In Conversation with Maria Baez
In this episode, Ioana sits with Maria Baez, a principal photographer at jet.com. Maria’s a friend, and they got to know each other at Estee Lauder Companies, where Maria set up an in-house media studio and Ioana worked on creative strategy.
Maria’s five years into her commercial photography career. Today, we see the creative business through her young eyes, as someone charting a new path and developing their voice.
This conversation’s about Maria’s family history, immigration, learning a new language, and making a whole new life. The work ethic and tenacity Maria brings on set is a testament to her heritage. And it’s incredible to see it play out.
Music: Ben Tyree
Producer: Leslie Askew
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: Maria, welcome. I’m so happy that you’re here.
Maria: Thank you. Hi everybody.
Ioana: Talk to me. Let’s ground the folks who are listening to this and meeting you for the first time.
Maria: I graduated four years ago, so I’ve been navigating this new work experience trying to find my footing into the commercial photography world.
Ioana: Where did you study?
Maria: I went to Montclair State University in Jersey. My professor is retiring, so we have an art show for him this January.
Ioana: That’s so nice.
Maria: Yeah. I started my career through him. He introduced me to the studio director at Macy’s. He’d taught him as well. So it was pretty great to see two generations come together through one person.
So I started in the studio assisting photographers, and then after two years, I decided to expand on that and go onto this role of a content creator. But now I’m looking forward to going back to more of a studio environment. That’s where I flourish the best.
Ioana: Let’s dig a little bit deeper. A door opened to take a role in a commercial photo studio for a huge corporation. What that journey was like for you?
Maria: I never thought about doing commercial work for a living. I didn’t know that was where my career was going to go, to be honest.
I didn’t have a plan of what I wanted to do after college, but after visiting the studio, I was like, “this is pretty cool. I could see myself doing this.”
On my own, I never did still life. I did mostly portraits, and I still do portraits on my own time. But when I visited the studio at Macy’s, I was like, “okay, this is something I could see myself doing.”
Ioana: How come?
Maria: I just thought it would be a good place to go to work every day. I would feel happy to go into a studio and have the freedom to play around with lighting and not have to depend on a model or landscapes or any other subject, just myself. And just go into the space to be able to make anything. It’s kind of like painting.
Ioana: I love that analogy.
Maria: Yeah. You get to play around with the lighting — just experiment. You don’t have a time limit with a person. You don’t have to depend on another person’s emotions or the environment. It’s just you.
Ioana: It’s more solitary.
Ioana: You mentioned that, in your own time, you were photographing people. Was going into a still life studio a big revelation?
Maria: Yes. It was like I didn’t know anything about photography.
Ioana: Had school prepped you for still life?
Maria: No, it was all film. I learned on film, and I didn’t use lighting. Definitely not studio lighting.
I would use lighting in my portraits sometimes, but mostly used the environment. Nothing set up.
So going into the studio where you have to know how to set up lights or what works best I didn’t know. My first day the photographer was like, “okay, give me an extra arm and put a knuckle on it.” And I was like, “I’m sorry. What does that mean?” I was so confused.
So something as simple as a stand, I had no idea what it was at that point or the terminology for it. So when I came to photographing, everything was new to me.
Ioana: How did you transition from assisting to shooting on your own?
Maria: It came with time, experience, and trying things on my own. I would do test shoots, and any free time I had, I would work on lighting. I got more comfortable working on my own without anyone supervising me, or without being unsure of how I should do things.
And then eventually got to the point where I was doing my own thing, and I got more responsibility and expanded to more editorial shots.
Ioana: Your learning curve must have been huge at that stage.
Maria: Yeah. That was the most fun part. Everything seemed so new to me, and I was so excited by it. You know? And I was just so curious about everything. I mean, I still am.
I still have a lot to learn. It’s only been four years, but I do feel like when I started, it was like this whole new world.
Ioana: Would you say that the unknown was exciting to you?
Maria: Yeah. I think the unknown is always exciting. As an artist, when things are just the same all the time, or you feel like your work is not challenging you, I think there’s a problem.
And I think that’s when you got stuck. Or maybe that’s when you feel like you have no inspiration or you have no drive, you know? So I think the unknown or uncertainty always drives you to make better work, or more work, or try things differently. That was always exciting for me.
Ioana: Can you paint the picture a little bit of maybe some projects that you’ve invented for yourself to create this unknown?
Maria: If you look at commercial photographers, they have their style, even though they’re commissioned by a bunch of different brands to adopt their style into their photographs.
So maybe one of the biggest challenges for me has been trying to figure out what my style is. Even though I’m working for these big corporations, how can I bring my point of view to my work, but still have it fulfill the job? How do I make this connection to myself?
And I think that’s a big unknown to address every time you’re going into a shoot. I don’t think I have a very distinct look yet, but I can see it shaping.
Ioana: That’s exciting! How would you describe your voice?
Maria: My still life photography is very graphic. I don’t want to add too many things. I like simplicity and bright, sharp lighting.
Ioana: How is this an expression of you as a person?
Maria: Yeah. I feel like I’m a pretty simple person. I don’t like to complicate things. So when it comes to shooting, I take the same approach but do subtle things to make it pop. I’m very subtle in everything I do.
Ioana: And also quite direct.
Maria: Yeah. And I haven’t fine-tuned my work to be like, “okay, this is my signature. This is my look.” I’m heading in that direction.
Ioana: It’s exciting.
Maria: It is. It takes photographers a while, primarily commercial photographers. Because like you have to fulfill the job first, and other creative people are also giving input.
Ioana: Creative directors hire photographers specifically for their unique point of view. Does that give you confidence in developing your signature approach?
Maria: You know, as a freelancer, yeah – you wouldn’t get a job if your photography doesn’t fit with that company, but there’s plenty of other companies that might think you’re perfect for them. So even if you don’t get that one job, you still have others to pick from.
As an in-house photographer, it’s more like, “okay, we’re going to switch our look for next year, or we’re going to turn the brand.” And you have to evolve and continuously change. So I think that’s where it gets tricky.
Ioana: You’ve just experienced a rebrand. How did your shooting method change?
Maria: My lighting completely changed. At first we were doing straightforward, crisp shots with harsh shadows, no moody lighting. And towards the end, I found success in doing more and more moody setups, even though there was still no footing on what precisely the brand was going to look like. It was this transitional place.
So even though I don’t have my signature look and I am still trying to find that it is nice to change and to be able to photograph anything, to be versatile.
Ioana: This is the time in your career incredibly open, like a sponge.
Maria: Yeah. Knowing that you don’t know anything is the biggest help to yourself and your art because you’re not so set in your ways or don’t want to open up the door to a new perspective on things.
Ioana: Some people are paralyzed by the unknown because it can feel daunting. It sounds like you’re not. What internal mechanism do you have that gets you there?
Maria: No one knows where the work is going to take them. Doing work in the first place is such a vulnerable thing. Putting it out there, you’re already like in the unknown.
It’s part of the work. It’s part of your career, and there is no avoiding it. So if you let that paralyze you, then you’re not going to get anywhere.
You have to accept it, make peace with it, and be like, “okay, this is scary, but I’m still going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.” I mean, what do you have to lose?
Ioana: When did you learn this lesson?
Maria: I knew from a very young that I wanted to be an artist, but when it came to college, then it was like, “okay, this is real. How are you going to make a living? How are you going to get into the art world?”
My parents have always been supportive, but my siblings were more realistic about making a living. So I felt doubtful when I first started college, and then I was like, “you know what? This doesn’t make me happy. I’m just going to do what I like to do, regardless of the unknown.”
I accepted that maybe things weren’t going to work out. But if you want it enough and you work towards it enough, then I think you’ll be in a good place.
Ioana: I think that’s right.
Maria: It’s always scary. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, but for now, this is what makes me happy. So I’m just going to continue building upon that, and then hopefully, eventually, it will be apparent to me what my signature style is.
Ioana: When you shoot what feels good?
Maria: Setting up the lighting, having control over that, experimenting, and seeing how it looks on camera. That’s always been the part that feels the most right.
Ioana: I would say that’s a wonderful start. When things feel good, you can flourish from there.
Maria: Yeah. I also approach it as a challenge. So if I don’t know how to do something, I want to try to understand it and nail it down, and I feel so accomplished by that.
Ioana: When we first met, in what was going to be the Lab Series photo studio, I asked you if you would be able to help us cut video. And your answer was perfect, “whatever I don’t know, I will find out.”
Maria: Yeah. Which is so true. I’ve done it for most of my career.
Ioana: Your parents are small business owners. What lessons about building something out of nothing did you pick up from them?
Maria: Oh, my God. Everything. My parents came to the U.S. From Mexico when I was two. And my dad got sick within the first year.
So my mom, who never worked ever – her only job was being a housewife, raising kids, cooking, cleaning – had to get a job. And she was like, “how am I going to do this? I don’t know the language. I don’t know anyone, and I’ve never even worked.”
Seeing her go from being in a new country to being where she is now, where she owned a business, inspired me to try things out, be open, to be like, “okay, I can do this.”
Ioana: What was she like during this time?
Maria: I’ve never seen my mom complain, ever. She always has a positive outlook. So even if things weren’t going great with the business, she’d be like, “well, we got to keep moving. There’s nothing to do about it.”
You just have to keep pushing until you get what you want or until you figure it out. That was the biggest lesson. Seeing what you can do, not dismissing your potential by not giving it a shot.
Ioana: Isn’t it so funny how we get in our way? How many times can you think of that you’ve witnessed somebody say, “no, I can’t do this” before anybody else told them?
Maria: Yeah. All the time. It’s so common.
And you never want to be put in that place where you’re like, “I failed at something.” Because it doesn’t feel good, but that’s how you learn.
Ioana: What is your philosophy on failure? What do you think its ideal role is within a corporation?
Maria: It’s learning and growing. It’s part of the process. And we’ve seen many examples from Apple, Steve jobs, you know? Any success story has their “yeah, I failed a lot of times,” or “I didn’t get it at the first try.”
So putting so much pressure on employees to get it right the first time is so unrealistic.
Ioana: You mentioned you want to see yourself through your work, even though the job might be for a brand.
What I picture is Maria Baez walking onto a set and bringing her mom’s tenacity with her. That’s such a precious lesson you learned at a young age. That’s gold.
And when I look at you, I think that made you, in so many ways. I mean, look at that optimism! She didn’t know the language. She hadn’t worked outside of running a household. She was in a new country, a new environment, and created a whole new life.
This is your pedigree, and this is your history, your roots that you’re bringing forward into everything that you do.
Maria: Yeah. I try to maintain that positive outlook. If I don’t stay positive, it already got to me. It’s an essential part of how I grew up, especially when it comes to careers.
My parents were always supportive of any career path I chose, but you know, in the back of my mind, I wondered, “Is my being an artist, what they worked for?” But you can make a career out of it.
Ioana: Not only you can, but you are. Where are you going to next?
Maria: I’m going to jet.com. They recently got acquired by Walmart. So I’ll be doing photography for both of the websites.
We’re starting up the studios in New Jersey, which is where I live, which I love. Brand new team, brand new everything. So it’s this unique opportunity to start fresh and bring a whole new look to the websites.
Ioana: Is that the assignment?
Maria: Yeah. Aside from fulfilling your day to day silo shots, which are necessary for every brand on any online platform. It’s improving their look, of course, and making these websites more of an e-commerce platform for fashion.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gone to walmart.com to shop for fashion. This area is like a little bubble where no one goes to Walmart, but most of America does, if you think about it.
I have to say. I’m grateful that I have something to show for these past four years. Media is what I do, and here are my photos to prove it. Here’s something that I’ve gained from it. A lot of people work jobs where they don’t have anything to take.
Ioana: You mean that’s tangible? Is the physical aspect of photography something that attracted you to it?
Maria: Not only do I get to pay my bills with this, but I also get to have this work that I made. And regardless of where I work, I’ll still be my work. That’s amazing.
Ioana: That is very cool. I bet there are so many designers and artists who can relate to that. A body of work, years and years and years of work that are touchable is pretty magical.
Maria: Yeah. I mean, it’s you creating something out of nothing.
Ioana: Danielle Kimmel came on the podcast, she’s a wellness specialist. Strength is integral to our ability to be vulnerable and to create an impact through our work. So I’m just starting to think about that more and more. How integrated things are.
You’re running a photo studio for massive eCommerce company, you produce your own work – how do you find the time to keep yourself healthy and energized?
Maria: Yeah. I make time for myself regardless of anyone else. I set time apart to take care of myself, whether it be mental, going for a run, eating healthy.
When I do that, and I’m doing work that I love on my own, I’ll go into the office ready to go and super prepared. My mental health is so important. If I’m feeling anxious, upset, it reflects on my everyday interaction.
Ioana: You’re so good at keeping calm.
Maria: On the outside.
Ioana: There’s a storm on the inside?
Ioana: That’s even more incredible. What is kicking in for you to keep you calm? Maybe it’s so intuitive you don’t even notice.
Maria: I think it’s going back to powering through, regardless of any situation.
You have to just get through it. “Okay, this is what it is. I don’t feel great today, but it’s got to get done.” And then go home and figure out why I’m not feeling well and make sure I’m good to start over again or to reset.
Ioana: That’s an incredible perspective.
Maria: I mean, I’m sure there’s a better way to deal with it. Maybe there are wellness tips out there.
Ioana: Listen, there’s always going to be somebody with ten tips for a perfect life. We each have our method. Do you do this in your personal life too?
Maria: Yeah. It could be because I am single, and I am 24. I have a boyfriend, but I don’t have children or a husband, and I know my family will always be there.
Ioana: Easygoing Maria. What strikes a nerve with you?
Maria: I hate it when my boyfriend does things last minute.
Ioana: So, time management is a big thing for you.
Maria: If we are going on vacation and you need to do laundry and pack, it gets done last minute.
Ioana: For the record, Matt is a wonderful human. We’re not dogging on Matt.
Maria: No, no, no.
Ioana: Working with you, I learned that you’re an excellent planner. You do research and tests. You’re able to go with the flow and be okay when things go to pot on a shoot because you’ve planned it well enough that there’s a safe space for error.
Maria: And planned for the worst-case scenario, right? But I do like having control.
Ioana: Spoken like a real still life photographer.
Maria: I mean, you have to, and I’m okay with the unknown because you can always take control of it.
Ioana: Control your emotions towards it. Is that what you mean?
Maria: Yeah. Or how you react to it, how you approach things.
Ioana: Yeah. You’re such a guru.
Maria: I’m not. I feel like such a baby going into big corporations where everyone has years of experience. And I never thought I would be doing what I do. I honestly do feel lucky, even just to do what I wanted to do. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. I mean, my parents didn’t.
Ioana: Yet they were very optimistic. So taking the circumstance out of it, you’re embedded with this uncanny ability to see life through a very positive lens.
Maria: I think it’s a survival instinct, you know?
Ioana: And I think you’d be able to apply it to any situation.
Maria: Yeah. And now that we’re talking about it, it makes so much sense to me. How my parents grew up, it’s another way of life, and I see it in myself as well.
I mostly work with Americans. There’s a big difference in how immigrants approach a situation.
Ioana: What are you noticing as different?
Maria: Complaining is a big part of American culture, I think. And you know, it’s valid. We should always want better. And I notice an unwillingness to do things when they don’t know what the outcome will be.
Ioana: Why do you think that is?
Maria: There is a lot of poverty in America, of course, but your average family doesn’t worry about their next meal. And there’s a routine. You go to school and you go to work. You know what’s going to happen next or that you’re going to be safe. You’re going to eat.
In other cultures, like Mexican culture where poverty is much worse, it’s like, “well, we don’t know if we’re going to eat today.”
I never grew up like that because I grew up in New Jersey, so I had a completely different life than my siblings and my parents. But I can see where those survival instincts pass on to me.
Ioana: I don’t think suffering always results in strength, but you’re an embodiment of that. Your family’s struggle converted into empowerment through you. That’s pretty incredible.
Maria: Yeah, I see it with my mom.
It’s fascinating bringing the human element to art, which, especially in commercial work, can get lost or just not given importance to.
Ioana: That’s the meat of it. Thank you so much for coming on and speaking with me. It’s so good to see you.
Maria: Thank you for having me.