This is part of a series of articles that will be posted in August sharing the stories of recent LAS alumni who were part of this summer’s CYstarters cohort at the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.
Every teenager wants to look good in their high school senior photos. But for some LGBTQIA+ students, finding a photographer with whom they feel safe and free to be their authentic selves is an even bigger concern.
This need clicked with Jo Allen (’21 journalism), who is responding with Jovisuals, their innovative photography service that creates safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community members to feel visible, accepted and loved for who they are.
“I realized that all of these people want the same thing,” Allen said. “They want to feel comfortable. It’s all about fostering an environment where they feel safe and comfortable enough to come to me as they are and not to have to fear the repercussions of how they choose to express themselves.”
Now, Allen is bringing their vision into sharper focus, thanks to CYstarters, an 11-week summer accelerator program through the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.
Bringing better visibility
Allen developed their love for photography as a teenager, when a high school teacher allowed them to borrow a school camera outside of class hours. During track and field meets, Allen would run their race, then dash to the sidelines to grab the camera. Other days, they would photograph downtown Des Moines.
Allen didn’t know where their talents would take them, and they didn’t picture attending college. What they did clearly see, however, was a lack of visibility for people like themselves.
“Growing up, I didn’t read about biracial, non-binary queer people,” Allen said. “I didn’t see those people in movies. That absence of knowledge and exposure ignited a fire in me to find ways to bring better visibility to the communities I come from.”
Developing Jovisuals with CYstarters
Allen’s photography business has been around for about five years. But between school, an internship and co-founding Ames BLM (Black Lives Matter), they haven’t had time to focus on their dream of connecting with and serving specific communities.
During CYstarters this summer, Allen is developing their branding, marketing and community collaborations. In June, they held several events for the LGBTQIA+ community, including a high school senior photo giveaway; a Pride pop-up photo booth; and a couple’s photo shoot paired with a Pride-based picnic giveaway from Sister Sister Picnics. They also hosted an LGBTQIA+ Skate with Pride Night in Des Moines, where they connected skaters in the community to LGBTQIA+ resources.
“Now that I have the combination of free time and assistance of mentorship, I can grow Jovisuals in a different way,” Allen said. “A big goal is to work with larger companies that align with myself and my values and offer ideas and projects to them hopefully with compensation and collaboration.”
Images of “liberation and bliss”
Allen also has been receiving referrals from community members who trust their empathy and ability to capture important moments for friends or loved ones.
Lynette Kwaw-Mensah, a friend who met Allen through Ames BLM, recently referred a teen to do senior photos with Allen. Kwaw-Mensah said Jovisuals is special because it serves the community by fostering a safe space where individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC can exist “authentically and unapologetically in their truth.”
“I was able to see the finished product of these photos, and I was truly blown away,” Kwaw-Mensah said. “Have you ever looked at a photo and you can feel someone’s vibrancy and heart just pouring out through the image? Being able to feel the liberation and bliss of the person who is being photographed is truly powerful.”
For Allen, hearing the teen say “I trust you” was the best review they could receive.
“That was such a big thing for me because in my community, developing that sense of trust with people is so hard when we’re in a world that’s in the perspective of a white, able-bodied, male lens most of the time,” Allen said.
Allen prefers capturing candid moments to posed photos. And they hope the moments of truth they document for their clients become lasting treasures.
“I want the photos to be photos that they can take and pass down for generations,” they said. “It all comes back to that representation and visibility. To look at a photo and say ‘That’s my gay aunt Carol,’ and to see that and be visible. That’s beautiful.”
Seeing innovation through a new lens
CYstarters also has changed Allen’s understanding of innovation and entrepreneurship. Despite juggling dozens of job titles as a photography business owner—from wardrobe consultant to location scout to tax preparer—the title of “entrepreneur” never crossed Allen’s mind.
“I always saw entrepreneurship as people who had to be constantly ready with countless ideas that could work and make millions of dollars,” Allen said. “And that’s not really what entrepreneurship is.”
What it does mean, Allen said, is identifying a problem and finding creative ways to solve it.
“It’s me seeing that this community needs someone they can trust to work with,” Allen said.
Allen hopes more LAS students will pursue entrepreneurship, especially their peers in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication who have the writing, photography and videography skills to start media-centered companies.
“For a long time, I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur, but I have a lot more ideas and things that could happen than I thought before.”