Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely
Creative Under 40 Story by David King and Katie Cusack

Nothing Jayana LaFountaine hates more than being stagnant

For Troy-based photographer Jayana LaFountaine, the camera is a saving grace. The 25-year-old remembers the tumultuous events of 2017 that made her pick it up again after falling in love with the art form of photography in her teens. It wasn’t easy, but it’s one of the driving forces that pushed her to become the successful businesswoman she is today.

She had just left an unhealthy relationship and hadn’t touched her camera in two years. Encouraged by friends, she began shooting local events to get back in the game.

“I didn’t necessarily believe in myself because the shots weren’t like what my work is today,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was even worth it. But it’s always been my passion. I started taking pictures again at Power Hours or Power Breakfast—just things around the community because I’ve never actually been in an actual community before,” she says.

After working photo jobs at a mall photography studio and local car dealership—where she says she experienced mistreatment and disrespect before being fired—she found herself without a job, but not without that passion. She briefly cried it out, then got to work.

Collectiveffort’s Patrick Harris helped her assess her financial situation—what she needed to survive and how a business plan could help. “The very next day, I think I had maybe $200 in my bank account, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not crying today,’” LaFountaine says. “I had a letter board and I wrote ‘@jayanalafotos on Instagram’ and put it in my window in downtown Troy and I said, ‘You know what? I work for myself.’”

Three years later, LaFountaine has built a booming business through Jayana LaFotos, creating infant, newborn and family portraits; adorable toddler painting sessions; moving birthing sessions— which she shoots as part of her other passion project, doula work—and community event photoshoots. Several members of the arts community nominated the artist for this feature for her drive, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

“I definitely did struggle, though,” she says. “At one point, I literally only made $500, and that’s my rent. I’m also blessed that that’s my rent and I have a studio space in my apartment. So, if in the beginning of the month somebody gave me an extra $20, I would buy ramen. People would be like, ‘Oh, how are you losing weight? And I would say, ‘I’m an entrepreneur.’”

In addition to the financial struggle, she had the extra hurdle of being a young, black woman entering a freelance market dominated by experienced older men. (More of a nuisance to the powerful energy of LaFountaine than a real roadblock—but a needless one, nonetheless.)

“Once a guy tried to hire me and the contract just looked really weird and bogus,” she says. “I always, always triple-check everything myself and then I send it to Jamel [Mosely] and Patrick. This guy was trying to give me just the smallest amount of money because I am who I am. He was like, ‘Well, honey, this is how it works.’ I said, ‘I don’t like pet names so don’t do that. My name is Jayana. Also, this is insufficient.’”

She laughs. “It was a struggle, but it wasn’t anything that I wasn’t prepared for. Working for myself is worth it because I was tired of the bosses and people being obsessed with titles, being power-hungry and power-tripping on everything and anything.”

LaFountaine is completely self- (and YouTube) taught, but she didn’t build her business alone. She credits Harris and Mosely as key players in her success. “They’re two out of a handful of people who really pushed me to be who I’m supposed to be,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Here’s what you can do for marketing,’ and I would send them little flyers I would make on camera and they’d say, ‘Nope, that’s ugly’ and I would just go back and do it over and over.”

LaFountaine advises entrepreneurs to be open to all opportunities and find ways to invest in your work around the clock—that is, until you have the delicious freedom to say, “No.”

“I would just do my best and be who I am,” she says. “Then people started referring me to other folks who are good. It was just having my camera on me at all times. I was saying ‘yes’ to almost everything, even if I had no knowledge on how to shoot a particular group of people.”

In addition to running her business, LaFountaine teaches after-school digital media classes to middle school kids at Proctors in Schenectady, popup workshops at Youth FX in Albany and a Friday enrichment program at Philip Schuyler Achievement Academy, an Albany elementary school. “Art is so freakin’ powerful,” LaFountaine says. “I definitely want to continue to teach the youth out here because that’s also how I really got into photography.”

LaFountaine was given a camera through the Boys and Girls Club’s photography club at age 13 and asked to tell a story with it. She was hooked. “I took a picture of a red Solo cup in the middle of my street like, ‘This is my reality, there’s trash literally everywhere.’ It was just letting people see my everyday life and realizing I can tell my story without speaking, really, which was a big deal for me.”

Looking ahead, LaFountaine aims to improve her skills in birth and newborn to 1-year-old photography, her main focus since the start. She wants to learn more about the business end of her work: educating herself on residual income, finding online teaching opportunities, building more effective youth workshops and, most important, monetizing her intellectual property. She has big plans to expand and share her work with the world.

“I need to make myself uncomfortable before I get too comfortable, ’cause there’s nothing I hate more than being stagnant,” she says. “No matter how good my work looks, I know that I’m just doing the bare minimum.”