Photography for Change: An Interview with Alyscia Cunningham
By Kimberly Neil--Can people be beautiful without retouching or makeup? Of course, but this is easy to forget sometimes. Advertising is such a huge part of our society, and images of beautiful – but also, heavily Photoshopped – people are everywhere. I got the chance to interview the author of Feminine Transitions, a book that demonstrates how refreshing natural beauty can be. Learn more about the book here, but first, get to know the creative genius behind this project by reading about what inspires her, the importance of self-love, and her thoughts on body image.
Kimberly Neil: First of all, could you tell Proud2Bme readers about who you are and what it is that you do?
Alyscia Cunningham: I am an artist, photographer, author, mother, wife, sister, friend to a select few, meditator, dreamer, story teller, writer, creator, traveler, lover, entrepreneur, activist…and my journey continues. I actually want to explore different art forms and will eventually try something new. My focus is to capture the natural beauty of human beings (women in particular) through my lens. My first book, Feminine Transitions: A Photographic Celebration of Natural Beauty, celebrates the raw beauty of girls and women through unaltered (no Photoshop) photography.
All participants were required not to wear make-up, accessories or wigs. My goal was to prove that we are beautiful in our natural radiance, free of any add-ons that we weren’t born with. This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to put on make-up or it’s unbeautiful in anyway. I simply believe we should not depend on it to feel worthy.
I am currently working on my 2nd photo book and first documentary, I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me, which creates awareness to girls and women who have lost their hair due to medical conditions. This focuses on the beauty of being bald, despite that fact that it’s not represented in the media.
KN: What drew you to photography?
AC: While in college, I took photography as an elective. When I was 8 I discovered I was an artist after drawing a picture of Garfield. Given that, art wasn’t new to me but photography had a different feel. And I loved what photography exposed to me (taking it for the first time). I quickly realized that my human subjects, and even landscapes, were a reflection of my emotions. No different than a painter using her/his canvas for their expression, it was a form of creative release.
I loved the hands-on feeling from beginning to end; taking the picture, developing the film, and seeing what I came up with. That was an art form by itself.
KN: Your Feminine Transitions book stands out because of the natural beauty showcased in your photographs. Why do you think image alteration is so attractive to most photographers? Why is “natural beauty” still so shocking?
AC: In my opinion trends sometimes supersede common sense. People jump to whatever may be in style. What’s in style brings in more money. Unfortunately many photographers have jumped on the Photoshop frenzy, not realizing that the only reason image alteration is being pushed so drastically all comes down to money. Trends and insecurity sell. Somehow people of our society believe that perfection (or flawlessness when it comes to Photoshop) really exists. They want to see themselves as who they would be most comfortable with because of their own insecurities. This all feeds down from what we are fed in the media. There is pressure to cover up our beautifully defined lines in our face with make up; cover up our grays with dyes and even go to the extent of surgery/Botox to look younger.
Natural beauty is still so shocking because as a society we have not embraced it. We have the power to change the images we are fed if we choose not to buy into it.
KN: As a photographer, have you seen or heard of any stories where negative body image was promoted more than positive body image?
AC: As a photographer, promoting unrealistic body images go hand in hand with the business. For men this is a negative portrayal of body image. Photoshop can be used to distort the entire look of the body.
I’ve heard many stories. Personally, I was told by another photographer (after looking at my client’s pregnancy portrait) that I should never provide a photo to my pregnant clients without Photoshopping out the stretchmarks. I actually laughed at her but being a mom of 3 I thought her comment was insulting. Stretchmarks comes with the territory of being pregnant and promoting true pregnancy body image, with the natural changes that takes place, in my opinion is positive.
KN: If you could change one thing about the media, what would it be and why? How can we introduce and encourage more inclusive acceptance of all body types?
AC: I love this question! If I could change one thing about the media it would be to embody beauty in all colors, shapes, forms and conditions. There is no ONE TYPE of beauty! Yet we are not fed the magnificence of diversity. I believe people relate when they see images that look similar to themselves. If one type of look is shown on the TV, magazines, billboards… in everything that we see, beauty becomes bias. If we can diversify the imagery we are constantly fed there is no need to try and live up to the “perfect” look. It simply doesn’t exist.
KN: Many Proud2Bme readers are in the process of recovering from an eating disorder. Do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement?
AC: I’ve always said that I cannot force someone to feel different about themselves. I can only encourage them to shut out the voices that say you are not worthy, tell you to look deeper within yourself and see the magnificent beauty of being uniquely you. Perfectly imperfect as everything else in this immense Universe that we reside.
If I may, please join me in a quick mental exercise: Think of the most beautiful place that you’ve visited (or imagine that place in your mind). Keeping that vision in mind, close your eyes and enjoy this beautiful space (for 30 seconds). Open your eyes and think about what you saw. Did you relish in the loveliness of this place? Most likely you did.
For example, I vision the beach in San Diego. Closing my eyes, I felt the breeze blowing gently across my face, smelled the sweetness of restaurant behind me and saw the grace of the waves as it stroked the shore. I could have easily noticed the small patch of grass missing beside me or the tree not standing quite straight. Instead I decided to focus on the holistic magnificence of this special place. So why not look at yourself the way that you viewed your special place? There are bumps in road and life may not be exactly the way that you imaged it but you, as you are, is enough.
About the blogger: Kimberly is a student at Mount Holyoke College, a women's liberal arts college in South Hadley, MA. Her interests include ballet, performing, choreographing, writing, binge watching documentaries on Netflix, and taking too many pictures with friends. She plans to pursue grad school (hopefully overseas!) and research mental illness, specifically eating disorders. She also hopes to one day work to change laws around mental health in the United States and promote the idea that women around the world should have autonomy over their bodies.
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Photo Credit: Alyscia Cunningham Photography