I sat down for my conversation with Beautiful As I Am photographer Leslie Carpenter frazzled from a day of handling oozing poison ivy (Thing One), girl drama (Thing Two), and a smelly-turned-bathed dog the size of a moose (Woodson). To say my head was maybe not in the right place for this interview is a bit of an understatement, as evidenced by the fact that I even called her May (her business is called May Faith Photography. May is a family name, so I wasn’t way off. But still). Pesky little talking-on-the-phone aversion aside, I wasn’t sure I was setting us up for success. But then I took a few minutes to scroll through the photos and read a little of the press these photos have generated, and was intrigued and actually (gasp!) looking forward to picking up the phone.
I am of the belief that there are no original ideas. Being that I took part in the EXPOSED movement (and the anniversary follow-up a year later), I’ve looked at a lot of images of women with words scrawled on their bodies, trying to come to terms with how the world sees us, or how we see ourselves. But there are so many ways to tell a story, to make a point, to explore a concept – and there was something different about this collection. At first I thought it was perhaps the fact that the photos were taken by a professional, and weren’t self-portraits snapped with iPhone cameras in bathroom mirrors or the like. Leslie is an artist, and that’s obvious.
“(I photograph images) that are pure. Nothing fake. No photoshop. What you see is what is actually happening in front of my camera.” Carpenter says. Being a (self-professed) plus sized woman working in a world of models, bodies, and superficial images, the artist inside of her became compelled to make a statement: “Regardless of what is thrown on us, we’re beautiful. All of us.”
Casting for the shoot was a three-month process. She read more than twenty submission essays – women telling their ‘story’ of how a label or stereotype affected them in a negative way – and from those, Leslie chose the group. “There were so many that I wanted. Sometimes it just came down to scheduling.” The chosen sat down and brainstormed a list of words that would later appear written on their bodies, and after that they came up with the word to write over their heart in red. “(That word was) how they described themselves. Regardless of the negative, that word was how they best represent themselves.”
Her point in this exercise? To empower real people. Not to just represent some idea in her head using hired models, but to take the words and experiences of real woman and honor that, supporting them in taking back the power over the words they chose to represent their stories. Lasting relationships were formed between her and the ‘models,’ and Leslie is very concerned that people looking at this campaign understand that it isn’t a ‘product’ that she is trying to sell or use to promote her own business. In fact, she’s not selling the images for profit at all – anyone willing to make a donation to charity will receive the photo we used for this article. This was a process for all of them – an important step in healing, evolving, and deciding for themselves who they are and how they are seen. The focus of this project – the interviews and accolades – should be focused on the women in the picture, in Leslie’s opinion. She just seems to feel grateful for having been there to snap the photo.
And that is the thing I was trying to put my finger on when I first looked at the campaign. The thing that makes this (dare I say) movement different than some of the others that have come before. Her gratitude. This wasn’t one woman trying to be the mouthpiece for an issue, this was her giving her subjects a place to speak for themselves. And something about that seemed very genuine, and to use her word from early in the interview, pure.
Leslie does have ideas for continuing this project, seeing it as an opportunity to benefit others, and even herself. “If I had to choose a word to write over my own heart? Well, after this, I’d have to say proud. Enlightened. Encouraged.”