Nicole Mendoza, a 21 year old Fargo photographer, sits quietly in front her laptop at a local cafe. She meticulously moves dials on a portrait to adjust the contrast, darken the shadows and tweak the golden light that filters in through cracks of a wooden wall behind the subject.
For more than ten years, she’s become consumed by her process of taking an image and bending it to her will. From her perspective, the devil is in the details.
Her use of natural light and deep, lavish earth tones with an emphasis on shallow depth of field creates striking images. Her photographic style accentuates a person's facial expressions, adding texture to an image.
“The way you take photos is incredibly vulnerable,” Mendoza says. “The way you edit them is a direct representation of your mind and tastes."
For the last last two years, Mendoza has built her small business, Nicole Midwest. Her portfolio focuses mainly on couple portraits and wedding photos but, after returning from backpacking through countries in Europe, she's added idyllic landscapes and impressive old world architecture. It’s a life she never thought she’d be living, especially at the ripe age of 21.
More than 50 years ago her father – a doctor from the city of Dagupan in the Philippines – decided to emigrate to America. Shortly after arriving, he met his first wife and had six children. Several years later she tragically died.
Mendoza's father remarried another immigrant, Nicole’s mother, who had recently made her own separate voyage to America. They wed within the year they met and worked on starting a new family almost immediately.
“My mom wanted two more kids even though my dad already had six,” Mendoza says. “My dad said ‘We already have six!’ and my mom said ‘Well, I want two, and I’m going to have two with or without you’.”
From this agreement, Mendoza became the seventh child in their family of 10. All children, except for her oldest brother, were born in America. This distinction has been incredibly important as it has shaped their lives, experiences and career choices. One of the many reasons her family has chosen to stay in America has been due to the rampant rates of crime in and around their homeland.
Mendoza, unlike her other siblings who were born in Minneapolis, was born in Fargo. She was raised in a strictly catholic household, which is typical of most Filipinos experiences. She attended Catholic school during elementary but switched to public schooling when she reached 10 years old. At 12 years old, she started to experiment with photography and took snapshots of whatever she could find.
“I stole my dad’s camera and would go in the backyard and take pictures of everything,” she says. “It was an on and off thing until I was about a sophomore in college.”
Nicole took courses at North Dakota State University (NDSU) at the behest of her parents, who urged her to be as educated as possible. Regimental by nature, and with the cultural pressure of her parents own success, she focused intensely on being perfect.
“I was one of those kids that wanted to do everything under the moon,” she says. “I wanted the perfect portfolio, the perfect resume, the best grades, the best work ethic.”
In January 2016, she was driving home, burnt out from studying when she accidentally fell asleep at the wheel, blowing through a red light and crashing into a truck crossing the intersection. It took two men to pry open her door and get her out of the crash.
As she was regaining her consciousness she could only think of one thing: “Where is my camera?”
“That’s the first thing that came into my head.” Mendoza says.
After she recovered, she knew what she had to do.
“That’s when I realized I wasn’t happy and I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Photography has given me so much joy in my life,” she says. “It’s when I decided that I had to dedicate my life to doing it full time.”
From that point on, Nicole has pursued photography vigilantly.
She has crafted her small business to focus on giving her clients sleek and nuanced pictures of their special day. It’s a process that has yielded great returns but has had its fair share of ups and downs.
“To say it’s been perfect would be a lie. But everything about it has been so worth it. I’ve met people that have made me cry tears of happiness for the first time in my life,” Mendoza says. “It’s beautiful seeing people react to seeing themselves in a new way."
In December of 2018 she plans on returning to the Philippines for the first time in 20 years to coincide with her 22nd birthday. As is customary in filipino culture, she will be greeted with a live pig that will be slaughtered at a giant feast in honor of her return — the idea of this custom is a bit nerve wracking for her.
“I really don’t like to look at animals in the eyes if I know I’m going to have to eat them!” Mendoza says.
Also, the Philippines are also the most Catholic country in Southeast Asia which means they have a massive Christmas celebration.
“I’m genuinely nervous. It’s gonna be so huge!” Mendoza says.
When she returns to Fargo, she looks forward to continue working towards her ambitious goals. Next year she plans on creating a startup called “Rooted” which will be a creative agency focused on giving small businesses a chance to compete with established entities. With how fast Fargo is growing, she sees a desperate need to help out as much as she can.
Until then, she is focused on capturing every small moment she can through the glass of her lens.
During this interview, she laughs while sharing stories about her parents and her experiences as an Asian-American — and then she suddenly stops to focus on the image on her screen. She falls silent. She tweaks a few more dials and bumps up the blue hues in the pictures and illuminates the natural pink sheen in her subject’s face. She cocks her head and nods.
“Perfect.” she says.