“Personal work is so important because it is work we do for ourselves. It is a chance to experiment and explore, a chance to fail and succeed beyond expectation…I felt like I had no vision, nothing to make my work unique. This project helped me find my vision and my passion.”— Jen Golay
Today on The Kindred Art I am featuring the personal project of Iowa photographer Jen Golay. Jen has several ongoing photography projects in the works right now and I find this one particularly beautiful and relevant–as a film portrait photographer, a woman, and a mother of a teenaged daughter, where we are subjected on all sides to the societal ‘norm’ of beauty and worth.
The Natural Beauty Project ~ Jen Golay
Like most personal projects, this one wasn’t planned. I completely stumbled into it, and the idea of doing it was a little scary, so that meant I had to do it.
About a year and a half ago, I did a photo shoot just for fun. I asked a friend’s daughter to model for me so that I could try out a couple of new-to-me film cameras and gain some experience shooting portraits on film. I had found an old, faded, torn prom dress from the 1950s and I made a floral crown. My friend did her daughter’s hair and make-up. It was fun and we made some beautiful images. A couple of months later, another friend saw the images, and she said something that really spoke to me in a deep and personal way. She said, “I wish my daughter could do something like that. I’d love for her to see herself as more than just jeans and a ponytail.” I offered to photograph her, too. I found another vintage dress and made a leather headband with beads and feathers. This time, I had her styled by an amazing stylist, Michelle White of Beautiful People Organic Salon. I loved that she used all natural products and could so easily make what I saw in my head a reality. Again, I was really happy with the images we made. My friend and her daughter loved them, too. She told me that the experience had made a big impact on her daughter and that I should do this for other girls. That got me thinking. Maybe an experience like this—something that builds self-esteem and confidence could be valuable to other girls as well. But the idea terrified me! My self-esteem isn’t so hot either.
Self-esteem is such a delicate thing–difficult to define, fragile, and ever-changing. It is in an especially delicate state in early adolescence. Actually, I think it’s delicate all throughout life–at least mine is. I decided I wanted to make an effort to build self-esteem, and that is how the Natural Beauty Project came about. It’s not an original idea. Dove has had their Real Beauty Campaign going for ten years. The Today Show has recently had several segments called Love Your Selfie to encourage women of all ages and shapes to accept themselves and be less critical. And there are frequent posts about the unrealistic beauty standard and Photoshop fails of fashion marketing. I realized I wanted to create images and an experience that encouraged girls to be and feel beautiful without the artifice of Photoshop, fashion, and excessive styling.
For this project, I photograph teen girls on film (no Photoshop) in vintage or thrift store dresses (no brand names or designers) with light styling using natural and organic products (no heavy makeup or false eyelashes) to show that beauty comes from within. I want them to feel the vulnerability that comes from taking a risk and being in front of the camera as well as the reward of seeing the beauty in themselves–maybe for the first time. I want them to feel important and in the spotlight, yet work hard (and they WILL work hard, believe it or not!) to create something beautiful and uniquely them. And I want them to make the discovery, if they haven’t already, that there is no magic in my camera or Photoshop, no hiding behind makeup and clothes, just their true, unique selves.
I spent last summer photographing 10 girls for the project. Although I began the project hoping to build self-esteem in others, these amazing girls have taught me new lessons in character and confidence, too. Personal work is so important because it is work we do for ourselves. It is a chance to experiment and explore, a chance to fail and succeed beyond expectation. I was ready to give up portrait work altogether a year ago because I felt like I had no vision, nothing to make my work unique. This project helped me find my vision and my passion. I’m expanding the project to the Natural Beauty Project 2.0—a studio experience and am thinking about doing a Natural Beauty Project Junior for young girls and tweens this summer. I also have three other ongoing personal projects now that keep me excited about photography. I love personal work!
Thank you so much Jen for sharing this gorgeous project with us. Please visit Jen’s work below and see some of her other personal projects.
If you are working on a personal project of your own or have recently completed a project I would love to feature you here on The Kindred Art. Write to me about your project at email@example.com, please include Kindred Art Feature Submission in your subject line so nothing gets lost in transit.