I'm sure you are all familiar with the story of Cinderella. Well, this is sort of along that same line, just minus the prince, the fairy godmother, the castle, the step-sisters...ok, maybe it's not at all like the actual Cinderella story. However, the theme that is similar is the underdog, shy young girl who gets her day to feel like the star of the show.
There are two things that are near and dear to my heart; photographing children ages 0-18 and a cessation to bullying or, at the very least, the empowerment of those who are oppressed, afflicted and otherwise traumatized by the bully mentality. Having seen firsthand the often life-long effects that bullying can have on young victims, it's something that will light me up like a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July. So, at 9:30pm on a recent Saturday night, when I got the notification from a very special grandmother, I knew what I had to do.
I got a message from a referral service that a woman I'll call Monica was looking for a local photographer. There was a miscommunication in the original information I was given, so I was told she was seeking a certain type of photography session when, in fact, it was something completely different. When we finally clarified everything and I had all the correct info, I literally broke out with goosebumps from head to toe. When I recounted the tale to my husband (the greatest assistant to ever hold a reflector), I not only got goosebumps, again, but I also got a little misty-eyed. Just wait until you hear why!
This loving grandmother had one simple request. She wanted a photographer who would make her granddaughter feel very special for her 16th birthday. She went on to say that she wanted someone to take beautiful pictures that "show her being as beautiful as I see her through my eyes". She explained that her granddaughter (I'll call her Lily) didn't really feel very pretty and was shy, suffering with self-esteem issues. Before she even finished her tale, I already knew that I was taking this girl on and making her queen for a day.
We agreed to all the details and set the appointment for the next afternoon. Since this was her 16th birthday weekend and the photo session experience was to be part of her birthday celebration, we had no time to waste. As this was also to be a surprise for Lily, I asked Monica what formal dresses were in her closet that could be sneaked out for the session. Monica said she had none. I mentioned that it could be any kind of formal dress, like perhaps something from a homecoming dance or birthday party or wedding she attended. The answer was still none. She just didn't go to those things. I asked what size dress Lily wears, as I have a lot of prop clothing for my clients to use for their photo sessions,if desired. She said "well, she's kind of a big girl and that's the problem. She wears about a 16 or 18". My heart sank. The largest size I had was a 12 and I know from experience, nothing makes a person more depressed about their weight than trying on something pretty and finding out it doesn't fit. That was NOT gonna happen to Lily on my watch!
Determined to head to the mall, early the next morning, I discussed my plan with my husband. He suggested taking to social media. So, just after 9:30pm on a Saturday night, I put out a clothing SOS to all of my Facebook friends. I am so blessed to have such wonderful, kind, generous and helpful friends! The call was answered en mass. By the time of her 3pm arrival, she had an entire rack of clothing to choose from. It really did look like a supermodel set. I had the wardrobe area set up, the props, background and lighting all setup, there were contracts laid out to sign, jewelry and accessories. I was determined to give her a super model experience and create some beautiful images.
They arrived with Lily having just been told where they were going. I could tell that she was nervous but Ray and I went into full model mode. I called her my lovely little diva and pointed to the rack of clothing, telling her to just pick whatever she wanted to try and we could do as many as she wanted. She was foofed off to wardrobe with an armful of dresses while Monica and I sat and talked. She filled me in, a little more, as to why this was so important and I again welled up and got goosebumps. I was so happy to be a part of making this little lady feel amazing.
When we started working with the actual camera, Lily was so nervous. We could all tell how tense she was. She had no confidence. She put great effort into not smiling, clamping her lips together so that her teeth wouldn't show. Her shoulders were hunched forward, she was holding herself and her hands were clenched. I instantly knew what her grandmother was saying and why it was so important and was bound and determined to reverse it all, even for just a day.
It actually didn't take too long before she was laughing and more at ease (it never does). She quickly started exuding confidence instead of being shut down. In that three hours of my reinforcing how great she was doing and how beautiful she looked, I got to watch her blossom from a tightly closed bud into a beautiful rose that brightened up the whole room.
When it came time to sit down together and look through the images, they were both shocked. After about the third photo and third time of Lily saying "oh my God, that's me", her grandmother explained to her why she had done it and that she is beautiful and is special and should always feel that way. At that, Lily got teary, as did Monica (and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't on the teary list). We continued through and it brought me such joy to see her face light up on image after image, then struggle to narrow it down to only the 10 that she would get (5 was the job but I was matching that, as a gift). She was so proud to see herself on the screen and that was wonderful for me, as an artist, to be a part of.
There was time, after all was said and done, for the three of us girls to sit down for some chit-chat and go through a few questions that I had. Here's what they had to say:
ME: Monica, how long have you been planning this day for Lily?
M: It was completely spur-of-the-moment but I'm so glad you said yes, with such short notice.
L: I was completely surprised. I really didn't know until we were almost here.
ME: Question for both of you. How did you feel , knowing this was going to happen?
M: I was excited. My granddaughter deserves to feel like this. She is so sweet and hard-working and special. She's suffered so much loss in the last year. She lost two people who were very close to her, her grandfather and her uncle. I wanted her to see herself as I see her, the real Lily. (this is where we all got a little wet in the eye area).
L: Don't make me cry. I was just so nervous. I don't take pictures. I don't take good pictures, anyway. I didn't even think that I could. I didn't think there could be a really good picture of me.
ME: Ok, another question to you both. How did I make you feel during your experience, today?
M: This was wonderful.
L: You made me feel comfortable and, yes. I felt very special with all this and how we worked.
ME: For both of you, how did you feel when you first saw the images, both on the back of the camera and especially on the bigger screen?
M: You captured her. You captured the true essence of my granddaughter.
L: Honestly, I just kept thinking "Wow! That's me! I actually look good"!
ME: Lily, do you feel this boosted your confidence at all? I see a change from the you that walked in to the you that is sitting here right now so do you think you could carry some of that out of here and into the rest of your life?
L: It definitely boosted my confidence. I still can't believe it. Yes, maybe I could. I don't know. It's hard.
ME: Ok, fair enough, but you should. Monica, would you feel confident in recommending TS Gallant Photography to a friend who might want to gift the same experience or have it for herself?
M: Most definitely. You gave her a chance to really shine and everyone should have that.
I did leave Lily with a final thought. See, I didn't actually do anything but take a picture with a tool. Those photos she saw that made her feel so proud and pretty and good about herself ARE photos of her. I can only photograph what's there. So, if she could feel good about herself and pretty and confident after looking at a few pictures on a screen, she can carry that with her at all times because that's all inside her. She should remember that, always, and never let anyone steal her shine. I wish Lily nothing but the best that life has to offer. The gift from her grandmother was as much mine as hers. It was such an honor to be a part of showing a young woman who she really is. Lily, the world is your oyster!
If you enjoyed this story, or would like to leave words of encouragement for Lily, please leave a comment below.