“I turned 33 in my parent’s basement,” Connie (aka Coco) Aramaki flatly states. Coco has traveled the world. She has apprenticed for major New York fashion photographers. She received recognition from the NPPA’s Women in Photography and Eddie Adams Workshop for her stories on families affected by drug violence in Juarez. She has documented war zones. Coco is a badass, by all intents and purposes, and yet, this admission humanizes her. “I felt like shit,” she describes of that birthday. “I was unsure that I was going to be able to make a living as a photographer, bruised from a failed relationship, and dead broke. I moved back home from NYC and sold off all my photo equipment besides one camera and a fixed 50 [lens] to get back on my feet.”
Coco is a no bullshit kind of woman. She’s honest and quiet by nature, but quiet doesn’t mean shy. She chooses her words carefully and knows exactly what she wants. But that hasn’t always been the case. “I became brutally honest with myself about what I had really lost and what I really wanted back,” she explained. Losing (what felt like) everything made Coco look at her life in a new way. People don’t often reassess by choice—they have to be forced into it, and for Coco, that loss has paid off.
Nowadays, Coco is shooting full time. Her style is distinct, raw, revealing. Discovering what she really wanted has lent itself to an ability to authentically expose others. Now, Coco oozes contentment. She’s one of Seattle’s most sought after photographers and she's in a place now that's enviable, having bounced back from hardship in a big way. "People tell me that I was a cat in a past life because I do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. And because I'm always looking for a slice of sun to lay in."
Where are you from?
I'm from Seattle. When I applied to college I went for schools in the big cities. Somehow I weaseled into NYU. I went from a practically all-Caucasian environment to the melting pot of the world. I'd like to say that is a major part of how I got to where I am now. My eyes were opened to something different.
How did you come to do what you do?
When I was 23, I backpacked for 3 months through Southeast Asia. The day I left my dad gave me his old Pentax k1000 and a brick of Kodak film from Costco. I didn't want to take it because it was heavy, but he insisted. Before that trip, I had never explored a camera and definitely not a manual one. When I got back to develop the film, half of it turned out completely black and the others turned out quite nice. That bothered me so I immediately enrolled in a night school program for photography 101 to learn how to expose film. At that point, I was hooked. I started photographing everything.
After my backpacking trip, I quit my job and moved to Santa Barbara to go to the Brooks Institute of Photography. There I did another undergrad degree in photojournalism and simultaneously got my masters in science for color and light theory. I started out as a stringer for Agency France Press, Getty, and the LA Times. During that time, the news was morphing into entertainment news. I didn't agree with that transition in media so I switched fields. I knew I wanted to travel so I started assisting a fashion photographer from NYC. I was able to shoot during my downtime and got to travel the world for 6 years. He taught me everything I know. Not necessarily about photography but about how to work hard, manage your team, how to effectively collaborate with the client. Invaluable.
What has been your biggest challenge in the industry?
I would have to say the biggest challenge for me is the fact that I’m quiet. My soft voice is often miscommunicated and interpreted as no being confident in my job or a lack of the ability to run a crew. I have lost jobs because of my quiet demeanor. The truth is, I don't believe in barking orders at my guys. I feel that strong non-verbal communication is the most important to me when I pick my team. I want to be able to look at them and give them a head nod and we both understand what needs to be done. I choose to work with assistants that I respect as shooters and I view them as my peers.
Who do you have a girl crush on?
I recently got a chance to meet Megan, the lead singer of Purity Ring. I photographed her during a music festival. She put on an amazing performance and was the only artist backstage that practiced before she went on. I thought it showed her professionalism and respect for her fans. When I introduced myself to her she was humble, kind, and most importantly she listened. Very rare for people in general but extremely rare for a famous artist. I really respected her and the way she treated people.
Name someone that exists on a pedestal for you, and describe why.
There are innumerable people in my life that I admire and respect but I honestly cannot name someone that I put on a pedestal. Everyone will disappoint you at one point or another. I feel that the faster you learn that, the faster you realize that there is no such thing as perfection. And the faster you learn that, the faster you will realize that imperfection itself is beautiful.
What’s a fantastic piece of advice you have been given in your life, and who gave it to you?
My dad gave me advice once when I was in elementary school. He was dropping me off in the morning and the janitor was outside doing some yard work. He asked me if I knew his name. I said no. He told me I have something in common with everyone. And if you don't know what it is then find it. He told me that it's just as important to know the janitor of the building, as it is to know the CEO of a company. He was right.
Describe a time when you felt unfairly judged by another woman.
At a poker tournament in Las Vegas. She didn't think I had it in me. To be fair, I wasn't sure either.
What do you love about the way women treat each other?
Yes, we are all guilty of sizing each other up every now and again but magically inside the women's restroom, the judgment temporarily disappears. We tuck in each other's bra straps without asking, lend each other a pink lip without hesitation, and aren’t afraid to tell each other that the other looks great. It's our own version of a football huddle.
How has your attitude towards other women changed over in the last decade or two?
That it's no longer women vs. men or women vs. women. Today it's good intentions vs. bad intentions.
Describe the last time you felt vulnerable:
The last time I felt vulnerable was the last time I fell in love. It gets me every time and I hope it continues to do so.
At what point in your life did you feel the most insecure? Why?
It's hard to say when I was at the most insecure point in my life because I'm insecure every time I put myself out there. It can be as silly as when I sing in front of someone for the first time, to as serious as when I'm standing up for something that I believe in. I think that insecurity and its repercussions are understandable and forgivable and for me going thru that very process is a way to self-confidence.
What advice would you like to share with that former self?
Don't sign up for all those credit cards, you don't need it. Don't go 98mph speeding through Texas, you can't catch it or run from it. And don't worry, you will always be loved.