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Present Portraits: Photography as Care Work

Over a decade ago, I was sitting in my one bedroom apartment watching a Creative Live seminar by Sue Bryce having my little photographer mind blown. Sue is an Australian glamour photographer who has been in the business for 30+ years at this point. She is the first person I heard address outright the challenges people (especially AFAB folks) face being in front of the camera. She talked about how to make every client feel important, valued, and what we'd now call "seen." She also gave me the building blocks of effective posing people of all different body types. She was unabashedly un-elitist. She took her first (amazing) photos in her garage studio without apology, and shares about the shame she experienced being a high school drop out.

I start this story with Sue, because she changed my life and my business. I was 23, and I hadn't yet heard the term "body positivity." On a personal note, I hadn't been to therapy, I didn't know I had trauma to unpack, and I didn't know what embodiment was. All I knew was that Sue made her clients feel how I wanted my clients to feel every time I picked up my camera.

Soon life threw me into my own journey of self discovery and healing. I went down the rabbit hole of over exercising and under eating in an effort to feel in control of my life and body, and thankfully came out the other side into a place of moderation, partnership and self love. I learned the origins of the body positivity and body liberation movements. I learned what trauma was, and that it was stored in my body. I did a lot of therapy. I participated in breathwork and body work. I read the work of intersectional feminists like bell hooks. I started learning to trust myself, which was perhaps the hardest lesson of all.

When I started promoting my book, Dear Sister, I felt very strongly about using my own images vs stock photos. I invited a few friends to a beach photo session, and we had our first unofficial Embodied Sisterhood shoot. I wanted photos that captured both the beauty and messiness of womanhood when so often our effort and tenacity gets hidden away in efforts to present as pretty.

I was amazed by how empowering this session was for everyone involved. We let loose in ways we hadn't before in front of a camera. None of these friends had previously met, but they bonded and clicked because of the shared experience. It was magic, and I wanted more.

I scheduled a more organized workshop the following summer, to similar effect. Stunning photos, connections made that are still in place four years later, a newfound freedom in front of the camera for those who attended.

Here's the thing, whether or not we hire professional photographers, photos have become huge parts of our lives. Social media, selfies, and phones on our cameras, we are awash in pictures and for the most part I love it. It's certainly a far cry from trying to find photos of my ancestors even two generations ago. The digital age is a miracle for our personal histories. However, it also can be really intimidating when we don't feel at home with ourselves and our bodies. Every photo can feel like proof of how we don't measure up to the ever shifting societal standard of who we should be and how we should look. Maybe even harder is looking at ourselves when we regret our choices, or feel we haven't been able to be as true to ourselves as we would like. Our bodies tell the stories of our lives, the stories of joy and the stories of grief. They record our accomplishments, and the opportunities we missed. The babies born, the surgeries, the days in the sun, and the tattoos, our bodies are tapestries and maps and nature. They are our homes, and they are pure alchemy, always shifting to support us in our ever changing life and world.

Photos can bring up so much, not only of how we may not fit a societal expectation, but of how we have or haven't shown up for ourselves over the years. We look at photos of ourselves and see our history, our lives, and the state of our mental and physical health. We may even see our ancestors, parents, grandparents as we age and it may bring up feelings about our relationships with them, or lack thereof. I've sorted and re evaluated a lot of my core beliefs through my personal growth journey, but one that has gotten stronger at every stage is the belief that our bodies are sacred and deserve to be treated with reverence and care.

Showing up in photos is a way to celebrate ourselves as we are. Showing up for photos intentionally can be a radical act of self acceptance and love. If we dig beneath the surface, showing up for photos intentionally can even be a form of somatic healing. We have the opportunity to choose our narrative. We choose how we show up. We choose to be present with all the versions of ourselves and our stories. We choose to be witnessed by those who hold compassionate and brave space, and we get to remember that experience and acceptance every time we look at those photos in the future. This is the magic of the Present Portraits Workshop, and one of the reasons I deeply believe that photography can be care work.

My belief that our bodies are sacred is the core of not only a spiritual embodiment ethic, it's the basis of my politics. Queer bodies are sacred. Trans bodies are sacred. Mom bodies and incarcerated bodies and immigrant bodies and women's bodies and non-binary bodies and Black bodies and Brown bodies and Indigenous bodies are all sacred. They are worth protecting, WE are worth protecting. Photography is the most effective way I've found to celebrate and showcase this.

As amazing as my experiences with the Embodied Sisterhood workshop/s have been, as my understanding of what it is I'm really working to accomplish through this space has grown, so has my desire to provide a more expansive container for this work. We are tugging at the roots of issues that often run very deep. In 2020, I wasn't sure if I'd ever get to work with folks in this way again since I just didn't feel I had the capacity to hold this space on my own. This is why I'm elated to be partnering with Wednesdae Reim Ifrach of Rainbow Recovery for the Present Portraits workshop.

God/dess couldn't have sent a more perfect person to co-create this space. Not only are we both Pisces (so get ready to feel your feelings,) Wednesdae holds a Masters in Art Therapy from Albertus Magnus College. They currently serve as a Board Member with Project HEAL, the Nations only Eating Disorder Treatment Equity Access based Non-profit. They previously served on CT DCF LGBTQ+ Youth Advisory Board as well as being the former President of the Connecticut Art Therapy Association. They have served in many positions throughout their career including clinical supervisor, program director and lead art therapist. Their current specialties include gender affirming care, fat and body activism, intersectional social justice, complex trauma and eating disorder treatment.

Wednesdae will be facilitating group conversation, and leading the reflective portions of the workshop allowing me to focus on photography. They will also be available throughout the entire workshop for one on one time should you have anything come up that you'd like dedicated space to process.

I am in awe that we get to create this experience for you together, and I hope you'll join us. I hope you'll join us to create stunning photos, that you'll show up for your current, past, and future selves, and leave with a window the most joyful, most at ease version of yourself.

We are hosting this workshop on the eve of the October full moon, 10/28/23 at the Womxn's Work Studio at 169 East Street in New Haven, CT from 11:30am to 2:30pm. Light gf/df/vegan refreshments will be provided. We are deeply thankful to the studio for hosting us and helping create this space. For logistical information and booking, click the link below.

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