The Creative Life of Thanuja Gunatillake – Santé Photography

Welcome to this first instalment of The Creative Life interview series! 

I believe that we’re all creative and that we can bring it into many facets of our life.
Each month I will interview people to find out how they express and nurture their creativity, as well as how they make room for it with everything else that’s going on in their lives. I’m also interested in learning about how they approach the business side of things if they have one.

So please, allow me to introduce you to…

The Creative Life of Thanuja Gunatillake.

Thanuja Gunatillake is the founder and owner of Santé Photography. Thanuja set up Santé to capture those special moments and people in life that are worth celebrating. While Santé Photography is her labour of love, Thanuja is also a devoted Mum and works full-time in transport advocacy.

Inner Creative Blog - The Creative Life of Thanuja Gunatillake. Photo credit: Thanuja Gunatillake©Santé Photography

Here’s the transcript of our interview.

How do you express your creativity?

I do it in a number of ways – both in my professional, mainstream job, as well as the photography business; and probably a lot of things in between. I went into engineering partly because I like the maths side of things, and it was one of the more creative outlets for that. In a workplace I try to bring in creativity wherever I can; so any opportunity for design aspects, or innovative ways of getting messages out there that we haven’t tried in the past. It always keeps me quite interested.

The photography business started as a hobby. From when I had my daughter – just taking happy snaps of her and it growing from there, with friends just seeing the photos and asking me to do shoots of their kids. Then at some point thinking ‘maybe this could be a business of its own?’  It allows me to balance the scientific side of my life, which I mostly fulfil through my job, with the creative side. I also love kids, so that’s an added bonus.

Kids are actually a good outlet for expressing your creativity. They give you a good excuse – whether it’s birthday cakes and parties, decorating rooms or projects. I think I use all of those things to be creative.

What are the different hats you wear in life?

There’s my professional hat – the engineering side of my life. Although the role that I’m in now is far broader than your traditional type of engineering. That’s what I like. A strong component of community engagement with people and being creative, which is quite unusual for someone with my background.

The other hat is a mum. Another hat is the photography business, and then your general family and friends hat. I think even with family and friends you try to use your creativity. I’m usually the one that friends come to when they want advice on how to decorate the house for a party, ideas for gifts, or things to do.

Name three words that you’d use to describe your creative work.

Natural, simple, beautiful.

Inner Creative Blog - The Creative Life of Thanuja Gunatillake. Photo credit: Thanuja Gunatillake


What three emotions do you want your clients to feel about your creative work?

Joy, love, pride.

How did you start with your photography business?

I just started following the baby around the house taking photos as most mums do. I found that I really enjoyed it. When you have a little one you realise how quickly time flies and how quickly they change. You use photos as a way to capture those moments. It just grew from there- from friends seeing photos that I’d taken of my daughter and asking me to take photos of them when they were pregnant, having kids or when they wanted family shots done. It just grew from there.

For four or five years it was just something I did for mates. I think my husband has to get some of the credit for making me think about doing it as a business. It’s quite a time commitment because it does take you away from your family as well as your day job. I really needed to sit down and think about where I would draw that line.

I set it up as a business 4 or 5 years ago. I started small, and that’s part of the appeal of this business. What I like about the business is that it’s very mobile, very flexible. There’s not a huge commitment in terms of financial outlay, or physical space (needing an office). You can go pretty much wherever you can carry a camera. And I’ve kept it that way because it suits me. Also, I think it suits because I do baby shoots and new mums. Often for them it’s in the chaos of when you’ve just had a baby to have someone that’s happy to come to your house or to the park next door. It often suits them as well.

I had sit down to work out how much of my life I wanted to devote to that, and do the nuts and bolts of things, like pricing. There’s such a spectrum in photography. There’s the stuff you can get in the shopping centre, which is the lower end, and then it goes up to thousands and thousands of dollars. I had to figure out where I wanted to position myself in that. And realising that I don’t have a full-time capacity to take it up I kept it somewhere in the mid-range. I sat down and worked out ‘how long does a photo shoot take me from start to finish?’ – from the actual shoot, to the editing to the packaging up at the end. On average it takes me 10 hours per shoot. So in terms of my charging I had to figure out how much is it worth me to spend 10 hours away from my family? And there have been times when people will approach me, I’ll tell them about my pricing, and it will be too much for them. But that’s totally fine. I can rationalise that by saying that’s taking me away from my family, so if that’s too much then that’s totally understandable.

{Good on you, because that takes a lot of courage.}

It does. It’s very hard. I still feel very awkward dealing with the pricing side of things. But I’ve done it in a way where it’s a very small commitment for people to do a shoot for them. From there the onus is on me to take photos that make them want to spend more, to actually want to buy the photos. It’s not a high risk from their perspective. They don’t have to outlay a lot. And they get to see their photos before they decide if they want to invest or not. For the time being I advertise mostly by word of mouth, so through friends and friends of friends. I figured out that I can probably do about 3 shoots a month. That’s the most that I’m willing to give at this point in time. So for the time being it’s been just word of mouth and some basic advertising. It’s always nice to see people come back, sometimes for second or third children, and family shoots.

It seems that your start was a gradual flow?

Part of it’s having the confidence to think ‘What I am happy to for my family, is that something someone’s willing to pay for and make them happy as well?’ Photography is so accessible. I go to clients where, at least in the early days, they sometimes had better equipment than I did. Everyone’s got an SLR camera these days. So equipment wise, potentially anyone could do this type of work. So it was a matter of getting that confidence up, and thinking I’ve got something a little bit different to offer.

What do you love most about your photography?

I have to say that the thing I love most is making people happy. And it’s probably not a good thing to say, but if I get tears when I show people my photos then I think I’ve done a good job -if I can get that sort of emotion. And I love dealing with people, babies, and kids. It all makes me very happy to be able to go and capture those moments that people will look at and it gets some response out of them. It’s really satisfying.

If you weren’t a photographer, what else would you be or do?

I’ve got to say that I’m one of those people that struggled to find something that I’d call a passion until I found photography. As I started that, the more I got into it, I realised, ‘Oh this is what people talk about when they have something in their life that really excites them.’ For a big part of my life, it was just that traditional path of school and Uni, getting a job, and then working your way up. That’s still a big part of my life, but also being able to do something that’s totally off the beaten path.

You bring a lot of creativity into other aspects of your life. Photography isn’t just the creative bit and everything else is not. So how does your photography influence the rest of your life?

I often find that I look at things through a camera lens, even if I don’t have the camera with me. I just like watching (not in a creepy way 🙂 ) the world around me, just observing things. Having that level of attention to detail helps my day-to-day job. Even if it’s looking at the reaction on someone’s face as you’re talking to them, even about something quite technical, that adds a huge amount of insight and helps you communicate better with them, whatever it might be – whether it’s something very engineering or technical, but to do it in a way that gets it across to them.

Was there a point in time when you could see the difference that your photography has made on your other work?

I think that I’ve always been a creative person, so even before the photography I was doing creative things in other ways. I think that the photography has satisfied another part of my life that I wasn’t completely getting in my day job. So I feel a little more complete in having that. Maybe it has allowed me to be a little more creative in my workplace. I haven’t really stopped to think about it. I take photos a lot for work as well. There are lots of pictures of train stations on my camera at the moment :-). I think that it’s made me feel a bit more satisfied that I was able to please both sides of my brain.

Given that you have so much on your plate, how do you make time and space for creativity in your day (or week)?

With photography, it dictates when I need to allocate that time, for a shoot. It’s probably formalised it a little bit more than I would have in the past. Probably not a conscious effort though. It’s something that seeps in. Whether it’s what you’re cooking for dinner, a report you’re writing, a brief you’re putting it together, decorating the house, or whatever it might be. It probably seeps into all aspects of your life.

The other advantage of having that creative side in the day job is that even though we come with an engineering background, we work with people of all different backgrounds. Particularly in the role I’m in now. It has a very strong media component, marketing and social media. They’re run by other parts of the business and people who have got a creative mind. So seeing things from both sides helps a lot in terms of getting things done that you need to do.

How do you balance creativity for yourself as opposed to what the market or your clients want?

With photography, I’ve established a certain style and I’ve stayed true to that. I was never really keen on the types of child photography where you put a baby in a basket or into a pumpkin :-). I’ve always been more about capturing natural interactions. So I’ve stayed very true to that. Anyone who looks at my work decides if they’re going to take part in that. Either it appeals to them or not. I’ve got friends who love that natural look and they use me for all of their family photos. And I’ve got other friends who would much rather go to a studio and get the more polished air-brushed look. And it’s all a matter of taste. So I’ve always stayed true to that. If people have asked me to do things that I’m not comfortable with, then I’ll say so.

Inner Creative Blog - The Creative Life of Thanuja Gunatillake. Photo credit: Thanuja Gunatillake ©SANTÉ PHOTOGRAPHY

So do you have an outlet for fun? Do you go out of your way to take photos just for you, so you don’t have to worry about what someone’s going to think about it?

It’s probably got to a point where I don’t worry too much. I think that if they’ve liked my style in the first place, and I’m happy with the photo (and I won’t give them anything I’m not happy with) then usually there’s a certain success rate. I probably find that I don’t take as many photos in my day-to-day life because of the photography business. I like to take a break sometimes. So on holidays I’m usually not the one with the camera :-).

What inspires your creativity?

Just everyday people going about their everyday business. Those little moments in your life that you wish you could bottle up and experience again later. Just watching mums and their babies, or families together – those real moments where you see that real intimacy and love. That’s what inspires me.

What do you do to overcome a creative rut or when you’re a bit stuck?

I just take a break. I’ve always been conscious of it for this business. I’ve always wondered that if I did do it full-time, would I get tired of it? I haven’t had to answer that question yet. Which is why I haven’t pushed it so hard that I’ve been totally consumed by it. I think that I’ve found a good balance, at least for now. Maybe down the track if things were to change I might take it up a bit more. I don’t want it to get to a point where I feel I’m just a robot churning out photos. You want to have the energy to totally get engrossed in the shoot while you’re doing it.

So is it about making it still feel special, as opposed to having it as an everyday job?

It’s very exhausting – the hour, hour and half, that you do a shoot, where you’re often going blind into something new, someone’s house or venue. From the minute you get there, your mind is churning in terms of ‘Where are the best locations? What are the best angles? Have I got all the right combinations of people and poses?’ By the end of the hour, you’re completely spent. It’s a really great workout for that side of the brain :-). Then going back through the photos to see what actually got captured. There’s always a little bit of ‘I hope that looked as good as I hope it did’.

Has there been a big challenge or mistake that you’ve made? What’s your biggest learning?

It’s a constant learning curve, especially because I don’t do it day in and day out. If you do it regularly, you automatically build up your skills. At the start, it was not having the camera on the right setting, or some shots being blurry when they were really great shots, but I just didn’t focus on time. There’s so many factors you have to consider when you’re taking photos – everything from framing the photo itself, to has the baby got slobber on his face, or are there straps showing? There’s a whole bunch of things you have to consider. As you go along you start to do those on autopilot a little bit more. It’s a lot to remember and little bits fall by the wayside sometimes. You just take a lot of photos, which you can do with digital.

You mentioned that when you arrive at your shoot you’re ‘on’ and in work mode. Is there anything you do to prepare or get into the zone?

I do. You often know what scenario you’re going in to – whether it’s a newborn or a family shoot. So you have a sense of where you’re going. As you do more shoots you learn to find the good spots and backdrops. You get better at picking things you want. I’ll often have a think about the different types of poses that I’d like to do, so at least you’ll have a bare minimum of shots that you’ll get. I write things down in a notebook as I remember them. ‘Don’t forget this’, or ‘Use this setting in this scenario’, or ‘Be careful if there’s a lot of shade and the sun keeps popping in and out’ – those technical things. I’ll often go in with a plan of the basic shots that I can do. Sometimes that’s enough to get you warmed up and then from there the situation flows. If it’s a place I know well, I’ll have some thoughts on what looks good and what doesn’t. Often after a shoot I’ll write down a few notes that I’ve either picked up in that particular shoot, or even after I’ve sat down to look at the photos I’ll write down ‘make sure you don’t do this’. One time I did this shoot with four kids and they were all from different families (a group of little cousins), I had all the parents behind me making faces, trying to make them laugh. And when I looked at the shots they were all looking in different directions. So just little things like that. You learn tips and tricks. And I’ve done a few courses along the way as well to give me a few extra tips.

Do you see that side of learning really important as well?

Absolutely. On the job- the best trick is to write it down as soon as you’ve thought of it. There’s so much to remember. I haven’t been professionally trained as such. It’s been a lot of figuring out for myself. I did do one class where it was particularly geared, not just towards the technical aspects of it, but also that kick to push you into the professional side of things. It was run by a mum who started in a similar way, and now runs her own business and does courses. She taught a group of us, who were mostly mums or dabbling on our own- we were keen to start a business, but were a little bit afraid that it may not work. She said, “I just want you to all stop right now. And from today on you’re not building your portfolio any more. You’re going to stop. From here, you’re starting your business.” It’s a little bit of a mind shift. Because you can spend years just thinking ‘I’ll just take a few more photos to build up my portfolio and eventually I’ll have enough.’ But you’ll never have enough. She said “I need you to stop thinking like that. From here in, take that picture.” With that I’ve had my family supporting me and giving me the guts to give it a go.

What do you think was the biggest leap of faith that you’ve made? What helped you?

The biggest leap of faith was going professional and charging people that I didn’t have a relationship with, and trusting that they’d be happy with what I had to offer. That was the biggest jump for me. It’s one thing to take photos of your kids or your friends’ kids because there’s always this slack that they’ll cut you if something goes wrong. But when you take it to that professional level, where people are paying you… More and more I’m doing things for people I don’t directly know, they’re friends of friends, so taking that leap was a big one for me.

The courage came from a lot of support and encouragement from people around me. The more gigs you do, and the more happy customers you have, that’s begins a cycle.

On the business side of things, are you a planner or do you go with the flow?

I probably did the planning I needed to to get it set up, but from there I’ve gone with the flow. I’m lucky because I’ve had the luxury of having another job that I can count on for a steady income. I could get away with that, compared to if I was doing this as a primary source of income.

What’s your big creative dream?

If I could find somewhere I can combine my professional training side of things and this. That would be ideal. I haven’t quite found that yet. Because I think part of me still likes the technical side of things and I’m not sure if I’d be completely satisfied if I only had one or the other. If there was some way I could find a way to incorporate both of those things, or at least cherry pick the bits out of my day job that I love most (which I think most people would probably tell you 🙂 ). For now it’s a happy medium.

Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

“I cannot change the direction of the wind, but I can change the direction of my sails to get me to my destination.”

(from Jimmy Dean)

I remember having that above my desk for quite a long time. It’s my personality to roll with the punches.

What would you most like to be remembered for?

It probably sounds cheesy, but for me it’s making the people in my life happy, whether it’s though the business or in my personal life. That’s what I love most about the photography side of things – is making people happy. Walking into a house and seeing my photos on the wall is so satisfying. Having friends of mines share my photos on social media and see how happy and proud they are of their shots. One day when I’m old and grey, I’ll sit back and look over my portfolio and say ‘Wow! I’ve really seen some beautiful moments’.

What are you working on right now?

I’m looking at doing a charity shoot for a friend’s daughter who’s at a ballet school. Going to the school and taking photos of the girls while they are practising. And using that to help them raise some money for the school. That’s come up from a couple of them knowing that I do photography and liking my photos. They want a couple of natural shots while the girls are practising, not the fully made up studio shots that they do at the end of the year. That’s exciting to be planning that over the coming months.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or give advice to someone about living a creative life?

It’s not either/or. There’s a misconception that you’ll find one job that ticks every box for you. Once you accept that, then you can think ‘Well maybe my day job ticks off these boxes, but there’s nothing stopping me from finding that niche to help tick off those other boxes’. It just makes for a happier life.

For more information about Thanuja and Santé Photography visit her website or follow her on Facebook: SantePhoto.

Photo credits: Santé Photography

So what type of creative life are you living?
And how do you make room for creativity in your life?

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