[Women in Business] Andreea B. Ballen: Capturing the Beauty of Women in Boudoir Photography

March 7, 2019

 

Andreea Burciu-Ballen is the owner and photographer of Andreea B. Ballen Photography, a featured and awarded photography studio in Brooklyn, NY that focuses on showing all women how truly stunning they are. A New Yorker for 35 years and living in Brooklyn, Andreea is married to a wonderful Argentinian man (who is the best cook in the word and a wonderful artist), and is mom to two magical littles (and four frisky kittens) who light up her life. She describes herself as a light seeker, modern-day gypsy with sophisticated tastes, world traveler, crazy in love with her family and with this road called 'life.' She is obsessed with finding MAGIC, JOY & LIGHT in the world at large, and in everyone she photographs  whether for boudoir, personal branding, or bump-to-baby photographs. She is passionate about holistic living, living what you preach, self care, social justice (love is love!), and being the positive that is in the world. When she is not photographing or chasing littles, she is dancing, dreaming up where to travel in the world to next... or hugging a tree or two.

Photographers seem to have a unique talent for seeing and capturing the beauty we seldom recognize in ourselves. Somehow, they see us — bare soul, insecurities, and all — and show the world the quiet charm of that fragility... and the inherent strength necessary to survive in a world seemingly designed to highlight our imperfections. More than I ever realized, the photographer has a precious ability to help us discover the good and the beautiful in ourselves, to feed our self-love. Andreea is the human embodiment of that curious, loving energy, seeking out the hidden treasures in others and unafraid to bare her own soul in that pursuit. I, for one, can not wait to take some photos next time I'm in NYC!

 

Sophie: When did you start taking pictures? Were you always a photographer?

 

AB: My relationship with the camera started when I was less than three years old. It's weird; it's hard for me to remember what I did yesterday or even what brought me into the kitchen, sometimes, but I remember being that little and being terrified of the camera... Or at least, being terrified by the strangers that stopped me on the street or in the park to take my picture. “Ahhh, she looks so much like Shirley Temple with those curls,” they’d offer as they pointed their cameras at me with these huge, intimidating smiles that did nothing to make them less strange or scary. In my little young world imbued with fairy tales, this object — the camera — held a magic that turned friendly only when my father pointed it my way. And well into my teens and young adulthood, during my most awkward moments of beauty or otherwise, it was only through the lens directed by my father's gaze of love and acceptance that I did see beauty in myself.

 

When at sixteen my dad and mom placed a camera into my hands, I discovered that the camera held other magical qualities: it allowed me both access and invisibility, to be simultaneously part of something yet distanced enough to see it more clearly. It allowed me to most be myself, courageous yet shy, extroverted yet reserved, traveling the path less traveled but fully aware of the well beaten alternative. And from that path less traveled, a path often of solitude, of the "other," of the slightly broken or of the misunderstood — as I saw myself or kids my age to often be — I was able to experiment with my vision. I saw how shooting from the hip or the floor changes how we see something, found how darkness shapes the light, how real emotion shapes someone's beauty, how those moments of vulnerability are the most poignant moments of our lives, and often the ones we most want to trap in time — or in a photograph.

 

It's a shame I didn't go on to formally study photography at Barnard. I listened, sadly, when mom said I’d be better off doing that on my own time, out of college. And so goes the dream deferred. Though all the while I photographed for myself (and secretly dreamt of photographing lavish spreads for Vogue or exotic shoots for National Geographic), in college I instead focused on women's studies in comparative literature and psychology. I then graduated and went on to a brief and torturous career in... well, what does one do with feminist focused comparative literature and a psych degree from an all women's liberal arts college? They become a Brand Media Strategist in a boutique Ad Agency, of course.

 

I had thought that, at some point, I could transition to something more creative while working my ad agency gig, and yes, I did get to photograph some client parties that went on to be published in trade magazines. However, when nothing more creative or artistically fulfilling materialized at said ad agency, I left the corporate world for a bit to start my own catering gig. It was creative and fulfilling in that I could bring joy to others. Short lasted it was though and, to make a long story short, back I was in the stifling corporate world, now with a wee babe of my own. It seems each new path we take in our life's journey can bring us to unexpected destinations, and sometimes even back to the road we are meant to follow. And so it was that becoming a mom not just re-ignited my passion for photography, but also made me want to capture all the beauty and magic and spirit of my little one so much more. The walls of my office were plastered with images of my little Phoenix, and coworkers admired the way I captured my loved ones that they started hiring me for themselves.

 

When I finally left the corporate world to empower other mothers in their journey by becoming a doula (birth coach), I was given a real opportunity to capture the beauty and magic of my doula clients’ pregnancy — of their now v through photographs. Then I got to capture their babies’ magic. Later, their families' magic. And this made me realize that capturing magic is my gift and that photographing is my air, my way of contributing to the world. Into my photography service so wove in all my paths: that of the person traveling the road less traveled, the Brand Strategist, the person getting joy by giving others joy, the nurturer and the cheerleader there to empower others through the most vulnerable and poignant moments of their life.

 

Sophie: Can you share stories and reactions from some of the women you’ve photographed?

 

AB: What I find I encounter when I meet most women and (though lots of men too) for portrait consults — whether they are hiring me for their baby and family portraits, business branding portraits, or boudoir portraits — is some of the same fear I had, and still have, of being in front of the camera. Many are afraid that the photos will capture the things they dislike about themselves. "I have never taken a good picture in my life, so working with me will prove a challenge," I hear. And so said a woman who was hiring me to photograph her baby's first birthday, bundled in with her family's bittersweet farewell to New York City. "I don't have any good angles, and I hate myself in photos," she continued. I giggled as I often do, because I understood her exactly, and let her know it was my job to see her beauty.

 

I let her know that I approach portraits from a quiet place that loves to see the beauty in everyone — in women, in people in love, in babies. I let her know that when I photograph, I capture connection, real interaction, and that I achieve that by just being laid back and having an easy conversation just like an old trusted friend (or a playful new one). All she had to do was play, be herself, and allow herself to answer my playful questions. And so she went on to trust me, and we had fun at our session. And can I tell you, she cried when she saw her images! And I cried with her because I understood exactly where she was coming from. I understood how overwhelming and emotional it is to see yourself in the light of beauty that another can see you in… that you didn’t know anyone saw you in.

 

A recent client who hired me to capture images of herself and her two little ones to commemorate her 35th birthday expressed, at our consult, the need to celebrate not just her birthday, but her new body and her new independence. She revealed that she had just broken up with her cheating husband and needed to overcome it. Boudoir portraiture seemed to be the thing she needed to add to her session, we both agreed. I could see her confidence grow by leaps and bounds as we took our bad-ass boudoir session to the streets, where women were rolling down their windows to cheer her on. “YOU GO GIRL!,” they shouted! She stood taller and shyness melted away. And yes, she too cried when she saw her images. "I never saw myself this beautiful nor this strong, ever," she said. "There are no words to thank you for the power and courage you just gave me."

 

Another woman, a lawyer who prides herself on being the lawyer for the people, was up for an award for Brooklyn hispanic entrepreneur of the year. She wanted to work with me to capture branding images that showed her and her business as she wanted herself and her message to be seen: strong and successful but approachable and beautiful, down to earth but highly professional. She relayed back saying that since I published the blog post with her images, images which she also used for her website and social media, the calls to her business have increased exponentially, and the feedback has been phenomenal. Not only is she getting new clients, but she finds that old clients are calling her to reconnect.

 

Every day recognition from women who love their photos and SEE themselves beautiful is why I find so much joy in doing what I do. But sometimes, there are things that are a little braggy that make me smile, that I am really oddly proud of: aside of photography competitions and other coverage, two of my images appeared at the Louvre Museum in Paris for a one day international photography exhibition. One portrait is of my daughter at age five, looking strikingly vulnerable and achingly sad, while simultaneously beautiful. The other is of a dear friend, a pregnant mom, her belly highlighted against the Manhattan skyline. I love what she had to say about the photo, and her experience working with me, as much as the recognition that photo received:

 

“I am the New York Mama with the huge belly silhouetted against the magnificent, Manhattan skyline that Andreea B. Ballen Photography beautifully captured. The pregnancy photos crafted and created by Andreea captured all I had hoped for: the promise of my body full and bursting with a beautiful new life, the promise of a city to deliver long cherished dreams, and the promise of my love for both always and forever. Andreea is truly a gifted artist who has a magical eye for photography that captures likeness, love and soul.” ~ Steckley Lee

 

Sophie: How did you know it was time to leave your career as a doula to photograph full time?

 

AB: I started my work as a doula after my father’s death. I had just spent a year trying to save my dad, and his impossibly cruel death, where he wasted away and eventually died in my arms, really devastated me in a way I did not think possible. I was falling into a black hole and, to get back to the world of the living, to find my way out of that impossible grief, I wanted — no, NEEDED — to validate and celebrate life. I could not think of a better way of celebrating life and negating death than supporting other women in their journey into motherhood, the labor of giving birth to new life.

 

The doula work was a way to heal myself by giving of myself to empower others. It was cathartic. It was incredibly rewarding work on some levels, but it was also really back breaking (and heartbreaking) in other levels. I am forever grateful to my doula work experience for the healing it provided me, for the women I got to meet and work with on the journey, and for giving me a platform to find my real calling, photography. But in the end, I gave up doula work when I realized it took me away from my family, from my kids, in a way that I could not justify (especially after leaving my stable, corporate paycheck so that I could BE with my kids).

 

In the meantime, my newfound calling of photographing pregnant moms started what I call my ‘for real’ photography career and gave me a profound joy and freedom that made me feel like, ‘this is IT — this is my purpose. I DO have a gift, and nothing else in life can fulfill me more than using my gift to give joy to others.”

 

Sophie: What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?

 

AB: Capturing someone’s magic, and showing it back to them through a portrait, is incredibly rewarding and powerful. I often see what I’ve captured and I still squeal like a little kid about to get a great present. Because I know that if a photo I captured of someone takes MY breath away, it will mean so, so much more to that person whom I’ve captured in that photo. Why? Well, as women in this society, we have a cult of usually seeing the imperfections, of finding faults within ourselves, of beating ourselves up and wishing impossible things of our bodies. Neither overtly nor obsessively, yet I was still absolutely guilty of this on some levels. And to an extent, I sometimes still am. Weird, as I am an otherwise strong, “don’t give a hoot what you think and don’t ever care to be part of your cult” kind of gal. And yet somewhere along the line, I unknowingly (and unwittingly) joined the cult.

 

As a mother to a daughter, I’ve been keenly aware of this happening to us women, the evil messaging creeping into our subconscious or conscious minds, whether surreptitiously or overtly. I always strive to never voice negative body talk around her (nor around my son), and yet the message still got to her somewhere through the cracks, despite us not watching regular TV, despite there being no fashion magazines in the house, despite my never openly tearing myself down with unkind words about my body. And so, when at age nine, my beautiful daughter asked me, “Mom, am I fat? Are my thick legs fat? They are so much bigger than all the other girls’ legs in my class.'’ I was really not ready for this kind of talk so young, so soon, and was taken aback. But it gave me a chance to start telling her early, “No baby, you are strong and your body is strong. You eat well and eat healthy and take care of yourself, and your body is a reflection of your health and all the good things you put into it. You have curves because you are a girl, and you will later be happy for those curves. And your legs are thick like your mamas, but that’s ok, because they will make you run fast and walk far in life. And like your mama, your thick legs will never hold you back from being loved by whom you want and deserve to be loved by. They will never hold you back from any job nor any joy. They will take you where you want to go. They will have you dance and run.”

 

For myself, for my daughter, for my clients, for all women — I encourage you to do as I do: I am starting to learn to love myself and my body more and more every day. I am working to accept my body more than ever, actively looking to thank the scars, the stretch marks, the flab, the aching, the failing (as it sometimes can, as I battle a myriad of autoimmune stuff)... all of it, for being all that is the flesh, MY flesh, housing my vibrant soul around for another turn around the sun. It’s a healthy attitude, to love yourself, in this moment, as you are. And I want to teach my daughter this. I want all girls and women to see and believe this: to love yourself in your body is the best gift you can give yourself, and those around you. And never compare yourself, your body, to others. You are you, you are unique, and that’s what makes you so strikingly beautiful.

 

Sophie: Tell us about the photos that were featured in the Louvre!

 

AB: It’s kind of funny to think, but both of these photos chosen in the SeeMe The Exposure international competition to be shown at the Louvre were taken at the very beginning of my professional photography journey. I had literally just learned how to use my “big girl” camera in manual one or two months prior. The photo of my friend Steckley, the pregnant woman against the Manhattan skyline, that was still with my father’s camera. I talked a bit about that shoot before.

 

The other photo, that photo is of my daughter, Phoenix, was right after my first client photo shoot with my Canon camera, which was an obsolete model that I’d gotten second hand from another photographer for pennies. I had just purchased my prime lens, a 50mm, a portrait lens and was crazy excited to use it again, after having played with it for the first time with my kids up in Pennsylvania, on the river. We were at the beach at sunset, and I was just done with a client shoot. The light was gorgeous, and I really wanted to capture my kids in it. Though my kids and I’d had a fun day at the beach up until then, in this very moment, my then usually sparkly, happy girl was angry with her baby brother (who had just hurt her in some way) and angry with me (for having her sit by a tree where she thought there would be bugs to bother her). But I insisted she stay put by the tree just for a few seconds, even while I had a deep inkling that everything in her wanted to flee. I couldn’t resist! The light looked so bronze beautiful, and my tiny daughter looked so fragile yet so fierce in her incongruent, infinite sort of sadness and defiance. And what makes the final capture so stunning and powerful is the depth you see in this little child’s eyes, the enormous soul of this tiny being wrestling with these emotions. Her eyes seem to peer right into you. You may, as I do looking at this photograph, feel this somewhere deep. As an outsider looking at it, I think it’s possible it connects you to that tiny, child part of your own self. I think the reason this photo was chosen to be shown is because it’s beautiful outside of the way one would normally think a child should, and can, look beautiful.

 

Sophie: How do you take care of yourself so you can show up fully in life and for your clients? Do you have any self-care routines?

 

AB: No matter what, I always show up fully for my clients and for the people who are counting on me. Personally, I am just now beginning to take care of myself better. Really, I am always in a million places: shuttling kids to school (I spend two hours every weekday doing that), taking care of other family obligations and household obligations, networking, doing in-person consults and orders with my clients when I am not shooting or home working on pictures until late into the night. I always come up last but I am starting to see that, if I break, everything around me will be in a pretty chaotic place.

 

So, I am now giving myself time I didn’t think I had to meditate, tap into the good, take a nap when I need it or take numerous long showers if I need the hot water to soothe my aches or relax my mind. I try not to do long nights working where I lose sleep anymore. I’m learning to outsource and to delegate, and be OK with letting go of some control. I’ve also recently gone back to going out dancing with my girlfriends whenever I can get them to come out, and I never want to stop going! Dancing for me was always like therapy and creative release rolled into one, and so doing it feels GREAT. When the weather’s good, I go out into nature to recharge my batteries. I love being amongst trees as much as I love being by the water, and I do both as much as I can. Communing with nature makes me feel whole. I’ve hugged a tree or two, I will not lie.

 

About the author:

Anne-Sophie Bousset ("Sophie" to English-speaking friends), is a freelance marketer and community builder. She helps companies build their brand, attract clients, and build a community around their product. Her favorite things include sunshine, yoga, reading, and lazy Sundays in with her cat, Phelps. She can be found on Twitter @Sophie_Bousset.

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