“Healing Through Revealing”: Photographer Kerstyn Johnson Provides Grace Through Lace

Photo by Kerstyn Johnson/Boudoir Photography by KJ
Photo by Kerstyn Johnson/Boudoir Photography by KJ

“He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him.”

– The Ugly Duckling

Something beautiful often starts out as something ugly, as Hans Christian Anderson and Kerstyn “KJ” Johnson can both attest. “I have personally been sexually assaulted by a man,” the Stillwater-based shutterbug professes. “I have had a bad gynecologist experience, as well. Both of these experiences have been very traumatic for me. I am, of course, upset that this has happened to me. However, I am glad it has helped me relate to so many women.”

That relatability was key when Johnson leaned into the ugliness of her twin tragedies, turning them into the beautiful tools of a specific trade—that of boudoir photography. “‘Boudoir’ is a French word meaning ‘a women’s private room,’” Johnson explains. Remembering the genre’s decades-old origins, she adds, “Back then, boudoir was basically another word for a women’s bedroom, a place where she can just be with herself.”

In short, boudoir photography is a point-and-shoot style featuring subject images that range from sensual to intimate, from romantic to erotic. Notes Johnson, “I think this is beautiful because boudoir is all about me capturing my client’s beauty as a woman just as she is.”

Photo by Kerstyn Johnson/Boudoir Photography by KJ

Such photography can serve as a means for other women to cope with personal tragedies that run parallel to Johnson’s. “For women who have been abused, boudoir photography is about taking their power back,” Kerstyn Johnson insists. “Feeling like they have a choice of what happens to their body for once.”

When her career began, Johnson was taken aback by the sheer number of such tragedies. Johnson remembers, “I never expected to help so many women who have been sexually assaulted, who have had miscarriages, or who have suffered other forms of abuse until now.”

In her current practice, each tragedy requires a lens-like focus from the photographer herself. “For those who have had miscarriages, they have told me all they see is their body failing them,” Johnson recounts. “It has taken their sexiness away in the bedroom and they look at their body so negatively. Boudoir has helped them take back their sexiness and look at their body in a new, positive way.”

That new, positive way can take on a beauty all its own. “I have laughed and cried with my clients through their experiences that they have shared with me,” Johnson confesses. “I am taking such intimate photos of my clients that we usually open up to each other about personal experiences. By the end of the shoot I feel like I’ve always made a new friend.”

Photo by Kerstyn Johnson/Boudoir Photography by KJ

Those new friends come in all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds. “Most of my clients are women who want to stop fighting with their bodies and the unfair societal norms that are put up on them,” Johnson affirms. “I get a lot of brides who want to do boudoir as a gift to their husband on their wedding night. However, most women, even if it is a wedding gift, also want to do it for themselves.”

Sometimes, the “private room” is a room for two. “For couples, this is a way to be intimate in a new way and bring you closer together with your partner,” Johnson reveals. “You can make a whole romantic date out of it for the day.”

Johnson’s remedial approach to portrait photography is no coincidence. “Before boudoir, I was accepted into a doctorate program for chiropractic,” she recollects. “I gave it up to do boudoir. I was originally going to school so I could learn how to be a healer. However, I realized by me doing boudoir for women, I was already a healer to them.”

People living within post-Puritan America and outside the boudoir universe sometimes draw their own conclusions about the artform. “The biggest misunderstanding I get is that boudoir is porn, and therefore, that means it’s sinful and bad,” Johnson notes. “This hurts me so badly inside when I see women truly healing from this experience. How can boudoir be sinful and bad if it is helping empower so many women?”

This notion is a thoroughly personal one to the artist. “I came from a very strong Christian background,” she affirms. “I know how religion can sometimes place a negative mindset on our bodies and sexuality. If this has happened to you, I am sorry you have felt this way and have had to deal with this issue. I still consider myself a Christian. However, my Jesus loves everyone, and I believe my God made me wonderfully.”

Photo by Kerstyn Johnson/Boudoir Photography by KJ

Issues of faith notwithstanding, prospective subjects are sometimes more than a little skittish about being immortalized in their skivvies. “Ninety-eight percent of my clients who walk into a boudoir photo shoot are nervous to do the shoot in some way,” Johnson says. “When you’re on the fence about a boudoir photo shoot for self-confidence reasons that’s when you need it the most.”

Trepidation is soothed by reassurances both visible and invisible. “I always say, ‘Just give me ten minutes, and you’ll calm down after that and forget that you were even nervous to begin with.’” Johnson promises. “I pose you from head to toe, so you don’t even need to worry about your facial expressions or not posing right. I usually demonstrate and talk during the demonstration with pointers on the pose for each pose we do. That way, even if you’re a visual or auditory learner, I got you!”

Like the swan of Anderson’s fairy tale, Johnson and her clients are able to rise above their troubles and enjoy the hard-won happiness around them. “I think women’s bodies are true pieces of art work, no matter the shape, size, or color!” Johnson proclaims. “We are all so uniquely different, and it’s so beautiful to see!”

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