Company: Karen and Josette
Founder: Karen Kalou and Josette Youssef
Established in: 2009
In 2009, Karen Kalou and Josette Youssef had both recently returned from studying in North America — Kalou in Montreal and Youssef in New York. They met by chance and soon discovered their shared disappointment in the state of photography in Lebanon. Both had trained in the art and felt that much of Lebanon’s industry was lacking in guile, with a tendency towards the overstated.
The photographers prefer to use mostly natural light (Photo: Karen and Josette)
“In the fashion industry [in Lebanon] there is a lot of guys shooting and there wasn’t really a feminine touch, or an emotional touch, to fashion photography here,” Youssef says.
Sitting down over coffee, the two came up with Karen and Josette, a high-end boutique photography company offering various type of photography, ranging from events to fashion. Kalou remembers the meeting where they sought to define their ideas more clearly. “We just kept bouncing ideas off each other — we defined the whole business. We defined our target market, we defined the look, we defined what kind of photographs — we just did everything in like two hours. And it clicked.”
They seek to make Lebanese fashion photography more natural (Photo: Karen and Josette)
What emerged was a company that prioritizes quality over quantity, with Youssef saying they would rather provide clients with a few dozen beautiful photos than 1,000 dull ones. More than anything, though, the two women have tried to develop and maintain their own distinct style.
“Aesthetically we wanted a very organic style. [In Lebanon] everything is very formal and done up. Whether you are shooting a wedding, or a portrait or fashion, everything is big lights, big makeup — big, big, big,” Youssef says. “We wanted to do something much more low-key, which is North American specifically. There is this movement towards doing something natural and organic and that feeds into our style.”
The women also do family portraits (Photo: Karen and Josette)
“So it had to be very creative, very emotional, very natural — the kind of work that we both do,” she adds.
Business started slowly but took a major upturn in 2010 when they were awarded the inaugural Deutsche Bank Creative Award recognizing excellence in the arts. They won 10,000 euros ($13,000), plus practical support from experts. More importantly, however, the award catapulted them into the public consciousness — with clients suddenly seeking out their services.
Since then they have become major players in the Lebanese market, while trying to remain true to their niche market positioning. But unlike most entrepreneurs Executive has interviewed, the two women are not actually looking for a major expansion. There aim is to maintain a niche, with clients seeking out their work specifically.
As such they have chosen not to hire new photographers but instead build on their own work — hoping to become among the most respected photographers in Lebanon.
Youssef (left) and Kalou are planning to increase their work in the Gulf
Yet, as with many companies in Lebanon, the tough economic conditions are forcing them to reconsider their strategy. Declining growth has left clients more wary of spending, forcing Youssef and Kalou to look abroad — with the Gulf their prime target for boosting revenues. “We are definitely talking about branching out into the United Arab Emirates,” Youssef says. “We did a few events there and it went really well… [But] we are definitely talking about it seriously because I don’t think this [Lebanon] is going to be enough.”