Sometimes you hear something that rocks you to your core, hits you on all of your most raw trigger points, and calls you to actions.
That's what happened to me one quiet Sunday afternoon in June while listening to NPR. Weekend Edition was on and Fraidy Reiss' soft, confident voice started speaking words that resonated very deeply with me.
Reiss was raised in an ultra-conservative religious community and was married, at the age of 19, to a man chosen for her.
After 12 years of an abusive marriage, she fought her way out and went on to found the non-profit organization Unchained at Last, which seeks to help women prevent or find their way out of forced arranged marriages.
Her story hit me in some of my darkest places, where fears of "What If" still reside.
I still vividly remember my own journey at 19, being acutely aware that I was quickly aging out of the marriage-market in my childhood faith community.
One high-school friend asked, with a pitying look in her eye: "So, when are you joining the ring club?" as she flashed me her gold ring with the Unification Church symbol engraved on it.
Others told me that I had better get "matched" (church-speak for engaged) soon, otherwise "All of the good ones will be taken."
Even though my entire life had prepared me to greet that moment with joy and acceptance, I had never felt more fear in my life. I sank into a dark depression that lasted through that winter and dampened my joy at the arriving spring.
It took me two years of fighting with my family, his family, church officials, and everything I had been brought up to believe before I was granted a church divorce.
Hearing Fraidy's story on that quiet afternoon brought back all of my fears, the pain of fighting, and the realization that in order to have lived the life I had been raised into I would have had to destroy something that felt vital within me.
Many of the women that they help have endured far worse than I could imagine, even in my darkest moments. I knew that I had to help somehow.
I immediately looked up Unchained at Last and sent them an email saying that, though my skills were limited (their real need is for lawyers, accountants, career advisors and psychological experts), I wanted to offer my help in anyway possible.
Fraidy got back to me the same day, and we began discussing ways that I might be able to help them.
We talked about doing head shots for their board down in NYC, and the possibility of my donating a print to their upcoming auction fundraiser.
So we've planned their head shot session for the fall, and in the meantime I got to work planning which photograph I wanted to donate for their fundraiser.
While I knew that most of my work would be appropriate thematically for their organization, I also realized that much of it is centered around the processing that I had to do in order to leave.
It was empowering work for me to create, but it wasn't work that depicted empowered women. And that was something that I wanted to celebrate in a piece.
So I began thinking about what it was I wanted to depict. Most of my work has a single figure, and much of my current work is self-portraiture. Neither of those aspects felt right for this piece, so I decided to go in the opposite direction.
I also wanted to move away from the stark color pallet that I've set for myself in my "Burdens of a White Dress" series. Those colors center around black, white and red. While they're powerful colors, I wanted to move away from them into something that spoke of hope and safety.
For some reason water became something that I really wanted to include, perhaps because it can be associated with rebirth and a sense of peace and tranquility.
With these intentions, I began to sketch:
The sketch I made for the shoot, and sent to the model for reference
My friend Alex graciously offered to model with her daughter, Ada, which meant getting into the water, in a gown, in the evening when the water was potentially frigid.
She and her husband drove up with the baby to my side of the county and we packed up everything we would need for the shoot and hiked down to the water.
Their daughter was excited about the prospect of getting her picture taken AND getting to play in the water (in fact we had quite the time getting her to leave once the shoot was done and it was getting dark.)
I set a pretty fast pace in our walk down to the water because I didn't want to lose the sun and have to make our way back to the cars in the dark. You can also see that I got my workout for the day as well:
Me carrying Ada down to the water for a photoshoot
Once there, Alex changed into the gown I had found at a local thrift store, put on her water shoes, and began to get into the river. You can see that Ada was right there, ready to jump in: Two models getting ready to pose for a photo shoot with Jen Kiaba at the Hudson River.
Ada and Alex getting ready to take the plunge
Because I had planned ahead of time on every pose and shot that I would need to make the final image work, I was able to work quickly.
The shoot itself took less than 10 minutes, and some of that did a disservice to Alex in that she felt that she wasn't able to fully internalize what she wanted to express as a model.
She had seen my sketch and I had created a Pinterest board to also give her an idea of the themes, colors and poses I was looking for, so she knew what she was looking for in herself to help me bring my vision to life.
But when you're working with a two year old by a big open body of water, safety trumps getting the perfect shot or getting into character.
I assured her that I had gotten plenty of great images and that I was sure I could make it work.
Once everyone was toweled off, we trekked back to the cars and to my house where showers and a hot dinner awaited.
The next day I holed up in my office and worked on crafting the final image.
I composited Alex in seven different poses to represent various women emerging from the water. It took me all day, and I had even thought that the image was finished before I realized that one of the poses I had incorporated wasn't harmonious and had to be changed.
(For my fellow artists who work in Photoshop: this is why I'm a big proponent of working with layers and not flattening my images. Yes, it creates huuuuuge files, but it saved me from starting from scratch when I wanted to swap out an old pose for a new one.)
Finally, both the image and I emerged and I knew I was done:
"Emergence" Surreal Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba. Click to purchase a Limited Edition Print.
So the first 10"x10" print in this edition is going to be donated to Unchained at Last for their fall fundraising auction.
If my work or their cause speak to you on any level, I would be so honored if you would consider donating or bidding and sharing their mission with others. I believe that choice in a woman's life is a right that we should honor and fight for.
As soon as the auction site is live, I will post it here. In the meantime it would mean so much to me if you would share this post, or the Unchained at Last website with your community and social network.
Thank you so much!