Juliet Miles fled her home in Uganda at 15, with her mother, two sisters, two brothers, one suitcase and hopes for a better life in California.
Uganda had suffered six years under “life president” Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship by the time Miles’ family was able to escape; ultimately, some 300,000 were killed under his rule.
Miles says little about that time.
“We fled the country from Idi Amin...” she said. “Idi Amin was the president and Tanzania had declared war on Uganda — and my mother, being an American citizen, decided we had to leave the country, so we fled.”
Miles had already lived in Egypt, England, Sudan and Germany, but she remembers the culture shock of adapting to California in 1977.
“We left behind family — my father is Ugandan and all of my father’s side is Ugandan — and we left behind a culture, a lifestyle and friends, and we came to America,” she said. “We went through a lot of culture shock. We had never lived in America in our life. We looked forward to America, but in our minds you know — from what people would say about America — we were expecting streets of gold [and that] everybody was rich. When we arrived my mother was put on welfare, so we were living in welfare housing. … We were used to not having as much in Africa. We lived well there, but when you come to America, compared to what the Americans had, we had very little.”
In 1999, Miles moved from California to the Springs to be with her then husband. In 2013 she completed her degree in photography and started her business, Black Diamond Portraits.
Miles specializes in contemporary glamour photography for women, working with a makeup artist, hair stylist and fashion designer to create photo shoots that transform each client “into a celebrity being photographed for the cover of a magazine,” she explains on her website. “Every woman is beautiful. Every woman has strength. Like a diamond she is both beautiful and strong.”
Through her work, she aims to empower women and give them confidence.
Miles talked with the Business Journal about transitions, how travel has influenced her work, and her goal of photographing 500 women on her next trip to Africa.
Tell us more about adjusting to life in America.
I remember our first Christmas, because we didn’t really celebrate Christmas in Africa because Christmas was just a time to get together with family and maybe you have a big meal together. But that was it, there was no Santa Claus and presents and all that … The Rescue Mission people came by because we were on a list of families who needed toys and they asked what I wanted. I said I wanted a tennis ball to play dodgeball with … We also asked for jacks and my youngest sister wanted a pair of red shoes. We had very simple requests and they were just amazed that there was not much that we wanted. ...
The food here was very salty and too sweet ... and the language — everyone used English words, but they weren’t speaking English. I remember we met our cousins for the first time and one of them said, ‘Hey, what’s up? Slide me some skin.’ I started to look up and think of what was up beyond the ceiling and the roof. I also thought what is the purpose of removing your skin or pushing it somewhere and they started laughing and asking what we were talking about. The funniest instance of culture shock was an older lady who walked by where we lived every day with a stroller. One day, I walked outside and said, ‘Please madame, can I see your baby?’ She said, ‘Sure child, come on down.’ I walked down there and looked in the stroller and there was this hideous looking creature in there that growled at me. I thought, what in the world. I took a step back and said, ‘It is a rat. It’s a big rat!’ It had a bonnet. I said, ‘What is that thing?’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s my baby.’ I went running to my mother ... and my mom said, ‘Oh, that’s just a Chihuahua.’ In Africa, we had never seen people pushing around animals in buggies. This is culture shock for us — when people treat animals like people.
Did you work as a photographer in California?
No. I was living in California for a while and still had this mentality of how I was raised in Africa because girls in Africa would get married younger back then. By the time I was about 18 … I got married right out of high school, which was probably the wrong thing to do — but I didn’t know any better. My mom was struggling as a single parent of five children. She worked two jobs and went to school part time. By the time I finished high school, I got married and that didn’t last very long. I ended up being pregnant when we separated, and divorced when my daughter was 2. I was basically just going to school and working a job. I was involved a lot with church and I worked as an office manager. … I was always told I was very efficient. I had gone to school for accounting, but didn’t like it … then I went to school for physics and chemistry and I managed a lab, but the chemicals made me sick because of my asthma. I married a gentleman I met at the office job and he was moving to Colorado, so we came here and that’s when I started dabbling in photography.
I was always very artistic with my hands. I started out with mostly landscape photography. My sister is a flight attendant, so I would go places with her and photograph scenery from wherever we went. Growing up, my father traveled a lot so we lived in several different countries. This fostered my love of travel. … I began to teach myself photography and then attended Pikes Peak Community College where I took some classes just for fun. One of the instructors told me to come and pursue a degree. … Finally, I got the degree and I did very well. It took me a long time because I was working and was a single mom at this point, but in 2013, I graduated with my degree in photography. I transitioned from photographing in film to digital and realized that landscapes are OK [but] the best landscapes are early in the morning or sunset — and I like my bed too much to get up in the morning. I love photographing people.
What inspires you in your work?
I love being creative. I didn’t have many toys as a child, especially during Idi Amin’s administration. We had a sandbox type thing with clay and I would make toys with this clay. … Photography is my outlet for my creativity. I can look at a person and in my mind, I picture them how I would want to photograph them.
When I photograph people I want them to see how beautiful they are. … I photographed a woman in black and white and she cried. She did not realize how beautiful she is. … We all grow up thinking we’re not as cute as the other person, or we’re too fat or whatever. But we’re beautiful people and I want to show that to women.
One of my goals is to help those less fortunate in Africa. I try to go back and help young girls. I usually go back once each year. I’m going to rent a studio when I go in a few months and my goal is to photograph as many African women as possible. My goal is almost impossible: 500 women. I want to give them an image of themselves for free, to show them how beautiful they are. I’ve always had a soft spot for African children. Shortly after we left Africa, the AIDS epidemic exploded and so many children became orphans. … I had a nonprofit from 2000 until 2013 to help support young children in Africa. Since it’s closed down, I’ve stayed in close contact with many of the children. There are three that I call each week.
What has been your greatest takeaway from your experiences?
It has given me a greater understanding of other people. … My biggest lesson I’ve learned would be that because I’ve experienced and learned so much from other people and other cultures, I’m not limited in learning and experiencing new things. I’m not afraid to try things.
One thing I’ve noticed here about some people is that they lead their lives with ‘I can’t.’ When I first came here … I had the African mindset — that women were supposed to be submissive. … Having been in America, I know there is so much potential that is missed by a lot of women. My biggest lesson is that anything is possible here if you put your heart and mind to it.