Featured photo: Jessica Patrick as Two Face (photo by Rachael Fern)
When Rachael Fern walked into a Dairi-O covered in blood, she expected to get more of a response.
Fern, a local photographer, worked as a dancer at a strip club for about a decade; she currently shoots boudoir and maternity photos out of her home in Winston-Salem. Her social media is filled with women dressed up as Disney villains or prom queens with blood-drenched gowns. And this time of year, she loves to get her hands dirty.
“I would do Halloween shoots all year round if I could,” says Fern, who dressed up as a sexy Grim Reaper last year. “Halloween is an easy vehicle to engage the public in one of my favorite forms of creativity. It’s a rare time to give permission to step into some of our fears. We watch scary movies; we deliberately engage with stuff that’s scary to us and we dress up as characters.”
The idea, she says, is to give the models the reins to create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable enough to express themselves creatively.
One of her recent projects involved a model who wanted a hole in her chest and her heart in her hands. Needless to say, there was a lot of blood involved.
“That’s when I learned that fake blood stays in our skin,” she says. “The shoot ran into dinner time, so we went to Dairi-O and I’m wearing this white shirt that is covered in blood and the model had blood matted in her hair. It was comical to be sitting in a Dairi-O having a milkshake. Somehow we blended right in.”
And no matter if she’s doing scary or sexy shoots, Fern says her goal is to empower her subjects rather than box them in as products of someone else’s gaze.
“It’s about giving the clients this kind of celebrity experience and giving them permission to experience this fantasy of themselves,” Fern says. “It’s about experiencing all kinds of things that are not designed around, What would someone else want to look at?”
One of her most recent shoots involved Jen Brown, the owner and operator of Fearless, a female-led online and in-person community that focuses on empowerment. Over the course of a few hours, Fern and local makeup artist Jai Armani Phoenix transformed the local brunette into the redheaded Poison Ivy from Batman, but with a twist. While Brown boasted the long, luscious scarlet tresses that the seductive villainess is known for, she also showcased gnarly roots on the left side of her face that framed her profile. Her bright-green eyeshadow and crimson lipstick added depth to her persona while the sequined emerald cocktail dress and gloves completed the get up.
While Brown came to her with the concept, Fern says she directed the vibe of the shoot and the poses.
“I reached out to Rachael because I wanted to do something fun and spooky for Halloween, and after we brainstormed a bit, my obsession with plants… helped us ultimately decide on Poison Ivy,” Brown says. “Even though I was nervous coming in, I had full confidence in the artistic vision she had.”
And as someone who shoots people at some of their most intimate moments, Fern says developing a comforting relationship with the models is key.
“I want to work toward making my business and my studio a place where people feel welcomed and comfortable,” Fern says. “And that I will not think that their idea is ‘weird.’ I’m pro weird.”
Some of the most unique shoots she’s done include a woman who wanted to look like she had been set on fire, complete with melting, sloughing off skin, to an individual who aimed to look like an androgynous Satan. Fern also shot a man in a business suit sitting in a bathtub of what looks like blood, casually sipping coffee.
Although the gory shoots are some of Fern’s favorites, she says that bonding with mothers during maternity shoots are some of her favorite experiences because they allow her to help women feel comfortable and sexy in their bodies again.
“I think the experience of pregnancy can leave women feeling really insecure,” Fern says. “Your body changes rapidly and on top of the normal insecurities that we’re saddled with, there’s new insecurities like weight gain, stretch marks, swelling. I want to encourage women at the peak of their pregnancies to take photos that reinforce ownership of their body and the sensual nature of their body and their sexual desirability.”
This sort of conscious, intentional approach to her art comes from her background as an exotic dancer and as a woman in general, Fern says. It’s also the direction in which she hopes the industry is moving.
“I feel like boudoir is moving away from intimate pictures for hubby’s eyes only and moving closer to, ‘What is your fantasy of yourself?’” Fern says. “It’s about stepping into one’s own sexual expression and owning a kind of power in it that; it’s not passive work.”
She finds that the more the clients can live out their fantasies and express themselves authentically, the more likely they are to get into the shoots, sometimes so much so that they leave the studio with full makeup still on.
“Most people have within them this incredible creativity of their own,” Fern says. “I like to be able to bridge that gap and use my skills to make their idea come to life.”
Learn more about Fern’s business at rachaelfern.com or follow her on Facebook (Rachael Fern), Instagram (@rachaelfern) or TikTok (@rachaelfern1).