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  • Itzel Santiago Pastrana

At the Studio the Last Portrait

It was August 5th early in the morning and I could feel the heat already starting to rise as I walk across the street from my vehicle to the studio. Once inside, The Think Visual Project studio welcomes me with cool air, a complete contrast to the outside summer heatwave Seattle has been experiencing. I’ve arrived earlier than the other mentee’s to meet with my mentor. I am one of a few carefully selected Seattle youths who have been given a very unique opportunity to be mentored through a visual storytelling mentorship program created by Mary Gomez Camba in partnership with TedXYouth Seattle.  

Left, Kiran Oommen, and right, Mary Sciscente

I discovered I wanted to become a professional photographer sometime at the end of my college career. For a while since then, it has felt as if I have been trying to reach something but grasping at nothing and remaining on the edges of something that, in itself, is so powerful and has so many layers to it. This mentorship program was a blessing in a moment when I felt discouraged in my work and progress. 

Mary Sciscente

Understandably, sitting there discussing what the program entails and what my assignments will be, I felt excited and a bit anxious.  This is a huge opportunity and that day, August 5th, marked the last day of portraits for speakers for the TedXYouth Seattle event in October. 


Right on cue, Mary Sciscente arrives early with a morning scheduled with back to back photoshoots with each individual speaker that was to photographed by her as part of her own mentorship program assignment. It was a perfect opportunity for me capture some behind the scenes shots for the visual asset library we are all curating as part of the program. Mary Scicente just takes a moment to say her hellos and chat before she starts going through what is her day’s schedule and began preparing the studio lights for the first speaker. Mary S. is the lead photographer for the TedXYouth Seattle production team. She has been working nonstop since the start of her project to get portraits of each speaker.  By the way, if you haven’t picked on it yet, Mary G.C is our Mentor, while Mary S. is the other mentee in the program. 

From left to right, Mary Sciscente, Mary Gomez Camba, and Kiran Oommen.

Right on the dot, the first speaker arrived and made themselves at home in the studio space. Kiran Oommen is 22 years of age and has a very friendly demeanor. Their style is reminiscent to what could be described as punk rock meets folk. As Mary S. sets Kiran up in the studio for the first photos, we learn Kiran grew up in Eugene, Oregon and is both an activist and a musician among other things. While Kiran and Mary S. chat, she continues to snap a shot here and there as Kiran slightly moves or has a change in their expression. The studio lights flash each time confirming a new shot has been taken and once the photographer is satisfied with the in studio photos they move the photoshoot just outside. 

From left to right, Kiran Oommen, Mary Gomez Camba, and Mary Sciscente.

It’s important to get a variety of shots and not rush the process, all the while making sure you stay within an appropriate timeline before the next subject or model, in this case a TedX speaker, comes in. To really work with the subject being photographed to obtain the right photos that can represent who they are as an individual and their personality. These images will be the speakers headshots for TedXYouth Seattle. 

From left to right, Jay Pierce, Mary Sciscente, and Kiran Oommen.

Watching and observing Mary S. work eases the slight anxiety I was feeling. The confidence Mary holds around her, both when she walks into a room, and when she photographs is not just impressive, but also inspiring. I’m filled with determination and excitement at that point as I continue to shadow the group during the photoshoot. 

This new found inspiration has me wanting for these behind the scenes shots to capture the excitement and emotions of it all. See, Mary gets to tell the story of speakers, and I get to tell the story of how it all went down so that others can see both now and in the future, how we, as youths, are leading the way on stage and behind the scenes to get our voices out there. 


My intention while taking the photos is for people to see how hard Mary S. works to direct her subjects and connect with them so that she could capture the perfect portrait that represents each individual speaker. I want people to know how hard this group of youth leaders is working to make it happen. So that you, as the reader, or perhaps an individual that just happens to see theses photos, can feel as if you were there too. As Mary S. keeps hitting the shutter button so do I just a few steps behind her and the subject. 


Back at the studio, Jay Pierce strolled in with sunglasses and the first thing you notice is their edgy mix of orange and yellow hues hairstyle and their velvet blue blazer. I’m completely in love with how expressive these speakers are with their style and take a mental note to be more confident and expressive myself. Jay is naturally cool, stylish, and friendly and briefly chats with the group from the first photos, discussing their excitement. Once Kiran has made their exit, Jay and Mary S. begin the second photoshoot for the day. 

From left to right, Jay Pierce and Mary Sciscente.

Each speaker is different in their style and personality, and overall brings something different to the table. In-between laughs and chatter between the photographer and each speaker, the camera keeps clicking and the flash keeps shooting, all capturing different aspects that truly show you who each individual speaker is. Mary S. is a youth with the energy of a powerhouse when it comes to her job taking portraits. From the moment she walked in her smile and energy hasn’t faded and it’s the exact thing needed for this job.  The final photo to be selected for the speakers portrait will later be processed and uploaded. An image expressive of each individual effortlessly captured by the photographer.

Jay Pierce

You wouldn’t know the hard work both the speakers and the photographer put in to capture these portraits. Or how exhausting being photographed can be for the subject. Yet, each speaker approached their photoshoot with a type of confidence and excitement that really filled the room with energy. Getting to be a part of that and experience it helps set the stage even more for the upcoming event. A preview on how powerful these speakers ideas will be once on stage in front of hundreds of people.  

And I get  to contribute my voice by photographing it all.

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This independent TEDx event is operated under license from TED.