As Sue Siri flies between Halifax, Toronto and various American cities with her new business venture, she vividly remembers picking up her first camera at West Pictou District High School.
“A guidance counselor put a Nikon EM, one of the first little SLR cameras, into my hands and told me to go join the photography club and help out with the yearbook,” she said.
Siri, formerly Sue MacEachern, grew up in Westville and Alma and is founder and CEO of Iris Booth Inc which provides high-end professional head and shoulders shots at a fraction of the cost of hiring a photographer. She opted to call the company Iris which is Siri spelled backwards because Apple Inc. uses the name Siri for its phone voice function.
Back in her school days it was the authority a camera conferred that spoke to Siri more than the photographic possibilities.
“It was the eighties and I loved the exclusivity, the badge of authority. With a camera in your hands you could direct people and they listened because very few people had cameras,” she said, adding she went on to head the yearbook committee.
Her opportunities to go places with a camera expanded in university.
“It is hard to believe today but I went back stage for photos at concerts at the Metro Centre I hadn’t even paid to get into. I had no accreditation or ID but I had a camera and acted like I belonged so they let me through.”
Her first job out of university was as a press photographer for The Chronicle Herald.
“l was the first female press photographer to work in Nova Scotia. It was in 1987 or ‘88 and it was such a big departure, the paper actually wrote a story about hiring a girl to take photos.”
While it was good experience, she learned the job did not suit her.
“I found it too intrusive and that’s not a moral judgment because there are great photo journalists, some of them great friends of mine, but I realized it didn’t suit my temperament.”
She went to Regina and worked for Agriculture Canada photographing and documenting a drought.
“It paid well and was good experience but not that interesting. While I was there I connected with a group who had secured funding to do an exchange of artists with China and I was going to be part of that until the funding was cut at the last moment.”
Deeply disappointed, she bought her own ticket and spent six months backpacking around Southeast Asia. She returned to Regina to work long enough to finance another trip that took her to Thailand.
“I still had my press badge from The Chronicle Herald and that got me into the international press correspondents’ club. From there I learned about refugee camps near the Cambodian border. I wanted to take photos there but the only way in was to get a job so that’s what I did. I worked for a US program training nomadic tribes people how to live in big city America.”
Once she was employed at the camp there was no restriction on her taking photos.
“I knew then it was faces I wanted to photograph and I was there for two years so I had lots of opportunity for photos, especially of children.”
Once every six months or so a few camp staff would get a ride into Bangkok where they relished McDonalds French fries and spent a week’s wages on a phone call home.
“I’ve got a friend touring around Southeast Asia right now and I can see photos of where he has been daily but it was nothing like that when I was working there. We had almost no contact with home.”
When she returned to Canada she set up a studio in her home in Vancouver and did portraits, weddings and special events.
“I loved the psychology involved in going in among people who were most often strangers and getting the kind of photos they wanted.”
In 2000 she and her family moved to Halifax where she set up studios in Bayers Lake and on Spring Garden Road.
“Eventually my work became mostly corporate, taking head shots and other photos for businesses and business clients.”
As she trucked around ladders and heavy equipment, she began to wonder if there might be gentler way to earn a living. That thought was in the back of her mind as she told family over dinner St. Mary’s University was looking for 4,000 graduation photos.
“I remember saying it would be easier to set up a booth with video directions and charge the students $20 each to take their own photos.”
Within hours she was in her living room building her first prototype from craft board and paper.
“Everything I’d done up to this had been done by the bootstraps. Like every other freelancer, I worked and hoped to get paid. I bought equipment in good times and held off in lean times but this business has required a lot more up font and that was terrifying.”
Less than two years into the business, she now has booths in busy locations in Halifax and Toronto as well as in four American cities and enquiries are pouring in.
“It has been humbling and exhilarating. I’ve had a lot of meetings where I felt like the dumbest person in the room but I’ve just had to push on and learn as fast as I can. It has turned my hair grey and I’ve been knocked over a few times but when I allow myself to take a moment and look back, what our little company has done is pretty remarkable and we’ve only just started.”