“When the soul wants to experience something, she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.”
I love this quote by Meister Eckhart, because it so eloquently describes the need for invoking new self-visions—and the process by which we go about it.
Thirteen years ago, when I picked up an analog camera to learn about black-and-white photography, I had no idea I’d eventually be photographing hundreds of semi-clad women, using the camera to help them conjure new visions of themselves and to witness, heal, and celebrate their bodies and beings.
At the time I was a few years into my marriage, wearing overalls much more often than sexy attire. The initial romance had worn off and I’d begun to feel more invisible as a woman. As my husband’s birthday approached, I asked a friend to photograph me in my bedroom to help remind my husband—and me—of the woman he first fell in love with. That day, I rediscovered my sassy, silly, and sultry spirit in front of the camera. The experience was so fun and liberating it helped me fall back in love with my feminine self and the woman inside I’d forgotten.
Soon friends starting coming over for photos, and when strangers showed up at my door, I knew I’d hit a nerve: Women needed space to explore and express themselves outside of the public eye and their own critical gaze. At first, it was simply flamboyant play, allowing ourselves to pose sexily and feel beautiful. But I soon became fascinated by the potency and interaction that happened when I focused the camera on a woman.
It was as if all her shame, doubts, and stories around her body and female self entered the space, and the camera was there to confront it, asking her to let me see it, so she could see it and move through it into new visions of herself. I remember one young woman who came because her ex-husband had called her ugly and her mom called her fat. As we prepared for photos, she pulled up her T-shirt to show me her belly, as if asking, “Am I fat?” She was so lovely and heartbroken, her vulnerability palpable, and it struck me that her “fat belly” was constantly pulling her away from her present experience, reminding her that she was fat, ugly, and … unworthy. I grabbed the camera and took a few shots of her as she was recalling those voices, and as we began to play, we forgot about those words. We ended her session in the redwoods, her naked under the beautiful long and lacy veil from her wedding. We were symbolically releasing her former marriage and returning her to her innocent joy. It was as if she was taking vows of her own self-marriage. Later when we met to go through her photos, we were struck by the difference between those first shots at the studio and the powerful change of her presence and body language that occurred during the shoot. A few years later she was happily remarried and now has kids.
The lens sheds light on both the visible and invisible life of the body. The shape and feel of it, but also the stories we carry inside. Women’s reasons for coming to me are as diverse as they are themselves: from a desire to heal body image issues, sexual trauma, sadness around aging, betrayal, and loss of sensuality, to a celebration of milestone moments, honoring themselves, or seeking a new experience with their bodies. Shared by all of them, though, has been the longing—as well as the terror—of fully seeing, accepting, and embracing (all of) themselves.
I remember another woman, around 50 years old, who’d come to me on a friend’s suggestion. She was going through big life transitions and was skeptical about taking photos. As she was about to leave, she turned to me, tears running down her cheeks, and said, “I’m not afraid of being photographed, I’m afraid I won’t like the photos. I think I prefer staying in the illusion of myself.” This hit me hard—the challenge of truly being willing to see oneself. And the questions that can come up in the process: Who am I behind the veils (of clothing and culture)? Why do I resist being seen? Where am I still hiding, and why?
The images have, ironically, helped us understand that we as women are so much more than any one image. That we can be simultaneously sexy, silly, sassy, divine, dirty, dramatic, raw, vulnerable, powerful, and playful. That we are whole, not broken. That we can show up bare and honest before ourselves and return to a state of dignity.
In this work, the body is as an entry point into a more authentic connection with oneself. The goal is to discover women’s unique beauty, of course, but it’s also an opportunity to shift perceptions from an objectifying external sense of the body and experience it as a sacred, sensuous part of who we are: a body that mitigates between self and society, body and spirit, inner and outer. A body that carries us and is carried by us. A body with a semi-porous skin that is permeable, resounding, and constantly responding to the ebb and flow of sensation. A skin onto which images of identity are enculturated and projected. A skin within which we experience, center, and identify ourselves. A body that doesn’t lie.
With my camera, I’ve tried to get under the skin, the surface of each woman to find something truer, something that feels like herself. In turn, the women have gotten under my skin with their stories of disconnection, dreamy ideals, and deeper yearnings for acceptance, love, and wholeness. In the process, this work has taught me to see with my heart. I joke that I tend to crush on everyone who walks through my door, because when I see through eyes of love, I become curious and find beauty in every woman.
It may sound trite, but as I gaze so deeply into the eyes of another, I feel like I’m privy to a private viewing of her soul. In each woman, as we move through a session, I capture glimpses of her as she must have been as a 5-year-old, or a proud teenager, or as she’ll be when she’s 95. This opens my heart, each time, and often there’s a moment of recognition, our eyes wet, as I remove the camera, and there we are eye to eye, both of us seen.
The women come to me to meet themselves. They may come to discover their beauty, but what they really seek is visibility and the experience of embodiment, of feeling at home in their lives and their own skin. They want to be witnessed and seen. Not by harsh and hungry eyes, but by gentle eyes genuinely interested in the person inside. They want, if only for a moment, to exist without judgment, projection, and (self) censorship. They find self-love. And I find clarity and compassion for womanhood in all its nuances. I’m certain the secret agenda of beauty is love. We always care for what we love, and this work is an expression of love.