by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Today, Lori Habiger is a successful portrait photographer with her own business, but there was a time when she didn’t want anything to do with cameras.
“Honestly, I just fell into my photography career,” she said. “I didn’t seek it out. It just happened.”
Lori Habiger is married to Todd Habiger, The Leaven’s business and production manager. They live in Shawnee and have two children: Connor, a junior at Mill Valley High School; and Paige, a junior at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, now studying abroad in Serbia.
Habiger, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas in 1992, was a reporter for The Leaven from 1992 to 1994.
“I was always good at writing,” said Habiger. “I entered journalism because I liked telling people’s stories. I was young and idealistic, and I liked the idea of that crusading style of journalism — making society better by exposing wrong.
“But my career didn’t go in that direction.”
Reporters who work for small publications are often required to take photographs as well as write.
“It was a terrifying thing,” she said. “When I started out at The Leaven, that was the film era. Honestly, I avoided photography, because I didn’t know what I was doing — apertures, shutter speeds, ISOs. It was scary.
“I remember things that came back [were often] dark or whatever. It was so exciting when something came back nice.”
Habiger did public relations at a nonprofit from 1994 to 1999, and then worked at The Catholic Key, the newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, from 1999 to 2008. She only occasionally took photos there — just snaps, really. Nothing “artsy.”
But while working at The Key, her life took a turn.
“When our daughter Paige was a little dancer, age 6, at a dance studio, they needed someone to do recital portraits,” she said. “I was not a photographer. I was scared of cameras — literally scared of cameras. I put it on auto and hoped for the best. But I had a nice camera, as if that’s all that’s needed.”
Habiger took some pictures. And then more. And then a lot more. She also began taking requests for photos of babies and families. Her skills — like the demand for those skills — grew as well.
What began as a hobby had, by 2006, grown to the point where she realized she could make this a business.
She spent her last couple of years at The Key with a foot in both worlds. Then, in 2008, she began working in photography full time.
“I had small children and I was working two jobs,” said Habiger. “It was tough, but I knew that this photography thing would be the career I wanted to transition to.
“I loved it, way more than any of the jobs I had ever done before. It was so much more like me. And I liked being my own boss.”
Today, she is the owner and sole proprietor of Center Stage Seniors. The majority of her business is portraiture photography for high school seniors, mostly girls. But she also does freelance photography for The Leaven on occasion.
For a few years, she didn’t do photojournalism because her business kept her busy enough. She did, however, miss certain aspects of photojournalism.
“Photojournalism can open doors for you where you get a glimpse of human life in a place you would never otherwise get to see,” said Habiger.
So, she called managing editor Anita McSorley and asked to be put on the rotation of photographers, which the latter was most happy to do.
Habiger’s all-time favorite freelance photo assignment with The Leaven was the special issue of Dec. 14, 2010, “A Day in the Life of the Archdiocese.”
“[It] was one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “It wasn’t just me. There were five or six other photographers out there, and I was part of a bigger thing. It was terrible weather. It was a fulfilling thing seeing it all come together.”
When she’s on an assignment for The Leaven, she always knows what she’s looking for.
“It’s always fun to go where there are little kids,” she said. “Every assignment I’m desperately hoping to catch something truly fabulous and full of emotion. I don’t get that very often, because adults are very good at controlling their emotions at public events.
“But when I get sent out to photograph children, they are so unguarded and don’t have that sense that they have to compose themselves. You get so many giggles and facial expressions. Anytime I can catch genuine, overt emotions is my favorite thing.”
The hardest thing for her to photograph is a Mass. One Mass is often like another, so she constantly scans the congregation to catch an unguarded moment or something that’s visually different.
“As a visual person, I want something new and different,” she said. “I try to challenge myself when I’m at a Mass. The only thing you can do is try to give people a perspective on the liturgy that they can’t see from the pews.
“Like shooting from an angle or from behind something, or a super close-up. But it’s hard.”
Throughout her career, as a writer and a photographer, one thing has remained constant: storytelling.
“It’s funny,” said Habiger, “I’m still telling stories. It’s just visual stories instead of ones made up of words.
“And sometimes I think you can be more authentic with a photo of someone if you can get them comfortable with you.
“I like that. I like the truth that the camera can show.”