28: Katie Norris | Founder of Fotolanthropy
On today’s episode we have the honor of chatting with Katie Norris, founder & CEO of Fotolanthropy, a non profit film company that celebrates stories of hope and people who have defied great odds.Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, CNN, and Fox News. Katie shares the story and heart behind this dream and call of God on her life that began just seven years ago and the journey of bringing that dream to life, inspiring and impacting millions along the way. Katie wins the award for making us cry a record amount of times in a podcast conversation. As you will soon hear, Katie has a remarkable gift of storytelling, and specifically sharing stories that deserve to be told. After hearing Katie’s story, you will be incredibly moved and inspired to bring your own dream to life and use the gifts God has given you to be a force for good in the community around you. Get your kleenexes ready, it’s a good one.
TRANSCRIPT FROM THE SHOW:
Chris and Jenni: Guys, welcome again to One Life. We are excited today to have a conversation with Katie Norris. Katie, thank you so much for coming on. We are so inspired by your story through what you’re doing with Fotolanthropy. Thank you for being here today.
Katie: Well it is an honor to be here. Thank you guys for what you’re doing and the way that you are just spreading such a great message, I’m really thankful to be a part of it today.
Chris and Jenni: Awesome. Well for our listeners who don’t know you yet would you just take a minute and tell us a little bit more about yourself, who you are, and what you do.
Katie: Sure! Well first of all, I’m the wife to my husband, Reese. We’re about to celebrate 10 years of marriage, so we’re really excited about that and it goes by fast! And my favorite role in life right now is I’m a mother to a 2 year old little girl named Rose. We had a very long battle with infertility to get to her and so she is just such a miracle in our lives, and I’m just really cherishing that time with her. I’m also the founder of a nonprofit film organization called Fotolanthropy which has led to an incredible journey of actually becoming a film producer for documentaries, Travis: A Soldier’s Story, The Luckiest Man, and the one we’re working on right now called Seven Yards. I’m also the founder of a product line called the Fotostrap which is a giving based brand made up of leather camera straps and actually that brand of camera straps helps to support a lot of the work that we do with Fotolanthropy.
Chris and Jenni: That’s awesome. You’re a woman of many talents!
Katie: Life is full that is for sure. And every day is different, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Chris: Well, Jenni and I had the opportunity and honor to be at this gala a couple months ago and learn more about your story and what your organization is doing. So, dive a little bit more into the Fotolanthropy Story. How did this happen? What sparked this thing? What was the original dream behind it and kind of explain for our listeners a little bit more what exactly Fotolanthropy is and what you guys do.
Katie: Sure! And you’re doing such a great job saying Fotolanthropy!
Jenni, I hope you’ll get to brag on Chris’s prayer that night at the Gala, that was very meaningful to us, and I hope today we get to talk about your concept of hope dealers. It really touched me and it just gave us so much inspiration. So, at Fotolanthropy, our mission is to celebrate stories of hope of those who have defied great odds and we get to work with incredible people and our main goal is just to be a source of hope of positive content. I think in the world that we live in right now we’re just craving good stories and we want those for our families in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we all learn so much from each other’s stories and that’s kind of where the heart of this began.
Our story and how we got started is a little unique and I’m excited to share that with you today. Back in 2011 I’d been working on my own professional photography business and got to work with a lot of commercial clients and families and things like that and loved it so much, but it was really important to me that I made sure my passion was intact. When you become a photographer you’re most likely getting to work with your passion and I never wanted to feel burned out because I cherish the love of photography so much. So, my husband encouraged me he said, “Katie, why don’t you look at some nonprofits to get involved with? Maybe that would be a great outlet and you can make sure you’re just going for the art of photography and just loving on people. And I’ll never forget where I was in my office, I was looking at nonprofits and there are so many wonderful ones, but I just got this very strong tapping and this idea this spark, “What if I started my own?”
I just wasn’t finding the stories of hope and inspiration that I wanted to document. And I also just had such a desire to bring film into that non-profit. So, my husband came home and asked me, “What did you sign up for?” He looked at me and I just looked back at him and I said, “I want to start my own.”
So there I was, I think I was maybe 25 years old, just a girl living in Texas with nothing but a love for stories and stories of hope. And he looked at me and it was such a moment in my life because he could have said something else or not believed in me but he just looked at me and said, “That’s awesome! Let’s do it.” And just to have that belief from the person that I know knows me the best was all I needed. I’m so grateful for him for that. As anyone who has a calling in their lives knows, it’s a journey to be able to respond to that calling and know, “Is this for me? Am I worthy? Can I do this?” And what I love about the start of Fotolanthropy is that I actually got a phone call that clarified any of those doubts. My husband and I remember saying, “Can we pray about this idea? I just can’t get it off my mind.” Well, soon enough I got a phone call from a mother and she was just balling. She could barely get out the words and she just said, “Hi my name is Kara. You don’t know me but someone called and told me that you could help me.” My heart and my world just stopped. I had no idea what she was about to tell me, and she said, “My 8 month old son has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I’d love to see if you come take portraits of him before he loses his beautiful hair.”
And you know, it was one of those moments. I was streaming tears and I just looked up at God and I said “I got it. OK. This is what you want for me. This is my calling.” I was able to tell her “Yes! This is what we’d like to do for you.” We’d had the idea of Fotolanthropy, we just needed the courage to start. So, she and her son James are the reason we started and eventually went onto films. We took portraits of James which were some of the last portraits of him, and we built a website and logo all within days so that we can honor this little boy’s life. He tragically did pass away a few weeks later, but her and I have a very special relationship now, and she’ll tell me, “You know, because of that video, we felt prayers and comfort from all over the world and that meant so much!” Because you just don’t know what to do for people when they’re facing such hard times and to be able to capture those last moments with her and James, I was so honored to get to be a part of that. You know, I wasn’t a mother at the time and I can’t even breathe now thinking about being in that situation and I’m just so glad that that God called us so that we could have something to give to her that would last a lifetime.
So, that is how Fotolanthropy began and it has been an incredible journey that has transformed these past seven years and now we’re getting to the bring stories to even a bigger stage with full documentaries. But just as stories like Kara’s, we go in, we love on families, we donate portrait sessions and short films, and try to give them a platform to share their incredible story.
Chris and Jenni: That’s incredible. Katie. So, I’ve never cried on an episode before, but I’m over here bawling! I mean, as a parent, like you said, we have five kids, and the thought of facing something like that is just heart breaking. What a beautiful gift God’s given you to give to people who are facing these things.
Katie: Thank you. We will love on people during some of the biggest storms of their lives, and usually it’s ones that weren’t in the forecast. Just being able to go have compassion and love on them but also being able to give them a legacy they’ll always have. Where they were in that storm and they overcame, or where they were and they always get to be remembered and that’s what’s so incredible about photography and film. That’s what we’re all about, bringing these stories out and celebrating these people. Who they are, and what they face and how they’ve chosen to go through these circumstances and their response.
Jenni: That’s so amazing. So, Katie seven years into this journey, looking back what are some of the greatest lessons you’d say that God showed you through this process so far?
Katie: I could answer that question in so many ways. I think as any one who runs a nonprofit or a business or just in life itself knows, I never knew all that I would learn by saying yes to this call. In each story, He just teaches us so much. I think the greatest gift in getting to serve families through Fotolanthropy is just the lessons of perspective. Just as you guys are experiencing through this mom’s story. We’re getting to do life with these families and we’ve worked with loss, we’ve worked with families who’ve gone through infertility, soldiers that lost both arms and legs, a father diagnosed with ALS. I’m so grateful because I feel like I’ve been able to get such a robust picture of life and how fragile it is and what a gift it is. I know we always hear live your life to the fullest. Life is good. Life is short and I hate that sometimes we kind of think of those as cliche and we brush them off because if you look at the faces of some of the stories that we’ve been able to work with, life is all over their face and their expression and they’re doing everything they can to live it to the fullest even though they have an extraordinary adversity. So I think the gift of perspective has been something that I pray I hold onto, that can define me in my life and help me to live better.
Another thing that really comes to mind is the verse in John that talks about how the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. And I always have to remember that in my dreams, in my visions, and in what I think God’s calling me to do because fear of provision or self-doubt can sometimes hinder us in doing what God is calling us to do. That has been one of the lessons I will fight every day. I will have joy in my work, and I will not let any of those fears hinder what we’re doing.
Also, of course just a lot of dependence. I’m so grateful to have an incredible team that we could not do it without. So, depending on people and the Lord. He has just taught me how to depend on him to trust Him to get us through these big visions of producing documentaries. We’re so grateful for that. So, there’s a handful of lessons just right there. There’ve been so many, but those have been the best that I’ve learned from.
Chris & Jenni: That’s awesome. I want to make sure that everybody hears this piece: From a young age, you were not thinking, “You know what, I want to create documentaries! I really want to create films and I really want to go out there on a limb and ask for donations!” So, unpack that a little bit because you’re ending up in a spot you never saw coming and I think there are people out there going, “I need the whole thing. I need the whole picture in front of me. Unpack that just a little bit because you’re somewhere that you never thought you’d ever be.
Katie: Exactly. That’s a great question and I don’t get asked that a lot, so I’m excited to share that. I am the baby of four siblings and I come from a very entrepreneurial family… my brother has a company that sells professional bats, my sister is a writer, and my other brother is in the ministry. It was incredible to have parents that always believed in me and never told me that I couldn’t do something if I didn’t work hard. That’s been such a gift from a young age, to have the freedom to dream and to go on a creative route as well. I actually was always the girl with a camera in my hands and my room was just plastered with photos, but I actually graduated college with a degree in interior design because I went to Baylor and I thought, “If I’m going to get a degree, I’d better be able to have a job when I leave here.” I learned a lot of great skills, a lot about business organization, and things like that through interior design. But when my husband and I got married just a few years later, this is a true story I might not recommend to everybody, but we did survive. We were on our honeymoon, my husband was a corporate attorney here in Dallas, he had a great career here, but we both knew we weren’t living the life God had called us to live even though we were both in “great jobs.” We knew that there was something ahead and this was such a turning point in our lives so if you can believe it, we came home from our honeymoon and both quit our jobs. So, just imagine this, he has a wonderful job as an attorney, I have a great job here as an interior designer, and we started over. It was the scariest decision I ever made.
I’ll never forget, we both came home with our boxes. Of course this idea was prayed over so much, but we left our jobs in 2008 which means just a few weeks later the economy busted. So, not only did we leave our jobs but we were walking into an economy that was in a lot of trouble. And so that was a really exciting part of the journey. And so I just got to work. I knew that people weren’t going to be looking to hire designers so I got to go back to my passion and that was photography. And I just started taking work wherever I could get it. I started my own LLC and I did photography, wedding coordinating, graphic design, anything that I could do to help support our family. My husband went off and developed a startup company. And it was so much work. We didn’t have the funds for me to buy a professional camera so we got creative and had a huge garage sale and had family members donate. I love telling that story because we just we really wanted to just kind of start from scratch and that was such a victory to get that first camera and that first lens and experience the dependence of that time and to take that with us on the journey. It certainly keeps you humble. Only God would transform it. So if he would have told me what we were doing now at that time I would have laughed. So, I was in my photography business and that’s when I got called to do Fotolanthropy. Then because the economy was still in bad shape, I wanted to start a socially conscious brand that could help support our mission and so we spent a year and developed a product line of leather camera straps called the Fotostrap and that was an incredible experience. Now we sell those in the United States and have retailers across the globe and everyone that purchases that knows that they’re supporting Fotolanthropy. So they all work together.
To get your question Chris, of how I got to making documentaries and producing them, the answer would be a guy named Travis Mills. In 2013 I came across a photo of Travis, and for anyone listening right now, I encourage you to just type in www.travismills.org so you can see a picture of Travis. He is one of five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I saw a picture of him on Facebook and I’ll never forget it because here he was with no arms and legs with the biggest smile on his face. And I thought, “Who is this guy!?” I just felt so led to give him a call and let them know who we are. He was so nice and said, “Sure you know come on out. I’d love to meet you. Let’s do an interview.” We just had the plan to go and do what we do, create a short film that we could share online and share their story. However, here’s a guy that gave everything that he could for our country, for me and for my family and I just fell in love with him and his family and thought, “What can we do? We need to go above and beyond for this guy.” And that’s when we realized we’ve got to make this a full documentary. From that point on things got really exciting and it took us on a journey we never expected. We got to work with an incredible filmmaker named John Link who does all of our films now and we went to Kickstarter and asked for twelve thousand whole dollars to make a full feature documentary and we donated all of our time. So, we went to Kickstarter we raised more than we asked for and started building this incredible community of people that were so excited to get to honor someone like Travis, someone that fought for our country, someone who’s got a wife that has learned to be a caregiver. All of a sudden we started seeing this movement of veterans and Gold Star Mothers and Patriot Guard Riders just reaching out in such excitement to get to share Travis’s spirit. His motto in life is, “Never give up, never quit.” He just touches everyone that he knows.
We had the goal of just having one incredible night in Dallas where we’d have a red carpet premier, and my vision and dream was that people would get on their feet and give Travis Mills a standing ovation for his incredible life and his response to his adversity. And that night came, over 500 people came out, and Travis Mills got his first standing ovation and that was the most beautiful moment I’ve ever witnessed. Grown men and women bawling in the movie theater. Unlike anything I’ve experienced in a movie theater, you know usually we just come in, come out and start talking about dinner plans. Instead we were seeing hearts just open and men and women weeping and celebrating Travis and our veterans. We knew some incredible things were about to happen and just went to bed that night thinking, “That was the most incredible night, Lord, thank you so much.” And the next day the phone started ringing off the hook and people just reached out from all over and said we want to bring this film to Michigan. We want to bring it to San Diego. We know you’re a non-profit, we’ll fly you guys out here so we can hear Travis Mills’ story. And it started as a journey that year, we ended up getting to screen it at the U.S. Capitol for our nation’s leaders. It was almost a fairytale making of a documentary, and I think it was because we invited people into that experience and everyone was just so excited to see such an incredible life story be on the screen. So that is how I got here today and I’m so grateful for that picture of Travis Mills.
Chris and Jenni: That’s just amazing. So good. Seriously, I don’t know if I ate my emotional Wheaties this morning or what! You keep making Chris cry over here! You are such a storyteller, that’s for sure! So, speaking of stories,Travis’ story is on Netflix now right?
Katie: It is! We’re really grateful, we toured that film across the country for about a year and a half and then decided let’s go ahead and be able to bring that story to a big platform so even more can hear it so we’re really thankful. It’s on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Prime for anyone that wants to experience it and it’s crazy to think that was filmed five years ago. We’re really grateful that even more people are learning about it and he’s gone off to begin an incredible motivational speaking career, has a book, and rumor has it maybe even a feature film is in the works for Travis. So, we’re so happy for him and thankful that we were able to help more people learn of his story.
Chris and Jenni: Such an incredible story and such a great guy too! Just full of life and very fun! He also has an amazing wife too, she’s been a champ through the whole thing!
Katie: She is! We’ve become dear friends with them because we just did life together and really wanted to get to know their story and they are the real deal. They’re incredible people.
Chris, I laugh that you say you keep crying because a lot of our tests before we deliver our short films is, “Did anyone get tears?” That’s what we go for. We want people to have that experience and there’s something so powerful about being moved by someone’s life and how they’re living. So, I’m glad, Chris.
Chris and Jenni: I’m sure there are others listening who are having the same response. Yep, they’re in their carpool line crying. But, you know, we always say, “Try and do something in your life that brings you tears, that really brings you that overwhelming emotion to go, “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.” So I think often when you do the thing that brings you tears, it also inspires someone else to have tears themselves. It means you’re definitely on the right track. So, that being said, let’s talk about your latest project that’s brought plenty of tears to literally millions of people across America and across the world. Seven Yards. Unpack it for us. What is it about? We want to hear all about it.
Katie: Oh great. I’m really excited to talk about this one. it’s a film that we’ve been working on in pre-production for the past year. It’s the story of Chris Norton, he was in a football accident seven years ago. He was playing freshman college football at a D3 school just truly for the love of football and had a bad tackle. Instantly he was thrown to the ground and couldn’t move. Come to find out that he broke his C2 and C3. A few hours later he learned that he was only given a 3 percent chance to ever move again. So here is this 18 year old kid, an incredible guy with incredible faith from day one that was instilled in him from his parents and he knew he had a choice to either see hope or not.
He chose very early on that he was not going to be defined by that 3 percent and he would overcome. So, I came across his story and many of you listening might have seen it years ago because four years later from that injury, it was a very difficult walk, but he walked across the graduation stage and received his college diploma. And I’ll never forget watching that and streaming tears at my desk because I thought it was one of the most beautiful moments that I’d ever seen in my life. Just a guy that just gave everything, you could see his body shaking his hands shaking, people on their feet just cheering him on, and I said, “That is something! I want to know the full story of what’s happening here.” And so I gave him a call and let them know who we are and what we do and we stayed in touch. Soon enough he was engaged to a beautiful girl named Emily and they were making plans for their wedding and we just knew that there was so much to unpack of their story that this would just be a natural next step in our next feature documentary. Many factors are considered when deciding to go on this journey because it is an intense journey. Chris’s story will hit on the themes of having a tragic injury, rehab, choosing joy, and choosing a positive life. Foster care is also in their story. Depression is in that story. So I’m thrilled to be able to bring this story to the big screen because I think no matter where you are in life you’re going to be able to find a way to connect. And I think the underlying message of this film will be no matter what happens in life there’s always hope. And I think that’s just such a message that we all need right now.
So, we’re working really hard on this film. We’ve gone on four film trips already. Their lives are in Iowa and Florida and so we’ve gone in and really digested that story. We’ve done over 20 hours of extremely in-depth interviews and built the trailer which is available now to see at our website: 7yardsfilm.com and you can get a taste for what this film will look like. Where we are at right now is continuing to raise funds. We rely on donations to create these films which is an incredible thing so that anyone that supports it can be a part of this experience. We hope to wrap up filming this summer and release the film either late 2018 or in the beginning of 2019.
Chris and Jenni: That’s so exciting. It’s amazing, and you know we had a similar experience sitting there in that theater where we got to watch the trailer for 7 Yards. It’s so beautifully done, so remarkable, and when those lights came on, there wasn’t a dry eye around us. I mean, it’s just incredible. I mean, I wasn’t crying….. I save all my tears for today. It’s seriously so amazing. So, how can people support you and get involved?
Katie: You know, the film is called Seven Yards because Chris had the goal to walk seven yards down the aisle with his bride and he actually achieved that goal three weeks ago. For anyone listening, you probably saw it, or heard about it, the story just kind of took over the media, it was really beautiful, on Today and CNN and everywhere. So, if that story struck a chord with you, you saw him achieve his goal and now you could help us achieve our goal which is to bring his full in-depth story to the world so that we can all experience this powerful story of hope. We’ve got a crowdfunding campaign to where if you donate as little as 25 dollars your name will be listed in the credits of the film. So you’ll always be a part of that film and you can learn all about that opportunity at www.7yardsfilm.com
Chris and Jenni: Awesome. I love it. Well you guys are “hope dealers” for sure.
Katie: Oh, I just love that statement you made and I know there’s so many people doing that in many formats and we’re just grateful to get to do that with our tools which are cameras. So I just love that prayer you gave us, Chris, and it meant so much to us, and connecting with you guys on that night, it was a wonderful thing and we’re so thankful.
Chris and Jenni: Well, I love what you’re doing and I hope what people are experiencing as they listen to your story is the same thing we experienced after hearing it. Which is really, when you hear someone doing what God’s created them to do and it he’s using it to bless others, it makes you want to do what he’s put inside of you to do to bless others as well. I mean, we left that night just going, “OK, what are we doing with our life!? We’ve got to get before God, and listen to what he’s called us to do because it is hope. I love what you said, it just brings so much hope and that’s exactly what we’re created to do. We’re created to bless others and to give them hope.
So, Katie what advice would you give someone listening who has a stirring to bring a dream of their own to life?
Katie: Sure. That’s a great question. I would first listen. I would just listen and listen and write it down. What is His vision? I think God sometimes comes through the pen. As you’re ideating and just writing those thoughts down, He might bring that idea to you in a matter of minutes or it might be a few weeks, months, or years. But really listen so that you can respond. And I encourage you to have the faith to respond. I just think about that day, if I would’ve just laughed at myself and had doubt in myself that I would have missed this past incredible seven year journey. I would have never experienced any of it. So, I just would encourage you to listen to respond. In any decision in my life, I know if I just cover them in prayer, that I’ll never look back and not have peace. I think that is what gives me peace, because I prayed about it, I know that I was consulting with God about that vision and He either directed me to it or He didn’t, so I hope that would be encouraging to others.
Chris and Jenni: That’s so good. Thank you. Ok, I have one more question before we hit our lightning round. I was thinking about what you said about sitting on the beach with Reese on your honeymoon. Think back to the Katie and Reese back then. What would you say are the biggest differences in your life now that you guys are doing what you only talked and dreamed of doing back then? What is the difference in your life and in who you’ve become?
Katie: You know when you asked me to unpack my story and how I got here, I had a strange and unique tapping my whole life. God would just tell me, “Katie, I’m preparing you for something big.” I had no idea what it was. Now I know that it was Fotolanthropy, but on our honeymoon, I got to marry a man that felt the same way. We were both big dreamers. We were young, fired up, ready to go and seek God’s will for our lives. When I look at us now, I would say that we’re so grateful for the journey, but we were able to just build roots these past 10 years. We’ve learned so many lessons had so many hardships just through changing your life and starting your business and the realities that go along with that. I would just say that we’ve developed a lot of wisdom and a lot of roots through the hard lessons and the hard seasons. I also think we are both such big dreamers, that we’ve become very aware now that we have a little one, just to really focus on the essentials and go deeper and not go wider. So we’re really trying to know where we’ve been placed and just go deep there and not feel the pressure to do everything and all that we can just as we did when we were back at our honeymoon phase. So, I guess we’ve learned to just to go deeper in life and in our work since then.
Chris and Jenni: That’s so great. We love when we get to connect with couples who are both dreamers. It’s always just so fun to hear the journey because it’s definitely filled with some amazing ups and some crazy downs, especially for those who trust in God and know that He’s with them. It just always makes for a great story.
All right, we’re going to close this thing out.
Every episode, we like to close by asking three questions:
What’s a book that’s changed your life?
What’s a habit that’s changed your life? &
What advice would you give to the younger you?
So what’s a book that’s changed your life?
Katie: Hands down. It was called Start Something That Matters, by Blake Murkowski the owner of Tom’s shoes. It’s just a great read of someone who created an incredible brand. Being able to watch what these other companies did gave me the courage to go start my own something that matters. So, that would be my number one.
Chris and Jenni: Love it. Love it. Ok, what’s a habit that’s changed your life?
Katie: Waking up early. I have just learned that if I can rise early and get time with the Lord, time to myself, and just take a deep breath before our day starts with our little one, I’m going to set myself up for a great day. Oh, and an extra cup of coffee never hurts!
Chris and Jenni: And what advice would you give to the younger you?
Katie: That’s a great question. I would tell the younger me to just always pursue peace. You know, in making such big decisions, always follow the peace. That is always a guideline for me. I haven’t always stayed true to that and it’s hurt before when I haven’t made a good decision. But if you follow peace in your business decisions and how you handle relationships, I think you’re going to do fairly well and be able to look back and know that you stayed on the path.
Chris and Jenni: Yep, that’s so great. I love that. I know there’s somebody listening who really needs to hear that. Follow the peace when you’re facing big decisions. That’s such great advice. Katie, thank you so much for coming on today. It’s been such an honor to have you and to hear your story again and share it with people that are listening.
Katie: Thank you so much and thank you to everyone who’s listening. Hope this was encouraging to you guys and thank you just for what you’re doing and bringing these stories to this platform.