One of the things I love to do in my life is to declutter.

It helps to create breathing room and lets me feel a little more grounded.

For a long time I've kept up my blog here and my photography site over at

It seemed to make sense at the time; everyone had a separate blog and website.

But recently it began to feel like clutter to me.

So I began to migrate my old posts to my photography site, to see how it felt putting the blog into the same space.

It felt good, so I decided to try adding new posts to see if that resonated.

Now I'm feeling really happy with the blog and the photography site under the same roof, so I've moved all future content over to that site.

Eventually this domain will probably redirect over to the new site, but until then feel free to check out all of the new content I'm posting over there!
Have you ever found yourself saying, "I'll be happy when...____." And then you fill in the blank with the new job, the raise, the car or the lover?

Or maybe you've been like me, and you fill in the blank with something even less definable: "I'll finally be happy when I feel like a success."

Essentially I was saying that as soon as I achieved something relatively undefined, I would feel like enough. Hmmmmm...

See the problem is, I've had a very hard time defining the word Success for myself.

Once upon a time, in a former life, I was traveling all over the world helping coordinate ground transportation for international conferences that brought high-level dignitaries together to talk about high-level issues. I had to know who to address as Professor, as Mr. President, and as His Royal Highness.

Most days I would be in the office at 5am, making enough coffee to last 12+ hours.

My job was important. I thought I should feel successful. Instead, on the best of days, I felt like this:

A self-portrait of Jen Kiaba from 2005
(I guess I was taking self-portraits, even back then!)

Eventually my boss announced in front of the team that I was going to be promoted. Though surprised, I knew I should also be feeling happy or flattered or...successful. I should have felt something other than dread, right?

Years later I found myself reliving a similar story. As a corporate financial and operations analyst I was making more money than I had ever dreamed possible, was flying all over the country for meetings and site reviews, and yet I still felt like a miserable failure.

One day I was walking the halls to my office and asked myself, "When will I finally feel like a success?"

Despite all of the external trappings of success, I didn't feel like enough. 

The problem wasn't just with the jobs, because feeling like I wasn't good enough spilled over into my photography as well.

The first time I had a photograph published on the cover of a magazine I told myself that it wasn't really success. My photograph wasn't really good enough, the magazine wasn't widely distributed enough and therefore I didn't deserve to feel good about it:

Jen Kiaba's photograph on the 2010 Fall cover of Vain Magazine

Instead of taking time to be grateful for what I had achieved, I kept a breakneck pace trying to feel something more.

I began to ask myself "What does Success feel like? What does Enough feel like?"

For an amazing journey into those questions, check out Danielle LaPorte's book The Desire Map. Her entire thesis revolves around the point that we are chasing the feelings around the goal, not the external goal itself.

It was through asking those questions over and over than I began to uncover the feelings that I wanted to immerse myself in. It became clear that, for me, it wasn't so much about Success as it was about feeling Freedom, Connectedness and Seen.
Feeling like Enough was more about being grounded in a sense of internal Ease and celebrating Abundance.

It became clear that I had been going at things completely backwards, chasing the next effervescent mile-marker of success without stopping to enjoy and celebrate all of the abundant goodness in my Now.

I also realized that I had dressed my idea of success up in a suit, given her a lot of spreadsheets and deadlines told her that her soulful art wasn't important. I made her too shy to share that art.

And forget about the self-portraits; those couldn't see the light of day!

Jen Kiaba Photography: Fine Art Prints &emdash;

It came down to the realization that, essentially, I abandoned my inner-most self in the quest to achieve an arbitrary measure of external value. There I was living the life Thoreau described so aptly as quiet desperation (though it was getting louder), and if I kept going in that direction I would indeed die with the song still inside of me.

The journey back from that dark place is an ongoing one and requires daily attention. Most of us don't simply wake up one day, feeling like enough or successful.

It began with learning to value little things.

I learned to stop during my workday to make myself a cup of tea and disconnect from emails and not answer the phone. Ease.

I began to seek out community in like-minded artists and women who wanted to make a difference in the world with their creative efforts. Connected.

Soon I began to take self-portraits again, and enter them into photo competitions. Seen.

Then I took a terrifying leap of faith and quit my job to support myself with my writing and photography. Freedom. (And a little bit of a "holy shit" sky-diving free-fall!)

And then the only way to calm the fear of "what do I do now?" was to take time every day to acknowledge the amazing things that I had in life. I became grateful for every dollar in my bank account, every amazing client I got to work with, and every art sale I had. I began to see things to be grateful for everywhere. Abundance.

These are now daily practices, and everyday I try to ask myself what I can do to help me feel how I want to feel.

Yes, there are still scary days where I doubt myself. Some days fear takes the drivers seat longer than it should and I doubt my overall worth. But they're fewer and further between.

So if you're stuck in that hamster wheel of devaluing yourself, while you work towards a vague idea of success, I challenge you to stop and ask yourself how you really want to feel. (And seriously, check out Danielle's books.)

I really believe that once we redefining our goals to achieve a sense of internal fulfillment and free ourselves from the external mile markers of success, we begin to heal and move more deeply into self-love.

So now I want to know: what does success, enough, or even happiness really feel like to you? Tell me in the comments below.

Or maybe you've discovered how you want to feel, and have made some sky-diving free-fall changes of your own? What has that lead you to create in your life? Tell me about it!

And ultimately, cheers to you and how you want to feel and the amazing things you will create!


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You know the old phrase, "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission"?

Well I'm really bad at following at it.

 Sometimes that can be a good thing. After all there are plenty of things that we need legal permission for; I love seeing the wall of framed permission at my doctor's office!

But on the whole waiting for permission has held me back in the past and kept me from creating with an authentic voice, which is why I've begun seriously working on Giving Myself Permission.

A few years ago that thought would have terrified me.

I was operating 100% in a "Permission Based Culture," waiting for someone else to tell me that I had the skills and the talents to create something worthwhile. For some of us this shows up as waiting to be discovered.
Granted, sometimes discoveries are made and careers are born. But the chances are slim and it seems like an awful lot of waiting.

In my waiting for permission, I was embarrassed to share my goals and afraid of creating something powerful and truthful, because no one else had given me the green light to say, "Ok, you've paid your dues and arrived. Go ahead!"

Many women that I talk to also struggle with the idea of permission - that somehow without the sanctioning of a higher authority then our work and our ideas have less value. Sadly I think that our culture perpetuates that.
It's taken long time to arrive at a level of comfort with giving myself permission, and it's still something that I deal with regularly in my life.

But once I gave myself permission to create work that deeply resonated with me, a wellspring of creativity and passion arrived.

Granted, this didn't happen overnight. I didn't wake up one morning and say: "You know, this waiting for permission thing sucks. I'm just going to go rock out with my bad self."

One of the first things I had to do was begin paying attention to my desires and intuition. To me, this is an idea rooted in self-love and self-acceptance. If we listen to our desires and then judge ourselves for them it's a recipe for toxicity.

This was probably the longest part of the road for me, and is still an ongoing process. I grew up in a religious culture that taught us to cut off from our intuition and to not question with the following mantra: Absolute Faith, Absolute Love, Absolute Obedience. It still gives me chills...

So trusting my gut is a psychic muscle that requires regular exercise and very deep listening.

This, and allowing myself to acknowledge and voice my desires without shame is also a constant practice that has to happen in an environment of self-love.

Once I was able to articulate my desires without toxic self-judgement or shame, I began to look for other women who had created or accomplished things on my desires list. I found ways to connect with them, listen to their stories and learn from them.

These experiences were like a big lightbulb going off:

"You don't need someone else's permission to do this."

So I just started doing it. I started creating work, sending it to galleries, entering it into competitions, speaking about my work, and creating more work.

When I stopped waiting for permission I began to trust myself more and trust my process. I began to see the value in what I create, and I began to become more comfortable talking about my credentials and my goals.

Are you still waiting for permission in an area of your life? As a wrap up, here are the things that help me each time I come up against this block:
  1. Create an environment of Self Love in order to safely Identify, Hear and Share your Desires.
    This is all about learning to trust your inner voice and what it has to teach you.
  2. Find others who have accomplished something in the realm of your desires and respectfully connect with them.
    Sometimes seeing someone out in the world who has accomplished something similar to what you want helps you give yourself permission and realize that what you want is possible.
  3. Take Action!
    The best way to make change and create something powerful in your life is to begin doing it, even if it's taking small steps at first. 

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We all have stories that make us cringe when we think about them. They're the ones that we stuff deep down inside, saying "no one can ever know."

Lately I've been thinking about how burying those feelings prevents us from sharing our greatest gifts with the world.

Growing up in my parent's faith, we were taught to "report" all of our thoughts, feelings and actions that were outside of the religious doctrine. So when we have a crush on someone, we had to "report it." Same thing when we doubted the faith and questioned the absolutes we were given.

We didn't have confession or absolution. We had ritual penance, but for me it never felt like relief. It just helped me find ways to bury the shame, and bury the feelings, and then feel more shame around them.

While not everyone goes through an extreme childhood in fringe faith, we have a culture where shame is a topic that very feel people want to touch. BrenĂ© Brown has a wonderful TED talk on Shame, where the makes a point that shame must be discussed in order to move beyond it, and that it is intrinsically linked to vulnerability.

And, she says, vulnerability is directly correlated to our ability to create and innovate. So whatever your gift to the world is, whether it's your business acumen, your writing, your dancing, or your ability to inspire, if you hide in shame or avoid vulnerability, then you cripple your ability to give to the world.

Conundrum for many of us who would rather hide the shameful parts of our story.

It took me years to acknowledge the value my story. All I wanted to do was hide it. The funny thing was that it was showing up in my work, long before I ever was fully aware of it. Now it seems a tad obvious...

A few weeks ago I found an old sketchbook from high school and found drawings that have a very similar through line to my current body of work. But even while I was looking at these sketches from 15+ years ago, I felt that hot shame run through me. "No one can ever see these."

Part of me wants to dismiss them as the angsty art of an overly dramatic teenager, but they too are a part of my artistic story. And frankly, my art is no less angsty today anyway!

I'm sharing one of my old sketches with you today illustrate that these feelings and stories are within us. Sometimes they're there for years, waiting for healing and asking for us to address them. And even though I still cringe looking at this sketch, I think it helps demonstrate what I'm talking about.

Jen Kiaba Photography: An old drawing from a high school sketchbook An old sketch from highschool.

Which brings me up to the present.

Recently a fellow artist reached out to me about collaborating on a piece for a series that acknowledges the ritual and folklore of Sin Eaters, in which one person 'eats' another's sin and thus takes it on, freeing the other.

In the series, one would write a story that revolves around a personal experience, and the another would create a piece about it, with the intent of freeing the writer from the burden inherent in their story.

So my task, since April, has been to write a story that hasn't been discussed yet in my work. While I think I know the story that I want to tell, I'm finding myself blocked around it, resisting the telling.

It's a story about being 16 and paralyzed by shame in the headlights of a frowning, disappointed God. There were years of prescribed penance after that, and of being labeled "damaged goods." So many of those feelings are encapsulated in the above sketch.

My adult-self who has moved beyond that faith can look back with logic and see that there was, in fact, nothing to be ashamed of. I have a lot of compassion for the kid that I was. It also makes me incredibly compassionate towards those who've experienced shame around something essential within them.

Therefore I've been thinking about how to get out from under the shame by acknowledging and telling our stories and art, because I believe that there is release in the telling. Hiding the shame only lets it grow and contort us. But perhaps it is the telling itself that is the biggest component of healing. So maybe it's finally time that I sit down and write out my story for this collaboration.

Here's a new, also angsty, piece about being bound by shame. I'm calling it "The Penitent Ones."

Whatever it is that we're carrying shame around about, lets find a way to forgive ourselves and let it go.

No, it's not easy. Yes, sometimes there is backlash.

The first time I wrote about my experiences and it was published, the backlash was much bigger than I ever expected.

But you know what else was unexpected?

The outpouring of kindness, the words of support, and the letters from others who felt like they found their own voice through my words.

Maybe, just maybe, when you share your story, you help heal someone else's as well.


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Today I'd like to introduce you to Rachel. She was my best friend when I was three, my pen pal when I was thirteen, and one of my soul sisters now that I'm nearing thirty.

Our photo shoot was months in the making, and was inspired by an girl's evening out where we were sharing our visions for the future - hazy though they may have been at the time.

She's the Dean of Student Affairs at a local college and I was a financial analyst, and like you tend to do over cocktails, we were talking about our professional and personal trajectories.

As trained Life Coach, she was looking to shift her practice from families to individuals. I was thinking that I'd like to focus my portraiture on women in a way that honored them on a soul-level.

"I want to photograph women who are changing women's lives for the better; especially women entrepreneurs," I said.

"Well, then I want you to photograph me someday," said Rachel.

I laughed and demurred, thinking that someday was some in the far, far distant future.

As it turns out, the future often arrives more quickly than we plan.

It seems that within a short period of time we were meeting again, planning our shoot.

She was looking for head shots that would communicate her essential qualities to her ideal client base, so I wanted to know who she had envisioned her clientele being, and what she wanted them to know about her and her business from our images.

During our conversation words like Graceful, Authentic, Connected, Depth and Self-Empowerment were coming up again and again. Because Rachel's brand of coaching is an extension of herself, I wanted to make sure that our photos communicated those ideas.

This goes back to the idea of discussing your branding words or themes with your photographer so that you can create a photo session that tells your story authentically.

It also requires you to spend the time getting clear on yourself and your message before you step in front of a camera. Don't worry, this is an ongoing process. As we change, our message evolves with us.

But the more work we can do inside, the more timeless our images will be! Here's a hint: a lot of that work is first and foremost rooted in self-love.

Through our discussion, Rachel and I were able to determine that we wanted to communicate the following:

Rachel's coaching style is graceful and authentic. By guiding clients to find their connection to a higher consciousness, Rachel helps them discover their true nature and develop their own personal success formula using their latent skills and tools.

It helps that I've known Rachel for years, so I was able to know that she was spot on with her words, had spent the time to know herself and know her brand because the way that I saw her with completely in line with what she wanted to communicate about herself. (But she's also a life coach, so that's part of her job!)

Before our shoot we put together a Vision Board of images that communicated her brand, and we identified what it was about each image that we were connecting with.

That helped me put together an idea of locations for her shoot, as well as to energetically find where it was we would need to connect in order to get the shots that we wanted.

We knew we wanted banner images for her website, a casual looking image for her About Page, her Work with Me Page, and images that would work for her Blog Posts as well.

As a bonus we got some images that would also work for an author's headshot, just in case she penned a best seller in the next few years, or if she had high-level speaking engagement.

With that map in mind, we arrived at the studio and began shooting.

These are some of my favorite shots of the day:
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaTo me this image conveys confidence and warmth. The setting gives the impression that she is there to guide you to the next level in a way that is truthful and authentic.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaOne of the things that I say the most during a photo shoot is "Smile with your eyes." Rachel has this down!
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaThis was one of Rachel's favorite shots in that in shows a fun-loving and youthful side of her.
We spent about half an hour outside before the rain to take advantage of the gorgeous natural light, but to also try to give her business a sense of context.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaBecause many of her clients work with her via technology, I wanted to give Rachel images that gave her a sense of physical place.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaSo we looked for locations, like the porch, that would do just that.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaThe brick wall, plus the determined smile on her face, create a sense of strength and confidence.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaI'm always a sucker for a laughing smile!
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaThis was another one of Rachel's favorites. This image has a lot of grace and poise, and the pose suggests being both grounded in the now, while connected to something greater. It's a perfect depiction of the essence of her business, and will likely be used on her "Work with Me" page.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaThis was one of the more formal shots we did, and this would be the shot she would choose if her were to speak at a conference or begin to publish for her business.
Entrepreneur and business headshots in the Hudson Valley by Jen KiabaThis was the photo she decided would go on her About page. It has an unposed quality and an open posture that works really well for the page's context.

The next day after our shoot Rachel sent me an email that I will always cherish:

"I had a really meaningful experience yesterday. Thank you for creating a space where I felt safe. (And for helping me hide the niggly things I don't love about my appearance!) I realized I hadn't done a professional photo shoot since I was a child. I was out of my element and you didn't let me flounder. THANK YOU!"

I don't know if it gets any better than that for me!

Check out Rachel's website here (photos coming soon!)

Are you planning a head shot session sometime in the future? I hope this gave you some valuable insight to take into your next photo shoot!

Let me know what your biggest take-away was in the comments below.

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Many of the amazing women I photograph in my studio admit to me, at some point or another, that they have difficulty owning some part of their success and that sometimes they feel like a fraud.

Often these are women who are on the brink of an amazing change in their lives, where they are stepping into their full potential and allowing themselves to be seen and recognized for their true talents.

One of the things that I've learned from them is that the feeling of success can be an elusive thing, and that road is often-times full of feelings of failure.

From the outside these moments of "failure" are often just learning experiences or mid-course corrections. I believe that the only real failure is giving up on ourselves completely.

When I was a corporate financial analyst with a comfortable salary and a 401k I didn't feel like a success. When I decided to quit that job to do something that nourished my soul, I sure as heck didn't feel like a success. I felt like a big fat failure.

In fact I still struggle with the feeling of success. But I am learning that acknowledging my personal wins and losses with gratitude feeds my soul on a level that doesn't necessarily need the "success" label.

Here's a little story for you about creating a big win out of several losses:

This year I was hired to teach a photography course and had to write my instructor bio.

At the beginning of 2014 I was one of the recipients of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women in Fine Art Photography.

Because of that, I could actually write: Jen Kiaba is an international award winning Fine Art Photographer. 

Truth: I have difficulty owning that.

Anyone reading my bio would never know that I almost gave up when creating image that won the award. In fact, creating that image was so littered with failure that I almost gave up on fine art photography completely.

Even though I knew that I had important images within me, begging to be let out, my first three concepts were major failures.


Then it took me two separate attempts in the studio to get my first image right. I came home after the initial attempt, began editing the image, and then realized that I had shot it incorrectly and to start all over.

Finally I created something that reflected my original idea and resonated with my soul.


Jen Kiaba Photography: Burdens of a White Dress Fine Art Photograph. Click to purchase the print &emdash;"Hold Your Peace" Fine Art Photograph by Jen Kiaba. Click to purchase print.

Despite being very shy about my personal work, I took as risk decided to enter it into a competition.

"What's the worst that could happen?" I asked myself.

Rejection. (Loss.)
That would hurt...but it wouldn't be the end of the world. (Win.)
So I decided to risk rejection, put myself out there and enter the competition. (Win.)

Months later when I got the email announcing the award winners I deleted it because I had forgotten that I'd even entered the competition.

Later I dug it out of my trash folder, thinking that it would be good for me to see if I recognized any names on the winners list. (I love the thrill of beginning to recognize names in my industry; it makes the landscape feel a little less foreign.)

Then I saw my name.

It didn't register at first. At a second glance I assumed that it must be someone with a similar name, or a typo. They couldn't possibly have meant me.

Then it dawned on me. I was a winner.

I spent the rest of the day crying. I felt like a loser, because I felt like a fraud.

For days I expected an email, saying that there had been some mistake, and silly them, they would have never chosen my work for an award. After all, it was work that was deeply rooted in failure.

Part of me was afraid to even announce my win on social media, assuming people would take it as an opportunity to tell me that I wasn't deserving.

But you know what? The revocation email never came. Nor did any nasty backlash on social media.

In fact, I've met some really wonderful people because I was willing to be seen and share my work.

Now I am learning to accept that wins can come out of losses, even the big-fat-almost-giving-up losses. More importantly, it doesn't make me a fraud. It just makes me real and sometimes losing is part of my learning process.

Yes, I still struggle owning the award winning descriptor.

But you know what? I finally put it in my bio, and it's staying there. (Win!)

Now I'd love to hear from you:

What is something that you've turned around from a loss into a win?

Or, what would you do if you got rid of the concepts we have around "failure" and "success" and how would it help you share your gift more authentically with the world?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Several months ago, Francisca Pineda of the Ethical Fashion Academy reached out to me to participate in a panel talk she was hosting on Perceptions of Beauty.

The talk was designed to create a conversation about the perceptions of human beauty through art and design, and to talk about ways in which we are hoping to shape our culture at large.

The event, graciously hosted by the Wix Lounge in New York City on April 7th, brought together women from array of artistic backgrounds.

It was an amazingly diverse panel, but we all seemed to have one big thing in common:  we had participated in the pervasive beauty culture only to find that it didn't serve us.

In fact, most of us found that our current beauty culture was destructive, and each of us has sought out a way to reframe our beauty ideology in a new and healthier way.

To be perfectly honest, at first I wasn't sure that I was ready to speak about my work in a public setting.

As I mentioned on the blog a few weeks ago, the photographs that I create come from a very vulnerable space.

For a long time I thought that I couldn't even share that kind of work with people, especially clients.
"Your Voice" Fine Art by Jen Kiaba. Click to purchase the print."Your Voice" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase the Print.
Despite wanting to let women be seen in front of my camera,
I struggled with letting my authentic voice be heard (and seen) through my fine art images.

I thought my art was too dark and too raw to share, especially when I strive to create portraits of women that show their luminous internal beauty. To me it seemed like they were too much in contrast with each other to ever be in harmony.

But it was through preparing my talk that I realized that the two are very much connected, like opposite ends of a pendulum's arc.

So today I wanted to share my talk with you, and give you the chance to hear about some of that clarity and my own personal journey - in my own voice.

 My wonderful sister was kind enough to record it and put together this video for me, so thank you to her.

A big thank you also to the other women on the panel with me, to Francisca for putting the panel together, to Wix Lounge for giving us the beautiful space for our talk, and last but not least, to the wonderful friends of mine who came out to support me for this talk. Seeing your faces in the audience helped give me courage to shine light on some dark places!

Cultural Perceptions of Beauty is such a huge topic, so I tried to distill it down to what I know best. I shared about my personal experience leaving a very fundamentalist culture, and how I've been constantly learning to reframe my ideas of femininity and beauty.

Now I would love to hear from you: what are some ways that you are letting your authentic voice be heard? What does that voice tell you about your identity and sense of beauty.

 I'd love for you to contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment below!

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