Sylvan Lake resident Monni Must, 60, is certain that destiny had a firm hand in her decision to pursue her career as a photographer. In fact, she was only 19 when a chance encounter drew her to the work that would give her life direction. Since then, she graduated from one of the finest photography schools in the country, raised four girls, has taken tens of thousands of photographs of friends, family and scores of customers, documented the lives of Holocaust survivors in her book, “Living Witnesses,” and has become heavily invested in projects she sees as meaningful.
Despite her early initial quick success, it was not a straight career path to her business, Naturally Monni (www.naturallymonni.com). Must spent the early years of her marriage raising four daughters and living life as it came. She used her camera to catalog the growth of her own children, but soon was being asked to take pictures of her friends’ children and their special occasions, until she actually realized she could make a business out of what came naturally.
Neighborhood SEEN caught her at home, her favorite place in the world, which also functions as her studio and offices.
Professionally speaking: When I got out of school, I really did not know what I wanted to do. And that wasn’t so unusual. I think, in a way, my generation had a lot more freedom. The world is different now. There is so much pressure on kids to make it big — whether it’s about what school they are getting into or what they are going to do for a living. We didn’t have to have it all figured out. Who does at age 19?
It was 1978 and I was in California, after just graduating from high school in Michigan. I went into a photo studio because I needed a passport photo. It was owned by a woman photographer. When I told her I thought I might want to be a photographer, she said: ‘You have to apply to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.’ I didn’t question her. I applied and got in. That chance encounter led me to the work I still do today.
Industry changes: The availability of cameras has really changed people’s perception of them. You can take a selfie anytime. So it’s hard for people to understand why they can’t get a photo that I’ve taken of them in a few minutes. In addition to the hours I spend with each subject, I have two digital artists on staff that comb through every photograph to make sure everything is just right. It is photography with a difference.
Family life: The deepest sorrow of my life is that I lost my oldest daughter, Mia, tragically, at the age of 28 in 2007. My next oldest daughter, Britni, is 32 and the mother of my only grandchild. Kacee, 30, and Sabrina, 28, round out the family. When Mia died, rather than drown in my grief, I took my camera to my eye and began to travel the world to document the lives of Holocaust survivors for my book. When I am working, nothing hurts me. I dealt with Mia’s death by working. It was the only way I could go on.
Proudest accomplishment: I find it rewarding to do charitable projects. I work with Jewish Family Services to photograph Holocaust survivors in hospice, and photograph babies at the hospital who are being pulled off life support. It is my way of paying tribute to my daughter’s life.
What I love to do on a crisp fall day: Take my dogs for a walk in the woods.
What don’t most people know about me: I used to have ping-pong tournaments in my basement. Also, I have really bad vision. I am not perceptive except through my lens. NS
— Interviewed by Julie Baumkel