The lights went black.
We looked at each other and knew there was no logical explanation for what just happened. It was weirder than pretty much anything I’d experienced in 20+ years of being on photo sets, and goes down as one of my top 10 strangest stories of all time.
What you’re about to read, I believe, speaks volumes about the collective experience women hold around dimming their own light to make themselves less intimidating, so others feel comfortable.
We’ve learned to be more pleasing, to scale back our intensity or power or anything else that’s natural, to fit ourselves in a tidy, non-offensive package.
As a proponent of natural beauty over 40, I believe it’s important to demonstrate makeup techniques with models who aren’t only in their twenties.
A rare gem: an over 50 model without face fillers or other “work” that would alter her natural appearance, I hit the jackpot with Karen who’s illustrious career spans three decades.
I knew she’d be the ideal fit for the Sophisticated Evening Makeup Tutorial online class to showcase how to do evening makeup for a mature woman — realistically — to achieve a stunning nighttime look, step-by-step.
To get her agency to let me work with her, I offered to take a few extra photos once we were done filming that she could potentially use as headshots to sweeten the deal — in addition to her modeling fee.
Looking back, it was an overly ambitious promise.
The energy output it takes to film a course is significant, as is doing any sort of artistic, portrait photography.
These are the before and after shots of Karen (virtually un-retouched) that were created specifically to show the day to night makeup effect of the Sophisticated Evening Makeup Tutorial.
We nailed those photos pretty fast.
So when it was time to switch things up after filming and go into “headshot mode”, I thought it’d be just as easy.
Because with Karen being a seasoned pro, I felt confident I could get some great shots of her in a snap.
It just wasn’t that straightforward…
Setting the Stage
In my younger years, I loved photography — developing my own film and prints in the dark room.
It used to be that once you chose a film speed and color, that’s what you shot with and adjusted the rest of your settings accordingly. The film rules were strict, unlike the digital world, which came with expanded freedom and options to change every setting instantaneously, and felt totally overwhelming.
Karen was briefed as to my lack of current experience behind the camera, but ever the pro she was obliging while I fiddled with buttons, staring befuddled at my new digital mechanism.
I’m not sure if she caught me referring to the owner’s manual at one point…so I will neither confirm nor deny that point of the story.
As I fumbled around, Karen was hitting every mark giving me a winning combination of looks she’d been trained to deliver during her 30+ years in the business: a gamine look to the side, a laugh, a girlish smile, even a biting of the lip!
And it was all the stuff I didn’t want, but I didn’t know that until it was happening.
Going Beyond Superficial Expectations
During our conversations throughout the day, Karen shared so many interesting things about herself.
In addition to an extensive modeling and acting career, she’s a musician in three bands, an accomplished interior muralist, faux painter, and architectural plaster applicator.
The more she spoke, the more I realized this was why the one-dimensional model moves that made her successful weren’t working for me.
I wanted the complex, multi-dimensional, trans-dimensional woman front and center.
And as soon as I realized that, I tried to figure out a good way to broach the subject.
So I asked as bluntly, yet delicately as I could, “Do you feel you hold back your strength and power, and give a toned down version of yourself to make others feel comfortable?”
Thinking I’d just potentially crossed a big line by asking that, she responded with:
“I don’t feel I possess ‘strength’ or ‘power’, I actually feel it’s quite the opposite. I see it more of a sensitivity and being aware of others. This is what I think brings depth to me.
But yes, I can be a pretty intense person with my expectations and passion, and that can be perceived as power I suppose. People can get intimidated or uncomfortable with that, so I pull it back.”
I practically jumped out of my skin and replied, “Well, I want all of it! You fully present, and not holding back. Do you feel comfortable with that?”
She paused in consideration, agreed, and it was on!
Once we started shooting there was a power I could feel coming from her that was lighting me up too.
When Things Got Weird
About 20 shots in, I did a quick review of the photos only to find that every single one was black.
I hadn’t changed any settings. So it was baffling, and I was crestfallen.
By this point it was getting late and we were already very spent energetically, but I felt like we were finally getting to the place I wanted. So I begged her for a few more shots.
This is usually when models get irritated with photographers because a “few more”, often means another hour.
To my delight, Karen was willing to continue after a well-deserved tea break. At her request for “anything herbal,” I intuitively gave her a tea called “Presence.”
After a few sips, Karen was ready to give her all for one more burst of photos. I triple checked my camera settings and we were off…
I said, “Feel yourself get really present right here, right now, with all your power. Channel it. Don’t worry about expression.”
Then something shifted about Karen as she inexplicably raised her left hand vertically above her forehead, slicing it down through the center of her face directly to her chest.
All the lights went out.
“First the camera and now this?? Why was everything going black?!” my internal monologue yelled, semi-panicked, feeling like a klutzy amateur.
Though my photo lights were turned to the “on” position, each plugged into outlets on different walls, they simultaneously stopped emitting light.
I scurried out of the room to check the fuse box, only to see all the fuses were fine, and every other light was on in the house.
Wracking my brain for what could have happened, I walked back with a hesitantly slow gate to where Karen quietly sat.
I reached for a table lamp in the room that was plugged into the same outlet with one of the photo lights, flicked the knob, and it lit up.
The outlets were working, but neither of the photo lights were.
After unplugging and plugging them back in (but not touching the switches that were still in the “on” position), they mysteriously came back on.
That was my cue to end the shoot.
We knew it was Karen’s connection to her own inner power and presence that shorted the energy of the room.
Both a bit stunned, we ended up in an hour-long conversation, as she gathered her belongings to leave, processing what happened.
Karen shared, “I think I channeled something. In that moment, I felt a calmness, an empty-ing, like the pulling back of an ocean wave as it recedes from the beach. My senses cleared. Then I felt a surge coming from my abdomen spilling upwards, an energy, It was like a wave, calm but powerful, moving through me.
Then, as my gaze went from the table top up to the camera it was like something filled me, and at that moment that my eyes met the camera, I felt the energy break loose and the lights went out! I truly have never felt anything like that before!”
As I thought back to what she said about how she’s had to water down her intensity to be more palatable to many people, I understood why.
Dimming and Holding Back Your Beautiful Light
The repeated repression of the true self to assuage others’ has an immeasurable ricochet effect on all areas of one’s life.
As Karen was sending me the photos for this story to use from her younger modeling days, she added a profound reflection:
“I wish I could have appreciated more then of where I was in life and how I looked and maybe had more business sense to create more opportunity. I always felt like I could be better or wasn’t good enough and didn’t take myself as seriously as I should have.
Of course I supposed I could say the same about me now! I still feel like I “don’t have the right look” or am not good enough…. so maybe I should learn from that and continue to be bold and confident in making amazing choices!
It’s funny how one can be powerful and truly confident on the inside and still be snuffed out. Maybe that circles back to “feeling like I need to give people what they expect” and letting that hold me back.”
What strength, wisdom, love, creativity or beauty might be present if she didn’t feel the need to minimize her magnitude of her presence?
It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes that always makes my eyes misty. [If it suits you replace “God” with a word that speaks to you, like Universe, Higher Power, Love, The All-ness, or whatever, but don’t let a word stop you from taking in the wisdom below.]
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
– Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
Pictures May Speak 1,000 Words, But Still Can’t Capture the Whole Story
I wonder if everything going black was something else at work that wouldn’t permit me to capture and record her raw force in a one-dimensional image because it was so big and meaningful in its multi-dimensional experience that it could only be felt, but not seen.
Perhaps that’s exactly Helen Keller meant when she said:
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
And so, those particular images from that specific moment are not a part of this series. They are tucked away, and this story with a few images is as close as we can get to feeling what that may have been like.
P.S. Karen’s agency didn’t like these photos. They’re not commercially likable. Previously I would’ve felt hurt, but this experience taught me to boldly claim my art as just that – my art.
It, nor I (nor you) need to be likable to everyone to bring our special brand of magic.
How did this story resonate with you? Please share with us in the comments below.
All current photos, makeup, hair and styling by Kristen Arnett © 2019