The other week I ran into a former client with her husband. With her hair covered, she gave me a secret smile as she stood next to her kippah-clad husband. I didn’t go up to her to say hello. Just several weeks prior this young Orthodox woman came to my photo studios for boudoir photographs. Our photo session, with the lingerie wardrobe we worked on choosing together, was an opportunity for her to take ownership and appreciate her body before her ascension to the chuppah. When we passed each other, I gleefully thought to myself how much her husband must have enjoyed the photos, because I knew how much fun we had creating them.
“Boudoir photographs.” The phrase, coming from the French word for a woman’s private dressing room, refers to a photography style where women (although some men have joined the trend) have intimate, sensual portraits of themselves taken nude or in lingerie, for their own or a partner’s private pleasure. In recent years, there has been an increased number of Orthodox women gifting photographs of themselves in lingerie to their husbands. Melanie Landau’s recent essay in the Sisterhood is sharply critical of the growing trend, conflating such portraiture with pornography. The puritanical nature of the critique, shaming women clearly celebrating and enjoying their beauty, struck me as a dangerous aspect of religious self righteousness: policing and dictating what is “acceptable” behavior between private and consenting adults.
As a photographer who is the daughter and sister of rabbis (as well as coming from a family which spans generations in the lingerie business) and specializes in boudoir photography, I view these types of photographs are not contradictory to Jewish values but often times a reflection of them. God gave us five senses to enjoy, including sight. Sexuality is not only an internal expression of intimacy, but the visual aspects of human beauty are an intrinsic part of delighting the senses. When combined, these two elements allow for a powerful charge of erotic energy, essential to the deepening of romantic relationships and the expression of shechinah, the divine feminine energy as expressed in Judaism.
Pornography usually has an exploitative element, either explicitly or implicitly. The intention, the kavanah, of boudoir photography is quite different. The voice of the subject is necessary in order to make it a successful shoot. The cooperation between myself and the client dictates the power of the imagery. Clients come to me for all different reasons. One client found out she had ALS at the age of 21. Every year she takes boudoir photos to show the strength of her body, and creates a dynamic and sacred document to look back on as her disease takes more of a toll on her body. Another client was a woman who had a preventative double mastectomy. She wanted to see her body as powerful and sexual both before and after that transition. Being able to show my clients a visual representation of their beauty and strength demonstrates my Jewish values of being kind, supportive, and understanding.
As a photographer, I witness my clients during times of happiness and sorrow. Their bodies are a testament to who they are and how they want to share it. I see my job as helping them go through the process of exploring that delicate psychological terrain. While I’m not a rabbi, I often feel like it is a spiritual journey I go on with my clients. I want them to be delighted when they look at their photos, and grateful they went through the experience. To me, creating happiness through boudoir portraits is holy.
Judaism is a rich tradition of interpretation. There are many ways to photograph women, but during my boudoir shoots, I keep the focus on body positivity. I have shot women for their 60th birthdays, fiancées creating a special present for their betrothed, and religious women who are creating something to celebrate the sanctity of their marriage’s intimacy. For all of them, the sessions are their moment to celebrate themselves. The reason they choose to shoot with me has little to do with sexual objectification. It is more of an opportunity to free themselves from what they are “supposed” to look like, and empower themselves through the clarity of being seen in a different light. I help guide them from what society expects of women, and reinterpret to where they feel most comfortable and content.
So much of sexual connection is sensual, visual and tactile, and seeing someone in person and delighting in their physical presence is one of life’s great gifts. It’s not judgment that happens in the photo shoots, it’s celebration. It is a disregard for conventional “appropriate body types” and the ability to see beauty beyond that which is so powerful.
When I take my camera out, I lead my client to a pose that is flattering and comfortable. Before we even begin shooting, my client will share photographs they like, or talk about previous boudoir experiences they’ve had. Our discussions make taking the photos an experience where we can play, try new things, and make sure he or she is comfortable. We become collaborators. It’s one human being seeing another; we are creating our own environment with our own boundaries which allows them to explore parts of themselves they might usually keep hidden, literally and figuratively.
The one thing there is no space for is shame. There are conventional images of beauty, but what I aim to capture is how women see themselves in their private fantasies. For those who would be critical of boudoir photography, I would say this: Don’t shame women who want to or do see themselves as sexually adventurous and celebrate themselves and their bodies. In my experience, Judaism does not suffer from a heritage of shame about sexuality, and I find that a beautiful and wonderful aspect of our faith. As a feminist and a millennial, l’d like to do my part to make sure that doesn’t happen to Judaism on my watch.
The gaze, a sense that God has given us, for both male and female, is powerful and transformative. It can also be exploited through public consumption. Boudoir photography is private, but the gaze we cast on ourselves—often the most critical one we face—is held up to a mirror in boudoir photography where the subject can both share their beauty and have it seen. The bravery my clients demonstrate when they walk into my studio is pure and I guide them by bringing out the love they have for themselves. For me, the work aligns with my Jewish values of treating everyone equally and with care. Encouraging women to feel good about themselves and their bodies, along with celebrating where they are at this time in their life, is an act of Tikkun Olam.
Nomi Ellenson is co-owner of Shoot Me Sexy NYC, a boudoir photography studio located in Brooklyn.