Knowing who your clients are is half the job of marketing, and part of attracting that client is establishing a clear brand position. In today’s Bokeh podcast episode, Petronella Lugemwa recounts her fascinating journey from Uganda, to getting an MBA, to becoming a wedding photographer, and shares how her unique story enabled her to clearly establish her brand position as a photographer.
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A Childhood That Spanned the Globe [01:18]
From Chemical Engineering to Photography [04:58]
Keeping a Clear and Specific Brand Position [08:36]
Focusing on Multicultural Weddings [10:18]
Going with the Flow [12:20]
Nathan – I’m here with my friend, and I’m excited to call you friend. We haven’t actually, I don’t think, met in person before today–
Petronella – No, we haven’t.
Nathan – But with my friend, Petronella, and tell us how to pronounce your last name. I was in your workshop yesterday, and you walked everybody through how to pronounce your last name.
Petronella – Great question. It’s pretty phonetic. It’s Lu-gem-wa, Lugemwa.
Nathan – Perfect. I normally talk about this in the very end, but how can we find your Instagram account online, because I know our listeners are gonna wanna see your work? We’re gonna dive into what you do here in just a little bit, but what is your Instagram account?
Petronella – Instagram, really simple, @bypetronella, B-Y P-E-T-R-O-N-E-L-L-A.
Nathan – Perfect, so, as they’re listening along to our conversation they’re gonna be able to scroll through and look at some of this work, this beautiful work, by the way–
Petronella – Thank you.
Nathan – That you’ve created, but you had a really interesting childhood, fascinating. When I was looking through and reading your story, I was really fascinated about it. I actually grew up overseas, myself. I know what it’s like to move around a good bit, but tell us a little bit about your childhood. What did that look like?
Petronella – That is great question. I was born in Uganda, which is a small country in East Africa, and there was an evil dictator, lots of turmoil going on. My family moved to Zimbabwe–
Nathan – It almost sounds like a movie storyline, an evil dictator, but this was real life for you.
Petronella – Exactly, yeah totally. There’s even a movie about it, The Last King of Scotland, but my family moved over to Zimbabwe where I spent a lot of my childhood, and my dad wanted better opportunity, so he went to Maine, got his PhD, and then my sister and I arrived in Birmingham, Alabama to join him on his new job.
Nathan – Wow, he spent time in Maine before you all moved, the rest of the family, moved to the states?
Petronella – Exactly, exactly, yeah.
Nathan – You were born in Uganda, you lived in Zimbabwe, and then you moved to all the places, Alabama. How did you end up in Alabama?
Petronella – I know, right? My dad got a job there. You go where the opportunities are.
Nathan – Right.
Petronella – We were immigrants, landed with two suitcases, and I was 10 years old at that time. That’s a really challenging time, I’m becoming a teenager, I’m trying to figure out my voice. I’m in Alabama, which wasn’t very diverse at the time–
Nathan – Certainly.
Petronella – Very black and white, and a lot of people were like, “Who is this person? What is going on”.
Nathan – Right.
Petronella – I’m trying to figure out who I am. My parents are very Ugandan. They wanted me to hold on to my heritage, and then I’m at school and all the kids are doing fun things. My parents were like, “No dating, no drugs, no this. “No, no, no. Get an engineering degree, a doctor, “become a lawyer, and work hard,” but that wasn’t what I saw at school, and I really wanted to assimilate and feel closer to my classmates, so very challenging.
Nathan – And especially as a kid. You said 10 years old when you moved to Alabama, correct?
Petronella – Yeah, yeah.
Nathan – And you’re beginning to hit that phase in life where you’re trying to figure yourself out a little bit, and there’s that tug from home to be Ugandan, essentially, and then you’re going to school and you’re trying to be like your friends, and what ended up winning out? Did you become more like your friends, or did you lean more towards your original culture?
Petronella – That’s a great question. Ah, who got it? I abandoned who I was. I didn’t really tell anyone my last name. I changed the way I looked. As you can hear, my voice sounds not very Ugandan. It sounds, you know, it is what it is, but I assimilated. I became very Americanized. I didn’t really tell people who I am. My goal was to make people feel comfortable and not feel afraid of my heritage.
Nathan – Interesting.
Petronella – So, I abandoned it, yeah.
Nathan – And, when you talk about people being afraid of your heritage, I mean, your heritage sounds like a fascinating one, but, in that particular culture, it was actually intimidating to people?
Petronella – It was. It was a time when a lot of people were losing their jobs, and they felt that they were going towards foreigners, and anything foreign was kind of scary–
Nathan – A challenge, yeah, yeah, or a threat.
Petronella – Yeah, exactly.
Nathan – Interesting. You talked about the face that your family, maybe your dad in particular, wanted you in the corporate, the professional world, going after a particular type of degree or degrees, and you actually ended up going that direction initially, right?
Petronella – Yeah, yeah.
Petronella – Yes, I have a chemical engineering degree. My dad has a chemistry background, always talks chemistry, so it’s very natural to do that for me, and then–
Nathan – Sure, do you still find that interesting?
Petronella – I do. I’m a geek at heart.
Nathan – That’s awesome. You’re diverse. What fascinates me about people, one of the things that fascinates me about people the most, is contrast. It’s very easy to be single-focused, right? Only focused on one thing, or only good at one thing, but people bring multiple talents or tendencies to the table. They may like to go out and experience a really exciting adventure, high octane adventure, and then, at the same time, they might also wanna curl up with a book at the end of the day. Those types of contrast. In your case, you’re an artist, but you also have a chemical engineering degree, and then an MBA as well, correct?
Petronella – Yeah, I do, yep.
Nathan – You’re quite diverse in that sense, and I think that’s really truly fascinating. How then did you end up with these degrees and then somehow transition to–
Petronella – I know, right?|
Nathan – Photography? How did that happen?
Petronella – Yeah, that was big, big, big. Honestly, only recently did my parents finally acknowledge. They’ve always been like, “How’s that hobby of yours coming? “When are you gonna get a real job”.
Nathan – I totally know what you mean, yes.
Petronella – I was working corporate America, in marketing, and one of my coworkers saw my work. I’m a really quiet person, and photography’s a way to communicate my thoughts, and she saw it–
Nathan – Love it, yes.
Petronella – And loved it, and was like, “Come to Mexico “and shoot our wedding”–
Nathan – Oh, wow.
Petronella – I know, right?
Nathan – That was your first wedding?
Petronella – Right?
Nathan – Oh my word, that’s awesome.
Petronella – Yeah, and I loved it. I loved it, loved it, loved it, and was like, “I need to figure out how to make this part of who I am”. I got lucky. I think it’s lucky I got laid off and made a decision that no one would ever have that kind of control over how I, like I gave my heart and soul to a company, and it didn’t really–
Nathan – Yes.
Petronella – I decided to make the transition into full time wedding photography.
Nathan – How did that first wedding go, by the way? I mean, you get to go shoot your–
Petronella – It was fabulous!
Nathan – Really, okay.
Petronella – Yes, I’m so quiet in person, but, on the wedding day, something lights up and I’m just different. It just–
Nathan – You go into a mode?
Petronella – Yeah, yeah.
Nathan – And what does that look like? You’re just a lot more outgoing?
Petronella – Borderline bossy. Keeping it real.
Nathan – Yeah, absolutely, but one of the things that I’ve found, as a wedding photographer, is that you’re playing in it, playing multiple roles, right?
Petronella – Yeah, you’re a counselor, you’re, yeah.
Nathan – Exactly. Go ahead, yeah. Counselor.
Petronella – Counselor, planner, you’re managing time, you’re managing people’s emotions, you’re trying to get the shot, there’s, you know–
Nathan – And then, as a photographer too, the other thing that’s interesting to me is that you end up playing multiple photographers almost, right? You’re an architectural photographer, you’re a portrait photographer, you’re an event photographer.
Petronella – Yep.
Nathan – I think a really good wedding photographer is probably one of the most talented photographers around, because you’re responsible for capturing all these different facets of a particular day that include these different elements: architecture and relationships, and portraits, and so forth. There’s a lot there to capture.
Petronella – Yeah, there’s a lot. Yeah, exactly.
Nathan – That’s really interesting. Did it go really smoothly, that first wedding? ‘Cause I think back to my first wedding, and I actually missed capturing the kiss. Of all things to miss.
Petronella – Totally been there.
Nathan – I missed it, but how did that first wedding go for you?
Petronella – It was–
Nathan – Smooth as can be.
Petronella – Honestly, it was chaotic. There was a lot of things which didn’t go, but I loved it. I was like, “I love this chaos”. I thrive. I loved it.
Nathan – It was your game.
Petronella – Yeah, it was my jam, whatever, game, yeah.
Nathan – That’s really cool. That’s really cool. Side note, for everybody listening, I missed the first kiss on that first wedding that I photographed, but the couple was gracious enough. I went to them and I said, “I missed the kiss. “Do you care if we set that up, like stage it again,” and they were really, really kind, so we set it up, we got the shot, and going through the album, the proof album later, you’d never know that we had to set up the kiss shot, but to start a wedding in Mexico, and for it to go so smoothly, that had to have been really encouraging and a boost to the beginning of this new career that you were delving into. That’s pretty fascinating. Now, one of the things that I love about, I love contrast. We talked about the idea of contrast a second ago, but for someone, as an individual and then as a business owner, to have a really clear position, or a really clear vision about who they want to be in the world, and then, as a business owner, what their business is about, what their brand position, what it stands for in the industry: I have a lot of respect for that. I also understand, from personal experience as well as seeing other photographers in our industry and how they’re running their businesses, I understand the significance of having a very clear position. It makes it a lot easier. If nothing else, it makes it a lot easier to market, and it certainly makes it a lot easier on a day to day basis ’cause I teach workflow a lot, to have a much cleaner, simpler workflow, because you have a goal in mind, right? This is what my brand is about.
Petronella – Exactly.
Nathan – It makes running a business, I think, a lot easier overall but you have a really distinct and very clear position as a wedding photography brand. Tell us what that is.
Petronella – Yeah, I help multicultural couples celebrate their love in a modern way.
Nathan – What does that mean?
Petronella – I know, right?
Petronella – Multicultural: what does that mean? It means anyone who is constantly navigating two different cultural heritages. Does that, yeah?
Nathan – Absolutely, yeah, and talk about what that looks like, because I know during your workshop yesterday, you pulled up a picture at one point that you had, I think, a Muslim groom and a Jewish bride–
Petronella – Yeah, Jewish, yeah. Nigerian–
Nathan – Or vice versa?
Petronella – Muslim, Jewish, so it’s all kinds of thing. It’s not like exactly what you said. It’s interfaith, it’s interracial, it’s multiracial: anyone who’s inherently has different cultures, anyone who might live somewhere else for a long time, grew up there, and then comes back, but identifies themselves as the other country. You can be American, but you lived somewhere else and you identify yourself as that other, the culture of the other country that you lived in.
Nathan – Sure, sure, and what initially drew you to this focus? Because it’s very easy, especially when you’re getting into starting a photography business. You’re just happy to have any kind of business, right? Was that how it worked for you initially, or did you–
Petronella – Yeah, yeah, of course. In the beginning you’re just like–
Nathan – Just give me a job.
Petronella – Oh my gosh!
Nathan – Yeah, absolutely.
Petronella – Whatever, I will do it.
Nathan – Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what lead you to this place where you wanted to focus on this particular genre of weddings?
Petronella – Yeah, it’s very, very personal because I am an immigrant, and for a long time I hid who I was and didn’t really celebrate that until I met the Reichman’s in Atlanta. They did a sexy business workshop, and they did not know I was Ugandan. I came in there and was very, I’ll keep it real, very Caucasian looking, feeling, talking–
Nathan – Sure.
Petronella – And they were like, “What is this, Petronella? “We had no idea you had this part of yourself,” and they believe that you’re paralyzed in your secret, and my secret was I was hiding the multicultural part of myself, so–
Nathan – Wow, and this is just stemmed from your experience as a child, at school trying to fit in.
Petronella – Exactly.
Nathan – And you just maintained that?
Petronella – And now I see a lot of people struggle with that, and I just wanna help them celebrate who they are.
Nathan – That’s really beautiful. What is a day, when you’re talking about photographing a multicultural wedding, you’re having to keep up with a lot of different traditions coming from all different directions. What does that look like? Is that pretty difficult to do?
Petronella – I love it.
Nathan – Do you?
Petronella – I love challenges. I love new things, adventures, seeing new things, doing new things.
Nathan – Do you have to do research going into a particular style of wedding that you’ve never photographed before?
Petronella – Absolutely, absolutely.
Nathan – How do you go about that?
Petronella – I talk to the couple. I ask them, “Tell me a little bit about your heritage. “What are you incorporating,” and then I do some research. I Google, I talk to friends of similar heritages or backgrounds, and, yeah.
Nathan – Would you say the biggest challenge, then, of photographing a multicultural wedding would be understanding the culture that drives that particular day?
Petronella – Absolutely, yeah, absolutely.
Nathan – Are there any other particular challenges that come along with that?
Petronella – Family is big.
Nathan – Really?
Petronella – A lot of multicultural couples, family is like this underlying current which can affect the whole day, can literally change the whole day, the flow, the what happens. I don’t even know, yeah, how to explain it. It’s like timing, workflow, the mom can come in and be like, “This is what we’re doing,” and everything can change–
Nathan – Shift at the last minute, yeah.
Petronella – And it’s acceptable.
Nathan – And you mentioned this yesterday, I think. We’re used to your kinda typical Caucasian wedding and Western culture, where everything is extremely structured, and it goes a particular way at every wedding, right? I mean, there may be a little bit of delays here and there, but in a multicultural wedding, you were talking about in your workshop yesterday, that, as you were just discussing as well, it can change at the last minute, and that’s acceptable.
Petronella – Exactly.
Nathan – You just have to be ready to go with the flow and not really–
Petronella – And manage the relationships or understand, hey, one of my last weddings… Wow. I don’t wanna call out the couple, but it was just two different cultures, and one culture didn’t understand that the parents in the family have a very strong input into how things go.
Nathan – Sure, yeah.
Petronella – I had to provide that perspective and, “Hey, we have to get ready like five hours in advance “versus, if it was a different kind of wedding, “three hours in advance”.
Nathan – That makes sense. That makes sense.
Petronella – I had to manage, ’cause I knew that other, big element was coming in.
Nathan – With my experience as a wedding photographer, I was able to usually work with a couple ahead of time. We were going over a list of portraits, for example, or a list of shots that they wanted, and we planned a specific amount of time for prior to the ceremony we would do this, and then after the ceremony we’re gonna do that. That doesn’t really happen in a multicultural wedding as you’re describing it?
Petronella – It’s a little more free-flowing. You may have 10 more portraits to do. You may get pulled aside–
Nathan – How do you make that happen then?
Petronella – We talk about who’s important to you, the different factors. Luckily I’m very familiar with a lot of different cultures, so I kinda know what’s coming and I may say, “Hey, let’s build in an hour or two buffer time,” because I know that might go towards mom wanting portraits of every family member, cousins, sisters, or something else coming up.
Nathan – But that flexibility is really key, and I think that’s interesting. I mean, honestly, I think that’s applicable to all photographers. It’s easy, as so-called artist types, and we were talking about this a little bit earlier. It’s easy for our egos, to let our egos get in the way, and a lot of photographers, I hear them talking about how the couple didn’t do this, or the wedding planner didn’t do this for them, and they make it about them.
Petronella – That was me early on, yep.
Nathan – I think it’s really important, really for all photographers, particularly photographing multicultural weddings, to set ego aside, figure out how to, well certainly, let loose of any notion of control, right? Learn how to go with the flow and focus on just being there for that couple and for that family. I think you’re gonna have a lot, photographers as a whole are gonna have a lot, better experience and be able to offer much better finished product as a result. That’s really–
Petronella – Capture some unexpected moments, yeah.
Nathan – That’s really powerful, wow. Well, I know that, in addition to Instagram, photographers are gonna want to learn more about your story, and I’d love to point them in the direction of your website. Share your website with us.
Petronella – Yeah, it’s by Petronella, but I also have Petronella Photography, so both of those–
Nathan – Perfect.
Petronella – Lead into the same thing.
Nathan – Awesome, and they can go learn a little bit more about your story there. I know you go into it in some detail, which is really awesome, see some more of your work. Thank you so much for sitting down with us–
Petronella – Thank you for having me, yeah.
Nathan – And having a conversation, sharing your story a little bit and talking about what you do. Thank you so much for making time for that.
Petronella – Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you so much, Nathan.
Nathan – Awesome.