top of page

Get Personal with Knoxville's International Award-Winning Photographer & Entrepreneur Saray Taylor-Roman

Saray Taylor-Roman Photography

Saray Taylor-Roman

Through hard work, life lessons, and God’s favor, Saray Taylor-Roman has built a photography empire in Knoxville, inspiring her clients to find the divinity within themselves.

Saray grew up moving around Mexico due to her father’s work as a minister. By the time she was fifteen, she had attended eleven different schools in seven different states and two different countries. While she came from humble beginnings she was rich in curiosity and creativity.

Saray was a quiet yet witty and observant girl. Looking back, the hours she would spend as a child during the summers at her grandfather’s garden admiring nature, counting the ridges of the petals in hibiscus as big as her face, dissecting bug exoskeletons, taking 30-minute bus trips to the gulf of Mexico to feel the ocean breeze, or jumping on a small fishing boat for an hour to visit her great grandmother across the Coatzacoalcos river helped spur her creativity and incorporate amazing shapes and textures into her photography today.

While shapes and textures from her past heavily influence her creative work, Saray’s color palette is opposite of what you might expect from a Mexican artist. The colors in her photographs aren’t bright and saturated; instead, they are muted and in pastel tones as if they were screenshots from her childhood memories.

As Saray grew, the little girl who admired beauty and freedom in nature, was introduced to the ugly negativity of the world and its skewed mindset of beauty.

When she was around eight years old, a man came knocking on her family’s door inquiring about taking family portraits. Her parents obliged because they had never had portraits taken before and set a date for a few weeks out.

When the day came for photos, Saray, being the oldest sibling, went first. Excited for the experience of getting her photo taken, she sat on a chair, innocent, trusting, and smiling wide, showing all of her missing baby teeth, ready to begin.

Here she sat, smiling wide for her photo, only for the photographer to tell her not to smile because she was missing some teeth, and it didn’t look good. As he finished taking Saray’s portrait, her little sister ran into the room, eager for her turn. The man smiled at her and said, “Oh, the cute one of the family is here!”

Saray recalls that the impact these words had on her self-esteem and had stayed with her for decades. Right after this event, Saray thought that she shouldn’t be in front of the camera anymore. She said “if you look at the family albums, I’m a blur in the back. I knew if you moved so fast, you would be a blur because cameras couldn’t freeze movement back then.” Eventually, she started taking the photos at her family reunions just to avoid being in them.

While this concept of not being worthy of being photographed wasn’t a conscious thought she battled with day to day, it definitely was something she stored in her subconscious mind; something that came back to haunt her years later while in college.

Saray started her college career to become a teacher in Tabasco, Mexico. Saray said “you see, all my aunts are teachers, all my uncles are engineers. My favorite aunt was a professor of engineering and, logically, my path had been decided”. After all, teaching came easy to her. Saray had taught her little sister how to read and write when she was 4 years old. She remembers hosting get-togethers at her home for friends of hers and her sister to come do their homework and grab a bite to eat after school. She also taught English as a second language while in her last year of high school and while she attended college in southern Mexico.

In her junior year in college, her parents got invited to start a spanish-speaking ministry in West Knoxville. Saray and her sister had to make a decision of whether or not to move to East TN with their parents. While Saray loved where she grew up, they did move around a lot, and she had no real ties to keep her there making this opportunity an easy choice for her.

At the time, Saray applied to both Maryville College and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UTK). UTK was going to charge their family out-of-state tuition while Maryville College granted her a 50% scholarship that later, due to her involvement in student affairs and her good grades, was bumped up to 75%. Unfortunately, at the time, she was told that none of her credits from Mexico transferred so she had to start over. This was her chance to try something new and reinvent herself. She decided to major in International Studies. One of her favorite things about Maryville College was that it is a liberal arts college and Saray took advantage of that. She enjoyed taking courses outside of her major like microbiology, embryology, music appreciation, and a course on the United Nations that changed her study abroad path from France to Japan. Saray spent the first semester of her junior year in Osaka, Japan.

When she returned from her trip, an incredible surprise awaited her. She learned that all of her Mexico credits now transferred, allowing her to earn two degrees– one in Education and one in International Studies. Now only lacking a few extracurricular courses and student teaching experience, she chose to take film photography to fill the extracurricular credit requirements. This was the beginning of her path to becoming the Master photographer she is today.

At the end of her first semester of photography, her class took a trip to a gallery for an assignment. They were to study the portraits and write about their experience.

As she meandered through the exhibit, she noticed how some photographs were more captivating than others. She asked the galleria host why some photographs were so mesmerizing that she could stare at them forever and others didn’t speak to her at all even though they had good composition and good use of light.

Without missing a beat, he said, “Well, some people are photogenic and some people aren’t and sometimes as a photographer you get lucky and sometimes you just don’t.”

Saray said when she heard this, her childhood memory of being told her smile wasn’t beautiful enough to be photographed came back.

“I had forgotten it,” Saray said. “I had never told anybody about it. I never told my parents that it had happened. It came back as if it had just happened… that night, in college. And, I said to myself I will never become a photographer if I have the power to make anyone feel this way. Because if it’s just luck, and if it’s just some people who are good-looking, then I don’t want to do it.”

After that moment, Saray only photographed things, not people – buildings, flowers, insects, cats, nature. Saray kept photography as a hobby and got a job teaching Spanish at Oak Ridge High School after graduating in 2008, the same year she married her husband Daniel.

In 2012 Saray decided she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life teaching Spanish, but she felt stuck and wasn’t sure what to do. Since she liked photography but also needed a steady income, she looked into becoming a wedding photographer.

Saray enrolled in an online course on wedding photography and assisted some photographers she knew in that field on a few shoots. She quickly realized that wedding photography wasn’t for her. The responsibility of a photographer on a wedding day was too much pressure, but she realized she did enjoy directing and taking the formal portraits at the weddings.

While finishing her online wedding course, Saray received an ad for an upcoming online course. The lady in the ad was Sue Bryce and Saray still gets the same chills she got the first time she heard Sue say “if you don’t own a photograph of yourself that you love, it’s not your fault, it’s your photographer’s. And I’m here to teach you how to take beautiful photos of anyone who sits for you”. Immediately, Saray knew that this is what she was missing all along, a mentor to show her the way.

Saray spent nearly eight months learning how to methodically use a digital camera to the point she didn’t have to think about which buttons to push or what the settings needed to be – until it became second nature to her. Once she mastered that, she started taking photos of anybody who would sit for her, following her mentor’s coaching. From learning her camera, to creating a sell-able portfolio, to drafting a business plan, was a two year process all while still teaching full time and now caring for a newborn baby.

She didn’t tell any of her coworkers or students about her photography dreams, but a student’s mom found Saray’s work online and begged her for months to take her daughter’s portraits. At first, Saray didn’t want to take photos of students because she thought people might see it as her playing favorites or a way to get a better grade in her class.

However, when the mom told Saray that her daughter was only taking French and not Spanish, she realized the issue wasn’t fully with the teacher-student dynamic. It was impostor syndrome.

Saray said impostor syndrome can be crippling and it costs many people their dreams. Even though she had spent two years mastering her new craft, her mentor and strangers alike complimented her work, and even though by July 2014, she had everything in place to launch her photography business: a website, a product menu, social media pages, and a beautiful portfolio; she had ‘chickened out’ and had gone back to teaching.

On top of that, her mentor had suggested pricing based on Saray’s portfolio and her boutique business style that includes hair, make-up, and wardrobe styling for all her clients. But Saray hadn’t learned her self value yet and could not see herself charging industry standard pricing. It was this inner battle that kept her from taking a single client. She would turn them down before they had the opportunity to book her.

Saray told the mom about the upcoming experience she and her daughter could expect at the photo shoot session and they both got excited. She then told her the price per image that her mentor had suggested, expecting a “no, thanks!” from the mom. An awkward moment of silence later, the mom reflected back to Saray her fear and said, “wow that is pricey. I think we will buy just one image, if that’s okay with you.” Saray consented and they set up a date and time during winter break for this session.

The session was everything Saray had dreamed of: she got to dress her client in multiple outfits, direct hair and makeup, and guide the client through varied poses. For a moment, Saray was back in her grandfather’s garden on a warm summer morning, and her inner child came alive! Those photos were the beginning of her journey as the international award-winning artist she has become.

A few weeks later, during the second weekend in January of 2015, Saray prepared for the family to pick out their one image, but she went ahead and printed 40 images for them to choose from. Her thought was that whatever they didn’t buy would serve as a product showcase for future clients.

When the family arrived, Saray asked them to sort the prints into “love” and “don’t love” piles. The family looked at the photos, and quietly started putting all of them into one pile. Saray braced herself, expecting them to hate all the photos.

Finally they asked Saray how much it was for an image, and she repeated the price but reminded them that the more they bought the more they would save.The mom looked at Saray and asked, “Well, how much is it for all of them?”

Saray couldn’t form the words to say the total, because it was almost the same amount she made in two months as a teacher. Without realizing she was comparing apples to oranges because as a first generation entrepreneur, Saray hadn’t yet learned the difference between gross revenue and net profit: that after the cost of goods, the cost of doing business, and all the personal and business taxes, the take home pay from any total is close to 25%. Still the large sum took Saray by surprise so she wrote the amount on a sticky note and handed it to the mom.

All the mom said was, “Do you take checks?” and happily took all the images home!

Completely baffled and surprised that her mentor’s lessons actually worked, Saray had to call her husband to pick her up because she was too shocked to drive home. Three days later, Saray asked for a personal day at school and attended a class at the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center about starting a business led by Laura Overstreet.

At the end of the class, armed with confidence from her weekend sales session, but not knowing how to start a business from a legal perspective, Saray asked Laura to lunch to get her professional opinion on her business plan. Overstreet said everything looked great, but she was concerned that her business pricing may be high for the Knoxville area given that Saray’s mentor lived in Los Angeles. Saray said she had the same thoughts but that she had just sold her top package the weekend before.

Overstreet told Saray to disregard her concern and instead gave Saray a list of all the things she had to do that day to get a business license and start recording taxes. Overstreet became Saray’s second client also. As Saray reflects back on that moment, she is so thankful for Overstreet because she gave her the confidence and proof of concept she needed to make her dream a reality.

“People say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I feel like beauty is in everybody,” Saray shares while she is getting hair and makeup done at her studio to create the cover for this magazine’s issue.

“I want to show people that, even if they have been told they’re not photogenic or even if they hear an internal ugly voice in their head when they look into a mirror, they are indeed made in the image of the creator, and there is this beautiful divinity within them, and my job is to capture it and reflect it back to them”.

Saray often tells her clients that her mission is to photograph people the way their loved ones see them “because your loved ones don’t see the wrinkles, they don’t see the weight. They see you, and they love you because of who you are. The way God see us through Christ, isn’t it a beautiful thing?”

While her mission has kept her going even in hard times, Saray has not had a family member to rely on for encouragement or advice as no one in her family had owned a business. Her mom, out of concern and misguided love, had actually told Saray that if she didn’t want to work anymore at the high school that she should dedicate herself to her daughter and husband and stop chasing a wild dream.

Even though Saray’s mom was happy to watch her granddaughter while Saray was teaching at school, she stopped doing so when Saray went full time into photography.

Saray laughs about the time she recently ran into a local business lady, and that the lady reminded her of when Saray had to clean up baby vomit from her outfit and shoes before going into a networking meeting. “I can’t believe that’s what she remembers” Saray lightheartedly shares with me.

Saray says that entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. She likens entrepreneurship to a never-ending roller-coaster for people who are afraid of heights. Running a business also takes a toll on your physical and mental health. Saray shared that she developed several health issues related to sudden weight gain and continuous stress while building her business. You have to develop really thick skin because as your business grows, so will your trolls” Saray sighed.

Yet, on those low days, where she has felt like quitting, she is filled with gratitude for God’s favor over her life and business because as a Christian, Saray believes that her purpose in life is bigger than running a business as one of her clients eloquently shared:

“After going through a divorce, menopause, bankruptcy, I felt wiped out, haggard. The day of the shoot with Saray I felt like a princess: pretty clothes, hair, and makeup. It was a fairytale day of pampering. But the images! When I saw what Saray pulled out of me, I wept. I was still there. I was still alive! Thank you Saray for restoring my inside belief that I am pretty! If pictures can heal, yours did.”

Saray realizes that this talent she has is indeed a gift. Saray remembers clearly a particular day when she was battling with impostor syndrome as an artist during her second year in business. Her client that day, without knowing what was going on in Saray’s heart, told her “this verse in Numbers came to me during my morning devotional and I think it is for you: he has filled [you] with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs”. Saray said that as she stepped into her God-given identity as an artist, she realized her creativity was a reflection of His image in her and she didn’t feel like an impostor anymore.

Armed with this confidence, the following year Saray decided to start her journey as an accredited photographer with The Portrait Masters. Within two years she earned the highest tier of accreditation for any portrait master which is Fellow. She was the first Latina to achieve that honor and the only recipient with 50 silver merits when only 10 merits are required.

Saray Taylor-Roman Photography

In 2019, when she received her Fellow title, she also won first place in the Teen and Senior Portrait category as well as 7 other places in the Top Ten of that category among thousands of entries worldwide. Saray said: “I sat there in awe and speechless as they kept calling my name award after award”.

Saray also said that a lot of the things that you see in her creative work, are the things that caught her eye as a kid. The insect shapes, the waves in the ocean, the way the wind moved over the water, or the flower petals in my grandfather’s garden — all those things… came back into all of my awarded work.” “It’s funny”, she shares, “that I employed movement to avoid being on camera and now capturing motion is a signature of my style.”

Her signature style, the awards, and her business success caught the attention of industry leaders. She believes God’s favor upon her really is what did it. She believes that life and business is so much easier when you believe it’s all rigged in your favor. She winks and says “you know I’m God’s favorite, right?!” Within months of her accreditation, Saray became a sought-after speaker and has flown all around the world to share her entrepreneurial acumen and artistic skills.

While entrepreneurship is not easy, Saray wouldn’t have it any other way, she gladly calls herself unemployable “because now that I’ve tasted freedom, I can’t go back to a 9-5 job.” One of her favorite verses is “it’s for Freedom’s sake that we’ve been set free” and Saray believes that the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship, while it’s not for everybody, is something she wants to normalize for others. For other first generation immigrants like herself, for other moms who desire to be known for more than just being a mom, and for those stuck in corporate jobs yearning to turn their creative skills into a business.

Monetize Your Expertise

Saray has brought together her background in teaching, her years of experience running a successful business, and her personal journey of faith to help new photographers thrive while pursuing their dreams with her online course for portrait photographers.

Moreover, as Saray embraces her identity as a creator, she wants to lead more people to financial freedom in 2024. She is currently developing a beta program for people to start monetizing their years of experience in their particular field or their unique set of skills as they create online courses to share their expertise.

As a natural introvert, you may wonder how Saray navigates being a mom and wife, an entrepreneur, a sought-after speaker, and a course producer. One of the most important business lessons Saray has learned is that boundaries are necessary to thrive. Her priority is to protect her energy so that she can pour out of her overflow.

Saray loves riding her bike in solitude while listening to Hillsong Worship radio on Pandora every morning. “Starting my day with God, in nature, and with the right mindset, I can take whatever the day brings” Saray shares. This process helps her to show up as the best boss, mentor, wife, mom and friend.

“Being true to yourself, being the most yourself, and being the way you were created to be is where you’re going to find the most joy and fulfillment” Saray said. That is why one of Saray’s biggest motivators and inspirations for success is her daughter. Saray knows that children don’t do what we tell them to do, they do what they see us doing. So, I want her to discover her true identity in Christ, develop her unique talents, and decide to go after her dreams even on the days when it gets hard.

Saray believes that when we take ownership of that uniqueness it is when we can finally experience true freedom. And only when we have tasted true freedom can we invite others to experience it as well.

Finch Table + Home

Vivify Salon


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page