Stories behind the shoot: Valinie by Emiliano Styles

It was early in the morning and I was performing my typical teaching duties. Organizing student’s work folders, gathering materials for the day’s classes, and writing flow-of-the-day tasks on the chalkboard. A faint knock, a pair of rectangular eyeglasses, and a russet complexion greeted me at the door. My first instinct was that this woman was a student teacher or a substitute because my colleague/office suite mate was on a leave of absence. However, she introduced herself to me as the new English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. Weeks passed. She learned the ropes of the school’s culture. We shared classroom battle stories and discussed challenges that the teaching profession presented to us. I noticed that Valinie came dressed to nines everyday with a unique attention to detail. She displayed color blocking as well as complimentary patterns in her outfits. She exhibited a style that one would expect a fashion editor at a trendy magazine would wear, not at a public high school in East New York Brooklyn would wear. The professional teacher in me never complimented her style or fashion sense, but the artist in me wanted to photograph her because she was effortlessly photogenic. As a multi-media artist, I oftentimes relied heavily on my video production efforts, but I still had a great interest in rekindling and reshaping my still photography skills. I recently purchased a new camera and was assisting celebrity portrait photographer Rayon RIchards on a couple photo shoots. I wanted to photograph everyday people that I knew, converse with them, and get to know them better. I wanted to capture their simple everyday subtleties and the brief moments that were so easy to miss with a blink. I wanted to capture those moments that I had so often concentrated on getting in videographic motion, in still form. I wanted to photograph individuals of different complexions, backgrounds, shapes, and looks. Valinie ended up leaving the school for another teaching opportunity and I ended up leaving the teaching profession altogether. We went our separate ways, but still stayed in touch. However, convincing Valinie to do a photo session with me was no easy task though. First, she dismissed it.

Emiliano: “You know what? I am trying to rebuild my photography portfolio. I took digital photography in college. I’ve dabbled in it here and there, but I want to do more. You should let me take your portrait in the not too distant future. Let me know if you’re down”

Valinie: “I’m not photogenic. You have so many careers. Looks like your directing is coming along though”

E: “You ARE photogenic though!”

V: “[LMAO] Emil, you must be on drugs! That’s cool to have so many things going on… good to keep reinventing yourself.”

E: “Drugs? Nah, creative energy is my drug of choice actually.”

V: “No, drugs as in that is why you think I’m photogenic sir. Sorry about the confusion there.”

Me: Either you’re fishing for compliments or you just don’t want me to take your portrait.

V: I’d like to see some of your work. I don’t know if you take nude pictures or what.

I show her some of my work as well as my video and movie work. Some private links as well.

V: This is awesome! You don’t sleep with all the women you photograph afterwards right? Cliche I know, but I had to ask!

Me: Sleep with them? hahaha, no, you make it sound like compensation. That’s so wack that photographers have that type of reputation in your eyes.

V: Just checking.

We discuss my work, composition ideas, outfits, and makeup styles but we never come to a conclusion about whether she’d be my subject or not until I ask…

E: Did we ever come to a conclusion?

V: I don’t know. I shall think about it. My boyfriend is probably going to look at me like I have six heads!

E: He will? Well, bring him too. Maybe I can photograph ya’ll both. I really want to photograph different people to build my portfolio.

V: My boyfriend is too shy to take photos. I’m the extrovert. *She asks him about the photo shoot* He’s hyperventilating now at the thought of being on camera. hahaha

To paraphrase; I tell her how I’m a really laid back person and that taking photos while being directed is not as painful as it seems. I implore her to trust my artistry and she said she likes my work, so we should just make it happen. I also did my best to convince her that I’m not an axe murderer.

V: Where would the photo shoot take place? I’d prefer an open public area. I don’t want to get cut up and buried. I may have to bring a pit bull.

Yes, this is the same person that I shared an office with at a public school for months. But somehow, I was becoming the Michael Myers of photography for some reason.

E: Cut up and buried?! You make photographers seem like sleazy sadistic people! I’m glad I can set a better example for you!

Part of me wanted to end this “pulling teeth” process with Valinie that day. But another part of me wanted to demystify how photographers operate. I admit, asking to photograph someone could be a pickup line of sorts. I am not naive to that fact. I also know that people, especially women, should be very careful in their vetting of men. I have a mother and two sisters that I love dearly, so I understand completely. We should always be alert and discerning about who we interact with on a private basis. Whether it be personal, professional, or romantic. Photographing Valinie reminded me of the times when I was photographed professionally for the first time. I recall the thoughts that ran through my head

“What do I wear?”

“How do I pose?”

“Are they getting a good angle of me?”

“Should I smile?”

“Should I smize?”

“Should I squint my eyes?”

Recalling my first photo shoot made me empathize with her experience. And sympathetic as well. When artist and professionals of different worlds progress in our different fields, we sometimes forget our humble beginnings. The simple questions we asked ourselves when we used the double click function on the computer mouse for the first time, now many of us are computer savvy social media mavens. I never would have thought that I’d be able to design my own website when I was using AOL dial up CD-ROM software to peruse websites at a snails pace in the 90s.

Fast forward to one year later.

Valinie and I FINALLY connected to do the photo shoot. I assume that she received the results of her thorough background check of me and concluded that I wasn’t the sociopathic artistic murderous educator that she initially thought I was. The location, Long Island City Queens. I’d figure we’d just walk and talk and I’d capture what I could. I told her to wear whatever she wanted because I trusted her style and fashion sense. My photographic approach is naturalistic. I like to capture contemplative moments when a subject is taking in the scenery and well as more focused body positions. I wanted the photos to read as if I was simply documenting Valinie’s moments of solace in the park. As the photo shoot went on, she became less and less cognizant of the camera’s presence in general. The outcome of the photo shoot was exactly what I expected. I snicker to myself when she initially said she was not photogenic. My photographs clearly say otherwise.

Check out more photos from this photo shoot below.