Episode 32 – Photography as a Ritual with Angela Michelle

Photography as a Ritual with Angela Michelle

In this episode, I interview boudoir portrait photographer turned intimacy educator, Angela Michelle who lost her eyesight after suffering from a stroke. She shares, “For a photographer to lose vision is heartbreaking and I managed to take that experience and find even greater purpose in my mission.

In This Episode, You Will Learn About:

  • How photography can be expressed as a ritual
  • How to hold sacred space for your clients to fully express themselves during a boudoir shoot and to feel all of their feelings
  • How to overcome challenges and evolve while still fulfilling your mission

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Moving on and Adapting from a Heartbreaking Trial in Life

Angela is a stroke survivor who is completely blind in one eye and has learned to adapt as a photographer and educator. I would love to start with how you have adapted? I can imagine that that was really heartbreaking and scary as anything and yeah. How did you, move forward from that?

So I think losing vision for anyone is devastating, but I think for a photographer, it’s probably one of our biggest fears. We kind of talked about how I had an intuition before. I always had this fear of going blind, of losing vision, and I’ve had it very strongly ever since I was a child, and everyone always told me like, “Oh, yeah, you’re a photographer. Use your eyes.” But when it happened, I think because I intuitively knew it was going to happen—I can’t even explain that—I think I handled it pretty well. I think some people might have been more devastated, but because I had this feeling when it happened, I was just like, “Okay, this is how it happens.”

And how do I move forward? I promised myself, as long as I could still see, I would still be a photographer and I would still find ways to photograph because it is something that I am just so passionate about. And it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. So yeah, I do still photograph, although not as often. And that’s because of the stroke; it wasn’t just the vision loss. It also caused a whole other list of health issues that have kept me in and out of the hospital for the past, six years now. No doubt you’ve faced that question. Why did this happen? Why me? Have you gotten any answers about that?

It turns out I have a rare clotting disorder called Antiphospholipid syndrome. I was not aware I had it until the stroke happened and I was pregnant with my first child. Would’ve been my first child. And they think, in my case, the pregnancy hormones, kind of pushed this disease into overdrive. And I ended up with what is known as catastrophic anti-phospholipid. And that just means your body is throwing clots everywhere. That’s what caused the stroke. That’s also what caused all the pulmonary embolisms, which would lead to lung disease. For those who can see, you can kind of see the scar on my chest. That’s an open heart surgery that they did actually on my lungs in 2018. 

Yes, we got answers. It’s always nice when you know the reason why, and if I’m being honest, I have been struggling for about a decade, leading up to that incident, with my health and I was struggling to get doctors to listen and look deeper if there was an issue. So when it happened, it was devastating, but it was also kind of, “Okay, there’s a reason why this is happening.” And now that I know, I can do things to make my life better.

So that’s the scientific reason, but what about the spiritual? The bigger “why.” Have you been able to uncover that? It’s so interesting that you ask that because we hear people all the time say things happen for a reason. And I don’t wanna go down the toxic positivity road by any means, but I do feel like this was my path a way. And I do feel like what happened to me had to happen for me to become the person that I am now. And I’ll be honest. I really like the person I am now. In that way, I tell people I’m actually grateful for the experience because it did ignite a transformation in me that I think was so needed in my life. And I think it put me even more on the path of doing what I’m here to do. 

The Bigger Meaning in Life

And what are you here to do now? I’m here to do what I’ve always done. I just feel more purpose in it and that’s to help transform people. It’s to help people live their best life and not wait, not hold back, because life is happening right now in this present moment. And I really want people to embrace that.

Your story is such an in inspiration and I thank you for your honesty and being so forthcoming. Your vulnerability is really beautiful and inspiring. And like you said, it’s given you bigger meaning in your life—what you’ve gone through.

Photography as a Ritual

So I thank you for sharing that part of your story. I’d like to hear a little bit more about your photography. You see your photography as more of a ritual, and I’d love for you to explain what do you mean by that photography as a ritual? My degree is in cultural anthropology and I studied sex and rituals in depth.

I already had this idea of like what a ritual is. And at the time I had started my photography business in 2008. I was still in school, and I began to see these transformations that people would have in a photography session. And I was like, “Something’s happening here.” And when I started thinking of the purpose of a ritual, it is to transform. It is a liminal state of possibility.

So when you’re in the ritual, you’re not what you were, and you’re not what you’re going to be just yet. It’s just this infinite possibility of what you can be. And so when I started to see photography like that, the first thing I did is I thought of all the times we tend to hire professional photographer: newborn, maternity, weddings, engagement sessions. I’m Hispanic. So, all these kind of milestone moments. And I was like, “Wow. I think part of our purpose as photographers is to help people transform how they see themselves.” I think photography is such a powerful medium for that because it is embodied work. It’s a work that we do with our body, and we’re in this moment, but we’ve come out of it. And we see ourselves the way that we want to be seen, maybe the way that we always want to be seen, maybe the way that we feel in our heart. That just transforms us and helps us step into that role even more, whether that role is being sexy, beautiful, empowered woman who’s owning her body, or whether it’s helping to someone—you know a senior portrait session, it’s a huge transformation. Like you’re taking a young woman and helping to see herself as this independent adult. And so there’s that transformation there. So I just think there’s so much possibilities for it to be a ritual.

Photography as a Safe Space

And when you think of it that way, you can think of all the steps of how to make the ritual even more intense. I guess just more fulfilling for that particular client. And how do you hold that space for the clients to have that transformation? Because I would bet that not every photographer notices and is like, “Oh, look, you look so beautiful. You look different.” And that’s just a small percentage of the transformation. How do you hold this space for a woman to transform emotionally and to see herself differently? I think holding space is an art in itself. It really is. And I’ve recently shifted the way that I talk about it. For so long, I used to say safe space, and I think that is a goal as someone who’s trained as a sexologist. You know, there is no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex. And so I kind of take that same idea. I can’t promise you safe space, cuz I don’t know what each person’s triggers are or where they may run into trouble. So I can’t promise you that safe space. I can promise you a supportive space and in that supportive space, I hold that space for you to feel whatever you need to feel. And so I tell people if you have a visceral reaction, whether it’s crying or screaming or whatever, you were allowed to have that. I’m not gonna hold you back from that. I’m not here to control the way you feel. I’m here to give you that space and support you to feel what you need to feel. Whether that person is struggling with their body image, or maybe struggling with something deeper. 

You know, in boudoir work, we work a lot with people who are working through their sexuality. And so sometimes it’s them stepping into those emotions that they feel around that maybe are from a past experience, or maybe just kind of wanting to show up as their authentic self.

And this is really why I believe boudoir photographers are healers because this isn’t just any old photo shoot. Like this is really allow, like you said, the sexual wounds that we might be carrying—the body image, the internal thoughts, like there’s so much that goes into it and holding that. The word that pops into my head is sacred space—holding sacred space and that space for you to feel what you’re gonna feel. And like you said, I can’t guarantee safe space and everyone defines safety differently. I believe that we’re all inherently safe and it’s all just a perception that we’re not. But we are going to be triggered and that’s part of growth is part of transformation and holding the space for someone to be safe, even in the triggering.

Helping People Realize They’re Worthy of Love and Pleasure

So that sounds like it’s exactly what you’re doing. I love it. I love the work that you’re doing. You shared with me that your mission is to help people realize that they’re worthy of love and pleasure, and they deserve to live the life that they want. Can you tell me a little bit more about this and how you help them to do this?

I think, through photography, we do this through that transformation and I’m not talking about the physical transformation. I’m talking about the internal transformation that a client experiences and that we all see. That’s a big mission to see that they’re worthy of love and pleasure. I think, for me, the power of the session itself is that a client was scared to do something and they did it anyway. And there’s so much emotion and like power and resilience and bravery that can come out of that experience because they were vulnerable and they put themselves in a vulnerable situation. But they moved through it because I think we grow through discomfort. And so I think that that alone allows them to maybe realize, like, “What else can I do in my life that I had been putting off because I didn’t feel worthy? Because I was worthy to do this photo shoot and look at these photos and look at how I feel.”

So my hope is that it’s part of that journey of them to kind of feel like they are worth it. So now that I don’t do as much photography, I say I still do what I always did. I just don’t always have my camera as the tool. Cause to me, the camera was just a tool to do the work. So now I do it a lot through embodied work through yoga, through breath work, through journaling, through different exercises that I give clients. They work through intimacy obstacles. And to be clear when I talk about intimacy, you know, a lot of times, we think of intimacy, like with a partner, like maybe with our sexual partner. But there’s intimacy in all our relationships. And most importantly, there’s intimacy within ourself—our self intimacy. And I tell people you can’t connect to other people until you’ve learned to connect to yourself and your own body.

And so a lot of the work I do is those exercises to help them and to kind of just shift their mindset: Why do you think you’re not worthy? Where did that come from? Let’s use compassionate curiosity to break it down, and then we can get back to that place of worthy needs. 

So much when you were sharing came up for me. You know, being single now, and everybody said before, you need to be alone for a while. You need to, and I didn’t understand that. I was like, “No, I like being in a partnership. I like being with a man.” And then I realized that the real healing happened alone. And I was also the most fulfilled sitting under a mountain in Colorado, all by myself. And I was like, “Oh, this is what I’ve been avoiding. And this is the most powerful feeling of bliss I’ve ever felt in my life.” And I’m sitting here in nature, and it was like, “Wow.” And I also loved what you said about being intimate with yourself and really going within and looking at everything. That’s there blessing, loving every little bit of it. None of it’s bad or wrong and just honoring all of that. And when we do that work first and then you attract friends, clients lovers from that space—that’s powerful. 

The Path to Becoming an Intimacy Educator

I would love to hear if other photographers are interested in becoming an intimacy educator. How do they do that? How do you start on that path to become an intimacy? I think it really depends the path that you want to take. Intimacy educators were a pretty broad group, so some people are actual therapists. I am not a licensed therapist. That’s not what I tell people I do. But a lot of them are. So if you wanted to go that route, there is that route that somehow is more into public education. Some are doing behind the scenes work. Some are working in like public education or even private education. Some are working in the entertainment industry and trying to make things safer for actors and actresses. So it just kind of depends on the direction you want to. But I say maybe really sit and think about like what values you have, what other skills you have, and what direction you’d wanna go.

And then you’d wanna find a program that will help you get the education you need. And there’s a ton of programs out there. I went through the Sexology Institute here in San Antonio and I am now one of their instructors in the program. So I am partial to our program, but it may not be the right program for every person. And so I just tell people to look at the different programs that are out there. Look at their content. Also look at their instructors. I’m always looking for a diverse group of instructors. I don’t wanna see only one viewpoint. So just find what the right fit is for you to get the education. And then realize, just like with photography, you’re running a business. So yes, I do this, but it is a business. And so you’ve gotta have all the business aspect in there as well. 

The Power in Sharing Your Story

I was telling you that when I had my stroke, unfortunately, two hospitals missed it.  They did not recognize it as a stroke. And that led to several hours of delaying in care. And that led to the permanent vision loss. Because that happened, I became very vocal about talking about my journey with my illness and I was sharing on social media, talking about my experience.

The following year, I ended up in the hospital and my oxygen levels were unsafe. I ended up having to leave that hospital with oxygen 24/7, but my doctors did not understand why. And I was sharing this on social media and because of it, an old high school friend who had become a heart surgeon, saw my post and he wrote me and he said, I think you have this really rare lung disease. And with his help, I got diagnosed. At the time I was diagnosed, I was given less than two years to live without medical intervention. Luckily I was able to have surgery in 2018 on my lungs, and that is the surgery that literally saved my life. And I continue to share my story because I want people to know that we know our body better than anyone. I think back to when I had the stroke. I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know what, and I kept begging the doctors, like something’s really wrong. I don’t know what, but something’s really wrong with my body. And they dismissed it as anxiety.

And I feel like part of that was my gender being a woman. I don’t know. And I don’t think they would’ve said that to a man, “You just have anxiety.” So one of the things I really teach with my clients is that we know. We have to tune in to ourselves. And that means shutting out the noise, even sometimes shutting out the noise of experts.

What I tell people is, “You know, the doctors, they go to school, they study, and they are amazing at what they do, but they have no idea what it’s like to live in this body.” I do. And if that is an intuition that we have, we have to learn to trust ourselves in order for us to truly be empowered and to have agency over ourselves.

Something that I felt from Angela was this: I will not be ignored. And sharing some of her feelings about feeling that way in the past. And now it’s like, “Enough of this. I will speak. I will share my story. I will heal others by being open and honest about this and helping others to also advocate for themselves in all areas of life.” You know, this doesn’t just apply to health and your body. This applies to relationships. This applies to your business, your families. I will not be ignored. None of us came here to be ignored and to blend in. We all have a story. We all have a mission. And the more of us that come out and share, “This is my story. This is my truth,” the more lives are going to be saved. Like literally lives are saved because we speak. 

That’s what I tell people: use your voice. You know, we have our voice; trust your intuition and use your voice because we are worthy. We have value and I’m not gonna be ignored. I don’t want anyone else to be ignored. And I hope that my story inspires others to step into their own in that way and to own what they feel and to not be ignored. And we’re worthy because we’re here.