Written by: Kate Hopewell-Smith
Come summertime you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without articles about getting your body ‘beach ready’. Many women are secretly terrified at the prospect of getting into swimwear publicly, because whilst very few people actually suffer from body dysmorphia (the belief that one's appearance is unusually defective) most women have body issues. The truth is that I deal with this reality on a regular basis because I shoot a lot of boudoir photography.
Last week I put a few pictures on Facebook from a shoot that both I, and the lady in question, loved. There was an incredible response and I had four enquiries that same evening. However, nestled amongst the positive comments was this:
“no wonder women have serious body image problems, your setting them up as porn stars…you know full well what your doing to women. Your doing this for money not art” [sic].
The man in question is clearly an idiot, and I retained my professionalism and refrained from pointing out the obvious. But in truth it does rankle because he is just so wrong about my motives – although of course I need to make a living. Hand on heart I believe that every woman should experience a boudoir shoot once in their lifetime.
When I get asked what I really, really love to take pictures of, the answer is actually women. I often chose to paint the female form so it is no surprise that I also enjoy photographing it. However the reason I enjoy boudoir as a genre goes far deeper than ticking an aesthetic box. It is without doubt the most psychologically rewarding part of my business.
The truth is that most women, including me, would love to have some beautiful images of themselves that explore their sensuality. What is absolutely critical in my work is that the images are about the women being in control. She is choosing to celebrate herself on her terms, and is absolutely not being sexually objectified or presented as a commodity.
I don’t actually like the label ‘boudoir’ but I understand that the genre needs a name. It is still a misunderstood term and is open to stylistic interpretation. As in all photography your own taste barometer will play a big role in developing and positioning your work. I am absolutely clear about what boudoir means to me, and I attract the kind of women that I want to photograph – of all ages, shapes and sizes (despite what some of you might think). Most of them have had children, which means they might not love the physical reality of their bodies, but they have a deep respect for what it is capable of. At the start of the shoot all of them want to point out their ‘flaws’ which is why I always ask them what their partners most love about them physically. That’s the only way to get a positive out of a woman – sad but true.
A boudoir shoot with me is an indulgent treat, a journey of self-discovery and hugely empowering. Women leave on a high with confidence levels through the roof, and yet they have not seen an image. I have learnt, with interest, that the end result is only one element of the return on investment, and probably the least important.
My boudoir work does not need a hard sell, nor any marketing - each shoot leads to another through genuine, word of mouth, referrals. The emails that I get from the women I’ve photographed are wonderful and I am now quite used to this kind of reaction to the experience:
“I surprised myself about how much I enjoyed the shoot itself and without a doubt it’s done more for my confidence than anything else in the past 10 years”.
What I didn’t expect, but has delighted me, has been the response of the husbands and partners of my clients. Because whilst they obviously get to enjoy the resulting imagery the biggest gain for them is a change of confidence in the woman they love.
I visited one of my dearest friends in New York last year and suggested we did a shoot whilst I was there. We had a lot of fun – drinking vintage champagne and laughing together over a long afternoon. I remember telling her how beautiful she looked and that this (ie what I was seeing through the lens) was how her husband saw her. I immediately saw that she doubted what I was saying – that’s women for you. As soon as her husband returned to the apartment she wanted to show him the images on the back of my camera. She was clearly on a high and as he flicked through the images he turned to her and said, “Stunning, darling, but that’s how I see you”. It was a very special moment and I just kept quiet.
The next day as we wandered through SOHO he stopped me, looked me straight in the eye and said a heartfelt thank you for what I had done for her. In his words:
It took me a full year to persuade another of my closest friends to do a shoot with me – she was reticent following breast cancer and a mastectomy. It was almost like seeing a phoenix rising from the ashes and her husband is deeply grateful for the part photography played in his wife finding herself once again.
With all these positives does come a negative – and that is the fact that boudoir photography is really hard to do well. It takes a lot of practice to get good at it and practice you should - for the sake of the delicate egos that you hold in your hands.