Top photographer Mai Tilson took time out of her day to sit down and talk with me. She is one of the most loved and talented children photographers.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Merida, known as “The white city,” which is my beautiful hometown.
What was one of your fondest childhood memories in Mexico? Oh gosh, I have so many. We had a beach house growing up, so we spent every spring and summer break at that house with my cousins and grandparents. There was always a fiesta happening somewhere. Carnival was always fun. But most of all, my fondest memories were at my grandmother’s house. I grew up there with my cousins, always playing in the yard, we had a pool, and our friends always came to swim, play in the streets, and house hopping in our neighbor’s homes.
When did you move to Canada, and Why? I moved to Canada in 2002, and I moved for love, haha, I met my husband while he was working in Mexico, and when it was his time to go back home, he asked me to marry him, so I did. I am his Mexican Souvenir.
What was your exposure to photography before college? To be honest, I never thought I would be a photographer at all. I was a dancer, I took all the classes, ballet, jazz, hip hop, and Latin, so my exposure to photography was getting pictures done for dancing. And growing up always looked at old album pictures of my mom, my grandmother had pictures everywhere in her house of everyone, and really old photos of great, great, great grandparents, and I remember always looking at them, trying to find the resemblance of myself, my mom or cousins in their faces. I think that’s why I love old pictures and why I really enjoy looking at photographs everywhere. I just never thought I’d be the one taking them.
Who were your early influences? Once I started photography, I wanted to know more about it. I started finding incredible portrait photographers, like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, fashion photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Sorrenti, and street photographers like Vivian Maier and Mary Ellen Mark, just to name a few.
How did you get into photography? I got into photography by accident. I had just had my daughters; my husband gifted me a Canon Rebel XS for Christmas one year to take pictures of the girls so I could send them home to my family in Mexico.
This was before Facebook and social media. I had developed photographs and sent them home so they could see the girls growing. So, I learned to use it and started snapping; the family would say, “you take good pictures, can you take some of my kids?” or “Can you take some family pictures” so I did, and that’s how it all started. I did not go to school for photography. Once I started, I had a photographer friend, and I asked her if she could give me some pointers on the technical stuff and if I could shadow her for a couple of sessions. Then I found someone who could teach me photoshop, it took about 3 hours of basics, and that was it. I have learned from the good old trial and error.
What was your first significant shoot? I think the very first paid job I did felt major. I was volunteering at a model agency. That way, I could assist photographers that came and learn that way, so the agency gave me the chance to do my very first day with their talent to do a portfolio/headshot session. I had six kids/teens that day. I was very nervous, but I did it and had to do it again because it wasn’t good enough. Haha. I had to do a reshoot, but I learned and got paid.
What is your focus, Kids or Adults? Definitely kids; I love working with them, they are so fun, and they surprise me with how amazing they do in front of the camera—their beauty and how honest and genuine they are.
How do you get inspired before a shoot? After I know what the concept is or what we are shooting for, and whom we are shooting, I don’t think about it until the shoot day. The kids during the shoot inspire me, and the team I get to work with inspires me. I have found that my best work has happened when we just let things happen in the moment.
What was one of your most memorable photoshoots? Oh, they have been a few. One was a mother/daughter session. It was in my studio, and at the end, I asked them to take their shoes off and sit. I was asking about their favorite things about each other, and once they started talking, mom just let go. They started laughing, and I could see they were present in the moment, happy, and nothing else mattered. Mom teared up, and of course, I did too.
What is a major rule on your set, if you have one? Always have fun.
What things should people know before coming on a set with you for a photoshoot? That I shoot barefoot, they might see me laying on the floor taking pictures, that I will probably make their kids dance with me at some point, and that if parents are not making the session fun for their kids, I will send them to sit or get a coffee.
Have you ever had a bad shoot day, and how did you deal with it? I have to say that I never have a bad shoot day. Of course, I have had shoots where things don’t go as planned, but we always make it work. I see it as a sign that something needed to be changed or wasn’t meant to be, and we always have a great shoot. It’s all about the attitude in which you deal with things that you cannot control, and with a positive attitude, the right team, and lots of resourcefulness, everything is possible.
What famous person would you love to have in front of your lens? Michael Fassbender, without a doubt. BIG BIG BIG crush.
Any other talents you want to share with us? I am a good dancer, and I make a killer guacamole, I’ve been told.
As a mother, do you feel your craft influences your kid’s creativity? I hope so. My kids are very creative in their own way, and I love that. I encourage them and support them. My daughter Arielle sings and plays the piano and ukulele. She started busking at the local market, and she loved it. She also likes to act and wants to pursue that. My youngest daughter Mia is very talented at drawing and also writing stories. Logan, my son, is very musical as well and super funny. My oldest Joceline loves photography and went to college for it, and she is very creative with food as well. My wish is that they pursue whatever it is that makes them happy.
How do you balance work with family time? Hahaha, I don’t, I just roll with the punches, and I also have an incredible, hardworking, super handsome team player of a husband, whom I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. We make it work as it comes, and we know that our kids are a bit older; we make them work too. lol
As you see your kids grow, what is one wish you have for them as a parent? To be true to themselves, be proud of who they are, be honest and kind, follow their heart, fall madly in love, be loved the same way back, and be happy.
What advice would you give kids who would like to get into photography? To shoot, shoot, shoot, everything and anything, that’s the only way to learn and know what you like and what you don’t like.
Lastly, Favorite Food! That’s a tough one. I like so many. I think it’s easier for me to say what I don’t like, and that is anything. Liver, yuk!