Valerie J. Cochran is the photoblogger behind your waitress.
Portrait by Bill Vaccaro.
PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?
Valerie J. Cochran: The question I most often get asked is ‘Are you really a waitress?’. So yes, I am a real waitress. I’ve worked in the restaurant industry off and on since my first summer job at the age of 15.
I grew up in a small town in Missouri. After high school I moved to Georgia to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design where I studied photography until the financial laws were changed. Then I moved back to Missouri and studied Comparative Literature. That led me to California in 2001 and UC Berkeley where I studied for a short spell. Berkeley the college did not agree with me, yet the Bay Area felt like home. Today I live and work in beautiful Oakland, California.
PP: When did you first get into photography, and what was your first camera?
VC: When I was a little girl I loved shooting Polaroid’s of my family with my dad’s Land Camera. It was magic to watch them develop! I also had a Kodak 110 camera. I had it for years and took it everywhere. My first serious camera was also my dad’s. It was a Pentax ME slr with a 35mm lens. I used it in all through art school.
PP: What equipment do you use now?
VC: Today I shoot only analog. My main camera is a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. Recently I was gifted a Canon AE-1 Program camera with a 28mm lens which I have taken out a few times. Other cameras include: Holga 120N, Shakey’s Pizza Diana Clone, Kodak Brownie, Fisheye 2 35mm from lomography.com, and disposables. I love shooting disposables!
PP: Where do you develop your film?
VC: The cheapest place. Drugstores for everyday C-41 and local photo labs for black and white. Then when I do prints for exhibition or for sale, I have a pro lab scan my original negatives. I detest scanning! I’m ok with letting the pros take care of that end. I am grateful to have darkroom experience though. I keep saying I’m going to build one in my bathroom, but I’ve been saying that for years. One day… maybe I just will.
PP: When and why did you start your photoblog?
VC: Your Waitress began five years ago after a bad shift at work. I was managing a restaurant and working 80 hours a week. A guest of the restaurant was a bit belligerent after a few cocktails and I told her we could no longer serve her drinks. Then she proceeded to list all of her accomplishments and asked when I was going to become a ‘real person’. A waitress in her eyes was just a servant. I got a bit upset.
Later that night I decided to start a ‘rant blog’ and write about mean restaurant patrons. I deleted the post in the morning but kept the blog. A few days later I found a box of pictures I had taken at SCAD. One self-portrait in particular caught my eye. Who was that girl and what happened to her dreams?
A few days later I started scanning some old pics and changed my site title to ‘Your Waitress Photos’. Then I started taking pictures around my neighborhood with a digital camera, a Fuji FinePix A201. I started anonymously, only using your_waitress for my name, as a protest to those who felt service people had nothing to offer. I went back to film when my digital camera broke. By then, I had a few followers and was hooked on not only photoblogging, but also on having a creative outlet back in my life.
PP: Do you still have that self-portrait that caught your eye?
VC: Yes, I shared it on the first version of my photoblog for my birthday in 2004.
I use it as a profile pic in places such as Twitter, since it is the beginning of my current photographic journey. It was taken in the fall of 1992 in my apartment on Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah, Georgia. I was 19 years old.
PP: How do you go about taking portraits of strangers?
VC: That is the second most asked question I get. I used to be terrified of shooting people. I was worried about offending them or invading their privacy. However, I kept finding myself drawn to people and wanting to take their photograph.
The first true street portrait I took was of a man named Michael (just like you) in Berkeley. I had already spoken to him a few times and had given him some change for food as he was homeless. I was walking around my block with my camera and passed him sitting in a doorway. He smiled and said hello as I walked by. After a few steps past I came back and told him my dilemma. I wanted to start taking street portraits but was afraid. He agreed to be my first. I only took one frame of him because I was so nervous! It worked though. After that I got more courage and starting asking other people I had met before. That is how I started, with people in my neighborhood.
PP: Could you share that first street portrait with us?
I would be honored to share it.
This shot of Michael was taken with my old Fuji FinePix A201 on Dwight Way in Berkeley. It was originally posted at the first version of your waitress photos on August 26, 2004.
PP: Do you have any memorable or awkward experiences with street photography?
VC: I have only been yelled at seriously for taking a picture once. I was shooting a veteran in downtown San Francisco, and a woman walking across the street was worried I was shooting her. I tried to explain that I was only taking a photo of the man, and just had to walk away.
A few times I have almost been hit by cars, usually taxis. That may be my doom one day – stepping off a curb while trying to focus a shot and being run over by a taxi. I’ve also been bumped and pushed in protests usually by police. Nothing too serious though. You just have to stand your ground out there and make your presence known.
The most memorable moments are the strangers I have met along the way. Last month in New York I met an amazing event photographer, Louis Mendes. I talked about the experience a bit on my photoblog. I will never forget that day.
PP: Are there any tricks of the trade regarding street photography that you’ve picked up over the years?
VC: What works for me is to be visible and honest about taking pictures. Some other wonderful photographers are great at being sneaky. I am not sneaky. I always keep my camera out and try to look like I belong there. When approaching a subject for a street portrait, I don’t ask right away if I can take their picture. I smile, and say hello first. Then I try to talk to them. I don’t just want their picture, I want to know a bit about them as well. I love meeting people, and working as a waitress has helped. I have to talk to strangers everyday. Once I got over my own fears, I learned to focus on helping my subjects get over their fears. People get nervous with a camera in their face. I do take pictures of people without asking but I am still very visible. They know I am there, even if it isn’t obvious in the shot. Waiting for the moment, to shoot a frame, when people get used to you being there might be my trick.
PP: What do you consider to be the most important skill or technique in taking pictures that aspiring photographers should focus on mastering?
VC: If I only get one then it would be: Shoot often!
I obviously don’t think you have to have the most expensive gear to be a good photographer. A person behind the lens of a decent camera shooting something they are passionate about will do just fine. Get to know your camera. Trust it. When you take a picture you like, figure out what you did right and repeat. Then take some chances, try some new film, and you will find your way.
PP: What’s on your wish list?
VC: It might be cliche, but I have dreamed of owning a Hasselblad 501CM for many years. A dear friend had one when I lived in Kansas City. He was kind enough to let me shoot it a few times and I have wanted one ever since. Also, that darkroom I mentioned before would go together nicely with the Hasselblad since medium format is much more expensive to develop commercially.
PP: What do you wish you had known when you had just started your waitress?
VC: I’m not sure honestly. Maybe I should have gotten the domain from the beginning instead of restarting the photoblog, twice. I have no major regrets. The surprise of the journey is part of the fun.
PP: What are some of the most challenging aspects of what you do?
VC: As a photographer? Shooting on the street creates different conditions that are not always ideal for photography. In a studio you can fix the light to your needs, on the street you take what you get and do your best. Just getting out there though is the hardest part. Most challenges I face, like all the other areas of life, come from within. Inspiration can be fleeting. That is one reason I have never tried to be a photo-a-day photoblogger. When I have something interesting to share on the photoblog, I post. When I am not shooting, I don’t. I no longer feel the need to ever ‘feed the blog’. I fell into that trap a few times in the beginning, now I understand that breaks are good.
PP: This is unrelated to photography, but is there anything about being a waitress that most people don’t know or realize? Also, if you could broadcast a message to the world on behalf of all waiters and waitresses, what would you say?
VC: Yes, people are crazy. If you understand that in the beginning, you will be a great waiter/waitress! Of course, that applies especially to people in the restaurant business. I do love my job. I enjoy taking care of people. I love learning about different cuisines, wines, liquors, napkin folds, etc. The best part about waiting tables is that each shift is a new beginning. You get to start with a clean slate and rarely have to take your work home with you. A bad shift can be erased by a good talk with your coworkers over a cold beer at the end of it.
As for the second question: If you treat people the way you wanted to be treated, everyone will benefit. A boss of mine used to say: Sugar goes a lot farther than salt. Also, tip more than you think you should for great service. I’m sure all my fellow servers would agree to that last bit.
PP: You’ve shot in quite a few different cities. Which stand out to you? How are they similar and different?
VC: Travel is always inspiring. Even across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. New Orleans is my favorite city. I was there in 2005 a few months before Katrina hit. The people and vibe of NOLA are like no other. It is truly magical, and the night shots I brought back are still some of my favorites. Chicago was fun! I grew up in the Midwest but had never spent time in Chicago. Wandering around an abandoned candy factory with my fellow photogs, what more could you want? My most recent trip was to NYC, also for the first time, last month. I shot 43 rolls of film that week. New York is a pilgrimage for any street photography or cinema or literature fan. To finally walk those streets that have been ingrained into our culture, was amazing! Plus the people were extremely friendly, which surprised me a bit. It is the little things that make them different, like how New Yorkers don’t wait for red lights to cross the street. Those are the things you remember.
PP: Who are some photographers you follow online?
VC: I have met several of my photoblogging heroes and have a gallery of them in my 86 list. A few I haven’t met but have followed for years include: Rion Nakaya, Rachel James, Juan Buhler, Markus Hartel, and Susan Burnstine.
PP: Who is one person you would choose to see interviewed on PetaPixel?
VC: Juan Buhler.
PP: Anything you’d like to leave PetaPixel readers with?
VC: I would just like to thank them for making it to the end of the interview! Oh, and shoot often.