By Neil King
Since launching online photography gallery Lumitrix, Cara Connell has not only helped raise the profiles of numerous photographers across the world, but also raise the standard of home decoration across the UAE
When Cara Connell studied Zoology at Edinburgh University in the UK, the idea that she would open an online fine art photography gallery was probably far from her mind.
A career working in animal conservation in Africa was curtailed by a tropical disease, leading to a five-year career in law in England, which in turn led Connell to “finally get back to where I wanted to be – being a photographer”.
The twists and turns of her professional life have now brought her to the UAE with her new business, Lumitrix, launched in 2012.
A platform not only for art lovers to buy photographic prints, but also for photographers around the world to exhibit and sell their work, Lumitrix aims to make fine art both accessible and affordable, which promoting freelance photographers in a bid to help develop their careers.
“The idea for Lumitrix was a convergence of so many factors,” says Connell, who is a freelance photographer herself, focusing on portraiture and landscapes, among other things. “It was a chronological sweet spot.
“I had been assisting photographers to learn the trade and saw how hard it was for them to earn money while building up their portfolio.
“By licensing these photographers’ works we aim to help them do just that, and help them carve out an established professional career.
“I also had a burning desire to build a team. Life as a freelancer was quite lonely and I missed the interaction of working in a team.
“With my background in law I finally had the confidence to trust my business acumen, and had confidence that this idea would work.”
With the world at her feet, Connell had several options for where to launch her idea. So why the UAE?
“Firstly, the photography offering is less evolved than in the UK,” she says.
“But there are fine art galleries such as The Empty Quarter in DIFC which host contemporary photography exhibitions by the likes of internationally acclaimed Steve McCurry.
“There is also the region’s cornerstone in contemporary art, Art Dubai, that caters for fine art collectors.
“However, the democratisation of photography process which has happened in the UK is much less readily available in the UAE. This means that Lumitirix has seen a space in the art market for more affordable photographic prints that can be enjoyed by more than just fine art photography aficionados and collectors.
“By offering larger editions from emerging photographers we can offer products that are impressive and covetable but also at an affordable price point.”
Connell also believes the growth of the UAE’s economy, and the influx of expats into the country, has made it a fertile ground for people looking to decorate their homes in a way that doesn’t tie them into the long-term.
She says: “While we believe many people may be starting to set up their lives in the UAE for increasingly longer periods, there are still those who arrive with just a suitcase.
“They want a home but don’t necessarily look at their home decoration with a life-long or even long-term view. We are therefore excited to be able to offer a product that is well curated and reasonably priced so that it will eschew any thoughts of just filling the walls for a few years with the more generic, mass produced art work acquired from a home furnishing store.
“In addition, we have sourced our photographers from all corners of the world, ranging from Russia’s Siberian forest, Guatemala’s rainforest, the beaches of Bondi in Australia, and the tribes of Ethiopia specifically to appeal to a global customer base.
“The UAE has such an influx and melting pot of cultures that we see a need for their aesthetic to be catered for.”
As with most start-ups, the size of the idea was contrary to the size of the operations.
Launching the business out of Scotland, Connell explains that the small-scale nature of the behind-the-scenes activities is dwarfed by her hopes for the business, while highlighting concerns she felt during the initial period.
“Like many online companies, we can definitely say our logistics started off in a spare bedroom,” she says.
“The only difference is that it wasn’t my spare bedroom, but Cate’s [Cate Cannon], who is now our head of operations. I don’t even think it was her bedroom, but under her sofa in her sitting room and hidden from the potentially devastating little paws of her three young daughters.
“We breathed a heavy sigh one year in, when we moved all of our logistics over to the west coast of Scotland to a formal premises.
“This is managed by the marvellous Kerry [Hopes] who fulfils our order for Lumiprints. She now has all the stock under one roof which makes for a much more seemless order fulfilment process, to all our relief.
“Our main concerns during this time were whether, after all this planning and scheming, I was in fact mad.
“You can persuade yourself that you have a great idea, but it only really matters if other people agree. The relief was tantamount when orders started coming through. I still feel relief when orders come through.”
Making the Lumitirx concept work was always going to take more than the idea and the logistics, however.
It relied, and still relies heavily on the bank of photographers themselves, whose profiles and portfolios can be found on the website.
But as Connell explains, this was one of the easier aspects of the business to put into place, as well as being one of the most important.
“It is very hard for a photographer to receive great exposure,” she says.
“They are fighting in such a competitive market, with little support apart from their raw talent. We offer them a voice with an established channel of communication to a targeted audience so we help to give them the exposure that is otherwise so hard to achieve.”
Connell adds that the idea of Lumitrix was not just to sell photographs.
She explains that the idea is much bigger than that, offering “a creative hub” where visitors to the website can “meet photographers and get behind-the-scenes access to their work via interviews and our Lumitrix Live video stream”.
There is a strong lifestyle element too, with the Lumitrix Living sitepage showing pictures of Lumitrix images hanging in stylish homes from around the world.
“Customers can browse through our collection of international interiors and use Lumitrix as a source of inspiration,” says Connell.
Referring to the user-friendly nature of the site, she adds: “We have tried to keep our sizings and pricings uniform to keep it simple for our customers.
“The art world is so arbitrary in where pricings and edition numbers lie that there is no formal guide on whether something is good value or not.
“We have tried to overcome this issue.”
Always thinking up ways to expand and develop the business, Connell has refused to sit still with Lumitrix, adding extra aspects to the website.
Collectors’ pieces have been added to the UK site, offering “a collector’s piece at a much higher price point and lower edition, which has opened up our product range enormously,” and could be introduced to the UAE market soon.
Regional additions such as these fine art pieces will naturally depend on the success of the existing offerings that Lumitrix has, but Connell is confident that there is already enough appetite for good quality artwork – and that it is growing all the time, along with the region’s art scene.
She says: “There is a steady growth in the numbers and influence of younger collectors from the Middle East. They seem to like to buy affordable pieces as it helps educate them gently in the global art market.
“Our Lumitrix Living section is designed to create such a communal area, so that our customers can see both photography from around the world as well as houses from around the world. All of this helps build a fresh and broad vision which we feel people in the UAE are hungry for.
“We feel excited that this will continue to escalate.”
As a business owner Connell has had to make some personal sacrifices – one of the most notable being that she has had to reign in her own photography.
Specialising in family portraiture, she admits that she is “so busy with Lumitrix that photographs personally is on the back burner,” and adds that while there have been difficult times during the first couple of years of business, the whole experience has been “incredibly rewarding”.
“It’s like trying to build a house having never built one – holding a brick in one hand and some cement in the other while scratching one’s head,” she says.
“The triumphs accomplished by little things, like ensuring everybody is linked up onto a central emailing system when you have never worked in IT, or sending your first digital email out to an audience you are trying to show you know what you are doing when you have never done a mail-out before.
“I think a can-do attitude is essential and a bit of an adventurous spirit is needed, otherwise it may just all become a bit daunting.
“All this trauma and stress can be quite funny if you work with people who have levity and can roll with the drama. I have been very lucky in this respect.”
Emerging as an entrepreneur has proved something of a personal learning curve for Connell, who adds: “I have learnt humility as an art form, having made so many mistakes along the way.
“I am the first to admit these mistakes and just take them on the chin rather than be too proud to admit them.
“I have also had to learn the art of a work-life balance. Running an internet based company where every sale or email is accessible on an iPhone means it is very hard to genuinely get away.
“To keep enthusiasm up and replenish the fight to succeed against all the adversities you come across while running your own small company, you need to let yourself turn off.
“I have just successfully done this for the first time in a year and a half.”
A well-earned break for a woman who is helping beautify homes and raise photographers’ profiles around the world.