MEET. Patricia Fortlage

© Patricia Fortlage

Patricia Fortlage is a female empowerment photographic long-form storyteller and fine art photographer.  From her core belief that if you invest in women and girls, entire communities will be raised, Patricia has focused much of her photography career working with organizations doing just that. 

From her powerful piece covering the female-led Othakarhaka Foundation in Southern Malawi to the stereotype breaking, female empowering Wonder, girl! Project, to an ongoing project depicting the often life-long after-effects of sexual assault on women, Patricia is promoting female empowerment one project at a time.

Do you have a favorite podcast?
My favorite podcasts are meditation oriented, with my go-to being a meditation and trance podcast by Joseph Clough, a British hypnotist who lives here in San Diego. 

Who are your top 5 favorites that you’re following on Instagram?
That’s easy.  I follow women that are making positive impacts on local and global communities (not just through photography):  Stephanie Sinclair @stephsinclairpix, Lynsey Addario @lynseyaddario, Korie Picket @hoosierqueenkp, Emma Fitzgerald @em.chick, Ida Puliwa @ida_puliwa, Liliana Hueso @liliana_hueso_photographer, Mandy Pursley @bethesparkcosplay and so many more!! 

What 3 words describe your photography style?
I don’t really think in terms of photography style; instead, I simply strive to convey a clear and meaningful message.  I think of myself as a storyteller and I really go for impact. 

What do you listen to when you’re shooting?
I’m a pretty Zen person, so if it is up to me, I like for all of my senses to be tuned into the people and the moment as the experience is unfolding, and music, because it can be so powerful in and of itself, can take away from that.  That being said, most of my work is supporting groups that are working to better the lives of women and their communities… so whatever they are listening to sets the mood for the shoot.  

What inspires you?
Making a difference.  I am just a worker bee.  I work for the cause; my contribution just happens to come in the form of photographic support. 

What can we do together to better diversify this industry?
We can lift our heads and take a look at the world around us.  There is a bigger picture.  What is it?  Who is it?  We need to pull from that larger demographic.  And we need to remember that photography is art.  There is no “one way.”  The fact that there have been ‘rules’ that get taught in schools and that there are particular aesthetics that have been rewarded again and again, it’s all nonsense.  It’s all been made up.  We all benefit from varied perspectives.  We must find them.  We must encourage those who do not look and think like us. It will make us all more creative.       

What’s your favorite thing about being a photographer?
Knowing I helped someone make a difference in this world.  Or knowing I made a difference, myself.  I recently had a young woman approach me about my Life Sentence project (Life After Sexual Assault).  She had seen the portrait I did of a woman sleeping in her closet, along with the caption that talked about how common this is for women after experiencing such a trauma.  This young woman told me that she had been sexually assaulted over a year prior and she had not told a single person about it because she thought she was strange for sleeping in her closet.  Once she learned she wasn’t alone, she reached out to a therapist and her healing journey began (she has since shared her story with a couple of friends and her now fiancé).  She had frequently thought about taking her own life before. That is a big change.  One of my photographs did that.  

When you aren’t making photographs, what other pastimes do you have?
Pastimes?  Free time?  What are these things you speak of?  In all seriousness, I am a person with a disability.  I have Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disease, so my time outside of photography is focused on caring for myself and managing my disability as best I can in an effort to stay as healthy as I can.  I am very motivated to continue my art for as long as my body will allow.  

Describe your daily or weekly work habits. (Pre-Covid and currently)
Pre-COVID, I was supporting locals’ programs in developing countries mostly.  I was on the road (and in the air) a fair amount and in between I would have a lot of editing to do.   

Currently, I am trying to continue with the Life Sentence project as social distancing will allow.  I am also using the down time to work with my content expert (a therapist who specializes in sexual trauma) to be sure my project plan is sound and that I am getting the experiences right.  I am also contemplating a book on Malawi.  It is an incredible place that everyone should visit. 

Who were your biggest influencers?
My biggest BIGGEST influencers are not photographers.  They are people like my father, who believes it is all our duty to help those with needs greater than our own. And some of my other influencers are not people at all, but experiences.  I have experienced my share of discrimination and trauma, and there is nothing more that I want than to protect others from those same experiences.  Although I enjoy shooting images just for the sake of photographing, I mostly do photography because of the cause, not so much because of the photography itself.  That being said, I am overwhelmingly inspired by photographer Stephanie Sinclair.  The work that she does is awe inspiring… truly, beyond words.  Definitely look her up; you will thank me. 

What was the best piece of advice you were given starting out?
Pricing.  I had the good fortune of receiving some mentoring from a very successful photographer who taught me about the psychological side of pricing. She had us both enter images in the local fair.  She entered three amazing images (that she was known for), and I entered three images of mine (remember, I was a beginner so they were very bland).  She put a price of $15 on each of her submissions and we put $250 on each of mine.  Every single one of mine won first place in it’s submitted category and each one sold for $250.  None of hers won or sold.  Her point was that many people equate value with the price tag, so if you undervalue your work, others especially will, too.   

What have been some of the highlights and challenges of your career so far?
Highlights have been when clients contact me and tell me that they got the funding they needed because of my images, or that minds were changed, or lives were improved.  You can’t beat that.   

Many of the challenges I have faced have to do with the fact that I am female.  I am often not taken seriously by male colleagues.  It gets old being told which gear I should have, and even when they eventually see I have appropriate gear, they pivot to assuming I don’t know how to use it.  Eventually they see my work and come to understand I have a fairly successful career and they warm up to me.  It’s minor, but it is annoying.   

There can also be challenges as a solo female traveler, especially with all of my gear and with some of the countries I am entering alone.  I have learned to navigate fairly well, but it would be nice if personal safety wasn’t such an important concern at times. 

What were you doing before you became a Photographer?
I spent many years in the corporate world of mergers & acquisitions.  It was grueling and rewarding at the same time.  I really appreciate it now because it has made the business side of photography a snap for me. 

If you weren’t a Photographer, what would you be doing?
If I were to start all over again, I would go to medical school.  I have supported many medical teams as a photographer and they are absolute heroes, especially in the far reaches of the globe.  Watching a life being saved is beyond humbling, and while I love that I get to support their work, my contributions are so miniscule in the grander scheme of things.  I would like to do more.  If I wasn’t mid-career, with a disability, I would probably give it a go even now. 

What do you do when you get stuck?
When I get stuck (in anything) I tend to swing my efforts to the opposite extreme.  If something isn’t working and I keep trying and trying at it, I usually ask myself what the opposite approach would be, and I go there.  For example, in bowling, if you throw a gutter ball, conventional wisdom tells you to move a little farther away from that gutter.  But if you keep moving and moving and the ball still hits the same gutter, you best try marching right over to the offending gutter and start throwing from there.  It seems opposite of what would work, but that different perspective often changes your whole approach. 

What is your best advice for your peers?
People ask me how to break into the kind of work I do overseas, and I always recommend watching the movie “The Pirates of Somalia.” It’s a little odd in the beginning, but it really is a career gem.  I also recommend learning the business side of photography.  Do that first if you can.  And, be a person people want to work with.  Customer service is key.  Show up early, be flexible, remember who the client is. Under promise, over deliver, all that.     

What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back 10 years? 20 years?
Believe it or not, 16 years ago, I had a plan, and it worked.  I have been doing exactly what I wanted to be doing all this time.   

That being said, one thing I wish I had tried was to become a combat photographer.  As difficult as that likely would have been back then (especially being a woman), I would tell myself to put the effort in and give it a try. 

What is a photographer’s role now that technology has made it so much more accessible to the masses?
I think it is important to remember that every industry evolves.  Technology is advancing at a breakneck speed so things will continue to change and many things will drop by the wayside.  Cameras have become so good that many people have or will stop hiring photographers.  Be ready to pivot instead of pouting. Most people don’t use a travel agent anymore. Photography is no different, so keep figuring out where the markets are and decide if photography is important enough to you to go there.  

What do you see yourself doing in five years?
In five years, I hope I will still be healthy enough to be supporting the programs that are so important to me… especially supporting the efforts of women in order to change entire communities.

To view more of Patricia’s work you can follow along here.