Sandra el-Ayoubi has got the best job in the world, she tells me.
Every day for the baby photographer and social media influencer is a good one.
“I have to put a straight face on [but] the minute the baby comes in I just forget everything,” she says. “I get all smitten, I get happy, I get giddy. It’s just the best job in the world.
“Like, who gets to work with babies, play with babies, dress them up and get paid for it.”
It was her feeling of an instant connection while photographing a friend’s infant child that set teacher Sandra on the path to becoming a professional photographer.
As a young girl from the western suburbs of Sydney, she trained to be a teacher and never imagined a more glamorous life that would take her around the world, until she took that first photograph.
“It was that moment that the light bulb came out,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I really love this, like, this is so cool’.
“I didn’t even know the concept of lighting, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. All I knew, is I just enjoyed it, you know, doing all of that with the baby.
“So then I thought maybe I really should pursue this. I booked myself in some photography workshops with some high end, newborn photographers from Australia, and some that were from overseas. So I’ve invested quite a bit of money in trying to gain the best knowledge that I can from other photographers who have been in the industry for a bit longer than me.
“And then the rest of it was intuition. And, you know, being a mum helped to sort of make a bit of a transition… knowing how to handle a baby.”
Face unmade, wearing a plain white T-shirt and black tights, Sandra dashes in and out of her cozy studio, preparing for a new client; a four-week-old newborn with her mum, dad and two older siblings. I take some of my own photos and wait for her to slow down long enough to talk to.
It’s 10:50am, 10 minutes before the appointment and Sandra has not pre-picked the newborn’s clothes for the shoot. Her cousin and assistant, Diana Homsi, is helping her lay out planks of wood on the floor. Sandra decides to change the throw on the couch a few minutes after it was placed, trying to find the look that satisfies her artistic instincts.
There’s a way … of making a mum feel beautiful and flooded and comfortable within herself.
She removes the photography umbrella and the baby cushion through the back door where her husband watches their four-month-old son. Ever-ready, prop-addicted Sandra from 2018 would have been unnerved by all the changes being made.
“I learned that there’s a way of making, I mean… pulling up the emotions,” she says. “Making a mum feel beautiful and flooded and comfortable within herself with the different camera angles that I can take.”
Sandra was always known by her family and friends as the artistic girl; the girl that took photos of every event. However, art never appealed to her parents as a reliable career avenue. Hence, she chose more academic subjects for her HSC. Obeying her parents’ wishes, she took her studies seriously even though she did not enjoy them.
Sandra intended to study business in university but did not meet the required ATAR. Still, to her, art was not an option. Instead, she decided to study teaching. She started working full time in Chester Hill High school straight after graduation. She taught there for nine years. During those years, she had given birth to two boys, Mohammad and Isaac.
As a role model for both her kids and students, Sandra always put on a face of positivity and confidence to cover her insecurities. She has always been self-conscious about her body shape especially after her pregnancies. And she does not have any family albums or selfies from before 2012.
“I was young, I was insecure. I didn’t see the value back then. It wasn’t a big thing,” she says.
“[It] wasn’t something I would ever do like, even as a maternity shoot, I would never in my life.”
However, seeing her children grow, reignited Sandra’s desire to capture memories. And, her journey as a photographer began. Her subjects varied from events to family to fashion, until a friend asked her to shoot her newborn. Sandra said she felt an instant connection to the infant who portrayed “such innocence” and decided to start doing shoots for newborns.
The newborn interest became a side job in her loungeroom which turned into a second job and then nine years later, her only job in a studio. Sandra’s photography quickly grew in demand. Her Instagram account, ‘Photography_by_Sandra’ now has over 161,000 followers. Her posts show shoots of endless newborns and pregnant women including Jules Robinson from Married At First Sight. She has travelled worldwide across Europe, Asia, Australia, South America doing shoots and using her experience as a teacher to host photography workshops.
In 2019, Sandra was invited by Click Family to present at a conference in Brazil. She was robbed of her bag, including her speech and her laptop, moments before the presentation, but still had the confidence to improvise to an amphitheater full of eager photographers.
It was a success. She considers it to be the most memorable presentation she has ever done, starting her speech with an Ellen-esque, Justin Timberlake song, Can’t Stop the Feeling! before demonstrating technical skills from the top of her head. She says: “It was incredible. It was amazing. It was empowering.”
I think the biggest thing is just [to] love yourself before you let anybody else love you [including] your strengths, your weaknesses.
Her success and confidence did not come easy. Sandra initially feared that “copycat” photographers would overshadow her work. However, familial and religious support pushed her to embrace other photographers as peers rather than competitors. In the early months of her career, she says she often told herself, “[W]hatever Allah [God] has planned for me, is going to be.”
This mindset allowed her to befriend Sharyn, a photographer who started around the same time as Sandra. Their friendship has now evolved into a partnership where they share clients and resources. She says Sandra’s journey as a newborn photographer and social media influencer “resonates with [her], because [they] have so much in common.”
Following her third pregnancy, Sandra’s shoots have become more focused on emotional connection than props. Rowah Hassan, her trainer for over 10 years admitted that Sandra has become more “comfortable in her own skin” than when she first started photography.
At the age of 40, Sandra said she has now settled and developed “love for herself”. During her pregnancy with Noah, her third son, she decided to do something she never thought she would have the courage to do in her first pregnancies; she documented her pregnancy and asked Sharyn as well as other photographers to take shoots of her expanding family. Shoots that she would forever cherish.
First-hand experience as the subject of a photo shoot, Sandra says, made her “appreciate the simplicity of life, looking at an image with nothing, as opposed to the busy-ness [of props].”
The mum and dad carry the baby and stand against a plain white wall as per Sandra’s instructions. Sunlight from glass doors illuminates their faces. Holding each other, the parents look at the baby as affection emanates from their eyes. A few clicks and Sandra asks them to look at each other. A few more clicks. The kids join the shoot. A few clicks and the shoot is done.
Sandra’s acceptance of simple and natural images transcends to her social media platform where she started the #Unfilteryourlife movement.
On Instagram, Sandra encourages women of all ages and backgrounds to post unfiltered selfies with the tag #Unfilteryourlife. Through this movement Sandra hopes to use her high-profile status and her experiences to encourage younger girls to feel more self-secure.
She says, “I think the biggest thing is just [to] love yourself before you let anybody else love you”, including “your strengths, your weaknesses.”
The #Unfilteryourlife movement has captured the support of multiple social media business owners and influencers. Rowah, who owns a ladies only gym and previously competed in The Amazing Race Australia said that it’s important for the younger generation of girls to understand natural beauty.
Main image of Sandra in her studio by Fatimah Ayoubi.