An Interview With Kansas City Photographer Kaley Kocinski

Photographer Kaley Kocinski’s portrayals of family life and love have a free, natural quality—dressed in minimalist tones of stone, sage green and bright white, her digital photographs recall the nostalgic spontaneity of old film. Based in Kansas City, Kocinski—or Kaley From Kansas—emphasizes authentic personal connection, which shines through her portraits of life’s most special moments, from engagements to weddings to Saturday afternoons in the living room. Kocinski herself also exudes comfort and coziness, the kind that brings to mind curling up with a mug of peppermint tea on a misty Midwest morning. We caught up with her to discuss her life as a creative in Kansas City, her process and how she crafts “honest photographs.”

kansas city photography kaley from kansas alive magazine st louis

How did your career begin?
I’ve always loved photographing people. When I was in elementary school, we moved around quite a bit, so I always wanted to document the friendships I knew wouldn’t last too long. Since then, I’ve kept my photography in that realm. After I received my BFA from Kansas State University, I shot a few weddings for friends and ended up loving it. My career flowered from that point. It’s taken off in the last few years based on numerous factors. Instagram has gotten huge, and that propelled my work in a different way.

Making it as a creative is tough. How have you carved out your niche in professional photography? 
I focus on building a connection, chasing light and documenting “in-between” moments, as I like to call them—the moments that are unexpected, that the subjects don’t initially see as being beautiful. I primarily photograph engagements, weddings and families, with a recent emphasis on the latter. With weddings, I focus on intimate, small celebrations, rather than elaborate ceremonies. I tend to gravitate toward a more vulnerable environment.

I recently put up a bucket list on my website to show potential clients where I would love to shoot. I try to do little things like that to make the experience of booking me feel more personal. New clients are real opportunities for relationship-building—not just another event to add to my list.

What themes are particularly inspiring to you?
When I’m photographing motherhood—particularly mothers and daughters—it’s a joy to document and experience their connection. It’s beautiful, but it is also messy, and I love getting all of it. There are those moments where the child has a meltdown or they get hungry or they spill on themselves, and I have so many mothers who apologize to me during the shoot, but I always tell them, ‘This is life. This is real. That’s what I’m about.”

kansas city photography kaley from kansas alive magazine st louis

What makes an honest photograph?
An honest photograph is a direct depiction of your life as I see it, flaws and all. It is about the connection, vulnerability and light that reflect from your life and who you love. It is about the moment that we are presented with, the memories and future heirlooms we are making. I want to show you who you are in this moment.

What is it like working as a photographer based in Kansas City? What challenges have you come up against, and how have you overcome them?
Kansas City is a very collaborative environment for creatives, which has been incredibly helpful. I’ve worked with several vendors here. The scene is also still fairly small—I think I’ve stepped out as a nontraditional photographer, so it’s nice to get noticed for what I love to create.

As far as challenges go, shooting in Kansas City as often as I do, I sometimes struggle to find new locations that haven’t been over-utilized. I would love to travel more. I feel like my best work comes out when I’m exploring a new environment. I am also very inspired by nontraditional subjects. For example, although elopements are still not very popular in Kansas City, I love when I get to photograph a couple whose experience revolves around just the two of them. It feels special and intimate.

How does working in the heartland affect the aesthetic of your photographs?
We have a field of sunflowers where everyone shoots each year, which has kind of come to represent Kansas. I typically shoot there once, while the field is in bloom. Scenes like that are true to Kansas City and what we’re known for as far as our landscape, but personally, I am more drawn to the desert. I shot in Arizona and Joshua Tree recently, and I felt such a strong attraction to the tones and the vegetation. Sometimes I wish I had that in my backyard, but I love the challenge of making something new out of our flatland.

No matter where I am, light is my main source of inspiration. Shooting in neighborhoods allows me to play with both harsh and even light, since it moves more dynamically than in an open field, for example. There are trees, ivy, steps to sit on. Wandering through a neighborhood also gives me time to chat with the couple so we can get to know each other. If they’re telling a story, I might catch them in a moment, in that in-between.

In Kansas City, I try to focus on the home or the neighborhood because every home is unique, and every neighborhood has its little hidden gems. I love shooting in-home because a home is entirely yours; it’s where you feel most comfortable. People probably wouldn’t even recognize that I’m in Kansas City from my in-home photographs.

kansas city photographer kaley kocinski alive magazine st louis

What does your process look like? Do you brainstorm with your subjects beforehand?
My first questions to new clients are, “What is the one thing you want to get out of the shoot? What do these photos mean to you?” It is also incredibly important to me to ask for their trust, since I can be very spontaneous while shooting. I typically love to book engagements before photographing weddings so that the couple can get used to my style.

When we’re shooting, I don’t direct or pose anyone. I operate very under-the-radar. I want everything to feel natural. Lately, I’ve been playing music—I bring a little Bluetooth speaker and play their favorite songs so they can pretend I’m not there.

All photography courtesy of Kaley Kocinski

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