A magical, sparkly shop was where we scheduled our meeting, surrounded by stained glass lighting, imported handcrafted Turkish rugs and handbags, time pieces hanging from every wall, sparkling jewels and trinkets on every surface. The aroma of the coffee machine seduced us away from the window shopping and straight to Bengü, Gallery B’s exotic owner. Marina and I took our preferred beverages to the alfresco area at the back of this little wonderland.
Marina is a woman I have worked with before, I wanted to know her story, and how she found herself specialising in boudoir photography. She starts by telling me the photo sessions are a process of healing, healing for herself and the woman that she is working with. She takes a deep breath and starts what she tells me is a long story. How she feels she was pushed into the decision to take this path, but the backstory is important part of her journey that she feels is her destiny.
“As you know I was born in Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union. I have a German / Russian background and am from a small village, so quiet conservative. After the revolution there was all of this equality, and woman could do whatever men could do. There was no limits they could be engineers, they could be astronaut if they wanted. But at the same time, it was two extremes woman in Soviet Union was like traditional woman, who take of the family, who takes cares of the children, cooks, cleans, and takes care of her husband like another child. But she goes to work as well full-time”.
“But there is still a lot of degrading thoughts about woman like “chicken is not a bird and woman is not a human”. Of course it isn’t the whole society but it is still part of the culture. Woman body, nude body, sexuality, sex there was no talks at all about this. It is all taboo. There was all negativity around the body and it wasn’t like I had that sort of relationship with my mum where we would talk, when I was becoming a young woman. So everything about that body image and sexuality was taboo and it was dirty and it was bad.
Marina remembers negative dialog around a woman that had left the village in her twenties unmarried, studied, had her own money, apartment, a career women. Listening to this harmful gossip as a child Marina thought no little girl would want to grow up like this woman. Much the same if you got pregnant out of wedlock or divorced, women were pushed into a mould of being a second class citizen. Marina tells me about her beloved Grandma’s story.
“I feel her presence at the moment. My grandma had quite a difficult life, she was divorced. My grandfather he was an alcoholic and quiet aggressive when he was drunk, my mum tell stories that she would break a window to run away, when he was in this aggressive mood. And I guess if my grandfather didn’t leave the family then my grandmother wouldn’t get divorced from him because it was taboo and he left the family when my mum was young. My grandma, single mother of four, working full time. They did not get married because of love, they got married because my great- grandfather and grandfather were drinking together one time and well it became more or less an arranged marriage, it wasn’t love at first sight, it wasn’t a beautiful life and I think that it is best for my grandmother that grandfather left, but it certainly didn’t make her life easier. She never married or had another partner. At any family wedding or event my grandmother would sit in the furthest part of the room from my grandfather. When they were buried, there graves are next to each other. It is quiet ironic, it wasn’t planned, it just happened, my grandmother died first and then my grandfather died a couple of years later”.
“When we moved to Germany I was eighteen. I married when I was twenty. I started to study photography at the same time and the first few years, I was still influenced by my Russian/ German background. The first day when I went into the photo studio where I met my mentor who became my best friend, I opened the door and walked in, and there were pictures everywhere framed and unframed. The first picture that got my attention was a picture mounted behind the counter. It was a black and white a2 size, it was a pregnant women, just the torso. I couldn’t see much of her face it was turned to the side, she was a silhouette. She was nude. She was completely naked. I could see her bare breasts, I was looking at a nude pregnant woman. A nude picture of a pregnant woman on the wall. It was a shock for me. Who would do that! Why would they do that! In my head everything about nudity was supposed to be private and intimate. Your nude body is supposed to be very, very private, and it was kind of dirty. It was so shocking. I was so shocked”.
“So every day I started to come to this classic portrait photo studio. Classic, you know, families, babies, new borns, pregnancy, weddings, passport pictures, corporate portraits, communion photos. But she also specialised in art nudes, studio boudoir sessions. There were not many at the time showcasing pictures like this, it was a speciality that she really loved. Sometimes, when we would put pictures in the window to display them, we could come the next morning to the studio and have a lot of cigarette butts in front of the window, there was also a lot of rotten eggs thrown at the window!
As her internship progressed Marina immersed herself in her role, the work, the people and their stories, she thrived on this experience where everything was different and new. She came to recognise that the women in these photos weren’t models. But, beautiful normal people, everyday women, teachers, mums, accountants, all beautiful.
“Looking at these made me see that, oh my god, these are normal people, it’s not Sodom and Gomorrah, they not prostitutes, it’s not dirty. At that moment I was 20 and I was naïve and had all of these background stories in my head. Then I started to meet these people because I was assisting my mentor while she was photographing. Over the years I would get to know these people, because they would be photographed when they first become a couple when they are so in love, and they wanted pictures for the Christmas for the family and then photograph their wedding and then photograph the pregnancy and the first baby and the second baby and then first day of school. Then mum comes in and says: “I feel like I have lost myself I want to feel sexy, I now you can take these pictures, can you take these pictures of me? I mean I know I have cellulite and my belly isn’t beautiful anymore because of the stretch marks.”
“I really did feel like a part of a family. We were giving pieces of our souls, because it was all analogue photography and I was standing in the dark room developing these images, and I would stand there and cry, because, I would remember the story she would tell us. The intimate stories, the sad stories, the happy stories and they would all make me cry”.
That is how Marina started as a photographer, she eventually out grew her surroundings in her professional and personal story. She needed to escape, so she ran as far away as possible, to travel and study English. She landed on Australian soil on the 26th October 2007. Flying back to Germany she resigned from her job seeking professional and personal growth elsewhere. Berlin became her new residence and her new partner her home. At the time, in the back of her mind was a dream to be self-employed one day. But she never felt ready, she knew she had the talent and skill to be successful and thrived on the connection with her clients. However, arriving in Berlin she was took on a job as Manager of a photography studio.
“When I started the job in Berlin it was very different because I was on my own, I was managing the studio, and at some point I got apprentice’s that I was responsible for. I didn’t have as much contact with the clients anymore, there was a separate studio and shop and to make it more efficient I only had contact with the clients when I photographed them. I never had a chance to meet them before the session or when they would pick up the images. It started to become more money making and not about connection and that’s what made me burn out”.
Marina’s health started to suffer. Marina wasn’t eating or sleeping, her body was expressing her soul’s unhappiness as physical symptoms. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. The studio’s clients were happy with what they were getting, but this didn’t sustain Marina, she had lost the connection with the whole process. Her creative work wasn’t coming from her heart anymore, it was money making. Boudoir photography was growing in Marina’s portfolio in the time she was burning out at the studio. Boudoir is founded on trust. Photographer and client would meet before the shoot, she painted the faces of her client and then Marina captured the essence of the woman in images, during their three hours together. Marina would not be rushed with these creative connections with her clients.
“The boudoir shoot is how I got to know my clients, they come to the shoot and I was doing the makeup. This is where they were telling their stories, they were sharing things they probably never shared with anyone. I photograph them and see the transformation from shy and nervous, to working half nude in front of me, and we become friends, that was magical.
Boudoir is not about sex, I see more of the sensual, intimate, yes it could be sexy but it is not necessary for it. It’s about the 40 something years old mum with five children that comes to me and says, “I can’t look at myself in the mirror, what I see there is so disgusting”. From being a young woman, to the abuse, to the five children, she is an amazing person I see the beauty in her eyes. Yes, she has wrinkles, her body carried five children, she nourished five children. I see the miracle of life, the miracle of giving life, the miracle and beauty of her. When she looks in the mirror she has lost the connection to her femininity. She lost connection to herself, to who she is. She is working full time, she is a mum, she is a wife, she’s a friend, a daughter, there is so much and she always puts herself last. Somehow there was something in her that realised she needs to change something that is why she has started to do things outside of her comfort zone. That is when she discovered what I am doing”.
After chasing this same connection with her clients from continuing her work at the studio and increasing her boudoir sessions, she applied for a job in Switzerland, she travelled for three days to explore the possibility. She cried for the three days, at the end of this release Marina’s heart told her that if she took this job she would be in the same situation but with a different view.
Big changes started unfolding for Marina, her dream to be self-employed started to manifest. She was petrified, fear of financial instability, but she had the support of her partner who was also going through changes at work. They started having hard conversations with life changing questions. Where do you want to be employed? Do you want to be self-employed here? Do you want to move somewhere else? They decided there new chapter would be in the place they met, the place Marina dreamed of as a magical country when she was a child, a place as far away from possible from all the struggle. They landed in Australia 14th October 2014.
Arriving in a new country Marina felt like a new woman, an independent woman, still fearful but excited. This is the part of the story where she was pushed into boudoir photography. The owner of the studio she worked for in Berlin, forbid her from using the images she had created and added to her online portfolio when applying for jobs in Australia.
“The images that I created the last four or five years I wasn’t able to use them, I mean I can understand if I was doing this and making my own studio maybe five hundred metres away from him but I was going on the other side of the world. It was devastating for me, this was my work, how do I apply for jobs without being able to show my work, fresh work. I was now depending on my partner, he got his visa and I was on the partner visa, I had a right to work and I had a right to become self-employed. I had no job and no website with images that I could use. I had to think about what had given me the most joy. When I was in this difficult time of depression and burn out I was thinking of quitting photography completely. I have been doing this for 13 years. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else! What else could I do? This is when I started the process of self-development. I realised I didn’t love myself.
That is where boudoir photography and loving yourself and loving your body, loving you as is, that’s where it all comes together. Seeing woman coming to me and willing to change something, willing to see themselves in a different way, wanting me to show them a different side to them, wanting to reconnect to their femininity or even discover their femininity. I felt like I was seeing this as a whole picture, and boudoir was something that I could without a studio. It was something that I was enjoying most from all the stages of my photography.
I was scared to focus, I was scared that it was too focussed. I was thinking things like; there are so many people who don’t like it, who don’t get it, who don’t understand it. Why on earth would you focus on that! You would lose so many clients, if you do family portraits everyone loves family portraits. Everyone loves baby photography! Everyone loves a new born photo, families spend so much money on it that would be easier. But, the best work I do is one on one that is where I can get to know them and connect. It doesn’t have to be boudoir it can be fine art, it can be editorial. So I kept myself safe with fine art, editorial and boudoir. When I would go to the networking events or telling people what I do I was hiding myself behind fine art and editorial photography. If I said boudoir people then say, what is that? Then when I would show pictures, some would get it wrong and then think it was dirty again, and then some would be like, “ohh, who wants to do that”!
I wasn’t standing my ground. Now I say I am a boudoir photographer. It was a process of the last three years. There were moments where I was thinking, “gosh it is kind of going nowhere”. No, I won’t give it up. I know stories of the woman I have photographed. I have photographed a woman who’s 74 years old, who has got a husband who is sick for many, many years and she is caring for him, but she fell in love. She is 74 years old and she fell in love with another guy and she is having an affair. Or is it! I don’t know, I don’t care. She is a wonderful beautiful person and I don’t think it is bad, she is great, she is a woman, she is a human being, she’s got her needs, and it’s ok. I mean she cares for her husband. But, she is in love with someone else, and she came to me and wanted me to photograph her. For me, I want to be like her when I am 74, not the sick husband, but in love and still wanting sex and live my sexuality and not thinking, “oh, ok I am 40 and life is done”. There are so many more woman like this and I know what impact it has on their lives. It is addicting to hear their stories, and see them change and transform it is addicting. And it heals me. It is ok to love your body, doesn’t matter the scars, it doesn’t matter shape, size or age. It’s ok”.
Devoting her life’s work to women and their stories, what is the definition of woman for Marina?
“Woman there is so much that pops into my head, though the first things maybe that silhouette. The next thing is pain and growth and love and seeds, like plants and their seeds. Growing the seeds putting them into the earth and seeing them come up and growing and giving fruit”.
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