While many photographers and journalists learn their craft in a classroom or studio, Cassandra Monroe‘s professional training was a little different. Cassandra learned the skills necessary to tell stories through words and photographs while serving as a servicemember in the United States Army, and she’s transferred those skills into a career as a Food Stylist Assistant and freelance writer and photographer. While her career path may have been unconventional, it’s proven to be a dream come true. Here, Cassandra shared details with us about the importance of finding your niche within your profession, the life-changing lessons she learned while serving in the military, and, of course, the challenge of framing the perfect Instagram-worthy food snapshot.
What was your first job and how did you land it?
I can’t say my story is typical because I am not actually a college graduate. Until recently, this fact has made me feel a little insecure about my career because I felt like somewhat of a failure for not finishing college while everyone else has — until I realized that no one person is alike — our journeys are all different, and what works for some may not work for others.
Shortly after graduating high school, I enlisted in the United States Army (Iowa National Guard). Although I had been accepted to start a state university following high school, I chose to join the military because I wanted real world experience in a job field (which was journalism and photography), and I wanted a way to travel, broaden my horizons, and experience life outside of my comfort zone.
In the past, I have tried numerous times to continue my education and was continuously interrupted by leaving for and coming home from military deployments at awkward times. As I grew older (and as I started honing my craft and my photography subjects), I spent more time gaining real-world experience and experimenting with self-taught instruction in order to continue my education and training in a “non-traditional way.”
While I was enrolled in some college courses after my first deployment, I worked in the women’s shoe department at Nordstrom. Besides becoming obsessed with my shoe game, working at Nordstrom taught me the importance of writing a handwritten note — it’s a small gesture that lets your family, friends, and clients feel appreciated, and it’s something that’s always stuck with me.
After I came home from my second deployment, I enrolled myself in some college courses after moving to New York City — shortly before I was supposed to start my fall semester, my father passed away unexpectedly, so I ended up taking a “sabbatical” to take care of his estate affairs and flip his home. The whole experience was definitely sudden and not expected, but I rolled with it because I had to. It was a good year and a half before I was able to go back to “normal life” and put myself first again. During that time, I began freelancing.
What would you say to someone considering joining the military?
This is absolutely just my personal opinion, but I believe it’s important to find a military occupational specialty that can give you practical experience for transitioning into the civilian world. My military service gave me so much experience that related to journalism and photography, and I was able to use those skills once I left the military. There are many different occupations available — if you’re going to join the military, make the experience worthwhile and choose an occupation that challenges you in the best way and makes you happy. Trust your intuition when it comes to deciding which occupation you’d like, and remember that it’s YOUR decision, not anyone else’s (not your family’s, not a recruiter’s, not your friends’).
Most people that ask me about joining the military seem to be terrified of going through basic training. Honestly, it’s not that bad. It’s all a mental game — just do the absolute best you can, be motivated, take the physical fitness portions seriously (because if anything, it’s only going to help you get in super shape, which is an awesome feeling), and cherish the small moments in between “the suck” to laugh with your bunkmates (it helps you feel human again). Going through basic training was such a memorable, interesting experience on so many fronts.
Another topic many people mention is their fear of getting deployed — my response to that is that you’re making the decision to join the military, you have to be okay with sacrificing some of your freedom. Joining the military is always a very personal choice — for whatever reason you decide to join, know that the results are bigger than yourself in the end.
Of my seven years of service, I have deployed twice (My first deployment was to Tikrit, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I was in the country for about 13 months. My second deployment was to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and was in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and I was in the country for about nine months). Within my military career, I visited several countries (Cuba, Iraq, Kuwait, and South Korea) and had the opportunity to journalistically cover events like natural disaster relief efforts and political events where servicemembers provided security (such as the 2009 Republican National Convention and former President Barrack Obama’s first inauguration). While all of those experiences sound cool, there was sacrifice from my personal freedom behind attending those events and deploying. Of course, for me, it was all worth it.
Please know that everyone’s experience is different — mine was great and I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. You’ll meet the most loyal, interesting people from all over the world, and you will build connections that will last a lifetime. You will be put in situations that challenge your mental and physical strength, but ultimately build you to be the strongest version of yourself.
How did the weekly cooking column you wrote for your base lead you to your blog?
During my second military deployment, I was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where I served as a staff writer and photographer for the base’s publication, The Wire. This deployment was very different and unique (compared to my first deployment, which was in the middle east). Besides being able to wear civilian clothes while off duty, we (servicemembers) had access to community kitchens where we could cook and bake, which was a huge morale booster because it allowed us to have a taste of the home-cooking we missed.
Throughout my deployment, we (servicemembers from my unit and those who lived around our quarters) gathered every weekend to cook and grill meals together, share recipes, and relax from the daily stresses of our occupations. Cooking in the base kitchens fostered a welcoming environment where we’d create a large spread of food across multiple tables and eat together as a second family.
This environment inspired me to create a cooking column (appropriately named “Meals with Monroe”) for our weekly publication for the servicemembers who wanted to use the kitchens to cook their own meals.
Most nights, I would browse the internet, searching through food blogs and studying food photography. Although I had plenty of professional camera equipment, I barely had any props and used what I could find on base to photograph my food. I continued to practice photographing my food so I had imagery for my column and would always post my images to my personal Facebook account, where my friends and family could comment on them and write about recipes.
I wanted to share my food images with more people, which is why I started my personal blog, Cassandra Monroe. At the time, I chose my name as my web address and brand because I wanted to use my website as my professional portfolio (I was getting my feet wet with blogging and still learning it all). When I started my blog, I remember how much I couldn’t wait to be back on American soil in my own home so I could cook with my own equipment and go prop shopping. My passion for combining photography, cooking, and writing was born, and it’s still very much a part of my life to this day.
What practical skills from the military do you implement in your civilian life?
I am beyond thankful for the skills I’ve picked up from the military. Looking back through my seven years of service, many skills come to mind.
My military service helped me develop practical skills like paying attention to detail, becoming organized, working under pressure, and working as a member of a team. These are all skills I implement every day at my full-time job and while freelancing.
However, above all, my biggest take away from my military service is the absolute importance of taking care of your “people” — your employees and subordinates, your coworkers, your family, or your friends. If someone you know is struggling with any visible issues, it’s so important for you to step in. However, not all wounds are visible, which is why I learned how important it is to read body language and to get to know others on a personal level (to where I can read when someone’s upset). Letting someone know how much their service (friendship, relationship, etc.) means to you goes such a long way. Reminding your people that you value them is so important, especially because it’s so easy for all of us to get caught up in our own world.
My biggest take away from my military service is the importance of taking care of your “people” — your coworkers, your family, or your friends. If someone you know is struggling with any visible issues, it’s so important for you to step in.
Tell us about the experience taking time off to handle your late father’s affairs. How did you re-enter the workforce after such an emotional sabbatical?
Looking back at the whole experience, I think I just tried to handle his passing as best as I could — it was, obviously, something I had no idea how to handle since I’d never gone through an experience like that. I did what I thought I needed to do to help the situation and to relieve stress off of my mother and brother. I withdrew from school and lived in my hometown part-time so we (my mother, brother, and I) could renovate my dad’s home and so that I could work on closing his estate.
I later realized that I kept myself so busy (to be fair, there’s a lot to do when closing someone’s estate and dealing with properties) that “busy-ness” became my way of healing and grieving — working on my dad’s house with my mom and brother became a way to cope with the loss, and seeing the transformation helped me heal (slowly but surely).
At the time, I lived in New York City, but once the home was done, moved back to the Midwest (where the home was located) and started freelancing as a photographer until I applied for my full-time job (which I knew would give me a leg into the editorial food styling industry). Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get over my dad’s death. If you’ve lost someone close to you, you understand that there are still some really hard days. What helped me re-enter the workforce was to maintain a good self-care routine and see a therapist regularly.
You’re a writer, photographer, and foodie. How do you blend all of your passions into your blog and where do you see your interests taking you in terms of your career?
I honestly feel so lucky to have found my passions at such a young age in life, and I feel like I’m following the path that I’m meant to be on. I am so incredibly thankful to have a full-time job where I am able to literally “play” with food all day and work in an environment that’s rich in creativity and that allows me to assist food stylists and learn new food styling techniques every day.
On top of my full-time job, I’m able to pursue my freelance photography career and write a little on the side. I am actually able to exercise all of my passions both during my day job and at night. I have to admit that I am not able to blog as often as I’d like to since I am currently balancing so much; writing takes a lot out of me (I have to be in the right mental state of mind, and writer’s block is something that I definitely deal with, even though I have a lot to say). However, when I do blog, I feel like I’m at home. I believe I write best when I speak from personal experiences or am sharing professional or personal knowledge. Personal experience is a topic I’d like to write more about on my blog, as well as sharing more of my photography. I’m currently working on adding an actual portfolio of my imagery to my website, as well as creating a cohesive representation of who I am and my brand.
I know I can be impatient at times when it comes to my career, so right now, I’m concentrating on enjoying my journey and improving my craft. I am currently enrolled in a year-long mentorship program with a food stylist at my full-time job, and I’m trying to maintain a balance with my freelance side hustles. Ideally, I’d love to go back to freelancing full time as a food stylist, photographer, and writer, but I also really love where I’m at in life right now.
How did you get into photography? Did you have any formal training?
My photography career started when I first joined the military. After completing basic combat training, I began my Advanced Individual Training for my military occupational specialty (the MOS for public affairs in the U.S. Army is 46Q) at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, for about three months.
During this training, I was given a crash course in military journalism and photography. Our classes consisted of news and feature writing, interviewing skills, media relations, layout and design, and, of course, photography. It was a very strenuous course — not only were we (servicemembers) put through our studies at an extremely quick pace, we still had to maintain our military bearing, training, and early wake-up times.
However, attending DINFOS was one of my favorite experiences from my military career. It was common to see students conducting on-camera interviews and photographing each other throughout the hallways of this school, which was something I never thought I would have experienced in the military.
In total, I had about 13 days of formal DSLR photography training, but I believe that my real training came after I had graduated from DINFOS. Besides a community college studio photography class (after the course was over, I went on to assist my instructor on a couple of his professional jobs), my photography training has been self-taught from real-world experiences like my nine to 13 month long deployments and everything else in between. Also, I took a lot of time figuring out what I personally enjoyed photographing. Just because you are (or want to be) a photographer doesn’t mean you have to photograph everything. Finding your niche is super important.
How do you balance all your endeavors? School? A full-time job? Freelancing? Do you sleep?
Honestly, it’s hard. I’m naturally very ambitious, and it’s easy for me to get excited and take on extra tasks because I love what I do, even when I don’t have the mental capacity to.
I’m definitely not here to glamorize stress or busyness, but I will say this: once you found your passion, there’s no stopping it. You’ll work weeknights after your full-time job, and you will work on weekends. You’ll reschedule drinks with your friends because you have a networking event you want to attend, a writing deadline to meet, or you have plans to explore potential photoshoot locations the next morning (Thankfully my closest friends understand and always support this, but it’s something I try not to do all the time.).
For a while, I was getting really burned out, and it sucked — I felt like I was spreading myself so thin trying to do it all, both at my full-time job and with my freelance work. I felt like my quality of work was sinking and I was beginning to dread working on things I used to love to do.
Now, I only take on projects that I know are a good fit for me professionally and that I know I’ll have time to give my whole self to. I am not the best at responding to emails right away, which is something I’m trying to work on, while also maintaining a life. Sometimes I will respond to emails late at night or during weekends.
I’m still trying to figure out a balance. What’s worked for me is working out in the mornings (to give me natural energy all day,) making to-do lists that only consist of three major things (which helps me not feel overwhelmed,) taking one day at a time, and letting myself laugh or enjoy the smaller moments in life. Practicing a good self-care routine has been great for me too.
What skills do you think are necessary to freelance?
If you’re interested in becoming a freelancer, having a level of self-motivation and a “go-getter” attitude is incredibly important. I also think it’s incredibly important to have some sort of plan — both for your business and for your personal affairs (like bills, savings plan, etc.). Having great organizing skills is incredibly helpful. Know that opportunities aren’t going to just fall into your lap all the time, you really have to put yourself out there, network, and make those opportunities happen for you. Meeting deadlines, building relationships and connections, and having a sense of purpose are also crucial elements to freelancing. Also, become an expert in your field, and identify what skills you need to work on in order to get there.
If you’ve already made the transition into being a full-time freelancer, it’s okay to be nervous at first. Just remember to trust your gut when it comes to yourself and your business and maintain a good balance between work and life balance and self-care.
Also, if freelancing doesn’t work out for you, or you need a break, going back to a steady full-time job doesn’t mean you’ve failed (just like moving to a new state or city only to move back home doesn’t mean you’ve failed).
If freelancing doesn’t work out for you, or you need a break, going back to a steady full-time job doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Just like moving to a new state or city only to move back home doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
What has been your most exciting career moment so far?
I’ve had many exciting moments during the seven years I served in the military and have done a lot of crazy things I never thought I’d ever get to do, so it’s hard to pick just one because I could literally write a whole book of experiences.
My most memorable career moment in the military was interviewing a female CH-47 Chinook helicopter flight engineer while I was deployed to Northern Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was riding on a Chinook helicopter flight to pick up some camera equipment at a different base in northern Iraq, and I noticed a female Soldier literally commanding the flight. She had a petite build, and while she was wearing the standard deployment equipment we all had to wear, she looked and acted like, for lack of better words, a freaking badass. She owned that bird — she was in charge. I knew that she would make an amazing interviewee because it was rare (though not impossible) to see a female Soldier in her role, especially since all of the bases were predominately populated with male Soldiers.
It took me three months to find her on base, but I found her, and she is still one of my favorite interviews to date. When I finally was able to interview her, we sat outside, talking for close to two hours. I just couldn’t stop asking her questions! Her story was amazing and showed signs of courage and strength in extreme situations, as well as bravery and the ability to not be afraid of taking command, especially as the only female in most military situations.
The final published feature article I wrote about her was accurate but was missing so much of her real story (I wasn’t allowed to publish my original piece due to command restrictions). I really looked up to her as a Soldier and as a woman, and I wish that I could interview her again now, years later.
My most memorable moment in my freelancing career? Definitely being chosen to write food articles for The Everygirl, all because a fellow blogger friend sent me the application through an email and said she believed in me enough to apply for the food writer position. I first discovered The Everygirl while serving on my second deployment and was a huge fan of the website, so when I was hired, I felt like I was headed in the right direction with my career path and felt so excited.
I’m really thankful for the many freelance photography opportunities I’ve had and I still get excited every time a new project comes down the pipeline.
Last summer, I had the incredible opportunity to visit Italy for a sponsored trip — it has taken me forever to process my feelings and put them into words to write about the trip because it was a truly emotional for me.
The summer before my Italy trip, I had been putting the finishing renovation touches on my dad’s home and beginning to close that chapter of my life. I was on the brink of a really bad breakup from an emotionally toxic relationship that (I didn’t realize at the time) wasn’t healthy and challenged my own self-worth.
The week before the trip, I had just been hired at my current full-time job, which was a big moment for me. All of these life experiences helped me see how far I had come in a year and I realized that I can do anything I set my mind to, and that I was exactly where I was supposed to be in my life’s path. I think all of these emotions came out during my trip because it was a therapeutic experience for me, and I was finally dealing with the feelings I had trained myself to bury (grief, loss, and rebirth).
What’s your favorite thing to photograph?
I’ve always been interested in home decor and interior design, so photographing interiors and home tours naturally became a great fit for me. My favorite part of photographing a person’s home is capturing their true personal style, aesthetic, and the personality that’s reflected in their decor choices. I also love hearing about meaningful objects in their homes that have unique stories behind them.
I’m also passionate about styling and photographing food. There is so much preparation and attention to detail behind crafting the perfect image of a recipe, which I wasn’t fully aware of until I started my full-time job. I love photographing food (and studying food photography) because I love seeing all of the elements (like the right lighting, camera angle, focus, props, ingredients, and garnishes) come together to produce a beautiful image.
Styled flat lay images of food, products, and props, as well as travel imagery, are my other favorite elements to photograph.
The truest form of love you’ll ever experience is when you combine the powers drawn from self-acceptance with your natural passions in life. After you experience this, it’s only up from there, girlfriend.
What’s your favorite food to cook, and what’s your favorite food to eat? What is your go-to dinner in a rush?
Right now, I’m really focused on eating healthier foods for a balanced diet that’s right for my body. I usually spend most Sunday nights meal prepping for the week ahead — typically, I sauté a bunch of vegetables (snap peas, peppers, broccoli, red onions, and zucchini) with rice (basmati or brown) or quinoa, and a grilled protein (chicken breast or steak). I’ll pack these ingredients into containers for me to grab-and-go for work (with some of the ingredients left over for me to eat for dinner).
Although maintaining a balanced and healthy diet is important to me, I do have the occasional sweet tooth and I really enjoy baking. For me, baking is incredibly therapeutic — if I’ve had a bad day or if I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I take solace in jamming out to music and losing myself within the motions of baking — measuring, mixing, and styling the final product (with a little taste testing in between).
I would say, my favorite type of food is definitely Italian food. When I went to Italy, I learned that “less is more” when it comes to Italian cooking. There are ways to pair the right flavors and ingredients together to make a deliciously simple dish.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Ideally, I see myself working with my clients (and hopefully some brands) to create customized or branded content (food, prop, and product styling and/or photography) for their websites, social media, or their products. In five years, I see myself with a passport full of visited country stamps and more confidence within my skill sets (cooking, food/prop styling and photography). In five years, I would love to own and transform a fixer upper into the home of my dreams and, let’s be honest, I’ll probably own another cat.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
Stay passionate, stay curious, and don’t be ashamed for seeking help when you need it. Be selfish with your time and who you give it to (except your family — who you should call more often, by the way.) And hey — remember when you decided that “maybe you weren’t meant to be a photographer” back in 2012? Yeah — you were totally wrong. One more thing: the truest form of love you’ll ever experience is when you combine the powers drawn from self-acceptance with your natural passions in life. After you experience this, it’s only up from there, girlfriend.