Femmeography: A Wake Up Call

I scheduled a photo session with Natasha, even though the photos on her website scared me. The women in those photos were so brave, bold, beautiful. According to the definitions of perfection we all have stamped on our vision, none were perfect. But these photos were better than physical perfection; women who were really beautiful; strong and silly, fierce, tender, joyful. These are virtues I want to see in myself, but it’s so much easier to emphasize the fearful, weak, and ugly parts of myself. 

I feel awkward in photos. Lots of people feel that way, I know. All the same, I’ve never been one who shoves the camera-wielding friend away or creates elaborate ruses to get out of group photos. It’s part of living, being in photos. But it’s been there, that little fear, locked away every time a photo op comes up. It pounces out with an almost-unconscious checklist: 

-check your makeup (I’m probably shiny. Wish I’d put on mascara this morning) 
-arrange your expression (don’t do that awkward smile this time, please) 
-at least make sure your crazy hair isn’t overwhelming the photo. (not much to do at this point...better pull it back) 
-Pose (I’m so not good at this...I’m so not good at this). 

It’s so negative. I’ve developed a practice of thinking about photos of as things that make me look good or bad, instead of simply a perspective of who I am. 

Going into my the photoshoot, I wrote down 4 fears and 3 hopes for the experience. 

I will feel awkward.  
The dancing (I have no rhythm.) 
I will do something wrong, somehow. 
I won’t be brave. 

I hope to feel brave. 
I hope to feel beautiful. 
I hope I am more awake. 

 After the shoot, I wrote down some thoughts right away: 

"This was about paying attention, about being awake to light and movement, conscious of the smallest movements that are usually so unconscious. I did feel awkward dancing, but it helped me let go of picture perfect, doing all of the things you usually avoid in photographs. While stretching and just moving around on the floor, I felt that pressure of tears behind the eyes, like when a poem is stirring but I can’t quite express it yet. It felt natural, but unnatural, the movements were not performance, but the perspective of the observer was there."

They are the essential things; understanding that gravity is there, pressing down on me, holding me close. Being aware of how my arms, hair, and face are reacting to the breeze and the light and the gravity, and the contact points of body meeting the ground, just me being present in the world. 

Just after the shoot, I noticed I felt drained, like after getting a massage or exercising muscles you haven’t used in some time, the way your legs feel a long hike, exhausted but aware of every square inch of tissue. 

After Natasha sent the photos, I had some more thinking to do. One of the things that stood out most to me were the photos where I made funny faces into the camera. It made me realize that beauty isn’t about a static pose. It is more feeling than a way of looking; it’s a surrender, a giving in to being myself, instead of trying to look a certain way. 

I have an expressive face, and while this was great for making friends laugh when I mimic or tell stories, I always felt very awkward about hamming it up for the camera; it’s very different making people laugh in real life because it is about the moment and context. When captured in a photo, it always made me feel foolish and ugly. 

So making faces for the camera, smushing my face around with my hands at Natasha’s encouragement, it was one of the things that really forced me to let go and surrender to the process. It wasn’t about performance or masks, it was accepting the structure and form and the possibilities in my face. 

In the photo that struck me most powerfully, I had been sitting and just stretching, right at the beginning of the session, limbering my neck, trying to relax and not overthink. I massaged the tension muscles in my neck and concentrated on that, on resting, when Natasha said quietly “Open your eyes.” I jumped a little and popped my eyes open; I had almost forgotten she was there. That was it. No preparation. No checklist. No pose. One person being awake, and another there to witness with the camera. 

In that photo I see the poet and the thinker and the listener. I see boldness and vulnerability, and both terrify me. The woman in that photo looks eerily powerful, like she could do anything. 

My friend Corrie wrote me a note when I showed this photo to her: “I loveloveLOVE the photo. It’s the most REAL YOU photo I think I've ever seen...all that I think and know and believe about you in one stunning photo. It's how I see you and somehow captured in a photo. (Isn't that a funny thing. That sometimes our real selves just completely evade a photo.)” 

I often struggle with feeling invisible. Though it feels selfish to me to acknowledge not feeling seen and known, I notice an airless, dangerous quality in my thinking when I’m in an “invisible” patch in my life. The outside perspective is missing; the friend who says “you’re not crazy,” or “yes, you’re acting crazy, tell me what’s really going on?” It’s the friend who sees you, and often simply by having a perspective that is not yours, helps you understand yourself better. That’s what my Femmeography shoot felt like. 

In the days and weeks following, as I thought about the session and received my photos from Natasha and processed through writing about it, it made me want to move more, to do yoga and to walk outside more often. I felt a deeper understanding of how makeup and poses are so far from being the whole story on beauty. 

"She is clothed with strength and dignity;
She can laugh at the days to come." --Prov. 31:25
I’ve only shared my Femmeography photos with a few friends, but the conversations instigated by the photos have been deeply meaningful. They’ve ranged from Corrie, for whom seeing and talking about my photo opened up a deep longing to instill an understanding of true beauty in her daughters, to Luz, who laughed and got tears in her eyes because she said she had missed seeing some of those expressions on my face in recent years, and reminded me not to hide behind my masks, to Anne and Christy who both kept using that word “brave” as they looked through the pictures. Walking away from this experience, I wish every woman could do a Femmeography session; I want every woman I know to do something like this, to make peace with understanding of her own physical presence.

If this process interested you, please go check out Natasha's beautiful work at www.femmeography.com, like her page on facebook and follow her work on twitter. I've been fascinated by the conversations the idea of Femmeography has brought up, and I'd love to hear more. What are your thoughts on real beauty?


Sue said…
Thank you so much for sharing this. I read someone else's article the other day about her Femmography experience, and the idea of it both excited me and scared the shit out of me. So I decided the only logical step left was to book a session myself in January. I've been searching the internet to hear what other women are saying about the experience, and was glad to find yours, which helps me to know I'm doing the right thing. The photos you shared are indeed beautiful. Thank you.
jana.kaye said…
Dear Sue, thanks for your comment! I hope your session is (was? I got your comment just before I left for vacation, so didn't respond for a while!) as terrifying and exhilarating, and that you discover something new about yourself :-)