Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020

A fashionable Hopkins duo reclaims empowerment with their business

By KATY OH | November 6, 2020

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COURTESY OF PEDESTAL (CELESTE O’CONNOR & MECCA MCDONALD)

Pedestal showcases vibrant colors and creativity with Taylor, a recurring client.

Most of us, myself included, have surrendered to the monotony of an exclusive fall/winter pajama collection. It could very much be that the connective energy of the current digital space allows us to remain creatively engaged from home. 

If you’ve been engaged with social media recently, there’s a chance that you’ve been blessed with the effervescence that illuminates from a particular Instagram page: @by.pedestal. Characterized by a unique vibrancy — one that often appears with the stroke of a signature eyeline — Pedestal is an up-and-coming styling and photography business founded by seniors Mecca McDonald and Celeste O’Connor. 

While McDonald describes her fashion style as rather subdued, O’Connor adamantly prefers bold patterns. Yet, what they reconcile between their dichotomous preferences is a perfect synergy, one that is so strong that the two long-time friends can even predict and finish each other’s sentences. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, McDonald and O’Connor reflected on their journey, which began when they simply took up the hobby of photographing each other. 

“We’ve been friends since freshman year, and Celeste and I were always getting dressed up and taking pictures for each other just for our own personal Instagrams,” McDonald said. “But recently, I took Celeste home to Florida. When I go back, one of my favorite activities is to go thrifting. So we went to a bunch of thrift stores.”

That was when O’Connor came up with the idea of taking what they loved doing and starting a styling, modeling and photography business, one that focused on creating an empowering space for marginalized people. 

“This idea that anybody can be a model, I think, is also important to me,” she said. “We often see one kind of person, one kind of body type, one sexual orientation or gender expression per trade in ads, in movies... It’s really important to me to show that anybody can make a good photo and feel confident in an outfit.” 

Instead of proposing an unrealistic scheme, the two honed in on what was available at their fingertips: iPhone photography. The idea of accessibility, however, was embedded in much more than simply their technique. 

As they further discussed the mission of Pedestal, the two began to delve into deeper motivations, highlighting what they believe is a core issue within the photography industry. 

“I’ve heard a lot of stories from girls who work with male photographers and have said that they have been made to feel uncomfortable. You’re not supposed to bring [this weird power dynamic] into a space of art,” McDonald said. “It’s not supposed to be about power. A lot of these photographers are not putting enough effort, and I think it’s because they’re not coming from a genuine space. You can kind of see that through their work.” 

O’Connor elaborated on this toxic dynamic.

“So many male photographers abuse their power, and they make women feel uncomfortable, and it’s not fair,” she said. “So many of the photos that we see of women are through the lens of the male gaze and what looks attractive to a man. Is that art, or is it just what men find attractive?”

In witnessing this prevalent predatory nature within the male-dominated photography industry, the duo thus wanted to create a platform — now known as Pedestal — that achieved the exact opposite. They aimed to create an environment where people could feel comfortable before a camera lens. While they clarified that their official name is Pedestal and not “by.pedestal,” their social media handle is simply reflective of the way in which they claim ownership of their creative processes. 

While following mask measures and social distancing guidelines, the duo takes their clients through a comprehensive styling and makeup routine before venturing outside for their shoots. With the aid of McDonald’s flair for eye makeup and O’Connor’s passion for experimental textures and designs, the two operate with their own groove. As they take their styled clients outside, they scout locations that bring out an intuitively appropriate “vibe” (as they call it), one that is enhanced by the tunes of their Rico Nasty and 1980s music playlist. 

Starting out with shoots set in Baltimore’s alleyways and alongside the city’s rowhouses, Pedestal has since expanded its client intake to New York after the two themselves were invited to a shoot in Brooklyn. 

“I’m an actor, and I was in this movie called Selah and the Spades. It’s on Amazon Prime now,” O’Connor said. “The director of Selah and the Spades... followed our page, and she messaged us and asked if we were going to come to New York.”

McDonald perceives the extension to New York as an avenue for limitless destinations and opportunities, especially as some clients have reached out to them from Chicago, Austin, Philadelphia and even Los Angeles. Wherever they may be, however, their goal remains the same: to create an environment that uplifts their clients’ sense of self. 

In fact, the pair reflected on a few memorable anecdotes that achieved just that — one which involved a close friend who, after the shoot, expressed that she had become increasingly confident about herself. As they hope to continue growing their platform even after graduation, the two dream of one day setting up their own studio, developing a sustainable magazine or maybe even potentially directing a rap music video. 

Before wrapping up the interview, the two bantered about how they both inspire each other. 

“Just being around someone passionate in general who is always striving to do what they want is extremely motivating,” McDonald said. 

“What’s inspiring to me is both of ours, but mostly Mecca’s, commitment to having fun and enjoying life,“ O’Connor added. “That’s definitely something that inspires my styling, artwork and our photos. I think that people forget that we’re in college... that we’re alive on this planet that is beautiful and colorful. Why should things be boring? We can choose to make them... not that way.” 

If the duo’s inspiration comes from each other, Pedestal’s business model is based on that very exact essence: authenticity, uplifting empowerment and — most importantly — human connection.

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