“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”―Haruki Murakami
I completed the second year of my photo-a-day project on December 31st, 2017. When I started documenting my days on Jan 1, 2016, I never thought I’d make it through a year, let alone two. And, for sure, this year I almost gave up many times.
It was a really tough year. The toughest. On many days, I felt like a little rowboat caught out on the ocean in the perfect storm. I have never felt so adrift, so at-sea, in so many areas of my life at once. It brought me to my knees. It was energy-sucking, confidence draining, emotional nudity. It was humbling. I questioned everything, including myself, and I’m still not sure that I’m standing on solid ground yet. Have you ever got off of a boat after a long, rough voyage? For a while after you step on land, you find yourself still internally swaying, not sure if it’s the ground beneath you moving, or if your equilibrium hasn’t yet caught up to the fact that you’re finally off the boat. That’s how it feels right now. Shaky. Uncertain. But also a bit of a relief.
Looking back on these images was hard and helpful. Hard because it’s like I began the year in one life and left it in another. Helpful because I realized that, along the way, there were many moments I wouldn’t want to write-off.
And that’s why I’m going to continue in 2018. Who knows what the next 12 months will bring my way? Who knows what life I will be standing in on December 31st of this year? And who knows how grateful I will be for the reminder of the little moments along the way.
Maybe I can’t be with you every single day but I can document the flavor of your life in a documentary session. Trust me, every memory has its value, even the moments that don’t feel like they need memorializing at the time. Get in touch to learn more.
“How does one become a butterfly? You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar. “
– Trina Paulus
When you begin a new artistic project, you often have people in mind; personalities, situations, life histories and experiences that inspire you. When I began the Butterfly Project earlier this year (see first post here) I knew it would begin with my friend Mala but I also knew I had met other, beautiful, strong, and courageous women who I hoped would step forward to be seen and photographed this way. Ramona was one of them.
We had met through a mommy group when our kids were much younger. Our exchanges were brief and surface-level for the most part, for no particular reason other than situation and company. I knew through friends that she was going through some stuff, a tough divorce, transitioning to single-motherhood, but didn’t know the details. We weren’t close enough for me to reach out and ask. I don’t think we even exchanged phone numbers or emails. But, of course, we became Facebook friends as one does these days.
What I remembered about Ramona was her wild, red hair, and her raw beauty, full of freckles and expressive eyes, and a smile that just caught you off-guard, like you were seeing into her. Maybe it’s because she was going through stuff that took away the layers of polish we slap over ourselves when we go out into the world. She was naked, knotty, wood; you could see the grooves of living etched into every expression.
When Ramona stepped forward after my session with Mala, I asked her to fill out a questionnaire to understand what had driven her to want to be involved in this project and she told me about her life growing up with an alcoholic mother.
“I grew up very entitled and felt I deserved a charmed life,” she told me. “I carried these traits into adulthood and married an alcoholic who turned drug addict.”Eventually she had to walk away from her marriage, her home, the life she had built, with two children in-tow, her entire vision of how her life should look, shattered. And then slowly, brick by brick, rebuild her sense of the world, who she was and what she wanted.
“It is beyond enlightening. To have lost everything, been through my greatest fears at one point, and survived. It has made me a better person, a better mother, a better friend. The other side is beautiful. I feel wise and complete,” she wrote.
She is now blissfully, happily re-married, and in a blended family that lights her up whenever she speaks about them. But even as I entered her gorgeous home to photograph her, she clutched her cell phone, a worried expression on her face as she talked patiently to her mother whose addiction continues to negatively impact both of their lives. Life is beautiful for her now, but not perfect.
“I have learned to stop and remind myself “this too shall pass”,” she told me, referring to life events that can take you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. “I have also learned to bask in the simple and quiet good times as we all know they are usually brief. For me it will always be another court case, drunk mother episode, family member diagnosed with cancer. Life is consistently hard and I find comfort expecting it. Now, my biggest self love/self care is talking my emotions out with my husband. His touch, listening ears and wise words always bring me peace I when I cannot find it on my own.”
In brainstorming with Ramona about her session, water continually came up as a metaphor for cleansing and rejuvenating the soul. So we knew we had to do something with water. Something that gave her that same sense of emergence, and yet something that tapped into the vulnerable emotions we wanted to express to tell her story. Inspired by Adele’s recent Rolling Stone cover and a white robe hanging in Ramona’s master bathroom… we started there.
I am still taking applications and offering free sitting fees for other women who want this experience and these images to celebrate their beauty with, inside and out. They don’t have to look like this. In fact, I have no idea what YOUR photos will look like. They’ll look like how I experience you and that’s all that I can say. I envision these sessions as a conversation. With both Mala and Ramona, we talked as much as we shot. We played with light, locations, poses, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (There may also have been alcohol involved.) That’s all I can say and can promise: it will be a fun exploration. Please get in touch with me if you want to chat about why a session like this interests you and what that might look like.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
You don’t get to the ripe old age of 41 without having met some pretty incredible people. In my 41 trips around the sun, I’ve been fortunate to have met many and. by virtue of being a woman myself, many of them women. What I’ve learned and seen and experienced, especially by standing beside those friends who have struggled with fear, grief, loss, abuse, and health issues, is that a woman’s beauty shines brightest through her tears. All of us carry with us hurts and scars that shape and transform us, that we fight to transcend, forgive, and live beyond. Some of us have scrapes and others deep wounds that cut us to the core; it’s not the depth of the injury that dictates the transformation.
Like a butterfly emerging from the broken shell of the cocoon, the moment of joyful, beautiful, colorful flight into the sunlight comes after days of darkness, a seeming brokenness, an end.
It’s this moment, this flying toward the light with sunshine blinding you, that I have been so transfixed by lately. There is wholeness to those people who have moved beyond their experience and into a new space for themselves, a transference of energy that, if you pay attention, has a physicality to it. The leaning in, the reaching out, the steady and loving gaze that says “it’s ok, I’ve been there, me too.”
And through that I have envisioned photographing women in what I feel is a completely different way from much of what we see and consume in daily media: women as whole, complete, messy, people; courageous, sexy, strong, vulnerable, defiant, and imperfect.
When my friend, Mala, and I tossed around some ideas about photographing her post-divorce, I felt that there were two ideas slowly drawing together like magnets but I didn’t exactly know what it would look like when the two ends met. Mala wanted to do a photo session around re-purposing and re-claiming her wedding sari, a defiant and powerful gesture both culturally and personally. We started there and let the rest fall into place.
Mala has her own story and her own, beautiful way of telling it. You can read more from her directly here. I see her as fun, artistic, passionate, flamboyant, bold, adventurous, emotional, strong, powerful and, you’ve probably guessed by now, brave, defiant, and sometimes controversial (you can see why we’re friends.) I also know that she has a lot of pain and hurt that she continues to deal with. So I literally had tears streaming down my face when I looked at these pictures and felt that I had captured all of that in our Saturday afternoon together.
I feel these are some of the most honest photos I have ever taken. And, I hope (KNOW), this is just the beginning. (See more below the slideshow for more on that.)
I am offering free sitting fees for other women who want this experience and these images to celebrate their beauty with, inside and out. They don’t have to look like this. In fact, I have no idea what YOUR photos will look like. They’ll look like how I experience you and that’s all that I can say. If you’re the quiet, thoughtful type, for sure I would never photograph you this way. I envision these sessions as a conversation, much as this was for me and Mala. We talked as much as we shot. We played with light, locations, poses, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (There may also have been wine involved.) That’s all I can say and can promise: it will be a fun exploration. Please get in touch with me if you want to chat about why a session like this interests you and what that might look like.
I'm Michelle and I love vampires (before they were cool), peanut butter and that deliciously off-balance feeling you get when you step off a plane in a new country. I'm also a mum, a writer and a visual storyteller.
Click here to learn more about all that.
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