Essay: A Model on Seeing Her Tattoos in Photos

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It was a dreary November day in Montclair, New Jersey. Inside the studio, warm lights flashed and happy chatter filled the office-turned-photography studio. Ben Ritter was behind the camera directing me not to pose, but to just be myself. Bobbi Brown stood a few steps back, watching us shoot. I can only imagine she was thinking: “Did I finally get her unruly eyebrows to match one another?” When I mention this to her later, she laughs and assures me that she enjoyed the challenge.

I’ve been lead to believe that my right side is my good side, so I instinctively favor the camera towards it. I typically use my right hand in photos and very rarely use my left. Ben asks me to turn the other way for a few shots. My hair spills over my eye so I reach up and draw my hair back with my left hand. He says something like, “Yeah that’s good, keep working around there.”

I catch a glimpse of the computer screen that is streaming images as we shoot them. “Oh sorry, I have my tattoo on that wrist. Do you want me to use my other arm instead?” I ask. Bobbi shakes her head and says, “No, I like your tattoo, don’t worry about it.” This surprises me. Usually clients and photographers don’t want tattoos showing. I take this to mean that they will probably edit it out and don’t mind the extra work. We do a few more looks, with Bobbi changing the makeup for each.

A few weeks later, Bobbi posts one of our pictures on her Instagram. My skin has a healthy glow, there is a slight peach eyeshadow on my lids, and my lips are painted a bright red. My head is tilted and my arm is up pulling my hair back. Peeking out from under my sleeve is my wrist tattoo. I’m surprised to see that they did not remove it in post production.

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When someone allows my tattoo stay in a picture, my heart soars.

On my wrist is an ‘E’ with a heart. Elizabeth was my mom’s name and I lost her to an epic battle with cancer almost eight years ago.

She was funny, kind, and hard working. She loved red wine, chocolate, and Josh Groban. She was a nurse, she was healthy and active. Her only symptom was a cough that wouldn’t go away. A few tests were performed to see what was going on. The phrase I remember is that her scans “completely lit up” revealing various tumors in her lungs, bones and more than 10 in her brain. As you can imagine it was a terminal diagnosis. We were told that treatment may allow her more time, but without any action she had few months to live.

I’m not sure it was ever really up for discussion. My mom was “a tough Dutch cookie” and she was determined to fight. So fight she did. Radiation got the tumors in her brain to stop growing and some 30 rounds of chemo went into battling the rest. After each round we would wait for the scans to come back and if the results were good or bad she would say, “Okay, what’s next?”

We all knew that survival wasn’t on the table, she was fighting for time with us. To be there for us. I don’t think there is possibly anything more selfless than a mother’s love. The pain and sickness she went through. Every day struggling to breathe. It was all for us.

Two years and one month after the initial diagnosis, we lost her. I remember leaving the hospital room and sitting on a plastic chair. Looking out the window I saw a bright blue sky with those perfect, fluffy, cartoon-like clouds drifting by. I felt a weight lift off my chest. She could finally breathe.

When someone allows my tattoo to stay in a picture, my heart soars because that tattoo keeps her with me. And I simply am not me without her.

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