Sophie White had a "draw me like one of your French girls, Jack" moment and the results were unexpected
I was mired in one of those totally ho-hum stretches of "I hate myself" there for the last few months. To be more specific, it was a fairly low-grade bout of self-hating, nothing even to write home about. I had just come to a place of mild dissatisfaction with my body. A body that, it has to be said, had done nothing but get me through some hard years (birth and death – the big stuff) with little more than a whimper of complaint in the form of backache and the odd time a totally undeserved, crushing hangover (though this, I've found, is a symptom of being in your 30s, where two glasses of wine sees you drowning the next day under a tsunami of remorse and fear).
We all go through these fits of low self-esteem. After my first baby was born, my body returned to its pre-baby ways without too much cajoling from me, but after my second baby I was too shattered to give much of a damn and the scars of birth and grief (the two things pretty much converged on me during that time) conspired to make me feel distant from myself.
Babies are sweet-smelling bombs, lobbed into previously verdant sexual playing fields, leaving nothing but a bleak wasteland in their wake. After my babies, I found myself reluctant to instigate bed-fun because I had lost that confidence that is crucial to feeling sexy. And it's not a confidence that is solely hinged on what my body looks like, but rather something more nebulous and harder to address. It's a feeling of losing myself.
It's this feeling that brings me one rainy April day to the studio of Brazilian photographer, Waneska Valois. Valois is a boudoir photographer, she shoots women (and sometimes men) in their underwear. These women are not models, they are average women, though in the portraits adorning the walls of Valois' studio, they look anything but average, they look wild and beautiful.
I have brought my modest selection of lingerie (a sheer bodysuit and a pair of matching bra and pants) and we sit down to chat (I attempt to draw out this conversation for as long as possible to stave off the inevitable moment of stripping off). Waneska came to boudoir photography about 5 years ago after a period of travelling.
It's no surprise to me that hundreds of women have stripped off in front of Waneska, she is wonderfully warm and reassuring. She is also playful and witty and has an openness to her – the kind of openness of people who lead rambling, fearless lives. Wankeska came to Ireland in 2008 and fell in love with Tim, her partner. They soon went travelling, spending six months in South Africa where she took courses in photography. Next they spent a year in California in Venice Beach where Waneska sold frames on the boardwalk and was friends with all the wonderful weirdos that have made that sun-drenched stretch so vibrant and colourful.
"There's been a lot of crazy shit in my life," she laughs later as she's telling me how she travelled across American on a self-propelled scooter for a charity drive.
It was during this year in California, that she began assisting fashion photographers on shoots. After a stint in Montpellier, they returned to Dublin where Waneska continued her photography but felt lost.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do after all the travelling and working with different people. I was completely lost and then I decided that I was going to focus more on photography and doing workshops online, which is how I first came across Boudoir photography."
"I always wanted to do something to help people, especially women," Waneska explains.
Waneska had heard a New York photographer explaining the impact the pictures had on women who had arrived shy and uncertain just hours before.
"I imagined how incredible it is for a woman to see herself in another light."
Waneska began to photograph friends and family and speaks with great tenderness as she describes photographing her sister.
"My sister has suffered from depression, very very heavy depression, for more than 15 years and when she saw her pictures, it was a very emotional moment. She actually started recovering a bit more after that, she began leaving her bedroom more and getting a bit better."
Waneska also had her own pictures done which was a liberating experience. Her relationship with her body has not been easy, she suffered with anorexia from the age of 14.
"It's always been a struggle for me, that's one of the main reasons that I decided to do start doing this photography – to help women. Right now I feel recovered but it's a daily struggle. I need to watch myself."
"I hate photos of myself but that day was really good. When I left I was like 'I did it!'"
Boudoir photography traditionally started as a gift brides could give to their husbands-to-be which is a concept that I admit I'm pretty allergic to but talking to Waneska, I realise it is really for the women themselves.
"The older women are the most confident ones," says Waneska who has photographed women in their sixties. "All women, they come for the same reason. They come for a boost of confidence, they are tired of not loving themselves. They want to see themselves as feminine and sexy again. It doesn't matter where you're from or your age or background, we all have the same insecurities. We women need to share what makes us sad and not love ourselves. We think we are the only ones, but we are all like that. Sharing makes us feel less alone."
Finally, when I have stalled for long enough, Waneska claps her hands and tells me to show her my underwear. I put on the first set in the changing room, take a few deep breaths and skittishly skip out to the studio avoiding my reflection in the mirror. I am amazed at how instantly at ease I feel with Waneska and her camera. We laugh a lot and play with poses and in no time I completely forget that I'm nearly nude. The real revelation however, is the photographs themselves. I simply don't recognise myself. It's quite an emotional moment when I download the files later. Waneska doesn't photoshop or retouch the pictures, rather she plays with light and poses to capture the beauty of her subjects.
In my pictures, I see a woman I'd completely forgotten about, a woman who I have been cruel and pitiless towards many times over the last few years. Despite Waneska's bubbly presence, the pictures feel like a private moment captured. I feel no urge to show them to my husband, this simply isn't about him. It's about me reclaiming myself after a few lost years.
For more information or to book a session that includes hair and makeup, visit The Female Portrait by Valois