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Portland Professional Photographer Sarah Giffrow

For those who might be curious about me, this is a little interview I did for my friends and partners-in-crime at Continuum Photography, which originally appeared on the Continuum blog. They have more to say about me, in their own words, on the original post, and Josh also captured many pictures of me looking fabulous and not making idiotic faces at the camera, which is a pretty huge achievement.

Here’s my favorite photo from the session, and the interview questions:

Yours Truly, fancied up. (courtesy Joshua C. Mitchell of Continuum Photography)

Okay, so I know everyone is going to wonder, but maybe be afraid to ask because it’s not P.C., but you have a very exotic look. For the record, what’s your ethnicity Sarah?

I have a mishmash of German, Swedish, and Scottish on one side of the family, and Chinese on the other.

Where did you grow up?

This is always a hard question for me to answer, but I spent my early years in San Diego County, and from age 10 onward, my folks moved around quite a bit. I lived in Maryland during middle school, and then landed in Beaverton until the end of high school, and there were quite a few summers during college that had me kicking it with my parents in different parts of the Northeast.

Any brothers or sisters?

Nope, just me, although I always wanted one when I was little.

Tell me a little about your early life.

I was a big reader as a kid; my dad read to me as far back as I could remember, and once I could read myself, I basically went to town on books. When I hit school age, my parents scraped together enough money to send me to private school, so I got a lot of teacher attention and did really well in class, but I also got picked on pretty constantly. Skipping 4th grade probably didn’t help much in that regard.

I definitely tried things here and there, like playing softball a bit and taking up piano (I had more of a knack for music than for sports). And I did have a couple of kids in my neighborhood that I ran around with sometimes, but I think I spent most of the time in my own head, or seeing movies and going out to breakfast with my dad.

How did you wind up in Portland?

Well, after high school, I moved to Eugene to attend the U of O, and wound up staying there for several years after I graduated. I knew I was getting tired of the place towards the end, and I’d even started researching other cities like San Francisco, so I was at least idly thinking about moving. I didn’t really know a lot about Portland, though, even though I’d lived in Beaverton before, so when I came to visit PDX, I loved the feel of the place.

So, when the landlord of my last house in Eugene gave us 30 days’ notice so he could sell the property, my decision was pretty easy. Portland has really grown on me since I started living here in 2007, and I’m insanely happy with the decision to come here.

Tell us a little bit about the things you are into… music, movies, TV, etc?

I’m pretty open about the fact that I’m a giant geek/nerd/dork, so you can probably imagine the kinds of things that result from that. I had a pretty serious World of Warcraft habit for about a year back in 2005, I’m into tabletop gaming, video games when I have time, and I basically live on the internet. And yes, I’ve willingly (and excitedly) attended Star Trek and gaming conventions. They’re pretty awesome.

TV shows I’ve been following as of late? Dexter, True Blood, Castle, Breaking Bad, and Glee. I’m working my way through Weeds and the new series of Doctor Who, when I have a couple spare hours to throw around. And, some of my all-time favorites include Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek:TNG, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Futurama. Oh, and everyone in the world should get Veronica Mars on DVD and watch it, because it’s AMAZING.

As far as music, I like a sprinkle of everything, even Japanese rock; the only genre I really don’t dig as a whole is “new country.” Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Dandy Warhols, Of Montreal, Led Zeppelin, Arcade Fire, Scissor Sisters, Queen, Franz Ferdinand… I could go on for a while with that, really. I also have a long-abiding affection for ’80s Rock and Hair Metal and Rap/R&B of the early-’90s, especially as karaoke selections. Oh, and Broadway musicals. Be afraid.

You know I’m afraid of Broadway musicals… Anyhow, describe how you fell into photography.

Well, I’ve been taking photos off and on for a long time, in some form or another. I had this cheapo point-and-shoot 35mm when I was maybe 10 years old, and I think I still have a couple of undeveloped rolls of film in a box somewhere. I played around with a borrowed film SLR for a few months back in college, while I was taking a B&W film photography class, and I also had various digital point-and-shoots that I ran around with periodically, but I didn’t get all Serious Business about it until 2006, when I bought my first digital SLR.

I was living with a couple of people who got digital SLRs around the same time, and we really fed off of each other with experimenting with and being excited about shooting all kinds of things, but we were happiest when we had people in front of the camera. And we eventually thought, “hey, we’re at least as good as people who make actual money at this. So why can’t we?” So, we tried it for a little bit, and the third guy dropped out, but the remaining two of us came to Portland and started a studio on a shoestring budget, and managed to get lighting gear and book some jobs. But, we did eventually discover, as we learned more, that we were each drawn to different types and different aspects of photography. Over time, we stopped benefitting each other as much as we did in the beginning, so after a couple years, parting ways just made a lot more sense, but I knew I still wanted to keep shooting, even if I had to do it all on my own.

Do you remember the first photo you took that was sort of that “a-HA!” moment when you realized you had a talent for this?

You know, I don’t think there was a one photo that gave me that feeling. But, I think there were a couple instances when I wound up shooting, and maybe even wasn’t feeling 100% focused or on-the-ball, and then reviewed the shots later and surprised myself at how many of them were worth that second look. It’s easy for me to think my way through a problem or learn a process, but when I started to notice that getting a good shot was intuitive for me, that was when I realized that I had more going for me as a photographer than just an acquired set of skills.

I noticed that when I started describing you and your background to other people for the first time that I almost unconsciously was making you out to be a Kung-Fu master. Tell us a little bit about your martial arts, how you got into it, and what (if any) impact it has in your photography?

I found wushu in 2003, largely because of peer pressure, heh. I was honestly pretty overweight at the time, and I knew that was bad for me, and I’d started trying to clean up my eating habits to try and do something about it. Around then, a close friend of mine at the U of O kept talking about this Wushu Club she’d recently joined–mostly complaining that she was the only girl who really showed up to practice regularly. After she leaned on me about it enough, I decided I’d give it a shot. It completely kicked my butt, yet something made me want to keep going back. I eventually got to be pretty obsessed with wushu, and even wound up as coach at the U of O club for my last year living in Eugene. Now I’m at the U.S. Wushu Center here in Portland, I’ve been competing in tournaments since 2004, and I’ve been training in the sport for close to 7 years.

I think being involved in the martial arts gives me an even greater appreciation of sports photography and shots with a movement aspect to them. I have a lot of interest in dynamic posing, capturing strength and motion, and I have a lot of interest in the story of individual athletes, too, especially those in lesser-known sports like Wushu. It’s something I’d like to document more closely, at some point in the future.

Are there any particular photographers, or genres of photography you most admire?

I’m never great at naming favorites; I like to keep a pretty broad view and stay open to different perspectives. But, I do have a long-standing affection for fashion and commercial photography, and it’s not so much because of the clothing or products. It’s the opportunity to get really crazy with lighting, to conceptualize and explore different styles, to push the envelope a bit. I’ve found the collaborative process in fashion shooting to be really enjoyable, too; it’s exciting to see how other creative’s’ ideas come together with mine–the best shoots are when the designers, the stylists, and the models all bring something to the table–and how we help each other expand and refine our thoughts and ideas for the shoot. It’s pretty awesome when that happens.

If I were to cut you loose in a camera store on a shopping spree what would you pick up first?

I’ll admit that I’ve never been the most bleeding-edge gearhead in the room, but I do know that I’d love to snag a Nikon D3s. Just having a newer body than my current one would already be awesome, but the added excuse to play around with HD video would be a total kick in the pants.

What is your contingency plan for the coming zombie apocalypse?

Well, I know my way around with a sword, so that obviously never hurts anything. I also have a friend whose family owns a farm out in the middle of nowheresville, and a crap-ton of firearms, so I think we’re good to go.

What drew you to Continuum, and how would you describe the company to someone for the first time?

How would I describe us? Other than being incredibly excellent? Heh.

I think the thing that really got me on-board with Continuum was, ultimately, the emphasis on building relationships with the people we’re photographing. In my first few years as a professional photographer, I figured out that my favorite shoots were usually the ones where I loved the people I was working with. Portrait subjects or brides and grooms that I easily connected with, and the designers and creatives whose work I truly loved and wanted to support. I’ve never wanted to be a, “just do the job and send them on their way,” kind of person, and I enjoy being more invested in the people I work with. I want to love who they are and what they do, and Continuum has a history of taking that same kind of approach.

And, well, it certainly didn’t hurt that I was a fan of the work Continuum had already put out before I joined up. We’re equals and we all have a set of strengths in common, but there are definitely things we can learn from each other, and that’s an exciting place to be. Being a part of this has me feeling more inspired, motivated, and optimistic than I’ve been in a long time.

We think you’re pretty great. I guess that’s not a question.

Awesomeness attracts awesomeness!

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