Eyes to the Soul is a captivating collection of portraits of New Zealand women who are humble, courageous and powerful. Each portrait has a personal note, a caption or a quote describing their journey: childhood, adolescence, family, work, challenges, obstacles, ambitions and aspirations. The portfolio offers a rare and intimate moment with incredible women who offer us a glimpse into their lives. The words of these women shed light on memories and events that shaped who they are today. A photograph is worth a thousand words but it takes us less than one tenth of a second to form an opinion about a complete stranger, based only on their looks. Their unique story adds an important third dimension to their striking portrait. The audience gains an intimate and rare insight into their world.

At a time when women are often silenced by their male counterparts, I wanted to create a portfolio where I, the photographer, create the portrait, while my subjects tell their intimate personal story. A photograph is worth a thousand words but it takes us less than one tenth of a second to form an opinion about a complete stranger, based only on their looks. Their unique story adds an important third dimension to their striking portrait.

The key to a compelling portrait is the eyes. We connect with others through their eyes. I am motivated to engage the viewer and spark connections. Connections that go beyond the fleeting ones which we are subject to on a daily basis. My aim is to capture precious moments where people are in control of the story they wish to share with the world.

The combination of using a soft, directional light while adapting a special post-processing technique, enhances their portraits. The use of simple background eliminates distractions so the viewer can focus on their facial expressions. They look directly into the camera so there is always a highlight in their eyes. People often refer to eyes as windows to the soul. The eyes never lie, they show the truth, no matter what face we put on, they reveal our emotional state. Our eyes, just like our body language, give us away, conveying more than we ever can using just words.

The women in the collection represent different cultures and backgrounds. This diverse group of women serves as a timely reminder that despite our many differences, we are able to unite as a community through the power of photography. The collection is a celebration of our shared values: individuality, community and unity. The portraits show that we are all wonderfully unique, yet at the same time, we are deeply the same.

Ria

“When I was younger, I used to have a job for every day of the week. Apart from Sunday, that was my “day of rest”. I wanted to be an actress, singer, dancer, Olympic runner, dolphin trainer (before I was educated on the detrimental effects being captive has on these gorgeous animals) and an astronaut. I laugh about it now, thinking of the naive determination of my younger self, but really, I haven’t changed at all. There is so much I want to do while I’m on this planet and some days I get extremely overwhelmed thinking of how much I have to do.
Our family has a saying: “Make it happen”. I have been using this as my daily mantra, pushing me so that I can make my dreams become a reality, even if there are a few bumps along the way. One of my dreams is to become a certified scuba and freediving instructor. I am OBSESSED with the ocean and consider myself quite the mermaid. One of the ways I think we can create awareness of oceanic issues is through art. I would love to create images and produce content with other creative people that inspires and enlightens others. Be able to develop the crazy ideas in my head into something that sparks a fire in others and makes them realise the perils that are facing our planet. Earth is in crisis and we need to think of ways to make people sit upright and give a damn, because in the wise words of marine biologist Sylvia Earle ‘No Blue, no Green, no water, no life’.”

Priya

“I have been bullied about my appearance throughout my teenage and adolescence. Being underweight and tall, I have always battled with low self-esteem and low confidence, worried that people will say: “you look sick”. I would hide my body under baggy clothes and avoid wearing heels. I didn’t feel good about myself. But I decided to change my weakness into my strength. When I moved to NZ, I gradually picked on some weight. My knowledge and interest in fashion and beauty increased and I started taking care of myself. A few friends suggested I take up modelling, but I would just laugh it off, as that was something I thought was never possible. I then got a chance to model where my tall height became an advantage. After my first fashion show I got some great feedback. I built some network in the modelling industry. I then did my first photo shoot and began to feel more confident. I also became more recognized and better noticed in the industry. The people who used to bully me about my weight and height are the same people who are now amazed to see me where I am today. “You look beautiful; I couldn’t recognize you, wow! You look amazing! You are perfect for modelling. I wish I was as tall as you. You carry yourself with so much grace and confidence”. These are the words I hear today and I am so proud of myself for turning my weakness into my strength. I have achieved a lot in my life. So far, I have worked with over 20 photographers, done few fashion shows and competitions, appeared in a magazine, news paper, TV programmes, Hindi movie, attended many social events and even coordinated my own fashion show. It feels great when women message to ask me for advice and tips on modelling, fashion and beauty.  I have become an independent, beautiful, confident woman and I want to inspire other women, to learn to embrace and love themselves, in whatever shape or form they may be, to turn it into their strength and grow their confidence. I am now shopping for high heels and beautiful dresses – it feels amazing!”

Jade

“One of the biggest things I love about myself is how naturally paternal I have always been. Compassionate, patient and hospitable. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted a family, an ambition that has followed me to this day; though perhaps clouding whatever integral career paths I could have taken. As an adult, I have become acutely aware of how selfish people can be. My mother had me at 17 and the proceeding years had her barrel into methamphetamine addiction, a series of abusive partners and high risk environments. I rapidly assumed her role by the age of 4, learnt how to feed myself and keep myself company for the days she slept till the evenings. 

My father is of first generation from Hong Kong. I’m sure he never expected to be knocked up by 20. They separated quickly after my birth. Chinese culture is of a complete different gradient to Western. I witnessed a scramble for image, materialistic idealisms and the upmost duty to provide for the elders. I got used to the idea of being a bastard, a secret; and in his young naivety: an afterthought. The timing was bad. As an adult how could I possibly sneer down at problem children, desperately holding onto their adolescent constitutions? How could I discredit my previous adversities as a necessity to make me proud of what I have overcome? Who am I? 

I found purpose not only through my parents and who they were, but through who they conceived. My mother now has 3 other children to 3 different dads. My father married to a Chinese woman and had 2 full Chinese boys. This makes me the eldest of 5 half siblings. All with completely different upbringings. My saving grace has always been that they all have someone who will always love them selflessly, be a unwavering protector and guardian if need be. Something I wish I had earlier on. Or perhaps not. I know I don’t have the power to protect them from everything, though I wish to set an example every day of resilience, understanding, intelligence, and all above, love.”

My name is Amy. I had an eventful childhood, full of interactions with many different personalities. Many people around me had battled with addictions and mental health problems, my father was one of them. I loved him dearly but could never understand the depths of his struggles with alcoholism and depression. For most of my childhood I couldn’t comprehend why my dad could not give up alcohol to be there for me. For a period I thought I was not good enough. As I grew up I came to terms with his demons. My father was the most generous,loving and empathetic person, he taught me so much.

I was initially allowed only supervised visits due to my dad’s drinking but this changed as I got older.

We would go on adventures every school holidays, most of the time we would stay at my grandparents house or camp in his van on a beach somewhere, fishing and living off the land. A couple of times we stayed on the streets in either an abandoned building or a farmhouse without power. But I absolutely loved our adventures.

My mother never knew of these as my parents separated when I was little. I am grateful for my mother allowing my father and I the opportunity to form a great relationship. I imagine that it was very difficult to remain impartial when it came to my father.

I met my partner when I was quite young and decided to leave home at 16 to escape the lifestyle of my neighbourhood. I completely threw myself in the deep in and gained knowledge about life away from home as I was working full time and studying.

When I was 18 my father passed away. We found out that he had cancer all through his body. The news came on Friday and by Monday he was gone! It was a huge shock but I learnt a lot through this experience. After he passed I went through his artwork and poetry, it was like reading material from a mad genius who went from extreme highs and deep lows.

I eventually moved back to west Auckland and was in for a big shock at the impact of methamphetamine on my neighbourhood. The drugs were always there but it seemed like a bomb had gone off.

At 20 we had our first baby. A couple years later we had another child.

When an opportunity came to move out of west Auckland I took it. I wanted a stable life for my children and a change of scenery did just that.

I am now 28, I have two amazing children and the best partner I could ever ask for, he is my best friend who has been there through thick and thin.

I wouldn’t change my upbringing for the world. I have learnt compassion, empathy and love. Judgements can be harsh and you never truly know one’s struggles. I believe that people need kindness and support in order to grow.

Qui’yona

“My name is Qui’yona Salmon; I grew up in south Florida. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I always knew that I wanted to be in front of the camera. Life was a little rough when I was younger but We managed. I started modelling in malls when I was in high school and stopped after graduating to go to school and play volleyball. After my two years I decided it’s time for me to pursue my dreams and professionally, started modelling. So many great opportunities came to me and I’ve only been doing this for a year. I look forward to see what my future has in store!”

Giselle

“I was born in the UK in 1970 and immigrated to the New Zealand when I was there years old. Growing up, I never felt like I fitted in with the others. I struggled to relate to my peers. I had an ongoing sexually intrusive experience through my younger years till I was a teenager. I had no idea what a huge impact this had on me until life started to happen as I got older. Teenage pregnancy, drugs and alcohol abuse were weaved throughout my years. Always tipping from one extreme to the other in all areas of my life story, always struggling to find balance. I got married and had two more beautiful babies who are all grown up now. I’m blessed to have wonderful relationships with my boys. In my 40’s I could not ignore the feeling that I was living a lie in the heterosexual world, so I waited till my youngest son had done most of his years in school. I then finally embraced my inner self and came out as a lesbian. I cannot explain the intense pressure release I felt when this happened. Standing in my truth finally… I had no idea of the burden I was carrying by not being true to myself! I have never looked back. To dress in the clothes I secretly envied, to have short hair, to cover myself in random electric ink, to just be me – it’s the best ever! Today I’m proud to be in a recovery program for my alcohol addiction and am finally living unbound to any one thing except being true to myself and trying to be the best person I can be on a daily basis. I help others where I can to embrace change and know there is a beautiful reason to be alive!”

Shawn

“I decided to do a Bachelor of Addiction Studies and Counselling this year. This is the first time I have studied something I’m passionate about. I have a history of addiction and know a lot of people who have. I want to use my experience to help others as there aren’t many people in that field of work who actually care, it’s all about the paycheck for them. I think there would be nothing more rewarding than helping someone turn their life around. There’s such a horrible stigma around addiction, even though alcohol is so acceptable in New Zealand society I find it very strange.”

Ellie

“For many years I was lost. floating, consuming, existing without a sense of true purpose, in the grips of mental illness and eating disorders. My heart was running on empty like a drained battery. Until I found Circus Arts. Aerial dance, spinning at the speed of light, standing on my hands on the ground, bending my body in ways that previously, I never dreamed I could do. It shocked my heart back into life, my creativity and soul finally had an outlet that gave me a purpose. A true expression of me. I began teaching, producing circus theatre shows, travelling overseas to share my art with my world circus family. Circus gave me my determination to go down my path with fierce passion, vigour and perseverance. It taught me about myself. It taught me I am here for a beautiful, important reason. It gave me my life back and for that, I will forever be grateful.”

Devon

“The tattoo on my ribs is of a gerbera daisy and an orchid, my grandparents favourite flowers.
I’ve always been of the opinion that no one gets through life without scars. Most scars are viewed as ugly and serve as a reminder of pain – accidental or intentional. Either way, they are inevitable. To me, tattoos are scars that we choose. Yes, we get one body and we should look after it as best we can but if getting through life without having scars is impossible, why not choose to have some that are beautiful?
From the age of about thirteen, I started pinching, scratching, digging at my arms and chest. It originated as a way to cope with mental illness and became a necessity to get through the day for the next ten years. I was always so ashamed of it and would lie about the marks. I’d say it was a rash or acne… anything that I thought was believable enough to convince people that I wasn’t doing it to myself.
You also asked why I agreed to be photographed by you. My initial reaction when you first contacted me was that I could never pose for you because I wasn’t beautiful. Beautiful people have nice, smooth, scar-free skin. I agreed because I thought doing the shoot would make me more accountable for the condition of my skin. You said at the end of the shoot that having the courage to pose was an extraordinary thing that most would never do. It gave me such a sense of pride that despite being terrified, I was brave enough to look into the camera knowing that people would see my scars. I always knew it would be a long and difficult road to learn to manage my mental illness and an added struggle to live with a physical reminder of it. The day of the shoot was the first day that I didn’t have withdrawal symptoms after coming off my antidepressants. I think it was also the first day I have ever felt proud of my scars. Both the ones I chose and the ones I didn’t.”

Shoshana

“I was born in 1936 in my parent’s house in Timisoara, Hungary. My mother said that I was a very ugly child. I enrolled to Technical Electrical School Because I liked Mathematics. I studied 4 years and became an Electrical Technician. I wanted to study further and become and Electrical Engineer but I failed the entrance exam and was transferred to Pedagogical Institute to be trained as a Math & Physics school teacher. Finishing the degree, I worked in the Country Hall Timisoara as a statistician until they discovered that I applied to immigrate to Israel. After that, I was dismissed.
I was then introduced to a good looking man who arrived to Hungary on a business trip from Bucharest, Romania. He fell in love with me and asked for my hand. At this time my father was in prison because he was Jewish. I was very confused and thought that love will arrive after I got married. He insisted and I agreed. We had a very small ceremony, at the city council and we moved to Bucharest.
I got pregnant and I was in great trouble – he did not let me call my parents on the phone. I discovered that I did not love him and I was totally miserable.
Luckily, my uncle visited me and saw the situation. Immediately my mother took the next train to Bucharest. My mother and I decided to abort the pregnancy. I was already four and a half months pregnant and the physician made it clear: there was a real risk that I will never get pregnant again. My husband was furious. My mother took me home to Timisoara and I wanted divorce. He threatened that if he ever sees me again – he will kill me!”

“It always bothered me that I am hypersensitive. I have the ability to feel things and people. I have a strong compassion for people around me and a sense of exacerbated empathy. I laugh too loud, cry too deeply. I love with passion. When I’m sad my heart is torn from the inside. When I’m upset, anger consumes me. My heart is on a permanent roller coaster. I am always honest and sincere, often lack tact. I want to know people, their culture, the world, art. I want to discover everything around me and in all areas. I want to give a reason to exist, to my so active thoughts. Nothing is going fast enough for me, except time. The photo is an art of expression that gives me the impression of controlling this time; to capture a moment that will not happen again. Control makes me secure. This feeling appeases me. The photo allows me to express an emotion, it leaves the choice to the person who looks at it, to invent a story, to decide if this moment of happiness, sadness or fear. Photography is a way of polishing my shell, making the person I am inaccessible, unknown and protected. The beauty of a photo is expressed by the sharing of emotions between the photographer and the model. I show an appearance. If the beauty of my soul expresses itself in the portrait, then the intensity of my emotions contain unlimited thoughts and allow me to retreat to myself. To introspect and try to find a part of the person that I am, to contemplate. I may please or displease but I will never be anyone else so I keep my aim of appearing proud of who I am, to one day accept myself, with my faults and my qualities.”

“I am a vampire, as an old soul in a modern body.
When I was 13 years old I was engaged in Anne Rice fictional: ‘The Vampire Chronicles’. A brief chapter comes to mind as it stood out to me on a relative level at the time.
This particular short story was titled ‘Baby Jenks’ found in her novel “Queen of the Damned”. It’s about a young and naive troubled girl who was stubborn in her defences with guards up against the world. She wasn’t bad, she was just lost and damaged from being unheard. She was dressed in black, baby faced, blonde…and pregnant.
You see, this also felt like my own story in my adolescent angst. Except- she rode a badass, Harley Davidson! I haven’t the time nor guts to do so – although, men around me are proud owners of their motorbikes and I’ve jumped more than once on the back on for those death-defying thrill rides.
At 14 I was to become a mother myself, losing enough blood in birth to warrant an emergency blood transfusion. You will find Baby Jenks in this very situation when she was made an immortal outcast. Baby Jenks story ends. I on the other hand, obviously, continue on with mine. I let her live through my cyber persona and I have for many years. You will see a lot of the illustrations on my skin. From scars to stretch marks to many tattoos. This is my look and my portrait behind camera.”

I was born in South Africa and I am 20 years old. Poverty, discrimination and racism were all part of my childhood. My biological mum was a nightmare. She couldn’t afford to look after me, nor to give me what I needed to be healthy and happy. I was adopted into a gorgeous light skinned family at the age of 2 years. When I was 18 I found out that I am pregnant and 9 months later I gave birth to my special baby boy who is now 1 year and 5 months old, named Darius. I am now a single mum and doing a great job, with a loving family who is very supportive. I am happy, I love being a mum and I’m healthy.”

Leonie

“I’ll have this tattooed some time soon, it belongs with my whale tattoo:
‘You can’t see my tears, cause I am in the water’, the whale said to the ocean. ‘But I can feel your tears, cause you are in my heart’, answered the ocean.”

Jazz

“My name is Jazz. From the age of 13 I suffered from severe clinical depression. I was suicidal due to certain events and personal problems I was dealing with. Through this time in my life I suffered self harm and eating disorders, I used alcohol and music to cope. I left home at 14 and sought help from my oldest brother who really saved me during this difficult time. It wasn’t easy and I still struggle with mental health. Traumatic events from my past still haunt me but being independent really helps me getting better and to have a new outlook on life. I learned that I wasn’t a failure and that I can achieve anything if I work really hard. When I was 18 I discovered burlesque. It had always been my dream to become a dancer since I was a child but I never had the opportunity. I immediately fell in love with the art of burlesque. I feel so empowered dancing and choreographing my own routines to my favourite rock and metal music. Life is yours, grab the bull by the horns!”

Natalie

“Are the people you love the most getting the best of you?
Your kids, parents, friends. The people in the room with you right now.
The amount of people who can be sitting in a room with those they love and yet not be present, and would rather be present in a world of social media, instead of the people in the room, when you think about it, is pretty crazy.

I’m certainly guilty of it. A book, an article, Pinterest, sure. But in a world of drama, bitchiness, etc with the odd bit of positivity coming through, where it’s mostly negative, and for some, triggering, it’s not a healthy place to escape.

An escape should be a place of calm, peace, positivity, love. Or something that excites. Not something that furthers our anxiety.

There is so much drama on social media, with people hiding behind keyboards and saying what they like about anyone and everyone. If you are a victim of online hate – you’ll know how horrible this can be. How it can draw you even further into the fold of social media because you become obsessed with checking whether anyone else is jumping on the bandwagon and saying something.

Do not give people or social media your time if it has negative consequences. The only opinions you should ever care for are those who care and love you in return. Karen from Timaru’s opinion on you doesn’t matter – who is she? Do you care for her? No? Then her opinion doesn’t matter.

Give the people in the room, your kids, your partner, your friends your time. They are the ones who are present with you and deserve the best of you, not social media or keyboard warriors.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I give so, so much less of a shit as to what people think of me. The only opinions I care about are those who I love, and having been severely bullied as a kid and young teen, I know first hand how horrible it is to be ridiculed by those who chose to see me as an easy target.

Be present. Invest your time and energy into those who reciprocate it, not Karen from Timaru or anyone else who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.❤️”