I wanted to take a moment to talk about something that has happened more times than I’d like. I do so in the hope of striking a constructive dialogue about the issue to avoid awkwardness.
As you know, I am a professional photographer. I got into this after falling in love with the imagery found in fashion magazines and music videos. I was a young man of the Cindy Crawford “House of Style” Supermodel generation. As such I was acutely aware of visual images in the popular culture: the men looking suave and collected, the women sleek and seductive. As much as I love photographing anything, from baby portraits to brides to buildings, my heart is always attracted back to those images that capture youth and sex appeal. Who doesn’t want to capture that and preserve it so it can be remembered and enjoyed decades later?
Living Vicariously Through Imagery
I’m obviously not the only one who wishes he could stay young and full of vitality. From time-to-time, I’m contacted by people who aspire to act or model. I also encounter those who simply want me to create glamorous images of them like the celebrities they admire. They may send me inspiration photos revealing the style and the pose they want to emulate in their own photo shoot. Maybe they just want to look as hot as the Victoria’s Secret Angels they see on TV commercials.
We do the photo shoot. I happily strive to recreate the mood and look of their inspiration image. Often, they are very happy with the photos, even if they are not an exact copy of what we imitated. A lot of people do this on Pinterest, using a Pin they like to try to replicate a craft or an outfit. No biggie.
Speaking of social media, they want to post photos from their photo shoot as soon as possible so they can enjoy showing off how stylish and sexy they can be themselves. Who can blame them for reveling in the attention that others pay to them? Unfortunately, that attention inevitably includes a family member who may not be quite so complimentary about the images.
“Put some clothes on, girl,” they say. Or “You need to take this off the Internet”. Or “I’m gonna tell your momma about this!”
A Matter of Perception
As annoying as this can be to me as the photographer, I do try to see things from the point of view of the family. Even if the person I’m shooting with is a grown woman, she may still be viewed as someone’s baby. Making her look full-bloom womanly – a sexual creature desired by men, no less – is understandably not met with much appreciation.
I get it. I have a teenage daughter of my own. I’m very protective of her. Anybody who messes with her deals with me! Watching her grow up is difficult, but I trust that as she grows into maturity, she’ll make good decisions after giving careful consideration of the consequences. I know that, at some point, she’ll do something that I’m not particularly proud of as her dad, but I’ll do my best to still support her without fail and love her no matter what.
The family of someone posing for modeling photos may make the false presumption that I, as the photographer, am exploiting her. They’ve lived enough life to know that this is a man’s world and women have been victimized and objectified for a long time. That’s just a fact. Though it is changing some, a woman’s sexuality has been used by male energies to pad pockets and promote misogynstic agendas.
Critics in the family circle may see deliberately sexy images as a way to objectify their little girl, regardless of whether the photographer is a guy or another female. Not knowing anything about me as a person, their minds might automatically go to some very dark places. Their words may be driven by some very sinister presumptions. All I can do is try to assure them that I feel empathy for them. Ultimately, the model herself must take some responsibility for how she presents herself. Blaming me when it doesn’t go as she imagined is a cop-out.
The images originally used for inspiration may have been sourced from the Instagram page of a model working in Los Angeles or New York, where attitudes about art are generally more lenient than here in the Bible Belt, where the appearance of modesty is paramount. A father or a sibling or a cousin might not grasp that modeling is a lot like acting; it is pretending to be something that we aren’t in real life. Implying nudity or posing with a provocative gaze might be seen, in the conservative Southern context, as “acting up” or inviting negative attention.
The reaction might be slut shaming her, even though the girl who posed for the picture did not actually behave in a way that’s disrespectful or immoral. She’s just a girl, standing in front of a camera, asking the world to like her.
Boyfriends can also be problematic. They may not like the idea of their girlfriend posing in such a way for another man, even though I go out of my way to make them feel comfortable. Jealousy comes easy when other men pay her the kind of attention that an insecure fella might fear. In his mind, he worries about his sweet girl realizing she can do better. Just look at her. Just look at so many strange guys leaving comments under her photos. He might want to beat them up. Hell, he may want to beat ME up!
Communication is the Key
The way to avoid these awkward moments is to be open and honest from the very start. Don’t just tell your photographer how you want to be portrayed. Consider the fallout from decisions in the context of community standards and how friends and family are likely to react.
Understand that something you or I find relatively tame may lean toward pornographic through their eyes, whereas they would have no problem with being portrayed as a more wholesome type of sexy. Perhaps rather than a skimpy bikini or lingerie with stripper heels, the model may look just as womanly painting her toenails in a silky robe that mostly covers her body. Something outside the typical way women are photographed and classified as “sexy”.
A photo shoot can actually be empowering if a woman presents herself on her own terms rather than what she feels like she has to do to get the attention of the opposite sex. Besides, “sexy” is more than how much skin shows — it is all about confidence and feeling good in one’s own skin.
It could be different for each woman following her own female intuition about it rather than falling into the desire to want to be attractive to men. The ideas and the treatments are limited only by our imagination. I don’t even think that my modeling shots are all that racy, but I have a pretty open mind and like pushing the envelope. I could go a lot further than I do, but I do this to create something beautiful, not to stir up a hornet’s nest.
When considering the long-term consequences of projecting a sexy image, I usually recommend models post things online under an alias — not to hide anything from their family but to protect themselves from crazy people in the world who might see their allure as an invitation to stalk them. Once something is shared on the Internet, it’s there forever. You don’t want to post something sexy today and be haunted by it years from now when you’re a schoolteacher or interviewing for jobs. These are the sort of things family worry about when young people likely aren’t thinking beyond today’s instant gratification.
Choices Determine Outcomes
I vary my approach to take into consideration the age of a person (only age-appropriate photos of minors with a family member over 18 years of age present), so I can just as well plan something that is situation-appropriate, as much as I would personally love to imitate the photos popular within the mainstream media culture. Better to cater to those we answer to than to face their wrath after the fact.
Context matters. If someone drives in from Atlanta to test shoot or if some local tells me she is about to move to South Beach Miami to model swimwear, I’ll take a different approach than if she’s here in small town red state for the long haul. Again, communication and knowing your target market are everything.
If you don’t care what anyone thinks, more power to ya, girlfriend. I admire your ability to live on your own terms.
To my fellow photographers who may want to create their own sexy photos like the ones populating their news feeds, consider hiring one of the many traveling models who are perfectly happy taking their clothes off and allowing you to post pictures of them across the web. While you may prefer not to pay your models, it is ultimately less of a headache to shoot with people who have made the decision not to be affected by anyone’s opinion of how they earn a living.
Who should be listened to or ignored? I think we all have at least one person in our families who is unfairly critical of how we dress or act. I’m reminded of the meme that states, “If you don’t pay my bills, sign my paycheck or sleep in my bed, your opinion means nothing…”
Thanks to Teresa Hethcoat Jurczak for your contributions to this blog post.