Rachelle Derouin makes images that are rooted in the connection of human beings, namely wedding days. Charged with the mere task of documenting what is typically observed as one of life’s greatest highlights, her work cannot be repeated or redone. She’s been a photographer for almost four years and she’s also a single mother to her free-spirited six year old daughter, Ava. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Rachelle lived in New York for 7 years and is now based on the western fringe of San Francisco, where the city slows to meet the foggy coast. In this interview Rachelle and I speak about her feelings on capturing beautiful life moments, being a parent and living in San Francisco.
Did you always think you would become a photographer?
Not at all. I struggled for years to find meaning in any of the jobs I held. Photography came much later, at a time when I needed to make huge changes in my life. I didn’t have any formal education or training. I’m sure a lot of people thought I was crazy, but I bought my first DSLR camera and quit my old job before having the slightest idea how I would make enough money to live. All I had was passion and a gut feeling that I would make it work.
Can you speak about your photography?
I never imagined that I would photograph weddings. The posing and stereotypes didn’t appeal to me, but I quickly learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. I fell in love with the documentation of wedding days because they are so full of raw emotion and vulnerability and connection. The way we’re connected to other humans, and to ourselves, is so fascinating and beautiful to me. That is always my focus while shooting.
My documentary family sessions have the same focus, and a similar story. I didn’t envision myself as a family photographer because I wasn’t interested in making posed photos. As soon as I started shooting in people’s homes, I found so much meaning in the work I was doing. There is so much beauty in our imperfect, ordinary, everyday life. I love seeing the honesty and depth that exist within familial relationships, and capturing life at that present moment in time.
A wedding day is typically observed as one of life’s greatest highlights – how does it make you feel to be there to capture such important moments?
People ask me all the time about the pressure of my job because nothing can be repeated or redone. I usually have butterflies in my stomach a few hours beforehand, which are a mix of anticipation and fears of not being good enough. As soon as I get there, they all fade away and I feel completely present. I’ve always been a quiet observer of life, so it’s pretty natural for me to slip into that mode. Many of my clients tell me that I was a calming presence for them, and I think that says a lot about the way I work. It’s important for me to connect with people, while also creating space for them to let down their guards and be vulnerable.
Any advice for aspiring photographers?
I love what Rilke said about becoming a writer: “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer.”
Listen to your inner voice and heart. More importantly though, be gentle and patient with yourself, especially when you make mistakes or feel lost.
When you aren’t taking photographs, what else inspires you?
Music on my record player, usually of the melancholy, heartbreakingly beautiful variety. The ocean. I love jumping into cold saltwater, or just staring out at the waves. A year ago I bought a wetsuit so I could join some friends for early morning dips at Ocean Beach. It was life changing, honestly. Also, I usually feel most inspired when I’m connected to nature and community. I’m pretty introverted, so having lots of surface level relationships doesn’t appeal to me, but I do get energy from having a small community of close friendships, intimacy and deep conversation. Also my daughter is a constant source of love and inspiration.
How do you juggle parenting and your career?
One thing I’ve learned about myself since becoming a mother is that I need a lot of alone time and personal space in order to feel whole. Maintaining a sense of separateness and freedom is like air. I can’t breathe without it. This is of course a constant struggle when you have a little human who is dependant on you. Now that she is in school, it’s a little easier to create that space for myself and for work. I’ve also fallen into the habit of working after she goes to bed, which can be exhausting, but sometimes I’m more focused and inspired at night.
How do you find being a single mother?
Most of the time, it feels like I’m barely surviving single motherhood, and that I really have no idea what I’m doing. It’s hard to say this out loud, but I don’t enjoy the daily role of being a parent. I’ve spent countless hours processing the guilt of those truths, but now I’m at least more accepting of my boundaries and needs. When I give myself space, I feel more present with her.
Despite all the frustrations and doubts, I truly love our relationship and intimate connection. Getting to see her grow into herself and become an increasingly independent little human, with her own ideas and thoughts, is by far my biggest joy as a mother. Being cozy at home, cuddling and listening to her dreams and feelings is one of my favorite things to do. I’m constantly learning from her, and striving to live a more honest, simple life together.
What do you love about living in San Francisco?
I’m not fond of the changes happening here in recent years, but there’s still so much I love about it. I live on the western fringe of San Francisco, in the Outer Sunset, which is pretty far removed from the rest of the city. The pace is slower out here. There is an awesome community of artists, and the neighborhood vibe is friendly. I love being close to the ocean, where we can walk to the beach, play in the dunes and ride bikes along the Great Highway. And while most people flock to the sunnier parts of the city, I love when the fog rolls in.
How do you relate to the word ‘adrift’?
It makes me think of the journey I’ve been on for the past few years since my divorce. Being adrift has meant letting go of the societal and personal expectations I had about the kind of life I should be living, even the kind of feelings I should be feeling. I had no idea that I would be diving into my inner being in the way that I have. Sometimes I feel completely lost and in a very dark place, but slowly I’ve felt a shift in the way I perceive, understand and connect with the world and myself.