Finding What's Lost

Photos by Kylie Schepers/The Herald
Melissa Adams of Haysville captures a photo of her client at her studio in Jasper on Feb. 24. Adams owns a photography business called Crimson Boudoir.

By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
cstephenson@dcherald.com

JASPER — It wasn’t just about being a mom.

It was a strange way to come upon the realization  skinny dipping in the ocean  but sometimes the most unexpected moments end up being the most important. It was never just about being a mom.

Melissa Adams had spent the past few days on an island in Florida on a retreat with some of her mentors and fellow photographers. They’d spent their time doing training exercises and getting to know each other much faster and deeper than most new friendships.

They talked about their “why." Nobody does photography just because they like taking pretty pictures. At least, the good ones don’t. So why are you here?

At first, Melissa told the group it was because she was a mom.

Becoming a mother had stripped her identity away from her, and she wanted to help other women feeling the same way. But as she talked, she realized it wasn’t just that. She’d already been through so much  body image issues starting when she was young, bullying and sexual assault throughout multiple points in her life. She was a survivor.

It’s a common saying, but it holds truth: trauma isn’t who you are, but who you become in spite of it. At 33, Melissa is married to the love of her life with three children and a job she’s passionate about with clients she deeply cares for. Being a mom is a huge part of who she is, and she could never give that up, but she’s a woman first.

Someone who deserves to love herself no matter what, even though the world tries to tell people like her otherwise. Someone who deserves to see herself as beautiful, just as she sees her clients.

Melissa sits with her family Thursday afternoon on the front porch of her Jasper photography studio, Crimson Boudoir. In between her and her husband, Jeff, are 9-year-old Juliet, left, 6-year-old Remi, and 9-month-old Ansel.

On the last day of the retreat, someone suggested the group go skinny dipping in the ocean. Usually Melissa would object  she’s not one to feel comfortable showing her body  but what better time to do it than on a remote island, surrounded only by the women she’d grown with over the past few days? It’s just clothes, she thought.

“I had a lot to wash away,” she said.

Ever since, she’s wanted her clients to feel the way she did that day. She wants them to have a chance, even if only for an hour or so, to focus only on themselves and feel valued.

She wants them to reclaim their femininity and sexuality if that’s something they feel they’ve lost. And, maybe a little selfishly, she says, every session allows her to take some of it back for herself, too.

***

As the owner of Crimson Boudoir, a photography business in Jasper, Melissa spends a lot of her days behind the camera, rarely ever the subject. But she has one particular picture of herself she’s really proud of.

It’s a black and white close-up of her face, with her hair tousled and her fingers gently brushing her bottom lip. Even without color, she looks almost a little sunkissed, and her eyes are sparkling, as if she just climbed out of the ocean. It isn’t heavily edited, so it’s still her. It’s timeless, so much so that she wants it displayed at her funeral, she’s told her husband.

The photo comes from a boudoir shoot of her own, one that took years for her to build up the confidence to do. She’d known about boudoir photography since she was a teenager but never thought about doing it herself.

“I always thought it was weird,” she said, “like, what are you going to do with a picture of your butt?”

Like many young girls, she grew up struggling to love her body. And like too many people in the world, she was taken advantage of, both as a child and young adult.

For too many people, women especially, their experiences with sexual assault are dismissed by saying, ‘They were asking for it.’ But that’s not how body language or sexuality or consent works, Melissa said. And even if it was, how was she ‘asking for it’ by wearing a hoodie and jeans while hanging out with her friends? And even if she was wearing something else, how dare they criminally violate her?

It poked holes in her heart, she said. It felt like she had lost herself.

Then, when she was 20, she met Jeff. She tried talking to him at a party, and at first he was too nervous to even answer her. He liked Melissa from the get-go because she was spontaneous, among other reasons. He became the love of her life, and they helped each other grow together.

A year later, they were engaged. Less than a year after that, they were married. Less than two years after they married, they were expecting their first child. And she lost herself again.

Nothing makes Melissa happier than being a mom. She loves how her 9-year-old daughter, Juliet, who blows her away with how fast she’s growing, is creative and amazing at video games. She laughs at her daughter, Remi, 6, who’s sassy, does her own makeup and loves the singer Lizzo. Her youngest, 9-month-old Ansel, completes her heart in ways she’d been aching for, she said. She’s had a closet of clothes for him since before his IVF conception, and he looks just like Jeff.

But having children takes something away from you, she says. Pregnancy changes your body forever. Almost all the time previously devoted to yourself, especially in the kids’ youngest years, becomes theirs, not yours. Breastfeeding especially can make you feel like you’re just a machine meant for other humans.

Melissa thought for years about booking a boudoir session. "I’ll do it when I have time," she thought. "I’ll do it when I save up some money. I’ll do it when I lose weight."

One day, she thought about what would happen if she died tomorrow. What photos would they show at her funeral? What would people have to remember her?

She booked the session.

She got her hair and makeup done, posed at least a dozen different poses, laughed through the stress and awkwardness, felt sexy in front of a near-stranger for the first time in a long time, and came out on the other side of it feeling like she had found whatever part of her was missing. Feeling alive again.

In 2011, Melissa started using her photography business, which she had for about two years at that point, to focus solely on boudoir and newborn photoshoots: “naked babies and naked ladies,” she likes to call it.

She’s gone through years of photography training and certifications, is a certified child seat safety technician and organizes the annual Jasper Maternity and Baby Expo.

Boudoir photography doesn’t exactly have set guidelines. One photographer can see the business drastically differently from the next. Even some around Dubois County do completely different work than her.

In general, she thinks of her business as less erotic than most might think. She gets to know each client before booking them and learns what led them to this point in their lives. If they are looking for something super intense, then she’s not the one for them. And she takes her client's confidentiality seriously, she said, requiring verbal and written confirmation before even anonymous shots get shared anywhere, such as her website.

Over the years, she’s shot women who are Amish. Women who don’t want to remove any clothing at all. A woman who was dealing with grief after the loss of her child. A transgender woman. A woman who wanted to use her photos to come out to her family as gender fluid. Women who haven’t felt sexy in a long time, if ever. Women who are confident in displaying their bodies but want to be valued, not objectified.

“My big passion is that I really just want people to be able to come in here knowing they're not going to be judged, knowing it's a safe space,” she said.

Melissa doesn’t have anything to hide, but sometimes it feels like she's running a secret business. She can't advertise herself the way other entrepreneurs can, so most of her clients come through word of mouth or previous connections.

Not everyone in Dubois County sees her business, or boudoir photography in general, the way she sees it. There are occasional nasty comments. Recently, someone lost their job at a local organization for being in a women’s empowerment Facebook group, much like the one Melissa runs that she uses to communicate with clients and friends. Some view the group as too sexual, even though they rarely ever actually talk about sex. 

Boudoir isn’t meant to please everyone. It’s for the women in front of the camera, so they can take photos without fear of being objectified  or being accused of objectifying themselves  for simply existing.

“The minute we want to show off our bodies, which is the one thing that we want to start changing the conversation around and celebrating, it's like we're immediately like, ‘Oh, she wants the attention,’” she said. “Well, maybe we do, but we don't want it from you. Maybe we want it for ourselves.”

***

Melissa gently brushes back the front strands of hair from her client, who is wearing a black V-neck shirt, lacy bottoms and a fur shawl and is delicately posed in a floating wicker chair.

She steps back about 10 feet or so, to the other side of the room. She flips the lights off so the sunlight can peek through the blinds and stands, pausing to take in her client’s beauty before pulling the camera back up to her eye.

“You got this,” she tells the woman with silky black hair flowing over her shoulders. “I believe in us.”

In between giving directions, she makes sure to reassure her client every few shots.

“Perfect,” she says. “You’re stunning.”

After Melissa decides she’s had enough with the chair, she directs the woman to move to the nearby couch and directs her on how to sit. Relax your face, she tells her, although she really only has one wrinkle near her eyebrow to smooth out: the 'angry mom wrinkle.’ Melissa recognizes it because she has one too, she says.

The two are sitting just a few feet from each other now, on opposite ends of the couch, with only the camera in between.

Melissa pauses again, taking time to look at some of the most recent shots. She lands on one particularly breathtaking photo, closes her eyes and presses her free hand against her heart. For a few seconds, the room is silent besides the music  a playlist full of only female artists  before she turns the camera to let the client see.

“I love it so much,” the woman says.

Melissa grins. “What a great day to have such a beautiful woman in my studio.”