When Cecilie Olaussen '21 looks through the lens of her camera, she knows she’s about to preserve a special moment in time for her clients, something that never fails to delight and inspire her.
The thrill of telling stories with a camera runs in the family, it seems. As the granddaughter of a National Geographic nature photographer, Cecilie Olaussen grew up around photography. When her grandfather left her his dark room equipment after his death, she fell in love with both the process and the legacy photographs leave behind.
“I knew early on that this was the career path I wanted to take,” she says.
A life in focus
Born and raised in Norway with an American mother and a Norwegian father, Olaussen’s family moved to her mother’s home state of Maryland just as she was starting high school. There, she was required to take a fine arts class her sophomore year, so she signed up for photography.
“I loved learning more about composition, lighting and dark room techniques,” she says.
It turns out she was a natural, and her teachers took notice. By the time she was a senior, she was assisting her social studies teacher, who was also a photographer, at wedding shoots. Soon after, she was taking her own photo
“I won numerous photography awards in high school for family portraiture and architecture,” she notes.
Down to business
She spent the following years second shooting for a respected photographer, which gave her the opportunity to gain experience and contacts. She built up a portfolio of her own filled with weddings, headshots and family photos, and she soon had her own clientele.
Eager to continue her education in photography after earning an associate degree, she applied to a photography program. Despite her already impressive portfolio, she wasn’t accepted.
“When I didn’t get into the program, I was discouraged,” she admits.
However, she was thriving professionally, and in 2010 she registered her photography business as an LLC. Based in the DMV area, she has enjoyed shooting for many high-profile clients, from the Washington Commanders to the who’s who of the political and social scenes, including the Obamas, now-King Charles and even the pope.
Olaussen’s business was thriving—until it wasn’t. When the pandemic hit, weddings and events screeched to a halt, and she found herself out of work. She decided she would take the opportunity to further her education.
She turned to UMGC. After earning her bachelor’s degree in humanities, she began a master’s degree program in management with a specialization in interdisciplinary studies, which she says is giving her the skills she needs to better manage her business.
After enjoying such a successful career, Olaussen and her husband formed a nonprofit organization to benefit students and their families in his native country of Kenya with mentoring opportunities. Through their organization, they’re also taking photos of school children who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to be photographed.
“I’m a firm believer in giving back to the community,” she notes. “This is my passion project.”
When Olaussen and her husband travel to Kenya, they partner with schools to give students that experience that so many take for granted.
“They don’t have picture day in Kenya,” she explains. “When I show up with my camera, they get so excited. I bring a portable printer and a give each child a picture of themselves. On the back of it, they write what they want to be when they grow up.”
Framing her future
As she looks ahead, Olaussen is seeking more balance in her life so she and her husband can focus more on family and travel. While she loves weddings, she’s pivoting to supporting small business owners’ social media marketing efforts.
“I found a niche, and I’m able to have a retainer agreement with a set income and not have to work every weekend for eight to 10 hours on my feet,” she says.
A fearless outlook
From her teenage years and beyond, Olaussen has approached challenges head-on with grit, determination and a happy outlook, which is something she says will serve her fellow alumni well, too.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have tried things and failed, but you can’t be afraid of trying things and failing,” she says. “That practice makes you better.”
She’s also the first to admit that she wouldn’t enjoy the success she has today if she didn’t invest in building a strong network.
“When you go into a field, whether it’s photography, a new business or you want to be a CPA, you need to cultivate those relationships,” she says.
For her, that effort has paid off in so much referral business that she doesn’t need to pay for advertising. In the end, that has helped her make her career what it is today.
“I believe that your network is as great as your net worth,” she sums up.
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