When I was in Los Angeles this last spring I had the good fortune of photographing my dear friend and her family. There's something extra sweet about being friends over the decades. It's an amazing thing to see where we've come from, being five years old in a dance class, to having babies of our own. I got to photograph them in their sweet little cottage with gorgeous light, an edible baby, and an avocado tree in their backyard. I'm not sure it gets more perfect than that.
Skinstory- a Homecoming by Ella deCastro Baron
“Skin has three layers: The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone. The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. The deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) is made of fat and connective tissue.” (WebMD)
Epidermis. This layer is a shivering, goose-pimpled skinny brown hand, waving others away from eye contact. I am a child whose parents came from the Philippines—an archipelago flooded with millions of rootless, mixed blood Pacific Islanders, known by some as people of “bastard identity.” In my bloodlines is the question of, “where is home?” The question pigments my skin. My writing is, at the core, a magnetized compass, trying to orient True North, to point at the ‘right shade’ of brown. Filipina-American. What currency is that here in the “land of milk and honey”? As many “hyphenated Americans” understand, I don’t know how to feel settled in my skin. Being a brown, “exotic” girl in our exiled second home, America, I hardly felt welcomed.
Dermis. In my twenties, an inherited skin affliction began to eat me alive—yes, of hearth and ‘home’. These bleeding, itching, infected rashes forced me to change everything I knew to find healing. I had to subvert and reinvent everything that I adopted as markers of safety and home; what I ate, where I lived, my job, my friends were all sacrificed to survive. I became vegan, left my jobs and school, moved to coastal cities with fresh trade winds and salt water. A girl in an invisible bubble.
The gift of chronic illness? The plate is wiped clean. I can choose to put back only what works for my health and wholeness. Home became a welcomed simplicity. Barefoot in the sand, deep breaths marked by long walks, and when my skin could take it, dips in the sea to get its healing power.
Years of healing, protected by salt water, second skin.
In time, a new layer grew. Not thicker but more resilient in the way of scars: I could bear witness through writing. Finding meaning, usefulness (beauty maybe, or something close to it) at the extremes of sickness and as-yet-resolved identity, buoyed me. A memoir, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment, a crosshatch of imperfect revelations scratched and tattooed on pages. From one skin to another.
More years later, another chronic onslaught, like second degree burns on 90% of my itchy, brown self. I hit another wall. My body became ineligible to take the long walks at the beach. The movement and water seared lightning through me. I could not even raise my arms or turn my neck without the fire. Was this another forced diaspora?
The body remembers. My husband—proxy for my broken one—remembered how to find Home.
He exhorted, "find a way to move your body—to circulate oxygen—so your skin could heal." We knew the body could heal the skin if it could breathe, turn the cells over, calm them. I googled “hula dance San Diego” and found Makani Kai Polynesian Dance Troupe, the halau (school) that coaxed me back to myself again. Something about the music and movements captivated me; I still wept, tormented, but my body wanted to dance more and was willing to keep moving. Hula, I found out, is story. Words failed, so I began to tell stories with my hands, arms, swaying hips and bare feet.
Hypodermis. This layer strikes, then separates bone from marrow. In my mom’s emigration, her baggage carried one legacy, her Christian faith. This discipline exposed me to Jesus. I have little faith in human systems—especially now, I’m holding my breath or spitting, arm’s reach away, from American Christianity (the colonizer’s taste in the back of my throat). Being sick catapulted me to the Bottom, open-handed, completely defeated. I met the genuine character of what I had learned to resent in religion. Yahweh means, “I will be what you need me to be when you need me to be it.” Home means being known—cell by cell—intimate and vulnerable, where everything I require to be safe and whole is offered. My faith community became the sanctuary. They tended these most profound wounds. If God is Love, and God lives in people, then Love is available to me. As cliché as it is, “Home is where the heart is” was a welcome mat.
Our pastor asked how I see myself with God. It becomes my prayer. In a dream, I am at the ocean, not yet wet. I am parched. So thirsty. But I'm used to this dryness. I hold out a tea cup ask with a meek nod, a gesture, May I fill it? Take a drink? Do you mind? My skinny brown hand, shivering, timid. God’s response: You have a tea cup. It’s too small. Who told you that’s all you’re allowed? You don’t need any container. Dive in. All of this is for you. Do you want it?
Do you want it? Tell your story. Dance the story. Walk it bare. Dive in.
I don't know if there is anything more raw, beautiful, and powerful than mothering. It is so hard, as most things that are worth anything are, but it's also blindingly beautiful. Being a mother has taught me to see the world in ways I couldn't have without my children. Each one has given me a unique gift of sight, both into myself and the growth that I need and outward towards the world around me.
I am so excited to be offering mini sessions this Mother's Day to honor the mothers. They deserve to put on flowy dresses, to arrange flowers in their hair, and to have images handed back to them to show them how stunning they truly are. Let's hear it for the mamas!
Sessions will be held on May 14th at Studio i in New Haven, CT. Gift certificates are available, for booking please contact rachelliuphoto.com/mothers.
Homecoming. It is a concept that has been calling to me for years now, through changing seasons, through movement in the spiritual corners of my being, through eyes that are ever opening, through the voices of the mothers who have come before me. What does it mean when a woman comes home to herself? What power does she wield? Where does she exhale? What space can she fill with the ease of her being? These are the questions I have been asking myself and in turn, have been asking the women who have agreed to be part of my Homecoming Project.
I met Allison on a dock in Berkley, CA. The air and water were uncomfortably cold. The sun was quickly setting and she wasted no time stripping down and plunging into the dark water. Her words and images tell her story of coming home to herself.
"When I was 8 years old, I failed Beginning Swim at the YMCA three times before my mom decided I could quit. I remember shivering in the back of our station wagon, my eyes red from chlorine and crying—humiliated at the thought of taking the class again. I could tread water till the end of time, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not master the timing of freestyle, or any of the strokes. The graceful windmill of arms, kicks, and side breaths eluded me, turning into a limb-flailing, water-choking mess every time. My mom looked at me—like she knew exactly what I was made of—and said, “Allison, you’re a very strong girl. You’re not going to drown. Are you? I told her, with confidence, that I wouldn’t. I never took another lesson.
Since then, more trouble and heartache has found me than I ever thought possible. I lost a lifelong love to a freak accident. I lost a pregnancy late in the second trimester. I lost my faith—a devastating process. It took all that loss to face the reality that this is all there is. Eyelids flutter open and shut, tiny hearts beat, and then they don’t. No intention or prayer or bargaining brings them back. There is no heaven, no eternal life. Just this very fleeting and fragile one.
Swimming in open water feels like the closest thing I have to believing in a higher power again. When I jump in the ocean, I can’t feel anything. My mind goes blank. The shock of the water erases everything I have ever felt, or could feel again. It wipes the slate clean. The weight of the last 42 years—the years I wish I could forget, the ones I’m shouldering right now, that I’m not sure I’m strong enough to lift anymore—vanishes. I think only about how happy I am to be alive.
Some days, when the waters are rough, I don’t want to come back in to shore. I stay out, surrounded by the waves, until I am dangerously cold. The only warm place I can still feel is deep in my chest. I ask myself the old question, “You’re not going to drown, are you?” With confidence, I tell myself I’m strong enough to make it. I surrender to the current and let it take me in."
Portraits of Protest is a photo project birthed out of the response to the 2016 election. It is a response to the question, "Where in your body does it hurt?" We gather to make portraits that stand against the ideology of "other". We protest sexism, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny- any and all system of oppression that seeks to devalue and divide. Our events are donation based and serve to benefit local, grassroots organizations that are fighting for justice on behalf of the marginalized.
We held our second Portraits of Protest event in Bridgeport, CT and it was such an honor to capture all of the beautiful people who showed up. I am always in awe of their courage and creativity, their transparency and generosity. All the money raised at the event was given to benefit Make the Road and their ongoing work with immigrants in CT.
We are in the process of making an official website but for now I will share these portraits here.
A special thank you to The Bananaland for letting us use their beautiful space, to Luis Luna of Make the Road for organizing the event and taking pictures as well, and to Arvia Walker who is my incredible partner and friend in Portraits of Protest.
My favorite sessions are ones that mark a season. So often the lives of our children are filled with seemingly mundane but often glorious milestones. Sometimes there are so many it's easy to miss what's happening. Pictures offer a tangible memory of the past. We can hold the images in our old, wrinkled hands and say "Ahhhh, yes. I remember the way your nose crinkled, the way you fit just under my chin and the way I looked at you when you were so small."
Photographing the delicate balance of weaning a child is an honor that I always enthusiastically reply "YES!" to. I remember the process well with my own babies. The push and pull, the heartache and relief. It's a tender and necessary time. One that is worthy of being celebrated, documented and remembered.
*Session photographed at the Yale Art Gallery. Art exhibit by Titus Kaphar.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
my first country
the first place i ever lived.
take your time.
you are coming.
How we entangle our human experience with others is something that fascinates me on both an artistic level as well as a personal level. To me, pictures that display connectivity are the ones that have the most gravity, the most beauty. The way hands grasp, with all the stories they tell, a child's sense of contentment as she rests in her father's lap, the smile that spreads across a woman's face when she makes eye contact with someone she loves. It doesn't matter if the setting is pristine or if the outfits are perfect, you can have all of those things and still lack the components that make a picture have soul.
I have always thought about connection as happening between people and this last week I began to shift towards the idea of capturing connection with "self". This not some wild or new notion, it was a new thought for me when it comes to photographing people. As an artist, it's funny how what I am making on a creative level sometimes precedes my ability to comprehend it. I realized that I have been making pictures that display this type of connection for months now but didn't even realize it. Again, the theme of connection creating the most impactful pictures but this time it's when women, especially, are connecting with themselves. This mirrors the work I am doing on a personal level so it makes sense that this is overflowing to my physical lens.
When photographing women there is such an emphasis on making things look a certain way. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful but I find myself less interested in pretty these days. I prefer power over beauty. I crave images that hold emotional gravity, connection to truth, and authenticity. To me, that's what translates to immeasurable beauty that reaches beyond the tangible. It's the kind of truth that can heal.