Roasterie coffee, props and camera supplies in tow, Tyler and I walked out together to take pictures amongst the tucked away flowering trees, overgrown grass and cracked concrete. A lot had changed in a year.
That sunny and breezy spring Saturday morning, we were shooting in West Bottoms, an iconically historical area of Kansas City—one of many—that has been in its own version of a rebirth for many years (note the whole “rebirth” thing; it’ll resurface later). West Bottoms is a weird animal, like an urban wild, wild west, divided and sectioned off by a criss-crossing network of used and unused railroad tracks and four-story, turn-of-the-century brick buildings coming alive with art, business, and forward movement. Buildings packed full with antiques stacked upon multiple, creaking floors of more antiques. Haunted houses blaring tunes like In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel on mounted outside speakers. Blip Coffee—where bikers come to sip artisan brews. Business startups, art studios and refurbished apartments. Thriving, repurposed possibility nestled right up to decaying and vacant ghosts of the past.
A few days before, I had driven around West Bottoms on assignment in search of all the hidden explosions of spring amongst the industrial wilderness. After an hour of searching, I found just the spot and sent Tyler the GPS pin.
We would be shooting with two different looks that morning. The first was a tailored cream, pleated blouse with a button up back, and a long, gold, fitted satin skirt and blue suede heels. The second look a short, fitted blush sequins bombshell dress and no shoes. The pleated button-up is from a three-piece, 80s wool skirt-suit out of my Ma’s closet. The skirt, shoes and sequins dress were all vintage store finds from an afternoon of thrift store shopping in Chicago with my youngest brother, Elliot. All nods to my love of vintage and restored fashion. A significant facet of my style.
Admittedly, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t had a photoshoot since December. I needed space and time to recuperate and regroup after a particularly upsetting shoot. It is no secret models are often treated like objects, as something to be discarded once the project is over. It may surprise you to know modeling is hard work (yes, it sure is), requires significant sacrifice, and unfortunately is a minefield for predators of all varieties. That must change. I recognize I am only two years into this modeling life, but I hope to be a growing voice and advocate for change the deeper I go into the fashion industry.
Breaking the modeling hiatus that morning, certain questions loomed: Did I still have it? Was I going to be a disappointment?
Tyler and I plodded into the mushy thick of garbage and decaying foliage to snuggle up as close as we could to the light purple bursts of a flowering redbud. I began moving my arms and body, getting my hair caught in the branches, adjusting the gold skirt sliding down my waist, and internally searching for a feeling, a movement, a zone, sorta feeling like I had forgotten how to model.
Tyler and I had crossed paths through social media twelve months prior when the world was an even weirder place (because what else was any of us doing at that time?) and chatted about shooting together.
COVID had served as a convenient (and mandatory) excuse to run away from shooting with Tyler. I am a woman who has started modeling in her 30s, and that fact alone taunted, mocked, and rolled its eyes at me on the daily.
Meanwhile, Tyler had battles of his own, retreating in his own way, as he was working to put his life back together for himself and his kids while recovering from alcoholism.
We both are writers, have ADD (his diagnosed, mine a plausible hunch), are coming into our creative superpowers “later” in life, and at that time, our common coping mechanisms of running in the opposite direction as well as paralyzing, dumbfounding shutdown in the face of accepting our own self-worth were flexing… hard.
Both of us were in our own versions of a hot mess. He, vehemently deflecting any mention or possibility he is a photographer (and a really good one at that), and me, questioning why I would ever think I could be an impressive model.
Truth is, Tyler is a photographer without even trying. He embodies it. And one of the most significant facets of his work—if not, the most significant facet—is his ability to tell a story through the images he takes. If you miss this point, you miss the whole heart-full and art-full foundation of why and how he so skillfully does what he does.
Because of his own story with rock-bottom and emergence, his already vulnerable and beautiful style took on an even more poignant purpose. He prefers the whole story—not the polished one—welcoming blurred lines, movement, and real emotion, and in process, restoring dignity, unveiling strength in vulnerability, somehow capturing hope and truth and possibility. His work takes you somewhere, because he lets the shoot take him somewhere. And it is always somewhere revelatory and stunning.
A picture with another layer, like a page ripped out of a story being told.
And the story being told that morning is about two individuals who have started softening into who they are.
Two people who have been confronting the presence and influence certain defining words have had over our individual lives (his = “worthless”, and mine = “unwanted”), and overcoming them. Each of us receiving who we really are, and taking brave steps into the open to show the world what we are discovering about ourselves.
For me, this shoot was special.
By the time I changed into my second look, the wind was having its way with my long curly hair, and it was becoming useless to fight it. In fact, it was perfect. It added to the growing freedom I felt. I was most excited about not wearing shoes with my pretty sparkly dress on all that dirt and concrete. I have always been a wild-hearted girl, and any opportunity I have to shed my shoes, I do. This look was a bit like little-girl-Ariell meets the woman I am becoming. The woman I have been fighting for behind closed doors for the past, well, forever, but more directly, deeply and intentionally over the past couple years. The woman emerging from the dust.
And Tyler was there to brilliantly capture it.
In the days and weeks following as I received sneak peek pictures and then the final edits in my Google Drive, a couple things became apparent.
First, I had grown accustomed to the initial excitement of a photoshoot or runway show to be overshadowed by a later, more brutal wave of disappointment, shame and self-sabotage. I have been incredibly blessed to be so quickly and so solidly introduced into the fashion scene within Kansas City (which is growing in rapid and exciting ways), and to be coached and mentored by some of the best. But certain lessons can only be learned in hindsight, and there has been a decent amount of that for me. (Perhaps, it could also be because I am particularly hard on my myself?) This time around, I was shocked to discover that the familiar feelings of personal failure, shame and self-sabotage were completely… absent. And guess what? They still are! All I feel is joy and pride and gratitude and hope.
And then, secondly, “Holy shit, is that… me?”
Follow Tyler on IG: @coffeeblac.kcreative. Photocredit for all images in this blog to Tyler Carlson of @coffeeblac.kcreative. His work is amazing. And you should follow him.
For more modeling, updates and projects, follow me here and on IG: @ariellasuzabella