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Portraits of power
Turlock photographer uses craft to uplift women
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Julia Alvarez smiles as photographer Marilyn Norris prompts her for an “Every Woman” portrait. - photo by Photo Contributed

While many were crowded around a television on Sunday rooting for their favorite football team, one Turlock photographer welcomed over 100 women into her home for a free photoshoot meant to make them feel loved, worthy and empowered.


Marilyn Norris held her second annual “Every Woman Portraits” event over the weekend, inviting mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and friends to step in front of her lens for an intimate, five-minute portrait session, free of charge. Norris came up with the idea last year when she wanted to offer something different for women in the area, rather than the typical Valentine’s Day photoshoots for couples that frequently take place in February.


“Last year was a huge shift for women and it was the ‘Year of the Woman,’ and I was really wanting to switch it up,” Norris said. “I always say that I just love women and I fall in love with all of them, so I wanted to photograph ladies in their element and in a space that was comfortable and inviting. It just evolved from there.”


The event’s first year saw about 80 women sign up to have their portrait taken, Norris said, and this year that number was closer to 150. On Sunday around 120 of the women who originally signed up made their way to Norris’ house, many of whom were having their portrait taken for the first time in years. Some traveled from as far as Sacramento and Fresno for the day, she added, and were able to enjoy cookies baked by Norris’ husband Patrick in the midst of a “picnic-like” atmosphere.


“I just put it out there and I didn’t know exactly what it would be, but I knew I wanted people to show up feeling nervous, which is normal, and I hoped that they’d leave with more than they showed up with,” Norris said.


In the world of social media, filled with filters, photoshop and perfect angles, Norris added that for some, putting someone else in control of their image can be nerve-wracking. That vulnerability is what Norris hoped to capture in her portraits, she said, and she even invited the women participating to go makeup-free for their picture if they’d like, which many did.


“People these days will use their filters or use their own selfies and be comfortable with that, but it’s important to see yourself from someone else’s perspective,” she said. “There’s an oversaturated feed of photos at our fingertips, but people have lost their sense of themselves in that way. I think this event brings them back to who they are, and lets them gravitate toward something that makes them feel better, rather than something that makes them look better.”


To capture each guest’s true self in the portraits, Norris prompted the women with what she described as a “guided meditation,” asking them to close their eyes and reflect on where they were a year ago versus where they are now, and to consider the changes they’ve undergone since then.


“As soon as they open their eyes and have that realization of how far they’ve come, it’s an actual genuine smile,” Norris said. “I feel like it turns on a light in their eyes when I prompt them with that question, which is so fun to watch.”


In order to receive a raw response, she also asked her subjects to think of all of the women they looked up to when they were 10 years old.


“As soon as they open their eyes and have that realization of how far they’ve come, it’s an actual genuine smile.”
Marilyn Norris

“I told them, ‘I want you to acknowledge the fact that your ten-year-old self would absolutely look up to the woman that you are today,’” Norris said. “It was such a cool experience to see everybody just really let themselves sit in their own bodies and their own thoughts and be proud of who they are today.”


Insecurities were washed away during the day, with Norris encouraging participants to love themselves with as much love as they give to those around them. Many tears of joy and reflection were shed, she said, as women found their own purpose for the portraits, whether it be empowerment, healing or even both. One girl decided to participate in the portrait session after recently ending a five-year relationship, while a new mom felt the weight of taking a picture that didn’t include her daughter.


“She smiled and then immediately burst into tears...she said without her baby in her arms she didn’t even recognize herself,” Norris said. “I reminded her that her just showing up was probably the biggest gift she could’ve given herself in a very long time.”


While Norris knows the event couldn’t have happened without her skillset and her camera, she places much of the day’s success over the last two years in the hands of those who participate.


“I was there taking the photos, but I feel like everybody put in their own effort just by showing up and creating the space and feeling,” she said.


As women rise to the demands of society, tackling their careers head-on, raising children to be the best they can be and nurturing others around them, many can feel like they’re “pouring from an empty cup,” Norris said. Events like Sunday’s are an important reminder for women to set aside some time for themselves.


“You have to refill yourself with love, compassion and patience,” she said. “Every single woman out there needs just a little push sometimes, and when you put them all into one room it’s electric.”