ECWO: Lead from where you are: a conversation with photographer and podcaster Kim Miller Bonten
A “happy accident” landed Kim Miller Bonten in the world of photography, leading to the eventual establishment of Ramblin’ Rose Photography in 2002. At the time, she was living in Minneapolis and a photographer friend needed a second shooter. Miller Bonten had never done photography but, like everything she tackles, that didn’t stop her from grabbing the opportunity with both hands. Plus she knew, through some hard experience, that her life journey didn’t include sticking it out in a 9-5 job for the next 40 years. It was the same with the WTFeminine podcast which Miller Bonten hosts out of her hometown of Memphis. An avid podcast listener but missing one that told stories about people she related to, she set about creating her own podcast – and, more than 30 episodes later, WTFeminine is essential listening for anyone interested in hearing the stories of women who, as Miller Bonten says in her signature way, are “doing their best to rock this thing called life”. We get down to the nitty gritty with Miller Bonten in an interview that shows that you can lead from wherever you find yourself in life.
Like many women, you have different aspects to your working life – in particular photography and podcasting. What was the path that you envisaged for yourself, growing up?
I wish I could give you a concrete answer but, to be honest, when I was young I was a lot like I am now – a hummingbird, going from one thing to another. Growing up, I was curious about many things: I wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to be an attorney. I even wanted to be an academic because that is what everyone around me was doing. But, after attending university for a while, I realised it was not for me and, in the end, I didn’t graduate. Still it took me a while to find my path. Initially, I took a job in corporate America – a desk job in an advertising agency, with benefits and insurance. I took a transfer to Minneapolis, but the office was much bigger, and I felt just suffocated. I thought I’d try to find a position at a smaller agency but even at a “mom and pop” size business, I wasn’t happy. So when a friend of mine asked me to join her as the second shooter in her newly established studio I said yes, even though I knew nothing about photography. Back then, we were shooting on film with no screen to check images and so I learnt about what was needed to get that one great shot from the ground up. I am grateful for that because it’s definitely contributed to the success of Ramblin’ Rose Photography which I started when I moved back to Memphis. I love photography. I guess it is because I love the connection it gives me with people, whom I find to be so interesting and layered.
Womanhood is both beautiful and messy
We love your description of womanhood as “both beautiful and messy”. Is that your own experience of the journey of being a woman?
Absolutely. My path to where I find myself now was not paved in gold. There were a lot of ups and downs and a lot of “what the hell am I doing now”. But I learnt to embrace all my mistakes and missteps and then learn from them in order to move forward. I think that, in general, life is filled with a lot of happiness and beauty but also sadness and death and things that aren’t pretty. But it’s part of the human condition. In fact, the WTFeminine podcast arose out of just wanting to hear more stories of this beautiful mess that is all of our lives. I listen to a ton of podcasts but I had not come across one where I could truly relate to the people being interviewed. I wanted to hear the stories of people more like me. I started from a place of knowing so many amazing women – my friends and people in my community – who may not be celebrities, but who all had a powerful story to tell.
Yes. Your podcast is a powerful reminder that people can lead from wherever they are. Was this the original impetus for creating the WTFeminine Podcast?
I really wanted to lift up that idea – that wherever you are in your life, you can lead. That has been the experience of my own life. I conceived the podcast as a way of introducing the world to women who are doing amazing, yet vastly different, things. I have found that the more we tell our stories, the more connected we feel to each other. For instance, the podcast We Are All Part of One Race, the Human Race with Venita Doggett was motivated by knowing that, as a white woman, I can never understand what it’s like to be an African American woman in this culture. By interviewing Venita, I could go to the source.
More than 30 episodes into your podcast, what is the golden thread that you see as joining the life journey of all the women you have interviewed so far?
Resilience. I’m just always blown away by the resilience and the grit of all the women I interview. We just get it done! I love men. I love my husband. He’s a great man. But women are incredible in that we just get things done and, emotionally, we are able to shoulder so much. This can, of course, be to our detriment because – and this is another thread – as women we try to take on everything and we don’t allow ourselves the time to process things because we are so busy keeping everything together. I love what emerges in the conversations I have with women. For instance, my interview with Kat Gordon was about cupcakes, baking and owning a business but it was also about what makes for self-care and it was just fascinating.
How do you connect with the women featured on your podcast? There always seems to be a personal connection that adds to the power of the interview.
Yes, you’re right. In the beginning, for the first 10 episodes or so, it was women who were in my life. But after that, I just started looking at my social media feed and what is going on in the world around me. If something jumped out at me or I came across someone doing really cool work, I just reach out to them. I have a very spontaneous side that allows me to just connect with women and ask if they’d like to be on the podcast. What do I have to lose is often my starting point in this process. But every single woman who I have featured has inspired me personally.
Courageous, strong, smart, hilarious, sexy women!
One of these was our own Dianne Bevelander who also gave you some of the inspiration for the WARRIOR photoshoot you’ve been doing since 2016 as a way of honouring women fighting cancer or who are in remission.
Yes. I got to know Dianne and we talked about her own cancer journey. Then, just in my local community, over a span of just a few weeks I read about so many women with cancer. At first I felt helpless. But then I started thinking about what I could do. I began talking to a few women in Memphis who I knew were battling cancer and, in 2016, we started the Warrior project. The idea behind it is to provide an experience and create beautiful images that will remind these women that they are so much more than their cancer diagnosis. We want to remind them that they are courageous, strong, smart, hilarious, sexy women! They are fierce warriors. In 2017, we used the images to create a 2018 calendar to raise funds for cancer research and we’re now doing one every year.
You say on your Ramblin’ Rose website that the annual shoots inspire, change and empower you. Would you share a little of this impact with us?
Getting to know the women who are part of the Warrior shoot has been incredible. They teach me to value life and not sweat the small stuff. A common thread for all of them is, as Dianne says, “life is not a dress rehearsal”. I am inspired by their resilience, their attitude, and their sisterhood.
“I’m always in the mode of building up women”
As we eye 2020, what is it that you believe women can do to move ourselves, our communities, our cities, our countries and the world into a most positive space?
Be even more connected. I think we just have to talk to each other. When I interviewed Dianne, she said something that I try and practice more than ever – and that is, if you can’t say something nice about another woman, then don’t say anything at all. You never know what she may have been through or is going through. I’m so lucky to be doing the work that I do. I see women all the time. I see them half-naked in our rosette sessions where we empower women to be beautiful, bold and sexy. I’m always in the mode of building up women. If I am out somewhere and I see a woman rocking a really nice outfit, I will tell her. Small things like that can make a huge difference.
Is there a particular woman who inspires you?
I love music and I have always gravitated towards strong female rock ‘n rollers so one of my icons is Joan Jett. First of all, I love her music, but I love her story and everything she stands for. And Madonna! I don’t agree with everything she’s done throughout her career, but I love the fact that she does not care. She does what is true for her. I like those rebellious spirits.
The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management education, research and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.