Unless you graduated from ECHS in 1994, you probably don't remember Kendra (Stanley) Mills. She didn't play sports, didn't enter beauty pageants, wasn't a cheerleader. So who is she? What did she do? Well, she took her passion for art and photography and turned it into a successful career. Although she's now far away from EC, we had the privilege of catching up with her, as she was gracious enough to give us this interview.
What is your Edmonson County background?
When I was six years old, my mother and stepfather moved from out-of-state because, at the time, land was cheap in Kentucky. They bought 90 acres where the Green River and Alexander Creek intersect and made a home. I graduated from Edmonson County High School in 1994.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Western Kentucky University where I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in photojournalism and a minor in agriculture.
How/When did you first try photography?
For a few years, I went to school in Florida. When I moved back to Edmonson County, I wanted to send my best friend photographs of our farm and animals from Kentucky. So, I borrowed my stepfather’s old film camera and took pictures of our cows, ducks, and horses. When my mom developed the images, she told me that I had a creative eye.
Once I was in high school, Mrs. Phyllis Miller encouraged me to take photos for the yearbook staff. For an introvert like myself, working in the darkroom with just some good music and myself, I felt at home.
Then, when I went to WKU, my love of photography really blossomed under the mentorship of professor Dave LaBelle. It was because of Mr. LaBelle that I actually decided to change my major to photojournalism and make it my career. I interned at The Glasgow Daily Times in Glasgow, Ky., The Harrisburg Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., and the Kalamazoo Gazette in Kalamazoo, Mich. while in college.
What was your first "big break?"
I remember how excited I felt when an image I took of Home Improvement actor, Tim Allen, was published in People magazine or the time I had a news photograph published in Newsweek but, to be honest, my proudest moments are when a family trusts me with something very intimate.
Sadly, I’ve photographed too many soldiers’ funerals who lost their lives in Iraq but I remember when the mother of Army Spec. Brian Derks asked the reporter and me to her home the day after his funeral so she could sit down and tell us about her son. Those are moments that are far more meaningful and important to me.
Your marital and family status?
I met my husband, Jon Mills, while on assignment when I worked for the Muskegon Chronicle. Jon is a reporter for WZZM 13, the ABC station out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’ve been married for 12 years and have two children, Yuri, age 7, and Harper, age 6. We live on 28 acres on a branch of the White River in Montague, Michigan.
I’m a pretty sentimental person so a few years ago, my in-laws, Jon and myself went back to my old farm in Edmonson County and took down the 100-year-old one-room log cabin and reassembled it on our property. Now, I’ll always have a piece of home with me in Michigan.
What does your business consist of?
After 15 years working for newspapers, I started my own photography business in February 2012. I try to stay true to my photojournalism roots and do my best to tell stories with my images even though I’m doing weddings, family photos and senior sessions much more than news these days. My goal is to be authentic and real with my imagery as I capture moments and sincere emotion.
What did you enjoy about EC?
Besides the obvious beauty of the area, with its rolling hills, amazing river and geological wonders like the karst systems, the people of Edmonson County are its truest gem. Simple, honest, kind and hardworking are all traits that come to mind when I think of the people from home. Of all the places I’ve lived and traveled, I find that Edmonson Countians have it figured out. It’s a slow-paced life but a life rich with purpose, tradition and family. Moving away has made me appreciate its charm and uniqueness much more than I had before.
Do you ever get to visit this area?
Sadly, my family sold our farm my last semester at WKU so my visits to the area have been limited. However, I secretly wish someone would hire me to photograph their wedding so I could take a trip south. (I’m serious.)
How did the arts in school (middle, high, etc) help you get where you are today?
More than anything, art was a way for me to express my creativity. Having been quiet and shy, being artistic gave me a chance to be bold. Art gave me a place and the chance to fit in.
Advice you can give to aspiring journalists/photojournalists, photographers?
Look at other photographer’s work for inspiration but be authentic to YOUR vision. Don’t be afraid to be different or “wrong” with your style. Just like in most things in life, practice does make perfect. Always carry your camera with you -- moments happen in the most ordinary of circumstances. Surround yourself with other creative people, especially those that are better than you. Learn from them. Be humble. Give back. Be curious about people that are different than you.
As you look through her work, you'll see much more than babies, weddings, and landscapes. Have you ever wondered why your photos don't look like Kendra's and other similar artists? Well, for one thing, you're using an iPhone, and the other...well, as the old saying goes, "if it were easy, everybody could do it." We wish Kendra and her family all the best and invite her back to EC anytime she gets the chance. You can find her blog here, and her website here.
Edmonson Voice Arts/Ent