Is This Witchcraft?

Photographing the Female Form

In my very first photography class, the teacher asked us to create a self-portrait. For me, this assignment meant photographing my mother duct taped in a basement then double exposing a ghostly version of myself over the top of her form. The long exposure format caused the light in this photograph to burn brilliantly angelic, like the light of God. Upon seeing the photograph, the darkroom lab tech for my class, who I admired as a mentor, inquired about its intended meaning. This deeper interest in my work took me by surprise. I had never been asked this question as an artist and at the time I felt I didn’t have the words, let alone the bravery to provide a satisfying answer. Instead, I looked back at her and asked, “what do you see?” Immediately, as if uncovering the true meaning of my artwork was second nature to her, she responded, “she looks so sad, like she is struggling to keep a secret.” I was stunned. It was as if she had reached into my soul and extracted my deepest thoughts and feelings. For the first time in my life, I felt seen. Intense sadness, happiness, fear and all the other emotions that accompany falling in love started to bubble out of me. At that moment I knew I had stumbled upon my purpose in life. I had found my voice and I didn’t even have to actually say anything out loud, I just had to keep making my art.

You see, at the time when I made this first self-portrait, my mother was battling AIDS and I had to keep it a secret. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest times in my life. The desire to confide in someone, to ask for help and guidance, was crippling. I needed an outlet for my fears and worries, so I turned to my art. Throughout this time, I would often go out into the canyons near my home and photograph myself dancing. In this process, I used my body to express the sentiments I wished I could speak out loud and it felt so powerful to be able to give the secrets in my life a voice. As I grew into my artistry over time, I sought to continue exploring myself and my voice in other women. Thus, these early instances of photographing myself and my mother were just the beginning of my persisting artistic interest in the female form.

While I do occasionally work with men, women are most often the subjects of my art. I grew up in a family of women, so working with female subjects has always felt safe and comfortable. In this way, my photographic depictions of the female form are not about sexuality, but rather celebrating female bodies and their connection to the natural world. Women’s bodies have been the subject of shame and ridicule for so long. We have been judged not only for how our bodies look, but also how we use them. Throughout my career, I have been dedicated to fighting this narrative by emphasizing my own figure and other female forms in my work. Every woman is beautiful in her own way and these differences should be celebrated. As such, my art aims to honor ultimate freedom within our bodies and encourages women to enjoy life exactly as they are.

In this way, shooting nudes outdoors is exhilarating. To me, it represents one of the truest forms of freedom. The intimacy of the moment encourages everyone involved to drop every guard and any presentation of who they are that masks their true self. As a result, I get to explore who they really are. The deep connection that results from this raw vulnerability is what I have been seeking throughout my whole life. It is also this sense of spirituality in the female form that resonates the most with people when they see my work. People are excited to observe the form in the natural world, not only because it inspires freedom, but also because it just feels right. There is a healing quality to exposing your body to the sun, to putting your feet in the sand. The human body seems to belong in the natural world in the way it simultaneously impacts and responds to its surroundings. This deeply metaphysical connection to the world is the core way in which my work honors the female form and all it is capable of.

I also believe it is this spiritual and celebratory aspect of my photography that draws people into my art. My audience often finds the way in which I present the female form with compassion and strength to be refreshing and exciting. In fact, it is a common occurrence for people to ask how they can get involved in my artistic practice upon encountering one of my photoshoots. For example, I was once shooting with a close friend at a park in Utah when a group of people approached me to inquire about my work. At the time, we were waiting for people to leave so that we could shoot long exposures of my friend on an old tank that was parked nearby. I was planning to light her nude form in various poses, a practice that usually necessitates some privacy. However, after what felt like hours of waiting, the nearby groups of people remained. Eventually, my friend got so tired of idly standing around that she threw off her robe, stating, “fuck it, this is going to be the best day of their lives!” After my initial shock at her impulsivity wore off, I quickly embraced her comfortable confidence and we got to work. Shortly after we started shooting, a group of strangers that had been standing nearby approached me. As outside curiosity was a normal occurrence for me during photoshoots, I stopped what I was doing to address any questions or comments they had. To my surprise and amusement, the first thing they wondered was, “is this witchcraft?” Looking down at the flashlight in my hand and the beautiful model in front of me I thought to myself: I guess it kind of is. But I decided it was best to keep this rumination to myself and instead explained that I was a photographer working on a shoot. Thankfully, their follow-up questions about where to find my work and how to model with me were more expected and easier to answer. I have found that this type of intrigue in my work is common. Many people love the freedom and intimacy they feel when they encounter one of my photoshoots and immediately seek to be involved. Unfortunately, this accepting and celebratory response to the dominance of the female form in my artwork is not universal.

A few years ago, I was showing one of my male friends a series of photographs I had taken of a group of beautiful female models. After flipping through a few of the images, I turned to my friend for feedback. With a slight smirk on his face, he simply stated “I wish I was in that room.” Immediately, I felt my innocence fade away. I had been photographing women for five years and had never thought of my work through that lens. To me, my photography was honoring the strength and beauty of the female form. But, to my friend the women in my photographs were nothing more than objects to be admired. The sexual slant he placed on my work in this moment forever changed the way I thought about how my photographs are perceived. I now realize that the sexualization of the female form is so deeply embedded into our society that it can distort perceptions of artwork that is meant to celebrate women and fight for their bodily autonomy. In this way, the interaction with my male friend was essential to making me aware of who my audience is and how some people may interpret my photography. With this knowledge, I will be able to more effectively break down the insurmountable standards, judgement and shame put on women’s bodies by society. In place of these detrimental barriers, I hope to instill confidence and freedom in women through moments of intimacy with their own figures. Every woman is beautiful in her own way, a fact that deserves to be celebrated every single day.

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Join me here on Wednesdays at 12pm to learn more about my personal journey and begin an exploration of your own. If there are specific topics or issues you would like me to respond to, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram at @teresaflowersphotography or @nakedanddreaming. Or tune into my weekly Instagram Live stream on @teresaflowersphotography where I will be discussing these topics in more depth and answering your questions!

Thank you all for your support and encouragement over the years. I am excited to continue this journey with you!

Teresa Flowers is an internationally recognized multimedia artist based in Portland, OR. She is also the founder of Alien Mermaid Cove and Altered States.