“The most wonderful thing you can do is be yourself,” says Charity Ponter, and she’d know. This photographer and artist followed her bliss from a young age. Her inner voice said “photography and travel,” so she graduated high school early (at 16), bought a camera and travelled the world. Her journey to full-time photographer and artist has been rich with challenges and rewards and undeniable beauty, as seen in her stunning photography, which aims to bring healing and connection. We are delighted to introduce Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography, today’s FACE of Birmingham.
Tell us a bit about your professional journey. How did you come to be a photographer and artist?
I’m very fortunate in that I knew I wanted to be a photographer from a young age. I graduated high school early, and used my graduation money to buy my first SLR camera. I had a few mentors and role models who were photographers, and I was obsessed with their lives. I watched their every move, asked a lot of questions and read some books about photography when I was just getting started.
All I wanted to do was travel the world and take pictures, so I did. My family and I barely lived above the poverty line, but I come from a long line of hardworking entrepreneurs, and I quickly discovered opportunities to work overseas as a children’s camp counselor and as a teacher of English as a second language, taking pictures the whole time. I just started doing what I wanted to as soon as I could make it happen.
Tell us about your art. How would you describe it?
My work is split into three parts; client work, community artwork and personal artwork.
Most of my clients are creative professionals, artists and craftsmen. They come to me with their photographic needs, and I work with them to bring their ideas to life. Sometimes it’s product photos, portraits or storytelling about their brand. I try to stay true to my style as much as possible, but in my client work, it’s all about them and their vision, as it should be.
In my community artwork, I am continuing to push the subject of local creative community. I keep returning to other artists as my muse, allowing them to inspire the work we do together.
My personal artwork usually takes the form of photo stories. I’ll have an idea or a concept, and I’ll create a series of conceptual photos based on that idea. I like to start with a concept and keep adding to the series until the narrative feels like a complete message or story.
Your book, for the beauty of: birmingham (which is sadly no longer in print), was a beautiful celebration of the artists of the Magic City with a look into their unique worlds. How did that come about?
In many ways, it’s a tale of my journey into the art community in Birmingham. I traveled so much in my late teens and early 20s, I didn’t have any local community to speak of, and it was soul-killing. My early 20s were a time of awakening as an artist and realizing I could have life-giving creative friendships if I would just go out and find them. So I did. The more I got out there and met local artists, the more amazed and inspired I became at the wealth of creativity within arm’s reach. I started photographing all the artists I was meeting while they worked in their studios, and it turned into a huge photo series, which became my first photo book.
You recently took the leap to full-time photographer and artist. What was that like?
It has not been pretty, but it has been good. To be perfectly honest, I went full-time way before I should have, financially speaking, but in retrospect I wouldn’t change a thing. I knew it was the right time, so I took the risks and made do. Not once have I been unable to pay my bills, nor have I starved. I also have had a lot of help from my community — by no means am I in this alone. Having people walking beside you is essential. When I really remember there is nothing else I’d rather be doing, it’s pretty hard to regret any part of the process, no matter how long the hours or how tight the budget.
In your art, you have a focus on creating work that brings healing and connection. Tell us more about that.
My personal artwork tends to be very ethereal and spiritual. While I am of the Christian faith as an individual, I don’t feel comfortable with the majority of “Christian culture” as a group, especially in the South. I desire to see those within my faith and those outside of my faith be able to connect and establish common ground through art.
I’m very connected to my church community and to the art community, and a lot of times those two communities feel diametrically opposed. I think a lot of healing needs to happen on the bridge between those two “worlds,” and a lot of my art is responsive to that. The light and hope that is in me comes out of me the most when I am able to photographically express themes of beauty and redemption amidst darkness — in a way that touches people of any faith or background.
You recently traveled out west, where you captured beautiful images. Tell us about your travels.
It was life-changing. I packed up my little old red truck and drove thousands of miles. I took a lot of risks with the age of my truck and limited finances, but everything worked out, one day at a time. I had the opportunity to stay in a rural town in New Mexico as part of an informal artist residency, and then I’d hop up to Colorado in my free time and explore that state as well. It was wild and free, and everything was photogenic. The weather there is a spectacular performance. Every day, nature puts on a stunning show. Every angle of the sun and element of the weather does something unpredictable and new on a daily basis.
My trip was an important reminder that I need to keep travel and adventure on my yearly calendar. It was a giant reset button on the rest of my year, and I came back stronger and inspired and more myself than ever.
What advice would you give women who want to live a more creative life?
To borrow a line from the Avett Brothers, “Decide what to be and go be it.” Know what you want to do, and then start doing it every day, in whatever large or small ways you can. And never, ever, ever give up. Decide that you are never going to give up; perseverance is powerful.
What projects are you working on now?
I am working on a photo book that will be published this coming spring. It’s a book that features collaborative portraits of local artists. I asked each artist to come up with an idea for a conceptual photo of themselves that expresses part of themselves or their work. We work together to plan for the shoot, and then I produce the final picture. It’s been incredible; these photos are wild. I love getting inside the artist’s brain. I can’t wait to share this book.
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Probably just that everything is going to work out, so all 10 years of freak-outs and second-guessing is pretty pointless.
What are your three must-have style staples?
Liberty overalls, Frye boots and red lipstick.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of myself for not giving into the pressure to go to college. I couldn’t afford it, and I despise debt, and I knew I could learn photography on my own. I think school would have been great in many ways, but it just never felt like a realistic option for me — too much time and money and not on my own terms. I have received and continue to receive criticism for my lack of a formal education, but when I win awards or grants for my work, those accomplishments mean even more to me as I see the reward of plain old hard work.
Any guilty pleasures?
I love wearing fake nails. Pointy ones in loud colors. I can rarely indulge, because I work with my hands so much, but I freaking love it.
Favorite local eatery?
Authentic Chinese is my comfort food, so probably Mr. Chen’s.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
My truck with camper shell, my to-do app on my phone and ChapStick.
Thank you, Charity! Learn more about Charity’s photography and art at charityponterphotography.com.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Charity in her studio.