Exposure: life online, behind the lens and in your underwear
Updated: Mar 23
– with photographer Satellite June
Words, women and vulnerability
When I write about the way I feel, sometimes I’m straight forward, as if opening up to a trusted friend. Other times my words form more as poetic musings – they flow out and say what I need them to say, even if no one else knows exactly what that is.
More often than not, it’s the latter. I submerge my feelings and experiences in plain sight – dress worry up alongside grand adventures, submerge lust, longing, listlessness in deep seas. Sometimes I tell my story through the eyes of another. A character that curiously possesses many of my traits.
I suppose it’s a way of exposing myself in a way that still feels safe. But writing is also a creative release, cathartic. It allows me to process the goings-on in my life.
In recent years, I’ve become rather fond of that vulnerability. Putting honest words out there gives me a rush, especially when my deepest emotions come to the surface. To share how I feel, honestly, openly, gives way to confidence. I am emboldened, if only for a moment or two.
And it’s not so much about feedback. It’s because – like most things, when you open yourself up honestly, you start to find a community forming around you who get it, who’ve been there, who feel the same. The blog you read weekly, the podcast you listen to every morning on the ride to work, the (dare I say it) Instagram feed serving up a fine dose of your favourite art – these are places we find comfort, inspiration, connection, community, and understanding, in.
I’m inspired in particular by female artists, photographers and writers. What I’m drawn to is the feeling that I can relate. We are all so much more alike than we think – shielding fears and struggles, working towards goals and dreams, wondering some of the same questions. Many of us share common experiences, and have been through similar emotions.
Nikki, her lens, and the gateway to healing
Nikki van de Poel is a film photographer based in the Netherlands. Her lens, the gateway to exploration, expression, creativity, healing. Her work examines themes of femininity, love, loneliness and travelling, and she uses lots of natural light, which I love. Many of her photography subjects are also women, and there is a thread throughout much of her work that Nikki is open about – body confidence and insecurity. There it is again – a common experience many of women (and men) know intimately.
Nikki recently shared a new collection, Diverse Universe, featuring a diversity of women, stripped back and natural. I reached out to Nikki to learn about her experience with the project and how she, inevitably, could relate to her subjects. As it often goes, I related a lot to her responses, and especially to her creative process and experiences.
How do you see yourself, and how does this translate into your self-portraits?
I see myself as an ever-changing, evolving human being and I like to capture this in my self-portraits. My self-portraits are my diary. When I look back at them I can always see how I was feeling at that stage of my life. It teaches me a lot about myself. I am a dreamer, and I think that really translates into my work.
You've said you create much of your work for personal healing, and that sharing your story (and those of others) has been comforting and helpful through times of struggle or insecurity. What is it about the process that helps? And can you tell me in which ways this has helped you in your personal journey?
It makes me acknowledge my insecurities. If I would keep them for myself it would be easier to pretend they weren’t there, but by sharing them it makes my struggles real. It turns them into something I can work on, something to grasp onto. Sharing with my little online world helps me to talk more openly about my feelings and I often find people are struggling with some of the same things. It connects people and that feels so good, we can help each other by simply sharing our story.
You work a lot with natural light. To me, this adds to the softness and feminine nature of your photographs. What is it about the female form and natural light that appeals to you?
In my work I like to chase a certain kind of softness and I think natural light can bring this to a picture. It’s a gentle touch on your skin that makes it look like your skin is glowing. The female form has beautiful round shapes which elevate the soft, dreamy vibe I like to create in my work.
Because my work is so personal and I have been struggling with the way I see myself, I include the female form a lot in my photography. It helps me look at my body in a whole new way. When I take a self-portrait I don’t look at all the flaws I usually see. When I’m creating I see the shape of my body and I put them in angles and light and keep changing around until I like what I see. A beautiful shape bathing in the softest rays of light. It gives a different meaning to my body, which works wonderfully for me in terms of accepting it as it is.
As the viewer of your work, I find that sharing platforms like Instagram have become a great tool for women (and everyone) to find their niche or community and connect over similar experiences and like-minded ideas or ways of living. It does seem to provide a place for art to be shared in every format to say just about everything.
Would you agree?
Has social media played a role in helping you to connect with others / develop your photography projects, or share your work?
Social media played a huge part in me getting to where I am now. It helped me to create an audience, connect with photographers I adore, models, locations. It is a nice way to build up a little portfolio by sharing your work with the world.
The main reason I love using social media for my work is the connection. Talking about personal issues and sharing stories helps me to connect with people that are going through, or have gone through, the same things. We relate. We help each other. Such a beautiful thing.
Photography for me is a way of expressing myself, expressing my feelings and finding out that lots of people feel those same things when they look at my pictures means the world to me.
On the contrary, social media undoubtedly has an ugly side. Have you experienced it personally or professionally?
Oh yes I definitely have. In a world where everybody can call themselves a photographer, it is hard to get noticed for your work. It’s just a matter of holding on to your style and staying true to yourself and I believe the right people will find their way to you then. It is all about persistence.
Personally, I have to take a little break from social media every now and then to cleanse my palette. Sometimes I feel the pressure of sharing and creating just for social media so I have something new to show. I learned that It doesn’t work like that – creating for yourself is key. Creating because you want to create leads to your best work.
As far as inspiration, are you drawn to any particular symbols or representations of femininity or womanhood? And why?
My work is very feelings-oriented. I create when I feel things. When I feel sad I create to process what’s going on, when I feel happy I photograph to make that moment last forever. I don’t have a particular source of inspiration, just life I guess. It comes and it goes. I create little series around issues myself and my friends are experiencing. That’s how Diverse Universe came to life.
I also gain artistic inspiration from watching movies and paying attention to how they set a certain mood. Moods are important in my work.
What was the experience of shooting Diverse Universe like? How did the women feel being exposed individually and together? Was there a feeling of connectivity over their similarities? How did you feel?
This project has been such a dream. I was a bit nervous when all the ladies came in and had to get dressed into their underwear, but they all immediately connected. There was such a good vibe, they were so supportive of my idea behind the shoot and started talking about the subject and felt totally at ease in front of the camera.
It felt really powerful seeing all these women together, overcoming their insecurities and being themselves, hiding nothing. Just showing the world how diverse the female body can be, in all its shapes and colours.
After the shoot I remember feeling so happy and relieved that everything went well. It made me look at my body in a whole new way as well. I don’t know why I needed this shoot, but reminded me that every body is different and every body is awesome in its own way. It opened my eyes and I am so thankful for these ladies for coming along on this journey with me and changing the way the world sees the female body just a tiny bit.
Do you have any advice for women who feel insecure mentally, creatively, physically or otherwise?
It’s okay to have bad days. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take life one day at a time and try to smile at yourself when you look in the mirror. One thing I often do when I don’t feel good is dance around the house in my underwear, put on my favourite song and dance like I mean it. Nobody’s watching, let it all out.
Another thing that really helps me is to go for a nice long walk – sometimes I listen to a podcast or music, sometimes I just simply look around and take in my surroundings. It helps me to relax my mind before I start my day.
Recently I've been feeling stunted with my own creative ideas and projects, and I've found myself comparing to other 'competitors' (in my case, female writers and bloggers). I find sometimes I feel this added pressure to "keep creating" or "create faster" in order to "keep up". I guess this is the case with social media too. It's an overwhelming feeling, one I could guess you've experienced as well?
To me, not only does it feel crappy to feel like I'm not "doing enough", but I'm also aware that as women we should support and uplift each other, and comparing doesn't seem like the healthiest way to create a supportive environment. When you've felt this way, how do you combat it? Do you have any thoughts on this experience?
Oh yes I have often felt this way, in those moments I have to really zoom out and remember why I am creating in the first place – I’ll often go to see some of my favorite movies, go for a nice long walk, go to a museum. Get my mind off of things.
I recently wrote a post about a similar feeling:
“Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by all the things life throws my way. What helps me in those moments is to go to a quiet place (like the beach) and just be there. In that moment. Feel the touch of the wind, watch the waves do their little dances, listen to the birds singing their songs. I created this image to capture that feeling - to remind myself that it’s okay to feel a little lost sometimes, that it’s okay to take some time off just to reconnect with myself, it’s okay to pause your life to catch your breath again. It’s all okay.”
The most important thing to do when you are comparing / pressuring yourself is to remind yourself what makes you happy about doing what you’re doing. Find that spark again.
This piece was originally written for The Sonder Sphere, 2019.