By Erica Chernofsky BBC News, Jerusalem
M lies on the bed, wearing nothing but a lacy thong. Her black lingerie is discarded next to her on the crumpled white sheets. As Norah Jones plays softly in the background, she crosses her arms over her chest and looks up at the camera.
“Pick up your chin,” says the photographer. “Even higher. Beautiful.”
M is a 33-year-old mother-of-four, just finishing her MBA. She is also an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, and as such prefers to remain anonymous. But today, she is reminding herself that she is also a beautiful woman.
She is treating herself to what is known as a boudoir photo shoot, a style that highlights intimate and romantic images of its subject, usually for private use.
“My husband is always telling me I’m beautiful and amazing and sexy, and I always sort of brush it off and laugh, like, I know you’re supposed to say that, here’s your points for saying it,” M chuckles. “But he really means it. And it’s hard for me to see that in myself.”
In preparation for today, M has had a manicure and pedicure, waxed, and had her hair and make-up done.
Before the session, she and the photographer discussed the precise look she was after, something soft and a bit sultry, with a smokey eye, some false eyelashes, and loose waves in her dark hair.
She is hoping the experience will change the way she views herself.
“I want to look back and think: ‘That was me. That beautiful person was me. I am that person, all the time’.
“Instead of thinking I’m the person who has bad acne even though I’m in my 30s, or all those negative things we think about ourselves, I want to feel that just like I can say I’m smart, and I have great skills, and I’m a good mother, and I’m a great wife. I’m also beautiful. I want to feel beautiful and sexy and comfortable in my own skin.”
The photographer, Rebecca Sigala, is also a religious Jew who moved to Israel seven years ago from the United States.
A self-taught wedding photographer, Rebecca decided to experiment with boudoir photography after being inspired by a course by leading glamour photographer Sue Bryce.
Rebecca photographs women in their bedroom or a hotel room, either nude or draped in sexy lingerie. The photos are striking and alluring, and transform her clients into their own version of a Victoria’s Secret model.
‘Power to decide’
Half of her clients are religious women. Some are celebrating a milestone in their lives, while others have recently divorced or escaped abusive relationships and want to reclaim ownership over their bodies.
Some, like M, have a complicated relationship with their bodies and want to feel more confident. She has also photographed women with fertility issues, and cancer survivors, who felt betrayed by their bodies.
“Every woman is dynamic and has a different story, but we all have such strong commonality of being women and facing the world as a woman,” says Rebecca.
“Empowerment is different for everyone. But what I do is give them the power to decide for themselves how they see their bodies and their beauty, instead of falling into the trap of society and what we’ve been taught is beautiful and sexy.”
When she delivered the prints to her very first boudoir subject, Rebecca recalls, the client said she could not believe the images were of her.
“That’s a very common reaction,” she says, “but then she told me that she had never felt like a woman before, and that this was the first time she ever felt like one.
“I had tears in my eyes, and from then on I approached it in a holistic and therapeutic way, because I saw how empowering this can be for a woman.”
Rebecca struggled with her own self-image growing up, recalling being called a “fat Jewish pig” and dieting in a vain attempt to fit in.
She says her work is often as therapeutic for herself as it is for her clients, and she discovered spiritual meaning in photographing women.
The experience can be even more liberating for her religious clients.
“It’s a very special experience for someone who is outwardly so modest to be able to express their sexuality in a private sphere and feel good about it, and know it’s for a holy purpose, and something that’s going to enhance their womanhood.”
However, not everyone in her religious community approves of her work, and she has had to face a backlash. She has been criticised for objectifying women, and even more so for publically sharing the sensual photos she takes on her business’s popular Facebook page.
While she says she only publishes photos with her clients’ permission, for some religious Jews the exposure is viewed as immodest and inappropriate.
Her work has even been compared to pornography, but she insists that whereas porn is meant for sexual pleasure, her style is meant to evoke emotion and artistic perspective.
“People are shocked that a religious woman would even do a session like this,” says Rebecca. “I try to explain that we’re still women, we’re married, we have sex. We’re not suppressing ourselves, we’re not what you think we are. And it’s really mind-blowing to a lot of people.”
‘Who is that?!’
After her shoot is over, M packs away her lingerie and dons her regular attire – a hair-covering, a knee-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse. This experience posed no religious conflict for her, she says, because the only person who will see the photos is her husband.
When she received them a few weeks later, M says she was flabbergasted.
“I was just staring at them thinking, ‘What! Who is that person?!’
“It didn’t look like images of myself I had ever seen before. When I look down at my own body all I see are belly wrinkles and butt-flubber. But in [the] pictures there is so much more to take in.
“Usually we talk about female empowerment regarding how we can accomplish so much, and we can do all the things men can do, and this is another side of empowering women that’s frequently overlooked. To let ourselves be feminine, be women. And feel good about it.”