What is your name, age, and location?
Leela Cyd Ross, 27, Portland, Oregon.
What is your profession?
I’m a freelance writer and photographer, with a focus on interiors and food.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
As an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, I studied fine art with a concentration in video. During those years, I could barely make it to class on time, I was busy swimming in the ocean and eating tacos. A few years later, I got a Masters in Education at Portland State University, to teach Art or Special Ed to Middle/High School Students.
What was your first job?
My first job was working at a Vintage clothing store in 8th grade (I was paid in party dresses). My Mom worked across the courtyard from this tiny store. I used to call her and wave, twirling about showing her my new frock from the balcony. She’d give me a thumbs up and smile. Hardly anyone every shopped at this place, so I had a lot of time to work on my collage-style journals, draw, read magazines and try on crazy outfits. It was awesome!
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
My husband and I went on a year-long journey a few years ago, living in India, Vietnam and Turkey as well as visiting a few places in between. This was to be a time to see what the rest of the world was like before returning to Portland, and getting ‘real jobs.’ Throughout the trip, I was constantly taking pictures of and writing about food. As a kid I was fortunate enough to travel all over the world with my parents, and they always encouraged me to keep a detailed journal and take my own photos, so it was not a foreign idea to obsessively chronicle the ups and downs of life on the road. The more I saw the world and traveled with my camera and note pad, the more inspired I became. I love the access a camera, a story and a project can grant you in a far-off place. Everyone loves to talk about themselves and share their favorite foods!
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
My work for Apartment Therapy’s home cooking site, The Kitchn.com, has enriched my life in so many ways. As part of my job there, I have to write, develop and photograph two food-related stories per week. Because of this constant deadline to create new material, I spend a lot of time photographing. My goal is to make each idea or article better than the last. It’s like photo boot camp over there! I really appreciate an externally-imposed deadline, it forces me to be active. Sharing my photos and stories with millions of people per month, contributing to the dialogue surrounding food and photography, shaping and identifying food trends, it’s so gratifying. It’s electrifying!
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
While living in India, I have to say I think being a lady helped me in many ways. The people in the South, where I was living, were so curious and interested in me (I stood out like a sore thumb) and 99 percent of the time, they rolled out the red carpet to help me with stories, recipes, posing for photos, etc. Through the right questions and some big smiles, I was invited into many family homes where grandmothers showed me how they like to cook and laughed at me for my being so interested. These cooking lessons, which I photographed and noted, were some of the loveliest experiences I’ve ever had.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
I think sometimes clients and people I’m photographing/writing about are surprised when they meet me. I am a bubbly, young lady who looks and talks like a bubbly young lady. I make no apologies for my age or accomplishments, but at times it’s hard to assert myself with a person who is saying things like, “well you’re just a kid” or “this is so beyond your generation.” During these moments, I hunker into my reserves of poise and professionalism and start directing the shoot/interview. That usually turns the tides!
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
My parents are my role models. My mother was a journalist turned editor for over 30 years, very much a trailblazer in a male-dominated field. She is now a professor of writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I marvel at the tenacity it takes to embark on a new career (and be very good at it!) at the age of 62. My Dad, he’s a photographer as well. I carried his tripod and took notes as his assistant around the world, my passport totally full by the age of 18. He showed me that being a photographer could be a gratifying endeavor, full of exploration, connection and growth. I am a complete synthesis of my parents — my Mom still helps me restructure a difficult sentence and my Dad can help me see the world through a lens. I’m so thankful for their breadth of knowledge and expertise and for encouraging me to reach ever higher. They took unconventional paths in life and figured it out, a very helpful road map to think about as a freelancer!
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
There’s no short-cutting experience–You have to put in the time and hard work, but progress will be made, even if it seems like it’s slow and difficult. The flip side of this bit of advice is to remember to celebrate each success, even the small stuff.
Leela’s website: LeelaCyd.com
Leela’s posts on The Kitchn
Follow Leela on Twitter
– Interview by Elena Rossini