“I think my portraits are fiercely feminine, and they hold space for women to feel empowered just being themselves. They’re truthful, soft, strong, and beautiful,” says Stef Streb, owner of Stef Streb Photography, a Columbus-based photography studio, whose photos might be described as “boudoir.”
Boudoir photography, with its varying contexts and connotations, has traditionally been an opportunity for women to create a private photo collection for their partners as an engagement, wedding, or anniversary present, or perhaps as a token of remembrance before a period of separation such as a military deployment.
“I struggle with the word ‘boudoir’ a lot,” says Streb, who admits to the intimacy of her portraiture style. “But most boudoir photography feels very hyper-sexualized and unnatural to me. I think there’s this idea that boudoir photography is to make yourself look as ‘perfect’ [or] as skinny, airbrushed, and posed as possible, and there are a lot of body issues that come up for most of us in that sort of situation.”
Streb has instead chosen to refer to her work as “goddess sessions,” reflecting the increasing trend of women to have an intimate photography session as a form of self-affirmation.
“Goddess sessions are a time to embrace and celebrate your body. I really believe that women benefit from seeing our bodies in images that show how soft and strong and beautiful we are without needing to be super sexualized,” says Streb.
Streb has been behind the camera since the age of 14, when her dad first taught her how to use one. A graduate of Columbus College of Art and Design, she interned in New York City and spent five years in fashion and ecommerce while working with models and portraiture. As part of her own personal journey, she also began using herself as a photography subject and posting her work on Instagram, quickly realizing the power of the experience. It was a power she wanted others to share. A little over a year ago, she made the leap into full- time self-employment.
Women ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s have participated in goddess sessions. Streb finds most of her clients via Instagram or personal recommendations. About half are planning to give the photos as gifts, and half are scheduling the session for their own reasons: to feel good about themselves, or perhaps to document a body journey. In keeping with the spirit of integrity, self-confidence, and ownership, she does not photoshop or alter any of the images.
“I’m here to show off the real thing. Rolls, cellulite, stretch marks, all of it. Because we’ve all got ‘em, so why not flaunt ‘em? I want women to feel empowered in their bodies—not like they have anything to hide.”
The photography experience tends to be a negative one, full of flaws and bad hair and awkward facial expressions, and the nature of the goddess session can exacerbate the usual nerves. Before a shoot, most clients are unsure what to wear, how to look, and how to calm her nerves. Streb understands. Booking a session is a conversation, rather than just scheduling a calendar time, where every question a client might have is answered.
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“I’m a big believer in looking like yourself in photos,” Streb explained. “So I encourage every woman to do her hair and makeup in whatever way makes her feel the most herself—which is different for everyone— but [also] to bring things to wear that might be what she wants to feel confident in, but doesn’t yet, because our shoot is the time to change that.”
The world of portraiture is often limited to weddings or professional head shots for work. The world of the camera phone has created the “selfie,” which in Streb’s view, is more of a self-reflection—a catch in a feedback loop, rather than a documentation of the subject in the present moment.
“When you hand over that piece of the experience, where you’re not seeing yourself reflected but actually being present in having your photograph taken, it opens up a layer of vulnerability that allows you to just be yourself,” says Streb.
Goddess sessions exist for women’s personal reasons, but Streb acknowledges her work does challenge traditional ideas of boudoir and the male gaze.
“We can see a woman’s body without it becoming a sexual object,” Streb says. “We can appreciate the female form for its inherent softness and strength. And we can be honest about what that form actually looks like. It’s ever-changing. There is no right body for a woman to have. All bodies are good bodies. And they deserve to be appreciated for carrying us through life.”
Interested in a goddess session? Visit stefstrebphoto.com. Check out Stef’s Instagram @stefstreb.