Using a Camera to Speak Out Loud


Day One, Act One: Kristi Odom

2018 Real Life Conference Speaker Summary

“Using a Camera to Speak Out Loud”

About 30 minutes into her dynamic talk, Kristi Odom paused, tried to swallow back a wave of emotion.

”It’s ok girl, you got this. We love you,” the audience assured her.

She shared the difficult story that ultimately lead to a camera and a personal project propelling momentous change within herself and her work.

Thirty minutes into the first talk of the Real Life Conference and it was already really real. It was already raw. It was already a safe environment for momentary heart palpitations, shoulders, goosebumps, and vulnerability.

Personal projects have the ability to influence our work and our lives. They help us shift gears, show us new paths, heal old wounds, and find our strong voices.

Odom is a Nikon Ambassador who photographs wildlife and weddings. Her incredibly powerful wildlife work has informed her wedding work. Her mastery and presence were the perfect opening act for the impactful days to follow.

The power of her work is in the emotional ballet that unfolds in the wild and how we see and interact with it. She shared stunning images of animals displaying emotion juxtaposed with equally stunning wedding images that mimicked the same feelings and flow.

Sometimes it’s in the hug and the embrace.

Sometimes it’s in the gestures of the arms and the legs.

Sometimes it’s in body language.

Sometimes it’s when a subject stares deep into your eyes.

Sometimes it’s in shape.

Using these tenets with each wildlife photo, she repeated them to emphasize the powerful connection to the emotional undertones that we capture regardless of subject matter. It was an eloquent reminder of how significant our work is regardless of what we photograph. Odom emanates the essence of these connections and how imperative this impactful work is.

“Our camera lets us speak out loud.”


Odom’s photographic journey started with her grandfather bequeathing her his camera gear. As an introvert, hiding behind a camera was a safe way to participate in college gatherings and events. Through sharing her photos, she found an outlet. “It showed me that I had a voice and people were listening to what I had to say.”

The camera went everywhere with her, including to her happy place: the woods. It was there that she started capturing the emotions of animals. She wanted to share the connection with others. “I want my work to make people feel passionate about this world. With passion comes conservation. With passion comes change.”

It was a personal project photographing monkeys in Bolivia that helped heal her heartache and got her back into the wilderness. The sanctuary is home to orphaned primates who can not be released back into the wild. Most were stolen from their mothers by poachers who kill the elders in order to take the babies. She witnessed their pain in their eyes. The pain of loss of home and family. Suddenly she felt less alone in her own storyline.

“In this hard world, this work is a constant reminder that there is so much beauty.”


“The beauty I have seen over the last five years with my camera, because I pushed myself to do these projects, has made me love life in a way that I can’t even put into words.”

There are ways to make personal work have even deeper meaning, using it to raise funds or awareness of things we believe in or causes we want to help champion. Look to local communities, they want ways to come together. Odom photographed the sister-in-law of a friend who had terminal melanoma. It was a quick 15-minute shoot that would be a gift for the baby she would ultimately leave behind. The photos from that shoot were later used in fundraisers for melanoma research. Those images are a gift to the family and tangible memories of her legacy.  

“Changing yourself. Learning to love. Finding passion. Finding out who you are. Being more confident. Finding your own identity. To me, these are the reasons for personal projects and these are the pillars for change.”

Odom shared the work of David Anthony Williams, Ami Vitale, David Murray, and Tyler Wirken, all of whom have done powerful personal projects at varying scales. Odom’s own fundraising efforts have raised $40,000. Vitale’s last project raised close to $1 million. The potential is limitless.

Don’t get deterred by a dollar figure, stay focused on what the work means and how you can help change the world. She showed Tyler Wirken’s poignant piece on Madelyn Jay, a transgender woman in Kansas City. She spoke of Endia Beal's impactful and challenging personal work, Can I Touch It?, where she photographs white women in black hairstyles as a way to show the frustration black women face fitting into corporate environments. These examples show how personal work can break barriers and lead healing dialogue.

“How easy it is for us as photographers to help show love, help show people who they are. No matter what people believe in, suicide is bad, acceptance is good, judgement is horrible. Our voice, with a camera, we can battle these stereotypes.”


While watching Odom’s introduction to her own wildlife work dance across the screen, there is a distinct feeling of humanity in how she captures their emotions. How she gives so much of herself to the making magical connections to the animals. The instinct she brings to each shot is the same as a documentarian searching a face for a story. Each one of her photos could just as easily have been of humans. But they weren’t, which is what makes us gush in awe at the connection to things most of us will never get to see in the flesh. She brings that level of intimate connection to every wildlife image.

“Weddings were the chance to tell somebody else's story. The personal projects are where I get to tell my own.” What she brings to the table is herself and her camera. Just like all of us. That’s what makes her work so personal, so unique, so moving.

“People relate to what you believe in. It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. If I feel what you feel, I will be there. It helped my business. I’m getting these brides that are emotionally connecting to me.”

On her last project, Odom decided to take a local approach. She followed a group of bird watchers who are also bug counters. Pulling on her personal project work, Odom found a delightful story that showcased her macro photography. When she shared the film, everyone gushed at the whimsy and ingenuity of the piece. The accumulation of personal projects was abundantly evident.

“One thing I have learned when photographing wildlife for emotion, is that sometimes emotion can be seen with the eyes closed.”

Kristi Odom and her partner Darren Gustaveson run adventure workshops for photographers

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Zoë Gemelli