How Photography Helps Women Own Their Body: Interview with Boudoir Photographer Sara James Williams

Body image has been an issue women struggle with for a long time. In each era there is a new public-perception of what feminine beauty is, which leaves many women who were not born with “the right body type” frustrated and insecure. Hating one’s body takes so much energy that it interferes with many other aspects of life, like school, friendship, sexuality, and parenthood. Most of the time the negative feelings women have towards their own body have nothing to do with reality. Unfortunately they can’t see that, since the media doesn’t reflect to them their own beauty. To make society and the media accept the fact that feminine beauty has many facets women need to embrace their own unique beauty, love their body, and celebrate it. Boudoir photographer Sara James Williams does exactly that; she helps women of all ages and shapes to see their own beauty, the beauty that they can see on their own. In this interview I talk with Sara about her personal journey and the emotional journey of the women who come to her.

Sara James Williams is a 38-year-old award-winning photographer, who specializes in Boudoir Photography, and is also a published author. Most recently she was awarded the Best Portrait Photographer in Western Washington by KING5’s Evening Magazine. She is on a truth-seeking journey both internally and externally and enjoying every minute the world has to offer her. Her whole life she had been searching for a way to help lift up women, and the answer was in her hands all along. Sara lives north of the Seattle area with her husband and their dog.

What is Boudoir photography?

Boudoir photography is intimate photography for women, where women have their photos taken wearing lingerie or nothing at all. Boudoir is a French word. It means a woman’s private space, like a bedroom or a sitting room. The most literal translation of Boudoir photography is - photos of a woman in her bedroom. In the photography arena it’s really about making it an intimate experience for women. The result is what is intimate. The process itself really isn’t intimate. There is nothing erotic about having Boudoir pictures at all. It’s a very fun and playful experience. 

How did you become a Boudoir Photographer?

I have always been a photographer. I have always had a camera and took photography classes, but I never really considered it to be a profession. I was so determined to climb up the corporate ladder and be an executive woman. I was a project manager for a music company, managing the installation of sound systems across the country in various retail stores. In my brain at the time, being a photographer or doing something in the arts wasn’t considered to be a real job. But it was always a hobby of mine.

In January 2013, my sister called me and asked if I would do a Boudoir session with her and her friend. About a year before, she and I had done Boudoir sessions together for my husband and her boyfriend at the time, so I knew what it was. I refused. I told her that she needed to hire a professional, but she was persistent. Back then I didn’t know anything about the art of Boudoir Photography, and I felt really intimidated. I agreed only after my husband had encouraged me to do the photos.  I googled the subject, and taught myself how to work on the posing. Her session was incredible. We had a really good time.  It actually came to me very naturally.

About 6 months later my dad died, very quickly and unexpectedly. During this time I had been spending a lot of time working my butt off for my company. For a while I was working 6 or 7 days a week. Father’s day that year was my first day off in three weeks. I was very tired that day. I called my dad and told him that I will come and see him some time in the next couple of weeks. Three weeks later he was gone. Shortly after that, the third weekend in July I went to LA to take part in an event that my friend Kyle Cease was doing. He had been doing stand-up comedy for 20+ years and was moving to motivational speaking. When we spoke on the phone before the event I told him, ”I need you to know that I cannot quit my job. I know that you are doing great as a motivational transformational public speaker. I think it’s fantastic, but I cannot quit my job.“ Two days into this event I felt like I had been going through massive group therapy. My heart was wide open. My husband and I drove to Santa Monica. As we walked around the pier I started crying.  I didn’t know what was going on with me.  I sat on the beach for an hour and meditated. While I was trying to pull myself back together I realized that I needed to quit my job. I remembered my sister telling me how much fun her Boudoir session with me was, and that I should do it full time. About four or six months after my revelation in Santa Monica I started Jezebel VonZephyr.

How did your business become a tool to empower women?

For the first six months, most of my clients matched my expectations. They were women that were coming in to have pictures for their husbands. It wasn’t really about them; it was a gift for somebody else. But then, in April 2014 I had a client that called me and said, ”I will be 48 at the end of this month. I’m a grandmother, just reached 100 pound weight loss, and I’m a survivor of a childhood sexual trauma. I carried this weight to hide myself and my body and I need to own it, and I’m ready to do that.” As she was telling me that, I was crying on the phone. I was realizing how incredible and powerful and impactful this opportunity is for her, for myself, for women everywhere.  She was willing to be not only emotionally vulnerable with me, but also physically vulnerable as well. Knowing that she didn’t want to be looked at for a long time and yet she called me, telling me she wants to come for me to take her photos, that was huge. I was really inspired by her story. From that point forward everything in my business shifted. Everything then became about – this is an experience to empower women, to lift them up and hold them in their spaces that they are in right now. It’s not even about photos – it’s about the experience. Seeing yourself the way that other people see you. To be able to watch a woman step into her own skin, it is the highlight of my day. 

What does it mean for a woman to ‘step into her own skin’?

There is a shift that happens. When women first come in, there is a little bit of nerves; there is a little bit of apprehension. You can kind of see them being a little bit more reserved. They have about an hour or two when they get their make up and hair done, so we have time to sit and chat and get to know them better. About a quarter, maybe halfway through their session there is a switch. At the beginning of the shoot, I always show them pictures off the back of the camera right away, mostly because I want them to see what I’m seeing. It’s a nice booster of confidence for them, but the other primary reason is that I need them to trust me. I think we women really get judgmental towards ourselves. There are not a lot of mirrors in my studio; every time I had mirrors, women were checking their reflection and not checking where I’m at. Sometimes the angle that they can see themselves in the mirror is not the best angle for the camera, and that is why I need them to trust me. There is also a twist that happens about a quarter or half way through, where not only is there trust developed, but after they see consistent photos off the back of my camera that are just radiant and beautiful. The day of the reveal is the big Aha moment. It’s the seeing what is really there. That is the part of owning things. I see women just rest into their skin and the rest of their body. It’s really exciting to see them getting there.

What is the age group of your clients?

Most of our clients are 35 and older. My oldest client was 79. I do see some clients in their 20s. After my focus had shifted, and I was more centered on seeing a woman and her experience, that speaks more to women who are a little bit older: women who had their babies, have been married or divorced, and have done a bit of living in their life. I think there is something that happens as you get older. I know this had happened to me. When you are young, you don’t really appreciate the body that you have. I have noticed that women when they are older, after they haven’t seen themselves in a while - since they were busy living, caring for their family, and raising their children, they feel it’s time to focus back on them. 

Do you use Photoshop to make your clients look better in the photos?

We are a non-Photoshop studio. We don’t own or use Photoshop. It’s not a thing for our clients. I know that the fact that I don’t use Photoshop scares a lot of women.I think a lot of people have looked at photography as kind of a surgical cosmetic procedure:  I don’t need to look perfect; you can make me look perfect.  We were taught that we are supposed to hate our bodies; it’s kind of like the thought that we are supposed to hate our jobs. I don’t believe in that. You should really focus on celebrating your body and loving it at every stage that it’s in. When I’m sitting in the reveal room and I see my clients as they watch the slide show and their images their reaction is usually, ”these are the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen of myself. But I really need to know how much Photoshop did you do on my body, because my body doesn’t look like that.” When I get to tell them that I didn’t do anything, that that is what their body looks like  - that’s everything. 

How do they react when you tell them that it’s their real body in the pictures?

Tears. Usually tears. They usually stand up a little taller. They are a little bit more confident in their life. I have got reports back that their sex life is better. I have had husbands write to me things like “thank you for giving me back my wife.” They are better parents, because it is easier for them to be more present, they are not focused on how things are sitting or not sitting, or hiding. They are more able to play and be free with their kids. I have seen it completely change everything about the way that they present themselves and carry themselves in the world. I think that is pretty powerful. I have had several clients who have taken their photos home and stood naked in front of the mirror while holding their prints and trying to see if I was lying to them. But they were able to see that I wasn’t, that I was showing them the truth.

I don’t think that photoshoped photos are inherently bad, but I also think that there used to be this thing that photography used to be an art form. I think now there are a lot of people that just pick up a camera and the art form is in the digital world. So if they know Photoshop, they don’t really need to know how to work with a camera. And I think that working with a camera should be about what is really there. There are great photographers that didn’t have Photoshop and yet did beautiful work. Ansel Adams, for example, didn’t have Photoshop. Back then, we weren’t focused on how to change it and make it better. When I was young, the super models didn’t photoshop.  These days we have such a wrong idea of what women should look like. I think it was Cindy Crawford who said, ”I don’t even wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”

Why do you think women are so judgmental when it comes to their body?

I think the media contributes to some of this, but like the argument of nature vs nurture, it’s an all-encompassing sort of issue. The media certainly adds to the fire, but it’s not the only thing that actively tells women they aren’t good enough, just as they are. When a girl goes through adolescence, all it takes is one person: another girl, a parent, or someone influential in her life, to say something mean to her, and she will never forget it. I had a client who hated her legs. She had beautiful strong legs, and she hated them. When I asked her for the reason for that she said, “when I was 14, there was one of the girls sitting at the locker room at school who said something how I had fat legs. Now I think I have fat legs.” She spends all her exercise time to always working on her legs. After I had shown her the images that I took, her reaction was, “wow I can’t believe how great my legs look.” I could stand there and see all the muscles and the definition of her legs, and she just couldn’t see it looking at the mirror. But she could see it looking at her photos. She is almost 40. That is too much time spent hating oneself. 

Do you think your photos help women love their body?

Yes. Absolutely. I help them become aware of, and to see the beauty of their body. I usually meet my clients for a Style Consultation meeting, a couple of weeks before the session, to get to know the woman a little bit better.  During this meeting I ask every woman what she loves most about her body.  For some women it is really hard to answer. Almost everybody does the nervous laugh. Or they repeat the question – ”what do I love?” Then they add,  “I can tell you the things that I don’t want you to take pictures of.” Most of the time I feel like it is something that they have never been asked before. Sometimes they are just silent, not knowing really what to say. In such cases, my next question would be, “what does your husband like about your body?” That helps them start thinking and get the question answered a little bit better. I don’t force the answer. If they don’t have anything, I tell them that it’s ok; they don’t have to answer. For other women my question gives them an opportunity to express gratitude for their body, some of my favorite answers are – “I love that my body is resilient.” “I love that it’s strong.” “I love that it carries me and gets me to the things that I need to do.” 

When a husband or a partner accompanies a woman to the briefing meeting or the reveal, how involved are they in the process?

Most husbands that I have encountered have been really reserved and let me be there for her during the Style Consultation. During the reveal, as we are watching the slide show I see it’s always the husband who sneaks over and snuggles his wife, whether it is an arm around her, a hand on the leg, or just the distance becomes a little bit smaller between the two. I see those looks and glances that are very much of a new relationship, but it’s a very old relationship at that point. Flirty behavior, definitely lots of giggles, especially when they are coming down and picking photos, they both get really involved in the process. Watching the photos together they feel safer having an open conversation. At this point the husband starts asking his wife more questions such as, ”you really didn’t see yourself like this?“  The way his wife looks in the photos is not a huge revelation for him. That is what he has been seeing all along. That is what she looks like to him all the time. It is a huge revelation for the woman. She asks, “what do you mean ‘this is how I look everyday?’” It opens up a whole new conversation, and appreciation for the husband. But it is also an opportunity for the husband to really understand how sensitive a woman can be about her body. I don’t think men really understand that, especially because it doesn’t really come from a vulnerable place. Women usually say,  “I need to go to the gym because I need to loose weight.” End of the story. Nobody bothers to ask ”why?” or to get to the root of the details. The woman I mentioned before, that had a problem with her legs, for example, I wonder if her husband knows that she hates her legs because a girl made fun of her when she was in junior high.

One of the things that we talk about during the reveal is permission for me to use the images. Whether or not they give it to me is their personal decision. Most women are really ok with it, but they ask their husbands for their opinion. The husbands almost always say, “this is really not my decision to make.” I think it’s a beautiful thing; giving a woman ownership over her body.