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How We Found Durango 

The Foteem Story

 By Svatka Schneider | Summer/Fall 19

Having met my husband in my homeland of Prague, Czech Republic, I had the pleasure of hearing many fascinating tales about Colorado’s stunning beauty, active lifestyle and the magic for all who wander there. After many heaven-on- earth visuals and two children later, I gave in and let our family start all over, on a different continent, with a few suitcases in hand, ready for the American dream to strike. This is in essence how we, like many others who seek the ideal place for their kids to grow up, landed in Durango.

I have always photographed life, wanting to document pretty much everything. I begged my parents for a camera for what seemed like an eternity. Back then, in communist Czechoslovakia, I felt like the luckiest child on the planet when my dad handed me a Russian- made film camera on my eighth birthday. No child has ever taken as many pictures of hamsters, dogs, horses or chickens as I did at the time, I am certain of it. I loved taking and sharing photographs of my friends. Whether it was my passion to document everything or just my difficulty in letting go of anything, I have been obsessed with photographs for as long as I can remember.

Funny enough, though, I have never seriously pursued the photographer’s journey. Small, compact digital cameras quickly became my norm. I kept shooting for myself and those around me using basic tools, and never in my life would I have dared to dream that this could be my path. Sometimes you just don’t see what is right in front of you.

We had taken a lot of risks moving our family across the ocean. I figured I might as well go big and invested in my first pro-level camera at the very same time. This really marked the beginning of my exciting, frustrating and ever so rewarding journey as a self-taught photographer. Foteem Photography was born. And just as I felt I was making up something new, I also made up the word Foteem. Well, not entirely—it may mean nothing to English speakers, but if you say it to a Czech person you are literally saying: “I take photos.”

After many late nights studying, reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on related to photography, there was still one problem to solve: I loved taking pictures of people, but I couldn’t stand posing them. I despised the resulting images. Not understanding the point of becoming one of zillions of portrait photographers, I felt the strongest urge to turn my passion into a business. I refused to settle for standardized styles.

I knew there had to be another way. I wanted to create something significant. Just the thought of telling a family how to sit and where to aim their chins gave me shivers. How could I photograph the children’s expressions without them saying cheese and looking positively constipated? How could I create real memories, capture honest expressions and offer the kind of photographs I knew, as a parent, would actually become meaningful mementos? How could I do that without faking something, pretending, or telling people what to do?

I knew I had a vision—and I knew I had to keep it real. I was on a mission to get families to invest in worthwhile memories that would be treasured forever, and I refused to give up on my values. There had to be a way. I’m a slow learner, so it would probably have taken me a very long time to find the how to my why had I not discovered an amazing family documentary photographer, Kirsten Lewis. I took one look at a photograph she’d taken and I had to know absolutely everything about how she’d made it.

There really was a way. Kirsten was not only already taking these kinds of photos but also teaching others how to do it. My world had opened up to family photojournalism. All the apertures opened, and Kirsten became my mentor. There was no going back.

So what is it that I do? You can imagine it as a journalist following you around and photographing your life. There’s no script, no guidance, no directing. You do what you would have done if I hadn’t been there, while I just hang out with you and your family and document the very life you are living—whether for an entire day or as little as a couple of hours.

I have never been more physically and emotionally exhausted from a job. Mind you, the three small kids at home may be an exception. But I have also never had greater job satisfaction. I count my lucky stars that I have discovered a passion that makes me smile, keeps me up at night, and often results in happy tears all around. I feel that honesty is underrated in general, and so is family documentary photography. This genre may be in diapers but mark my words, it won’t be long before more people start yearning for photography that tells a true story… their story.

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