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Conversations with the Inspiring Em Wright

Today we’d like to introduce you to Em Wright.

Em, before we jump into specific questions about your work, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
When I was younger, I was incredibly athletic and obsessed with animals. My career goals were always split into two paths, professional athlete or veterinarian. When I was 12, I sustained an injury that left me permanently disabled with constant chronic pain. That injury killed off the goal of wanting to be an athlete, so I decided I wanted to focus on animals and being a vet. I then realized that I become an emotional wreck that can’t stop crying when an animal is hurt. Obviously, I was not emotionally strong enough to surround myself with dying and hurt animals, so that dream was also shot.

Learning at a young age that I would live the rest of my life with chronic pain, plunged me into a dark place of depression, so my mother pushed me to explore my passions and what makes me happy. For the first two years of my disability, I was in and out of a wheelchair, and I tried to find things that I could do sitting down. Photography was one of my childhood passions, and I had a weird obsession with gnomes at the time, so, I began photographing my collection of gnomes around my parent’s property. Soon, that was all I was doing, and I began photographing nature as well.

When I was 14, a mantis flew into my house and landed on dying bromeliads. I instantly grabbed my camera and began photographing the mantis. It was that moment I knew I would pursue wildlife photography. Even though that photograph was taken in 2012, it is still one of the most important photos that I have ever taken. Once I got into high school, I took photography classes and was unrelenting on my decision to photograph animals. I took fashion, portrait, food and product classes, but no type of photography fulfilled me like photographing wildlife. My mentor at the time saw me picking up insects around the school and telling the other students how cute they were (not the normal reaction from a 16-year-old girl), so he suggested that I do a series on spiders. He bought me my first jumping spider, and when I set up the studio and took its photo, I knew: I knew that was my calling. I became the “Bug Lady” that would photograph spiders and insects.

After high school, I was accepted to ArtCenter College of Design to study photography and imaging, and I took my spider obsession with me. All the professors and students know me as the “Crazy Spider Lady” and encourage me to follow my love and passions for showing their beauty. I currently am a senior at ArtCenter and am the proud owner of three tarantulas, a jumping spider and a centipede I call “Little Footlong.” I photograph any and all insects/arachnids, either in the studio or out in the field.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I don’t believe anything that is worth pursuing will ever be a “smooth road.” Of course, I had obstacles, and I still do. It was ten years ago that I became disabled, and I’m still struggling with it to this day. I’ve always been an independent person that has to do everything on my own. I refer to it as a “weak complex,” and am still working on allowing others to help me to this day. Physically demanding tasks like lifting heavy equipment cause me injuries and a lot of physical pain. I technically cannot do the things many normal people can.

But with my “weak complex,” I get annoyed and do it anyway. There are consequences to my actions, and I’ve had to have surgeries to repair the damage I have done from something as normal as lifting C-stands. It has definitely impacted the way I treat photography and how I operate as an artist. It’s taken me a long time to realize my health is not the same as “normal” people and therefore, I should not try to accomplish everything healthy people can do without regard to my physical issues. I’ve gotten better about asking for help and relying on others with set building and equipment over the years, but It is still my biggest struggle I am working on.

Also, being the only wildlife photographer at a school focused on commercial products and fashion photography can be quite difficult. Students and professors support me and push me forward to pursue my career in wildlife photography, but they do not understand the wildlife industry like the commercial industry. So, it can be hard to move forward in my career at times and a struggle to be alone in my passions.

I guess what I could say for women who are on their journey to find their passions in life is to keep going. Do not be afraid of having interests that are far from everyone around you. Pursue your passions even if they are not “normal.” If you have health issues, put that first and your work will still be just as good. Do not just push through your obstacles without asking for help. That is what people are for, supporting each other and lifting each other up in their life goals. So, do not be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to be broken. The more you fail, the more you learn.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
Where to begin… I guess you can say “spiders” pretty accurately sums up my work, although I photograph all animals. I have a deep love for animals, especially the ones that are misunderstood. I think I tend to focus my attention on animals people hate and think are “ugly” because I do not see them that way. I look at things in a macro way and tend to focus on small details, not the animal as a whole. This is what leads me to appreciate them. Spiders are mostly harmless and are honestly very weak, yet people are terrified of them. I’ve never understood the fear, but have always wanted to change people’s preconceived notion that they are all “evil and dangerous.” As if an animal can be “evil!” I see spiders as innocent and beautiful, and that is what drives my work. Every photo I take of an animal is taken to highlight their beauty and to show them to the world as I see them.

I focus on a few different methods to highlight the beauty of nature. My main way of shooting is to build sets and photograph the animals in studio. I have a passion for light and color design, so I have always preferred studio photography where I have full control of my photo. I do, however, have a passion for photographing the animal in their habitat because it is their environment around them, which can truly explain the animal and their habits.

I know that most people, when hearing the word “spider” do not want to look at the photo because of their misplaced fear and hatred towards the animal. So, I have been working on a micro-texture study to highlight aspects of the spider or insect without revealing that it is a living animal. The study focuses on the tiniest details, so that when the viewer looks at the photo, they do not know what it is, but find it beautiful. At the end of the study, I reveal the subject of the photos so that the audience can be surprised that what they were looking at the entire time was a “scary” spider. I know that my work will not change everyone’s opinions on spiders and many people will always be afraid of them. But, if I am able to change one person’s opinion and have them see them for what they really are, I will always be content. I guess you can say I just really love spiders.

What do you feel are the biggest barriers today to female leadership, in your industry or generally?
To be completely honest, I do not like to think about barriers or “what is stopping me,” so I cannot really answer this question. I spend all my time focused on animals, so I can sometimes be blind to what is happening in society around me. I am still a student and learning what it means to build a business in wildlife photography, and I look up to many wildlife photographers, both men and women. I see many influential photographers are women, but I do not know what the barriers are for them. Maybe once I am further into my career, I will experience the barriers and will be better able to answer this question. For now, all I can say is to push through any barrier or struggle you come across and don’t let things stop you from achieving your goals.

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