When Maria Arellano started her Cypress, Texas, photography business, her concentration was child portraits, specifically, themed sessions designed to build confidence in young girls. One day, a mother brought in her two little girls for a session as well as her newborn. The woman behaved and spoke in a way that revealed self-consciousness about her postpartum appearance. Throughout the session she said negative things about herself and her body in front of her two young daughters.
The session went well, the girls had a lot of fun, and Arellano created some great portraits. However, when it came time to view the portraits, the mother grew angry with Arellano about how the girls looked in the photographs. During the ensuing discussion, it became apparent she was upset that her daughters didn’t look thin enough and that Arellano hadn’t edited the images to make them appear slimmer.
Arellano had spent a lot of time developing themes to help empower young portrait subjects, but she realized the experience wouldn’t have much impact if those children went home to hear negative talk about themselves or their mothers. “If I wanted to make a difference for these girls, I had to start with Mom,” she says.
Arellano launched her Goddess Boudoir and Goddess Glam sessions in 2017 to reach women with an empowering portrait process. Most of these sessions are with women who are over 35 and have gone through transitions in their lives.
To connect with would-be goddesses, Arellano shares liberally on social media. She runs a private Facebook group and has more than 100,000 followers on TikTok. In particular, she uses video content and behind-the-scenes interviews to demonstrate the impetus behind the Goddess portraits. Through that content, she’s cultivating a targeted audience of potential clients. She also discusses issues such as how photography can improve self-esteem, tips for looking your best during a portrait session, and other topics that resonate with her audience. The posts help her connect and establish a bond with people who are her target clients.
When potential clients contact her, she starts with an in-person meeting or a Zoom call to establish a direct, face-to-face connection. She interviews each woman, listens to them talk about self-image, and asks what they want out of their portrait experience. The most important question is why they want a Goddess session. “That usually opens the floodgates. They just start gushing,” says Arellano. “That why is so important. We get into their story, and it gets to a point where we’re connecting, and it feels like no one else can capture that story because of the connection we make.”
During the conversation, Arellano asks the subject to write down three words or phrases she wants to define her and her portrait—the things she wants to remind herself of as the Goddess experience progresses.
After the initial interview, Arellano outlines the next steps through a series of emails with video messages. The videos lay out a defined process that prepares clients for everything in the weeks leading up to their sessions, including skin care, hair, nails, outfits, and what to expect on the day of the session.
Before the photo session, Arellano invites the client to a design and fitting appointment. This appointment usually occurs one to two weeks before the session for local clients—the night before for out-of-town clients. “It’s fun. It feels like little girls playing dress up,” says Arellano. “But it also serves a purpose. It’s a dress rehearsal. It helps get rid of the jitters and gets them excited. Then, when they show up for the session, there’s no more nerves, just excitement.”
“Women know what I’m about. They don’t come to me to take photographs for their husbands; they come to me to take photographs for themselves.”Maria Arellano
At the Goddess session, the emphasis is on realizing those three concepts the woman expressed at the beginning of the process. These are empowering, self-actualizing sessions that can be deeply personal for each woman. “Women know what I’m about. They don’t come to me to take photographs for their husbands; they come to me to take photographs for themselves,” says Arellano.
Arellano avoids anything resembling a robotic progression through a series of preconceived poses. Instead, she works from fundamental base poses to start the process, and from there she and the subject both start moving. All the while, she looks for the moments between poses and positions, capturing them for a natural, fluid look in the portraits.
In post-production, Arellano edits to augment each client’s desired look, but everything needs to be authentic. “I’m not going to change someone from a size 20 to a size 3,” she says. “These portraits need to be true to who they really are.”
The popularity of the Goddess portraits prompted Arellano to expand her Goddess experience to other clients. For younger girls, she offers a variation of the sessions that includes a mini-makeover, a tea party, and an opportunity for the girls to choose their own accessories. She’s also applied the concept to men and boys, including high school seniors—anyone who could use a boost of self-worth through portraiture.
By working to bring the same sense of empowerment to all her subjects regardless of age or gender, Arellano is noticing increased excitement from her clients, from dads to daughters, about their session. “What I do can work for everyone,” she says. “I love that. It motivates me. It’s very hard for me to pigeonhole myself because everyone who comes through the door, I want to learn their story and help them tell it.”
The Goddess portraits have not just changed Arellano’s approach to photography, they’ve changed her central purpose as well.
“When I started in photography, it was all about me, my art, my self-expression,” she says. Like many other photographers, she spent a great deal of time and energy worrying about the competition. How did her images stack up? How did her pricing compare? How many accolades was she getting versus other photographers? “When you worry about all that, you’re just chasing other photographers. You’re seeking admiration from other photographers. And that’s also who you’re attracting with your work, not the people who are going to hire you. Now, I’m all about empowering my clients. Specifically, my mission is to help women find that goddess within them so they can raise girls who are empowered and confident and pass that feeling down. Expressing that mission has led to much more genuine connections with the people I photograph.”
Those connections are important, says Arellano, if you want to deliver consistently for clients—as well as attract the kinds of people who will help you grow as an artist and a businessperson. “You need to express that why. As business owners, we have to speak up for ourselves. We have to have the confidence to tell our own stories. When we can do that, we’re one step closer to finding our own inner goddess and doing our best work.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.