Behind the Lens with Zoe Adlersberg

Photographer of the #GirlPower issue’s “Fearless Voices” fashion story, Adlersberg shares her journey as a woman following her passion, and why it’s okay to be “imperfect.”

Zoe Adlersberg and her daughter Uma

Known for work that explores the facets of girlhood, motherhood and aging, Zoe Adlersberg, an award-winning photographer and all-star single mom, recently partnered with Earnshaw’s to shoot the #GirlPower issue’s fashion story, “Fearless Voices.

Capturing the essence of “girl power” as a deeply personal, fluid concept, Adlersberg presents a series of unretouched portraits to reflect each model’s unique perspective on what makes them feel empowered.

After the shoot, Earnshaw’s went behind the lens to connect with Adlersberg about her journey as a female professional, loving mother and loyal friend.

How did you get your start? I grew up in New York City during the ’70s, raised by an artist. I went to college in a small town and moved back to work in advertising right out of school. That’s when I started hanging out with all the creatives. I began studying at International Center of Photography (ICP), but then 9/11 made me realize life is short. This triggered me to move to Paris on a whim and become a photo assistant…which I hated. But I stayed in Paris and started shooting women’s fashion. In 2004, I did my first kids shoot for Milk magazine and realized how much I love working with kids. Soon after that, I got married, had a baby and returned to New York. Ultimately, I became a single mom, and now try to balance work and being present for my daughter Uma, who is almost 13.

What do you love most about being a photographer? I love everything, except paperwork and retouching—too isolating. I love that it’s my own business, but I can also be a creative. My left brain is all about excel spreadsheets, while my right brain adores ideas. I love conceptualizing a shoot, putting teams together, coming up with an idea and seeing where each team member (stylist/set designer/hair and makeup, etc.) takes it. It’s like watching my thoughts come to life. I also love interacting with my subjects. This idea of authenticity is alive for me right now—being who I am, as true to myself as possible and as open as I can be. It ultimately makes my subjects more comfortable and, hopefully, you can see that in my work. 

How do you balance being a mother and professional? I don’t! I hold myself up to an impossible standard. I joke with my daughter Uma that I’d feel like a perfect mom if I could step out into the yard, milk the cow and offer her fresh milk for breakfast. I always try to be home for my daughter when she comes back from school. As she gets older, we often end up doing work side by side. Being a freelancer is amazing because I can customize my schedule. There are days I’m doing billing and marketing from home and can cook. Other days, I’m on set or in meetings, and she hangs with friends or my dad. I just edited and retouched the last shoot for Earnshaw’s at her volleyball game in Pennsylvania! I’m learning how to be ok with whatever I can do. If laundry doesn’t happen, or we need to order out, or I forget to sign a school form, that’s okay—I’m imperfect. 

What’s the worst and the best decision you’ve ever made? I don’t think there are ever any bad decisions. We do what we think is right in the moment—and mistakes or suffering only bring growth. One of the best decisions I made was getting on that plane to Paris, not knowing anyone but knowing it was what I needed to do. My daughter came along five years later. That was the best decision I’ve ever made.

How do you stay motivated? Coffee! You should’ve seen me when I stopped for a few months. I was much less productive with decaf. Beyond that? Having goals, having intentions, knowing what I want and why I want it. If I’m running after something and don’t know why, it’s hard to stay motivated. I learned a lesson when started: creatives need to follow their rollercoaster of high and low energy periods. There are going to be days when you check off everything on your list and others when you need to stay in bed watching movies. The less productive days are what you need to resource your creativity so you can keep going.

What traits does a great leader possess? Compassion. Empathy. Listening. Creativity. Flexibility. Passion. Intelligence. Humor. Integrity.

How do you think about the concept of women and leadership in the context of your own career? For some reason, as women photographers, we are scared to communicate or support each other. Perhaps it’s a feeling of competition or fear as we try to build our careers. I think it would be great to come together and learn from each other, as well as support the next generation.

Portrait from “Fearless Voices” fashion story, shot by Zoe Adlersberg.

Do you feel society is making efforts toward improving the culture for women and working mothers? In my experience, the photo world is predominantly male. I do think we’re witnessing a shift with the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements. Clients are using more women and minority photographers, which is great. As for working mothers, I’m fortunate to work in a creative field and know lots of moms who bring their babies on set to nurse and figure out creative ways to work and be present with their kids. The challenge for society as a whole is how do we support working mothers more? We are raising our children outside of any sort of family support—and trying to be superheroes by doing it all. Something needs to change.

What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders? I look at my almost 13-year-old and how powerful she is. I think her generation is growing up in such a heart-breaking time, but instead of being discouraged, they are facing it head on to mandate change. They are redefining gender, fighting for our earth and raising their voices about race. Watching them brings me to a place of such pure hope. I think they will give us advice, not the other way around.


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