In the summer of 2019, UK Portrait Photographer Rodney Pedroza was hired to be the photographer for the London edition of The Real Catwalk. A former America’s Top Model contestant, Khrystyana Kazakova, started the event in New York back in 2017. Her vision was simple; create a catwalk space that was open to anyone and all body types. And with Rodney’s skills and creative concept, he was able to bring the best out of all the participants and document their journey to empowerment.
Approaching The Real Catwalk
Rodney did not want to photograph the participants walking down the catwalk, along with all the other photographers. Instead, he set up his portrait stand so he could shoot them individually as they completed their walk. “I was after their raw emotions,” explains Rodney. He continues, “[I wanted to photograph] the fear they had before walking in front of hundreds of strangers in their underwear – probably for the first time in their lives – to feeling empowered for doing so.”
Rodney’s experience in portraiture has taught him about the different insecurities people have. He understands the pressures society puts on people to look a certain way and how this impacts them when in front of a camera. “In truth, people are not scared of having their photo taken, but [they’re scared of] the outcome of the photograph,” he explains. “Breaking through those layers is one of the biggest challenges I face. But one which I am always excited to embrace with each subject who stands before my lens.”
It’s important to note that many of the participants were not already body-confident. This event was the first time many of them would be stepping out to celebrate who they are. This, of course, brings many challenges for a photographer. It was Rodney’s job to ensure no last-second self-doubt crept into the heads of his subjects. Rodney explains his process of making sure negative thought patterns did not overcome his subjects and prevent them from loosening up in front of him.
“I disrupted this pattern by not giving them time to think, but to act. This means telling them how to move every single part of their body and control their micro-expressions. They have no option, but to follow each command, and therefore getting them out of their own heads. They begin to trust you and surrender to the process. It works every single time.”
Giving His Subjects Confidence
His subjects at The Real Catwalk came in a variant of shapes, sizes, and with different body conditions. One young woman, Lucy Beall-Lott, has a rare skin condition called Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa. The condition causes heavy scars over her body. She bravely chose to step out in her underwear to help raise awareness and contribute to the body-positive movement. On the discussion of the relationship she has with her body, she opens up, “…it’s always changing! I wish I could wake up every single day and truly love my scars, but like my body, my feelings toward it are always changing.”
Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa is a terminal condition. And it was first thought that Lucy wouldn’t see past her eighteenth birthday. Now 21, she sees her survival as a reason to love her body. “I am so thankful for my body, seeing what it can do, and that in turn gives me confidence.” Being in front of Rodney’s camera is a contributing factor to her confidence. In her words, “[it makes me feel] excited – I am so thrilled to be able to portray myself how I want to”
And when she receives her final image, both her beauty and confidence on full display, she proudly says, “I love seeing full body shots that show all of my scars and my face. It’s nice to take a step back, and it’s a chance to praise my body.”
Overcoming Negative Thoughts
Also at the event was 28-year-old Rosie Smith. In February 2019, Rosie broke free from an abusive relationship. Rosie was subjected to torment and putdowns from her previous partner, leaving her with self-doubt about her appearance. But Rosie is a fighter and this was not the first time she had to push through adversity. “…in my mid-20s I was diagnosed with body dysmorphia. I convinced myself from a very young age that I was fat – despite being a healthy size 10.” Having the diagnosis and understanding more about herself turned out to be a positive step for Rosie. In accepting herself, she was able to see a way she should live her life differently. Although she’s learned to enjoy exercise, she’s also learned to love herself the way she is and she uses positive affirmations to remind of herself of that. “I tell myself good things when I look in the mirror: my thighs are big, but they’re strong. No, I’m not a size 8, but that doesn’t make me any less funny, clever or sexy.”
The Real Catwalk was the perfect way to show all the progress Rosie had made over the past few years. When the day arrived to strip down to her underwear, Rosie confidently took it in her stride and described it as “the most fabulous I’ve ever felt.” Once in front of Rodney’s lens, she admits that she was nervous at first that her photograph would not be flattering. But when she saw the picture that Rodney took, she says:
“I’m surprised! That voice convincing me that I’m going to look terrible must be blind. Even my wobbly bits look great. I think the joy of the experience shines through my face and that in itself reminds me that I am whole, happy and enough, just as I am.”
Moving the Photography Industry Forward
It’s this type of response from Lucy and Rosie that makes Rodney’s job so enjoyable. “I got to photograph brave people who decide to love themselves more. Their breakthrough goes from being “I am not good enough” to ‘I’m perfect the way I am’. But more importantly, these courageous people became the light for someone else who thinks that they are not good enough to do something similar.”
In closing, Rodney shares how the fashion and modeling industry can help society move forward:
“There is a perception that beauty equals perfection, and this can only be achieved if you are young with flawless skin, which is far from reality. Bringing people into the industry whom we can connect & identify with will begin to redefine what beauty is meant to look like.”
Rodney’s work is a reminder of how much healthier our industry can be. It has played a role in destroying the confidence of too many people for far too long. Humanity is so diverse, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s our role as photographers to ensure we document that. Everybody belongs in front of a camera, and everyone is photogenic: good photographers are the ones who let people know it.
All images by Rodney Pedroza. Used with permission.