BriAnne Wills is a freelance fashion and beauty photographer living and working in Brooklyn. She primarily works with women owned brands, having shot for Samantha Pleet, Shhhowercap, Bare Minerals, and Milk Makeup. After embarking on a nude portrait series, BriAnne shifted her project to capture the bond between women and their feline companions. Named Girls and Their Cats, the project has featured over 240 women (some past Who Is She subjects included!) and the stories of how their furry friends ended up in their lives. I spoke with BriAnne about getting started with photography, learned about cat passports, and talked more about the impact of Girls and Their Cats.
Where did your interest in photograph come from?
I’ve always been interested in photography—my dad was an amateur photographer when I was growing up. He was into nature photography and into documenting our childhood, so we always had old cameras laying around and I used to play around with them. It wasn’t until I went to college that it resurfaced. Both of my college roommates were art majors and they were always working on really cool, interesting artistic projects, some of which included taking photos. I was like I remember being really interested in this, so I started taking photos again for fun. That was in the time of MySpace, so I was posting on MySpace and people were like “Hey, what if I paid you to take my photo?" and I’m like wait a minute, I can make money? Yeah, let’s do it!
How did you end up working primarily with beauty and fashion clients?
I dabbled in all areas of photography, including weddings and Senior photos, and I absolutely hated it and wasn’t good at it. I’ve always been into dressing up my subjects and being creative. When I was younger, my grandmother had this amazing chest full of vintage dresses that she would collect for us, and I would make my sister dress up and we would put on little performances. I’ve always been a director in that sense. Fashion is something I’m not personally into but I really enjoy looking at it.
When you’re in the zone or getting ready to shoot, what is that process like for you?
I haven’t been doing a lot of personal editorials or shoots, I’m mostly shooting for my clients, but before, I would do a mood board and I would collect images that I sourced online that would help inspire whoever else I’m working with. I usually find hair stylists, makeup artists, wardrobe stylists, models, and put together the mood board to show the images in my head as best as I could and get everyone else on-board. Once we agree it just flows from there. Nothing ever looks like the mood board—it’s really just a way to get our creative juices flowing. Once we’re on set the shoot takes on a life of its own. I try not to focus too much on the mood board, but it is a nice way to get us all on the same page. I’m sort of OCD about prepping my kit, so I will check my bag multiple times to make sure my camera hasn’t crawled out, like grown legs and crawled out. If I haven’t shot in a while I’ll dream about it a lot—coming up with really cool concepts in my head that would be expensive to produce but I write them down, so maybe one day.
Can you talk about working as a freelance photographer and how you connect with clients?
Instagram is hugely instrumental in building my career—I think the main reason I have as many clients as I do is because of Girls and Their Cats and its notoriety. People will have seen the project and contact me because they also see that I’m a fashion and beauty photographer. A lot of my clients are former cat ladies that I have photographed for the project, I haven’t done any cold calling or emailing in a long time. I have a great roster of clients who continue to hire me and it’s been really nice. Instagram is definitely instrumental in that process, being able to post your work and have it be seen.
How did Girls and Their Cats get started?
After moving to New York in 2014 I didn’t know anybody and was hoping to find work but knew that it would take some time. Until I started working as a fashion photographer, I decided to take on a small art project, thinking I would photograph nude women in their homes. Once I was photographing the first nude model in her home, her cat George, a beautiful Maine Coon, decided to be a part of the photo shoot and I started snapping photos of the model and her cat. I have cats so it seemed like the natural thing to do, I was like wait why isn’t this a project yet? I actually had to do my research because I didn’t want to copy someone’s project that was already going on, but nobody was doing anything and especially not for cool and interesting cat ladies who are super inspiring. That was kind of the light bulb that went off. I thought it would just be a series of 20 cat ladies and then I would move on to the next project, and now I’ve shot over 240. It has expanded to other cities—I’m from Portland, Oregon so I’ve done that city a bunch and I just did Philly, and a month ago I did Washington D.C. and I’m going to be doing Los Angeles and San Francisco next month.
What was it about the relationship between women and their cats that you wanted to explore?
I think cat ladies in general get a bad wrap—nobody really needs help creating a better image for dog people because that’s just not a negative stereotype. Cat ladies are often associated with being old, cat hoarding spinsters and it just isn’t true. I have two cats and I’m not like that, my house is clean and tidy, doesn’t smell like cat pee, so I knew there had to be more cat ladies out there. Also cats in general don’t get adopted as frequently. I think almost a million cats are euthanized every year, so it seemed like they needed a little boost in their image.
How has the project grown?
It has grown substantially in terms of the amount of cat ladies I’ve photographed, but also it started off with just a single image for the shoot and I initially didn’t include a story—it was just a caption: so and so and her cat in Brooklyn. Then it evolved to one photo and a brief synopsis; so and so found her cat wandering the streets, but then the stories became more involved and as the stories evolved my photo shoots started evolving. I went from film to digital because I couldn’t afford to keep up with that, and I started getting better at shooting digital. Now the photo shoots themselves are six to ten photos, and it’s not just the girl and her cat, I’ll do some shots of the cat, some shots of cat decor in the home and end up showing more of the apartment. The blog is something I established a year ago and that’s been new. It’s continuing to evolve and now that I’m adding new cities the fan base will grow too.
What’s been the most rewarding part of creating Girls and Their Cats?
I would say the relationships I’ve formed with all of the cat ladies—I have this really strong and supportive network of like minded women who all have cats, and of course having clients and being able to work as much as I do is really great, but I’ve formed some really great friendships out of it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your cats?
I have two cats, Tuck and Liza. Tuck is a boy and Liza is a girl, they’re both rescues from Ukraine. When I was living in Ukraine with my husband I rescued them and he helped, and then we brought them back over a year later. They had to get little kitty passports and my husband flew them over, one on his lap, one under the seat, on a 12 hour flight.
What does a day in your life look like: a day when you have a shoot, or are shooting for Girls and Their Cats, or have nothing going on?
When I don’t have any shoots planned I shamefully binge watch a lot of TV and order takeout and cuddle with the cats. If I have a shoot I wake up early, sit and have my coffee. It’s kind of a ritual for me. I like to have that time to myself before I have to be on set with a bunch of people. I’m very much an introvert and talking to people all day and having to be on my game all day is very draining. I take a shower, get dressed, feed the cats and hang out with them a bit while I prep my kit—usually that’s done the night before so I’m just checking to make sure nothing has escaped. I will order a taxi and head to wherever my location is, and it’s just kinda go go go from there, directing models, dealing with clients and eating amazing food from catering, and sometimes I’ll get a haircut from the stylists. We usually wrap, depending on what shoot it is, around 7:30 pm, then I take a taxi back home and order more take out. I don’t want to look at my photos that day, I need time away from my laptop. On Girl's and Their Cats shoots it’s very easy, I usually only schedule one a day and that might be twice or three times a month, and they last about an hour. I’ll show up, chat with the cat lady a little bit, get to know the cat, take some photos and then head home.
How do you unwind/practice self-care?
Self-care for me is takeout and Netflix, or whatever bingeable show I’m watching at the moment. I also think cuddling with my cats is great for my mental health. I wish I could say I sleep in but the only thing that the cats are not great for is that, so maybe going to bed early and a glass of wine or some sort of nice cocktail.
What’s up next for Girls and Their Cats?
I can’t say, but it’s very exciting! Let’s just say it has something to do with all the cool cities I’m going to. I obviously think it would be cool to include more cities if possible—international would be awesome but we’ll see. I don’t know where the project will end up, it could end up being this cool lifestyle website like the Coveteur or something like that. I’m definitely having fun and I think it’s cool that I get to meet so many incredible women. I’m going to keep going until it’s no longer viable.
What is your sign and how do you feel about it?
I’m a Virgo and I’m not very much into Astrology in terms of my knowledge about it, I just know that Virgos are very tidy people and introverts and I very much relate to that. I have always been a very tidy person, very organized, and that’s not often associated with creative minds, so that’s kind of this dichotomy for me, where I need to have a clean space in order to be creative when it’s usually the opposite.
What are you listening to?
We got a Google Home for Christmas and I will ask her to play music so it’s usually random, but if I ask for something specific I’m doing a throwback to Kate Bush or Sade.
What are three spots to visit in your neighborhood?
I live in Clinton Hill, and there’s Clementine, this vegan bakery down the street, Locanda Vini e Olii, which is very old-school Italian food, it’s very good, and Doris—everybody goes there!