What if your portrait was more than just a picture?
What if it was your voice raised in celebration of who you truly are?
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After years of living to please others, afraid to be fully myself, I discovered the joy and freedom of living authentically while celebrating who I am. Now, I want to help you grow your courage and capacity to live authentically, to raise your voice, and, especially, in your ability to love and celebrate yourself.
Here are some things you might want to know…
I believe doing what you’re afraid of is more important than doing what you’re good at.
I believe the things you say become the things you believe.
I believe in moving away from your hometown; get out there and test your wings!
I believe in proudly telling your “skirt caught in your underwear” story every chance you get.
I believe in questioning authority, because there are new answers to be found and, you know what’s right for you.
I believe in drinking wine ’til 5 am while having a cry it out heart to heart with a friend.
I also believe in sleeping the entire next day 😉 .
I believe in spooning… everyone needs a good cuddle.
I believe making changes in your life begins with knowing your truth.
I believe raising your voice raises your strength I believe in pursuing what moves you.
I believe in being intentional, in all things. .
I believe photographs have the power to connect you to yourself. And that connection is absolutely transformative. This is why I create portraits. My clients celebrate themselves through recognition, acceptance and declaration – of themselves, by themselves – through my images. “There is nothing more beautiful inspiring than the authentic you.”
Whether you are on a journey to remember the courage, bravery and strength you found within yourself sometime in the past, or to discover the power that is bursting inside you now that outsiders rarely see: the journey to loving who you are is at the core of my process. Working with me is your opportunity to declare who you are and be courageous in trusting yourself. It’s a chance to use your voice unabashedly and unapologetically. And, ultimately, it’s your time to find freedom in being the one who defines who you are, without the concern of what other people think and say. Together, let’s be unjudgeable.
My Story of [Re]Discovery
[Caution! Only read on if your really want to know the Why of me.]
That’s the word. I guess silenced and suppressed are true, too. But stifled feels the most accurate.
Stifled is what I have felt in most of my relationships with people my whole life. Somehow I felt it was my responsibility to ensure that others never felt uncomfortable, unhappy or hurt as a result of something I said or did. I believed that if they did, it was my fault. I rarely shared what I truly thought or felt about something, especially when I was feeling uncomfortable or hurt. I developed the habit of “managing” people very carefully, acting in ways I thought would make them happy—or at least seem that way around me.
And, for a long time, everything seemed to work just fine this way. My relationships always appeared good, peaceful and easygoing. In truth, I was like a duck swimming in a pond. On the surface everything seemed calm, steady and in-control, while under the surface my webby-feet were paddling furiously just to remain upright and afloat. The longer I hid my crazy underwater dance, the angrier I became at the people I was supposedly doing it for, and by extension, at myself.
More and more our personal exchanges increased my resentment at the way I thought I had to act in order to keep a “positive” spin on things between me and others. With all the energy I was spending paddling (keeping myself in check so I didn’t do or say anything that would make anyone upset or worried), the more the pressure was bearing down on me and I had to work progressively harder to keep things “nice”.
Then, a few years ago, the seemingly smooth-sailing world I had created imploded.
I found I simply couldn’t keep paddling anymore. And suddenly there I was, saying things to people that I’d long kept hidden–things the people involved deserved to hear much, much sooner. In quick succession, my sudden bursts of unexpected candor shattered some of my relationships and they fell apart.
As someone who had worked so hard all their life to not upset people and to keep my relationships “happy”, I now felt like an utter failure. And selfish. Completely selfish. While I had come to grips with the fact that it was my inauthenticity that led to the unhealthy state of these relationships, I couldn’t shake the guilt of knowing that I had actually treated people so badly and caused them to feel so much hurt, rejection and pain.
Everyone handles dramatic change in their own way. For me, I spiraled into a deep, isolating depression fueled by guilt and shame that I could not overcome.
I even turned away from people who were still in my life, afraid of what they’d think if they found out what I had done. My loneliness, anxiety and self-doubt soared, becoming the punishment I felt I needed to endure. Even the business I’d started to help me flourish and self-actualize ground to a halt. I didn’t know who I was anymore. And the refrain that played over and over again in my head, feeding the fear inside me, was that I’d become someone who was unlovable. Someone unworthy of relationship.
In spite of all that, something inside me still insisted that I deserved a better life–one with healthy relationships and a “me” I could be proud of.
I wanted this so badly. But I didn’t know how to get there on my own. Desperate, I risked my pride and reached out to a mentor who I believed I could trust with the truth that I was so ashamed of. It was the scariest—and best—decision I could have made. The first question they asked me hit me in the gut:
“Sonja, is it possible you’ve spent all this time and energy on people-pleasing and hiding yourself not because you really care about other people’s feelings, but because you are afraid people will reject you if you reveal who you really are?”
I hated to admit it, but I immediately knew that was right. Because… I knew fear. I knew fear of criticism and rejection. It had been a steady and faithful companion for my entire life.
All the time I’d been doing the work on self-awareness and healing I’d thought that the victory I was fighting for was me getting out of my depression and back to “normal” (only better). Suddenly I realized the victory I sought was being able to love, accept and celebrate who I was. That out of my own love for myself—a true and honest love—acceptance and celebration of others as their authentic selves would follow. True relationship would follow. Now that I knew this was possible, I wanted it more than anything!
Realizing this was a massive breakthrough for me.
The hard work, though, had only just begun.
Over the next few years I began making changes. I carefully chose a couple friends and family members to test the waters with, gradually revealing to them my REAL story and opening up about some of the ways I thought differently than they did. That may not sound so tough to do, but for me these were huge steps. I’d grown up in a family and community of conservative faith and was surrounded almost exclusively by people who I thought believed the exact same things and who I had witnessed harshly judging people who expressed different ideas and beliefs.
Even just admitting to the people in my circle that I was starting to question some things “we” believed felt like a betrayal of my faith and a deliberate turning from God. I worried that I would be judged harshly too. But being honest about my questions and doubts was an exercise in trust and vulnerability that I needed to take. Instead of being rejected, I was happily surprised that those I confided in met me with love and encouragement to continue investigating, challenging ideas and being authentic about my journey.
Bolstered by a few successes, I got braver and began opening myself up to people who I didn’t already have close relationships with. People who I really didn’t know I could emotionally trust.
This new bravery came with challenges…
At one dinner I became upset by the sentiments seemingly shared by everyone at the table on a controversial issue. I didn’t agree and wanted them to know I did not share the same view! I sat nervously, fidgeting with the napkins, plates and silverware for a long while as I considered piping up… and then I started feeling something else. Excitement! I felt excited at the thought of lifting up my voice and expressing myself, even (especially?) if that meant rocking the boat!
The truth had taken root in me that it didn’t matter what others thought of my opinions. What mattered was me honouring myself, and them, by living out my true self with them in that moment. I looked one of my companions in the eye and asked a question that I thought gave the opportunity to consider a new and different point of view. All I did was ask a question! And what a rush! Never mind that I was met with blank stares and dismissal at the thought that there could be another way to approach the issue we were talking about. I had raised my voice! I had let my feelings and thoughts be heard! And man, did it ever feel powerful! And awesome!
When I embarked on this new, vulnerable and courageous way of living I thought it was going to be all about me finally stepping up in my life and sharing with the world who I really was. What has surprised me though is how this is actually so much more about me finding who I really am – and realizing that I LOVE the person I am discovering myself to be!
Learning to love myself—celebrate myself!—has turned my world on its head! I am finding I am so many more things than I ever realized. As I continue to grow in my own self-acceptance and celebration, people’s opinions of me don’t hold the same power they used to. I’m now more grounded, less subject to the emotional highs and lows that were so connected to what I thought people thought of me. I’m getting better at finding my self-worth and confidence from within me instead of from other people’s assessments and opinions of me.
I’m more creative now and freer in expressing myself and following what delights me! Ironically, in being more vulnerable with people I am also feeling safer. I am able to empathize with people if they feel hurt while also being able to say “No” and set boundaries without letting my worries about hurting someone’s feelings stop me from doing what I trust is right.
Life hasn’t become vastly “easier” since choosing this path. In many ways, I feel I am constantly being put to the challenge, that my courage is regularly being put to the test. Being vulnerable with people is scary. Declaring that you are proud of yourself, that you like and love who you are is scary, especially when you are not used to doing it. But as I’ve been opening up more to people who I used to keep at arm’s length, I am surprised over and over again by how accepting people can be and at how often they share vulnerable parts of themselves with me in return. Often we end up laughing and crying together, finding solidarity and deeper trust. A few years ago I didn’t believe I could have this kind of intimacy and understanding in my relationships. But people constantly surprise me, proving that great things can happen when you dare to rock the boat. It is absolutely, 100%, worth the risk.
At the time when I got the idea to have some portraits made of myself, I was content with who I was. I was happy. I felt grounded. Solid. I knew who I was and, dare I say it, I liked myself! I didn’t expect to feel much different after the shoot than I felt going into it.
My purpose for having my portraits made was so I could have something of a visual legacy for myself: a reminder of what made me smile, of what I loved… something to bring me back to the times when I felt the best. I just wanted to do something to celebrate me! And I thought it would be fun.
So I was surprised when about midway during the shoot I started feeling, well, almost exuberant about things. About me. About what we were doing. About life in general. My outlook just kept getting more and more positive. And when I reflect back on the shoot I still get a little surprised that something as simple as getting my photo taken could actually impact me the way it did. Because I left the shoot feeling even better than I had going in… and I thought I was a really positive person already going into it!
Obviously I was planning on having a good time when we were roaming around making my photos, but by the end the session I honestly didn’t want to stop. I was having so much fun. I was playing!
I laugh a lot in general and I have a pretty good time in life – even when circumstances are not good I make it a point to try to see find something positive and focus on that. But I realize now that it’s not often in my daily life when I just play! When I’m just silly and I give myself over fully to fun. I honestly felt like I was about 5 years old again. I can’t remember the last time I was so free with myself. Here I was, thinking this would be a neat experience and how great it would be in the end to have these images that so beautifully and genuinely show who I am, but I didn’t realize the experience would impact me so much. I didn’t go into the shoot thinking I would feel any differently about myself. But I do!
I see how that time during the shoot helped me become even more playful, even more optimistic and joyful. I didn’t think I could be any more of those things, but I feel that I am more of these now. I want to feel like that all the time – and I’ve noticed I have changed since the photo shoot. I am even more intentional now about bringing myself fully into my experiences and friendships and into the opportunities that come across my path. I just want to fully immerse myself in life and in connecting with people – in sharing meaningful moments with them. I notice I’m doing that a lot more now.
I feel like I already had so much, and somehow, by intentionally remembering and reconnecting with some of the moments in my life that had already been so fulfilling and happy for me, I found even more fulfillment and happiness and now it’s just spilling over. I truly can’t contain it.
I am so thankful for the experience. I am so thankful I now have this beautiful book that tells my story in such a genuine way. And I’m so thankful for every new day because it’s another chance for me to go get ‘em and practice more joy, more confidence, more acceptance and love – for myself and for others. It’s another day where I get to give thanks that I get to be here on this earth and that I get to be me during my time here. It’s truly astounding to me how something as simple as having my photos taken could have such an impact.
Catherine remembers she was a loud, never-sit-still, talkative, feisty kid.
“I was always challenging the boys to races at recess,” she remembers. “I couldn’t stand it when they said I couldn’t do something as well as they could because I was a girl – and I let them know it! I was probably bratty in the way I confronted them, but looking back on who I’ve been now for so many years – someone SO different, someone so much more quiet – I’m proud of the younger, brasher, very vocally-opinionated me. I wish I hadn’t forgotten her for so long.”
Catherine wanted to have her portrait made after she went through a time of big changes in her life that had her remembering and embracing the bold person she once was.
“I stopped expressing myself honestly with most people, for a long time – decades,” Catherine recalls. “When I became a teenager it was like that mischievous kid that I was vanished and I became really quiet, really proper, meek. I was so afraid of telling people what I thought and felt because I was afraid of being rejected.”
“It all started to change for me when I, terrified, took the first step in addressing the problems in a relationship I was in. I had been burying the problems hoping they would go away and I never told the other person anything was bothering me. My frustration built up to such a level that I couldn’t ignore it any more and I surprised myself by going into what was for me the excruciatingly uncomfortable place of addressing the problem and revealing how I felt and what I wanted – which was something I hadn’t ever done as an adult. I usually took great measures to avoid anything uncomfortable with people.”
After that, Catherine says, it was like an avalanche of change started happening in her life.
“Once I started speaking up I started shaking things up,” she says. “Not everyone in my life was happy with the decisions I was making and the opinions I was expressing, but for the first time since I was about 10, being myself was more important to me than hiding who I was so that people would like me.”
Catherine’s portrait session mattered to her because she wanted to have a visual memory of herself at this turning point in her life. More than that, she wanted to use her new powers of expression to make a statement about who she was and to have the experience of being photographed be a way that she could fully celebrate who she now knew herself to be.
“I’d been making the changes. I’d been using my voice more and more to represent myself in the world, with the people around me. But these were just baby steps for me. I hadn’t yet fully accepted who I had learned that I was. I put myself out there because I believed it was important for me to do that. I saw the difference it was making in my life. But I still wasn’t able to whole-heartedly say that I loved myself. When I booked the photo shoot I did it with the hope that during that session, through the process of revealing and declaring myself, that I would be able, finally, to see myself as I am and love myself without apologies, without wondering if loving who I am is ok.”
So did Catherine’s session live up to her hopes?
“The shoot wasn’t easy. It was harder than I thought it would be to give myself over to the experience of connecting with my emotions and with the part of me that really was the most tender – which was where the important things that I needed to communicate about myself were going to come from,” Catherine recounts.
“But I did reach a point during the session where all my anxiety seemed to vanish and I felt this comfort in being myself. I was able to stop performing for the camera and just enjoy being in tune with myself. And now that some time has passed since the session, looking back I think the camera was almost like a stand-in for the people in my life. Before, when I was first starting to express myself in my life, it was something that I had to make myself do because I knew it was good for me. I did it, but it didn’t feel natural yet – even though when I was a kid it was so easy! And that’s how I felt at the beginning of the shoot also – even though I wanted to do the shoot, it was awkward for me to stand in front of the camera, alone, and reveal myself emotionally. I kept wondering if I was looking good or silly and I was hyper-aware of myself. Until I wasn’t – when suddenly I was so in tune with myself that I was expressing myself not for the camera, but for me, simply because I needed to, because it felt good, because I felt whole when I stopped holding anything back.
Since the shoot I’ve held on to that feeling of wholeness that I experienced. I’ve taken that feeling into my daily life. It’s what drives me – I want to feel that way all the time, whether I am with people or not. Now, I try to get out of my way when it comes to expressing myself and being the true authentic me in the world. I am speaking my mind without worrying so much, or at least not nearly as often, of what other people will think of me when I do speak my mind. I know that their opinion of me, whether positive or negative, does not actually change my value.
I’ve had some shakeups in my friendships and acquaintances since all of this. Not everyone I knew before I started making changes has stuck with me. But I’ve met new people who only know the ‘new’ me, and it’s been so healing for me to know that they are sticking around because they know me and accept me, not because I have painted a picture of me for them that isn’t true. And with the friends who have stood by me through the changes I’ve made I’ve been able to have some truly honest conversations and together we’ve built more beautiful and supportive friendships than what we had before.
Every time I look at my portrait now I get this warm feeling for the person I was then, this woman who was trying to figure out so much and who was trying to hard to be brave in being authentic even though it still felt pretty foreign to her. And I remember with gratitude what I learned that day about the value in being yourself just for yourself, no worries about anyone else’s opinion. That’s when I really felt love for myself for the first time. That’s when I started being able to really celebrate the whole wonderful beautiful complicated loud brash competitive goofy vulnerable and strong person that I am.”
About Working With Me
If you’ve made it this far on my website there is probably something that is speaking to you and making you feel this experience might be just what you need. If you’re getting a tingly nervous feeling, that’s a really good sign. It usually comes when you are about to step out of your comfort zone and do something important.
This will likely be the most intense photography session you have had so far in your life. I say “so far”, because I believe this way of being photographed is an experience you can do again and again at different stages in your life and each time you will benefit, learning something new about yourself and growing in strength, confidence, self-acceptance and love. You change throughout your life. This experience can help you reconnect with yourself and recalibrate throughout your seasons.
Once we have determined a date for your photography session, right away your prep work begins. For your session to be successful, I ask you to bring yourself—all of yourself—to the table. Your wishes, your hopes, your hurts, your fears, your feelings about yourself (the good ones and the bad ones), about things that have happened in your life, about things you want to have happen in your life. All those parts of you that really make you who you are. Those are the things I am asking you to bring to your session and to start digging into and connecting to before your session. More than what clothes you’re wearing or how your hair looks, these are the parts of yourself that are really going to make your portrait a portrait of you. And these are the things I want you to embody, to explore and express during our time together.
Yes, while you are in front of my camera.
Because, as you may have already figured out, your session is about more than making a picture of what you look like. It’s about you connecting to yourself and to your truth. When you do that, your true self will effortlessly shine through. And that’s what we are going after together.
I ask very much the same, actually, of me. Because this is journey we are going on as a team. And for your session/our journey to be successful, you and I both need to bring our vulnerability and take a risk in trusting one another, staying mindful of our purpose and open to the possibilities that may surprise us as we connect and press in together. We are here for more than you posing and me clicking my camera’s shutter. This is how we are going to get to the “something more”.
Yes, this is scary. The good stuff usually is.
During your session, we’re simply going to hang out for a while. Maybe for an hour, maybe two or three depending on how we sense we’re doing at getting down to the heart of what it is you feel you need to and want to explore and express. I only photograph one client per day, so I am completely focused on you and the time you need. The work we are going to do together is important and we will respect it by giving it the space it deserves.
Most of these portrait sessions take place in my studio, a small, laid-back and comfortable space. Sessions are usually quiet and intimate, with just you and I present and perhaps one assistant who will pop in and out as needed. It truly depends on what our requirements are for the session and on how comfortable you are with another person in the room. Each session’s needs are different and each clients’ comfort levels are unique to them.
We may have some music playing during your session or we might not, depending on what we feel in the moment is helpful for us. We might even change our minds as the session progresses. Sometimes my clients are at a tender point in their lives and some calming music helps them to relax and connect to what it is they want to say through their portrait. Other clients are in a really joyful and pumped up place in their lives and we decide we want more energy in the studio while we’re making their portraits. The music gets turned up and we get goofy and laugh a whole heck of a lot. Occasionally, we don’t play any music at all.
The mood of your session truly comes from you.
While I make the photographs I’ll lead you through some movements in front of the camera and guide you through some questions and reflections. These will help you stay connected to the reason you want to make your portrait at this time in your life. You will find yourself becoming more in tune with your emotions and bolder in expressing yourself the way you want to. The value of your session comes so much from the attention you give to yourself during it and from you being brave in giving voice to what is burning inside you.
Your time with me is really your opportunity to take time out to connect with you.
About two weeks after your portrait session we’ll get together again to view the initial images. If you do not live locally and are unable to come back to the studio at that time we can make alternate arrangements for this meeting. I will help you decide then which portrait we will print and frame as your final art piece for your home.
Then, I get to work doing by-hand fine art finishing on your selected portrait. When I deliver your piece to you four weeks later, it is printed and framed, ready to be put up in your home.
Whether you display your portrait prominently in your house or place it in a private area for you to enjoy personally, it will be a piece of importance in your life, reminding you again and again of your strength, your courage in being authentic and the joy you feel in being and celebrating yourself. It will be your reminder that you are a person who dares to be audacious, setting the example of living authentically and loving and celebrating who you are.
A Love Letter
To my clients, some of the bravest people I know…
I love you guys. Wow, you are brave.
You come to me to be photographed in a way you have never been photographed before: raw, guard down, vulnerably exploring your pasts and your emotions, sharing with me your precious hopes and your deepest beliefs—and often your fears. You aren’t sure of what the outcome of our work together will be but you trust the process. You want the process. You recognize that the experience of being photographed in such an emotionally-naked way as this is just as important for you as the final images we’ll create. Because you know this is about more than having your picture taken. You know this is about you taking a risk. About strengthening your courage… your courage to be yourself. And that because of this experience you will be more of the person you want to be: more honest, more open, more confident, and most importantly, more you.
You choose my studio as your “gym”, where you will exercise your courage in being authentically you and discover the freedom and joy of boldly loving and celebrating who you are. You choose the experience of photography because you know it is a way you can express something that you need to say. You know it is a way you can explore parts of you that can’t any other way. You know photography is powerful. And you are so, so right.
Pictures connect us to ourselves. There is no more honest and vulnerable way to encounter ourselves than through a photograph. And that’s exactly why portraits are so important and so powerful.
You, my courageous clients, you know that at the heart of it, having your portrait made in this way is about having the opportunity to go somewhere safe where you can be honest about who you are and unabashedly celebrate yourself while exploring layers that you don’t always show… not even to you. You know your portrait will show you the you that you accept, that you love and are proud of—whether you have felt that way for a long time or those feelings are just starting to grow. Most of all, you know your portrait will connect you to yourself, to your essence, to your strength, again and again.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to do this work with me, you are all united by this feeling in your gut that tells you putting yourself out there and being photographed in this raw, simple and emotionally-vulnerable way is something that you need to do for yourself. And you astound me. You take the leap and sign up for this intimate, sometimes awkward and funny, kind of scary, empowering, maybe tear-jerker experience without knowing what the ultimate visual result is going to be. It’s a true leap of faith. But the experience… you know it’s going to be worthwhile. And that’s why you take the leap. And I love you for it.
Through your bravery you continue to help me grow my brave. Through your vulnerability and trust you help me be more vulnerable and trusting. Through your love and acceptance of yourself, you help me be more loving and accepting of myself and, I believe, of others.
By accepting and celebrating your authentic self, you inspire the rest of us to do the same. And I actually believe you are helping to make the world a better place because of it. Yeah… simply by having your picture taken.
These words by Caroline Caldwell remind me of you: “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”
You are my rebel heroes. I love being audaciously rebellious with you.