie? Where are the tennis players, where are the chess players, and they're there, they exist. My grandmother for example in the late 60s early 70s got her master's degree in public health from UC San Francisco. A Jamaican lady got her masters at an American school in the 60s essentially and her story is beautiful. She ran a hospital in Jamaica and I just feel like there's so many interesting stories to be told about our achievements. I think it's really important for our girls to have these stories and not just the astronaut or the doctor, how about just the ordinary love story you know, Bridget Jones diary?
06:54 POR Where's the Black version of that?
06:56 NAI Exactly, the heart and the soul of us as humans and ordinary people. I think that narrative has been missing and so I'm interested in finding and telling stories about that and encouraging that in any way that I can.
07:19 POR I really appreciate that Naila because I do feel like there's so much Black suffering called suffer porn. I'm sure that's not a new term but it seems like so much of the imagery of Black and Brown people is us suffering and experiencing trauma. When Hidden Figures came out I remember thinking “oh my gosh, this is amazing”. I didn't know anything about the story of those incredibly smart women who went on to really literally change the world but for every Hidden Figures there's a movie about slavery or about something bad that's happening to Black people. So I agree, there's so much more space to tell the stories of our success or just even having ordinary lives of raising children, having families.I hope that more people will want to tell that story. I'm glad that's important for you because as a mother of two kids I think about that a lot. Those images stay with us even more than written words.
08:51 NAI Absolutely, that's why I have a great deal of respect for people like Issa Rae and Shonda Rhimes who are writing and producing and creating stories for us and portraying us in that way. We're off and running, there's a lot of work to do and I will say I think that there is space. I think it's really important to continue to tell the stories of the history and the past and the pain lest we forget. It's important but I think it's high time for us to also focus on the positive and realize that we cannot encourage our young people to their fullest potential if we focus only on pain and suffering and not on positivity.
09:47 POR Right, I have a 10 year old son and he was the one who pointed out to me “mommy all the stories are about Black people getting hurt, why aren't there any happy stories?” and though at the very same time he said “wow, we have experienced so much and we are still here and we are thriving and we're resilient” and I said “that's right” and that's the power of those stories whether it's 12 Years a Slave or, the power of showing how resilient we are as a people. I’m actually pretty excited at the whole new horror genre Jordan Peele is bringing back now. I am not a scary movie person. I'm somebody who gets horrible nightmares so I am told they are amazing movies but I myself cannot watch scary movies.
10:52 NAI I love Jordan Peele. He is so clever, what he's brought to the screen is just phenomenal. His work transcends any sort of demographic as far as I'm concerned. The movies that he's making are not made for one race of people.
11:21 POR They are not, they’re very universally appealing.
11:26 NAI They can be enjoyed by everyone and I think there is a real art to cracking that code. It really even shouldn't be a code to crack. I never understood the idea of the black movie, a movie that is of Black people just for Black people because I watch a lot of movies with white women and I relate to the movies I relate to the struggle that she's having with her relationship or whatever so why shouldn't she be able to watch a movie about me and relate to what I'm dealing with just as a woman and a human being? Good on him for that, I have to say but I do struggle with understanding why we ever had those sorts of separations in the first place because we should be able to relate to each other as human beings if the story is powerful enough.
12:17 POR It really has more to do with who's making the financial decisions, who's making the marketing decisions and because the artists are telling a story to everyone but it's the business of the movie or this television studio that's saying “no we're going to target a specific audience”. What I love particularly with Gen Z is they increasingly are defying categorization. They're defying being put in boxes whether it's gender, whether it's race, whether it's political ideology and I think that's the really exciting part of what we're seeing in this next newest generation is that they are far more expansive thinkers thanunfortunately the people who are still mostly in control of the resources in the studios but I do think that is changing and it will continue to change particularly as we're seeing more art go online. We're talking right now during the pandemic, most of us have been at home and to see the explosion of streaming media and all the different sources where we can get content means that a lot more people are gonna get a chance to tell their story the way they want to tell it, which I think is pretty exciting.
13:53 NAI I'm here for that and I do have a lot of confidence in the next generation in exactly what you said they're on it, they're ready for change, they're ready to stop labeling and I'm so excited. I have to say, young people are mentors to me as well. I find, besides the group of women that I'm around, the young women in my life, my daughter I look to them a lot for how I see things. I mean if anything's going on I'm on the phone to my daughter first like “what do you think of this?” you know because someone in their 20s their perspective is so fresh.
14:38 POR It's so refreshing.
14:42 NAI Yeah, I never want to be the person who was like “oh in my day” and sound like an old boogie.
14:45 POR Back in the 90s!
14:48 NAI Yeah I'm calling my kids and I'm like “okay what's the skinny, what's the gossip, gimme what's the lingo?” I'm not going to use the lingo though because you could only go so far.
15:00 POR You could only go so far, I do the same thing with my niece who's in her 20s.
15:03 NAI Right, it's like I stay in my lane though.
15:07 POR I stay in my lane.
15:08 NAI Exactly, look to the youth. They can guide the way. I truly believe that.
15:15 POR Even my 20 something year old niece is an endless source of information for me but my son who's 10 and is a 100 percent digital native and has friends that he's only met online and who he considers to be his friends and I knew nothing about TikTok until my son and his seven-year-old cousin told me about it. You still will not find me on TikTok but I love the fact that young people are so connected and they are so open-minded.
I want to pivot a little bit. We've been talking about telling stories and really it's kind of the democratizing of storytelling. You are a Jamaican woman and I'm wondering how that informs your work and the stories that you're telling right now?
16:18 NAI Well...
16:19 POR if at all?
16:20 NAI It absolutely does and it's funny, it's subconscious, it was not intentional at all but now I look at the work and I think “gosh it's so obvious all the rich greens” a lot of people know Jamaica for beaches but we have also the east side of the island which is just green lush forest and I look at my work and I'm like “wow look at all that deep saturated green, wow look at all that red and white fruit”.
16:51 POR I wondered about that.
16:53 NAI You know I didn't realize it, it was totally subconscious but I think all the use of fruit and flora and these rich colors it's like my grandmother's backyard. She had everything, she had passion fruit and pomegranate and pineapple and guava and mangoes.
17:16 POR It totally makes sense then.
17:18 NAI I look at the work and I go “oh yeah, Jamaica totally influences me and how I see things”. I think of Jamaican people as being very colorful and vibrant and that is a hundred percent reflected in my work now.
17:34 POR That's so amazing, in fact it when I looked at your work that's what I thought. I saw the influence of Jamaica not the beach side but the rich lush forests when listeners go to your website, which we'll post in the show notes, they'll see these just beautiful jewel tones that just kind of come off the page and wrap themselves around you and particularly you can really see your personality and feel your personality come through in your photographs at the same time bringing these unbelievable objects. I'm talking about your accessories photography now. They really just come to life.
18:29 NAI Oh thank you so much, it warms my heart to hear that because there's often a disconnect between the intention and the way something is received so when I hear you say that I'm just so thrilled because that is what I intend.
18:43 POR I receive it.
18:46 NAI Yeah, that's the feeling I'm trying to put out in the world. I want beauty in the world. I want beautiful things to look at. I want people to just feel this warmth and desire when they look at the work and I feel like I'm halfway there.
19:00 POR I think when the listeners take a look at your photos they will feel the same thing. I want to talk a little bit about the business of photography and the business of fashion because I know that I spent a lot of time talking to young people. We've talked about how important it is that young people see, particularly young people of color, that this is an opportunity for them. They can be successful in this industry and so I'm wondering, there may be somebody who's a student at Pratt or FIT or the Art Institute listing thinking “can I really make a living being a photographer, animator or a graphic designer?” So what advice do you have about getting paid what you're worth especially in the creative field?
19:54 NAI The answer to the question “can I make a career out of my art?” is yes.
20:03 POR You hear that folks? Yes you can.
20:07 NAI Yes you can. The next thing I say is embrace the business side of it. Don't be afraid of the business side of it. Yes you're an artist but remember that you are a business, you're not a charity, and you have to have faith in and believe in your worth and your value and I think it's really important to talk about contracts. It's important to negotiate, it's important to ask what the budget is. Once you know that, decide what your time is worth and set strict parameters or clear parameters. I wouldn't say strict I'll rephrase and say clear because it's really important to be open, so strict is not necessarily a word I advise people to use too much in the early parts of their career. It's important to be open but clear parameters so both you and your client know what the expectation is in the end. I think you will know your value based on what the budget is and the time it takes for you to complete projects. You'll get a good sense of it and there are lots of established budgets so I think the very first thing to always do is ask what the budget is. Lots of people come to you and say “what's your fee, what's your rate?” and it's really important to know what they are working with and don't lowball yourself. It's just really important to embrace the business side as I said. Read every word of those contracts, don't be afraid to ask for it, don't be as afraid to ask for more. The worst that can happen is that someone says “no” but no one's going to be offended and I think for some reason we are all raised to believe money is a quiet subject that we don't talk about so we don't develop our muscles in that department as much as we ought to when we're young. Nobody gives you anything unless you ask for it and again everyone is also doing business so it's not personal. If what you're quoting is too much for someone they will simply say “no” they're not taking it personally and they're not offended so there's no reason for you to go into this in a timid way. So if I have to close I'd say embrace the business side of it and if possible take a course in economics. Educating yourself on basic economics is a really important thing in understanding your value, your worth and just, you know, business.
23:02 POR I'm so glad to hear you say that because working with a lot of young people and talking to, especially Gen Z, is that they see entrepreneurism. They see working for themselves as a viable way to live. They don't think about mom or dad working for a company for x number of years so I have to do the same. The challenge though is learning how to make a living for yourself and I've talked to young people about understanding how to price your work, understanding what margin is, what revenue is. Because it's not just about getting paid but it's getting paid enough not just to make a living but to be profitable, to run your business profitable and those are all things that you learn over time and hopefully sooner rather than later. So I have a question for you about sharing salary information because I am noticing that young people are a lot more transparent about how much they're making and in fact there seems to be at least in corporate, and I'm wondering if it's this way in your industry, there seems to be increasingly a trend of young people saying “hey I have this job, it has this, it's this level in my company, with this kind of responsibility and this is what I'm making”. Of course you can go to sites like Glassdoor and Salary.com, there's a lot out there that's facilitating this. But the transparency around salary is something that initially when I saw it I thought “oh that's really yucky” but to your point it's like “no I actually think that knowledge is power” because it allows you to negotiate from a position of strength. So I'm wondering if you are seeing the same thing? Do photographers or stylists share what they're getting paid for a particular job so as to help one another? What's happening there?
25:13 NAI I see how that can be very useful in the corporate world and the people that I mentor often ask me about rates that were offered to them for projects and so I hear that side of it. I have to say personally though I tend to not share what I earn with colleagues. I don't find it valuable in my career and also because I offer a very unique service having been a stylist and now being a photographer. I like to work alone. I tend to style my own projects, build my own sets and if there's wardrobe involved I'll go and get it.
26:02 POR So you're bringing a different level of value that you're able to quantify for yourself?
26:08 NAI Exactly and other photographers might need a complete team around them so I don't think it's fair to my clients to share what my rate is with other photographers because the expectation people have at different levels, people are at different stages in their career. And not just that, every client has multiple projects that they're working on for multiple sectors, some things are for social, some things are a bigger wide scale ad campaigns and whatnot and all those things have different value and I think as photographers when we start talking too much about our rates with each other we can start to get kind of like “well I didn't make that” or “I should” and I think you have to approach your clients with respect and believe that they're being honest and upfront with you and straightforward with what the offer is and treat that on a case-by-case basis. So I don't think it's particularly valuable for me but I do see [how it can be] in the corporate world where responsibilities and job titles are more established.
27:28 POR That's right, they're somewhat uniform and easier to compare.
27:33 NAI From one person to the next you have the same responsibilities that make sense to me but for what I do I don't find it particularly valuable at this time.
27:43 POR Well I'm pretty sure that Mario Testino is not going out talking about what he or Annie Leibovitz you know. We're pretty sure they're not going around talking about what they're getting paid.
27:53 NAI Yeah and frankly I don't want to know because I might be depressed.
27:58 POR That’s exactly right, it's like be careful what you ask for. I personally don't share my salary information and I do suspect it's more common in entry level, early career because the more senior you get then you're talking stock options all kinds of variable compensation and to your point Naila, which is something that I really hope listeners get, which is you have to understand your unique value proposition that allows you to command the salary or rate that you command. That's something you bring that's different than anybody else and that to me is the work that people don't do enough that they need to do [more]. When you talk about “look I can style my own shoots, I bring a whole set of experiences and a point of view that other people don't bring and that's what people pay me for” and I think you can actually translate that into pretty much any career to say what is it that you uniquely bring that is the differential value? Not to sound like a total corporate wonk here but that's what it is, you're bringing differential value that allows you to ask for what you deserve and what you feel that you should be paid. I think that's a really important point [to] know your value, right?
29:38 NAI Yeah, I think it's a really important mindset to have. If you're going into any company they want to know that you have some unique value to them, why do they pick you over any other candidates, so yeah the careers are established or the responsibilities are established but as a unique individual, as a unique human being certainly there is something special that you can bring to every role and your potential employer wants to know that.
30:10 POR Yeah, I think it's harder for women to ask for what they think they deserve and I feel like it probably took me five to eight years to just say “you know what, I'm gonna go for it” and “I'm going to ask for what I think I deserve” because if you don't ask the answer is always no. I have taken a lot of lessons particularly from the very senior men in my life and in fact I have often asked men when I'm considering a role to actually look at the compensation and say if you were being offered this would you take it? I have gotten unbelievable advice, which makes you realize how differently men think about money than women do, right? They have no problems talking about it and being super upfront about what their expectations are and that's one big lesson I've taken away from the successful men in my life over the last few years. Not being scared to ask for what I want and to really hold to it.
31:31 NAI Yeah and that's good on you and I applaud [you for it]. I feel the same way. I was raised in a house with a very strong woman, my grandmother as I said she ran a hospital and health centers, and so I always had a very strong woman as well my mother is quite successful. So I had strong women and men to look up to. My father as well, his TV-career and his photography career and whatnot. I've never had this idea that I couldn't ask for what I wanted, it was always told to me at a very early age “you can do what you want, you can have what you want, you only have to work really hard”. Don't be a shrinking violet in the background, ask for what you want. I'm really lucky now at this age to be surrounded by some really kick-but successful women who have no fear. I had a friend recently asked me, a friend of mine who is a really wonderful stay-at-home mom, the best hardest working person, asked me about a career decision I made and she said “was it hard for you to ask for what you wanted?” I said “nope it was not”. You just got to do that, we have to as women push forward and that has to be a thing of the past, we have to speak up, we have to ask for what we want with no fear. I am such a strong advocate for that.
33:22 POR I love that you talk about the strong women in your life. I definitely get a lot of strength and courage too, I feel lucky to have some seriously badass women in my life and I love that they are the ones who can tell you about yourself. I like to say they're the ones who can tell you “hey look you're full of [ __ ] why aren't you doing this? get on with it girl” because we all need that, right? I think a lot of times especially when you're in roles where you're in charge or you're super successful, people think it just happens but the reality is you work really hard and you always need that network of support. It's so funny we're coming back to this idea of that network of support and that network of really strong women in your life who can be sounding boards, who can support you and who can sometimes just listen when you need it.
34:25 NAI Oh absolutely, I can't get over how supportive [my girlfriends] are. I just had an editorial in the September issue of Harper's magazine and I'm telling you all my female friends bought the magazine before I did. I mean they were all calling me like “we have the issue!” They were so supportive.
34:46 POR So exciting.
34:48 NAI I am very excited but I feel like my girlfriends are more excited than [I am].
34:54 POR I totally believe that, because we love to see each other winning, right? It's like you love to see your girls win and that's what's so cool.
35:07 NAI Yeah, that's been such a heartwarming thing to know that my circle of friends are so genuinely supportive and happy when I'm successful and it's the full circle because it means that I feel that way and I give them more time, I give them more energy if they need help or if they need advice I make the time for them because I know they genuinely have my my best interest at heart. Therefore I automatically want to give them an opening here, an opportunity there. How can I help you figure this out? You need a second set of eyes to help you make this decision and I think it was Issa Rae who said network across. Everyone's wanting to network up and I really find that there is a lot more value in networking across.
36:05 POR That is actually such a great point and I particularly feel that right now because most of us have been in some version of being at home for most of the time and so I have found that my girlfriends and other people who can't necessarily get me a job or mentor me or sponsor me but they do provide a perspective right now that is so valuable. Even as I've been recording these podcasts, just reaching out to different women and the connection right now seems, and maybe it's because we're in this situation where we're all so distant, we feel the need to come together and to connect in different ways. It may be one of the interesting, positive byproducts of this really bizarre time that we're living in.
37:06 NAI Yeah, I've noticed the same thing and I'm really grateful for it. I really appreciate it more than I ever have in my life. I'm so grateful for that.
37:19 POR We've been talking a lot about success and connection and friendships and mentoring and how to get paid, securing the bag if you will. I want to talk about failure because one of the things I've noticed as I've been talking to women, especially the last couple of years, in writing Kick Some Glass was that failure figured very prominently in their stories of success and I'm putting air quotes around the word “success”. What I mean by that is that failure or experiencing something that you didn't expect to happen that was bad, however you want to couch it, often was a springboard either to a completely new insight [or] it led to a change in direction and so I'm just wondering what role, if any, failure has played in your career or how you think about your life now? Any sort of pivotal moments where that really gave you a unique insight or maybe even completely change the way you decided to do something?
38:36 NAI I think we think about failures as big moments that happen and I think what's important to realize is that the world can be a landmine, a field of landmines, and you're bound to step on one and it can be small scale, it could be large scale but the thing that I've come to realize is whenever I've experienced a level of failure or where the outcome isn't what I wanted it to be I take the time to look back at myself and what I could have done differently. I think it's really important to have that sort of reflection and analyze oneself in that way because the one thing that failure has taught me over the years is that it's just, I mean, I talk about mentorship and girlfriends and friends and all that but at the end of the day it's just you. You have to look at yourself, you have to say “how did I get her, what do I want to do next?” Nobody can really truly help you in those times. You have to have the strength and the confidence to take ownership of how you contributed to that failure as well as look at it and sort of learn and think positive in the moment. If you can in terms of this is going to be a stepping stone to something else, this is going to be an opportunity to do something different or better so I just think reflection and knowing that when failures come and sometimes they come hard and fast, sometimes they're small, you're often in it alone and you have to be secure in yourself to be able to just work through whatever it is. I do believe in leaning on people. I do believe in leaning on friends but I also really believe whenever I'm having a hard time with anything I do a lot of internal reflection, more so than projecting. Because I think ultimately I have the answer and nobody else can give me the answer. I'm not someone who likes to complain to other people, particularly people who are busy and successful. I don't want to whine or be the debbie downer so I think a lot of self reflection and taking away all the points of whatever circumstance you're in that contributed to that quote unquote “failure” is the best and in some ways only thing you can do to make sure that you turn that around into a success.
41:44 POR I like your point about self-reflection because there is so much information in failure and there's a lot of lessons there too, right? Oftentimes the insights we get if we can get over how horrible we're feeling in the moment, which oftentimes isn't as bad as it seems. In hindsight when you look back at the disappointment or the failure you realize “well really that wasn't that bad” but at the time it maybe felt catastrophic. I'm always amazed and certainly the other women I've spoken to have said that there's a lot of information and opportunity for insight if you're open to it.
I've had such a great time talking to you now, I could talk to you for probably two more hours but I also know that you've got a lot of really important things to do coming up so maybe a few last questions, I’m wondering is there a quote or a motto that best defines your outlook in life?
42:56 NAI Well, two things, probably three things; location, location and pre-production.
43:09 POR Is this because you're in New York?
43:13 NAI No, I mean never underestimate the value of a beautiful location if you're in the visual storytelling realm as well as never underestimate the value of thorough pre-production in any projects that you take on. One of my favorite quotes comes from the brilliant director Werner Herzog who said once “the fate of the film was determined by the caliber of the pre-production” and I live by that.
44:43 POR That's totally applicable in life too isn't it?
44:54 NAI A 100 percent.
44:56 POR I love it.
44:58 NAI Always prepare.
45:00 POR Always prepare. It sounds like the mise en place for cooking for those of you out there who like to cook and I definitely do. So I love that saying. Is there a favorite book? Do you have a favorite book that you either like to give as a gift or you find yourself revisiting every now and then?
45:22 NAI For some reason I'm stuck on and I reread all the time, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (link). I'm really just struck by the fact that they are a total of four people in the entire play. Most of the time there's only three people in pretty much one room and I am just brought into a world of wonder when I read this play every time so I go back to it quite a lot.
46:04 POR I'll have to revisit that one. I feel like that takes on a very certain kind of meaning in pandemic times when so many of us are stuck at home.
46:12 NAI Oh interesting, I didn't even think about that. That's funny. I've never actually given it as a gift because I tend to give one gift across the board.
46:22 POR Oh, what is that gift?
46:26 NAI Champagne, you know, you can never go wrong with champagne.
46:30 POR You can't go wrong with champagne, it’s a very nice gift.
46:34 NAI Yeah, that's my go-to.
46:38 POR What advice would you give to 20 year old Naila?
46:47 NAI Don't worry so much, that's really it. It's gonna be okay.
46:50 POR It's gonna be okay.
46:56 NAI Stop fretting, you know.
47:00 POR That's great advice. Well Naila it has been so lovely to talk to you and we will have a bunch of links for people to see your unbelievable work and I hope everyone will go pick up a copy of Harper's Bazaar. You will want to buy these amazing accessories when you see these beautiful photographs. Thank you for sharing your perspective on art, on mentoring young people and in particular telling those beautiful stories of people of color. We need more people like you out in the world to bring beauty and wisdom to the world that we live in so I appreciate so much that you're being with me today.
47:53 NAI Thank you so much Portia it was really wonderful chatting with you. This is a great forum and thank you for having me.