Nearly anyone can capture a moment with a camera, but it takes a keen eye, an open heart, and remarkable talent to capture a person’s raw beauty. In a world of heavily-altered images and perfectly airbrushed smiles, Ashlee Dean Luna is breaking the mold through her photography that empowers women and promotes self-love.
A former resident of Hebron and Valparaiso, Luna booked her first professional gig at 15. With the unwavering support of her father, she quickly progressed in the world of photography.
“My dad indulged every creative notion that I ever had, even the ones that only lasted a week,” Luna said. “He supported anything creative that I was even slightly interested in. If I didn’t have someone believing in me or that quality of support, I might have said that nobody is going to make it as an artist and that I should do something else, so I’m so grateful that I did have the encouragement to pursue my dream.”
Today, Luna has created a career of her passion, focusing on capturing genuine images that reflect each client’s individual beauty. Among her endeavors, Luna launched the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, a collective work depicting what real-life postpartum experiences look like.
“Through my [previous] work, I was working mostly with women where their body concerns, discomforts, and joys were part of a running conversation,” Luna said. “We’ve maintained our studio as a very body-positive space and really try to get people to practice self-love when we’re shooting and accept the parts of themselves that they might otherwise struggle with. As a photographer, I don’t do a lot of Photoshopping and editing. Other than fixing my own mistakes, I don’t airbrush people’s bodies. I don’t change their shape or remove scars or stretchmarks.”
After a traumatic pregnancy and delivery, Luna felt compelled to create an outlet for women to share their postpartum bodies and stories. The project features black and white images of mothers, women, or families that show just how diverse postpartum bodies can be.
“[My traumatic experience] really opened my eyes to how, for women in the postpartum period, there is no support. There is no representation. There is no dialog surrounding what our bodies should do, what our bodies can do,” Luna said. “The only thing that we really see in the media is celebrities whose bodies bounce back. This is great for them, but obviously that’s not the case for most people, so it was really important to me to create visual representation of what postpartum bodies actually look like, and that is no one thing. It’s taken six years and nearly 3,000 photographs, and I still don’t feel like I’ve captured what a typical postpartum body is because they are all so very different.”
Along with the photographs, the 4th Trimester Bodies Project encourages participants to share their unique stories of their pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum life.
“Creating a forum for women, mothers, and parents to share stories and experiences was really important for me,” Luna said. “Sharing my story has been very healing, and I think that speaks for every person that has participated in the project. Some stories are sunshine-and-rainbow stories, where everything is happy and smooth, and that’s great. Those people still need to share. Some stories are like mine, where they’ve had traumas and tragedies along the way. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Having a space to create community is so important.”
While every story, mother, and family is unique, the 4th Trimester Bodies Project has been a source of transformation for many of its participants.
“People come in somewhere along the spectrum. Some people are eager and excited, like taking the photo is almost an exclamation point on some journey for them. Some people come in terrified,” Luna said. “We’ve learned I’m often the first person that someone has shared their whole story with. That’s huge, creating that space and holding it for them. I think that it’s a transformation for everybody. They’re taking a leap into something entirely new, something that’s very public yet something that provides a soft place to fall. There’s a whole community of people just waiting to celebrate and support them on the other side. The transformation that comes from that via self-love and the catharsis of creating community is really valuable. I don’t think it’s a magical journey for anybody. I don’t think you’re immediately cured from self-criticism or suddenly love everything about your body. It’s still a process, but being able to look back on this experience and this movement that they are now a part of, it’s absolutely transformative.”
In addition to the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, Luna extends her commitment to empowering women through her business, Windy City Pin Up. Featuring vintage-inspired, body-positive, and inclusive pin up and boudoir photography, Windy City Pin Up holds space for women to exercise self-love.
“We wanted to be able to create an experience: a day in the life of somebody else that is still you that could be glamourous and empowering,” Luna said. “A lot of the time, it’s hard to get someone to step into that space when it’s still them in clothes that they usually wear and with hair and make-up that they’re used to, so we got the idea to do that through vintage glamour. It’s a lot of fun. Ninety percent of our clients come in wanting to do something just for themselves and really feel pampered and glamorous for the day.”
Luna’s impressive portfolio also includes wedding, commercial, editorial, headshots, lifestyle, and portrait photography. Luna also uses her story, perspective, and experiences to inspire and reach others as a public speaker.
“It feels amazing,” Luna said. “It feels like I shouldn’t get to call this my job. There’s a lot of work and time and energy and passion that go into it, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. Giving back to people particularly in a way that allows them to move on, hopefully feeling better about themselves and feeling like they can exist in a world that’s often critical but being confident and loving with themselves, is a gift that I feel they give me as much as I try to give to them.”
Luna expresses a deep appreciation for those that allow themselves on the other side of her lens.
“I want to thank every client ever,” Luna said. “Each person that trusts me to capture them and their family and to share their story, I owe everything back to them.”
Through her stunning photography, Ashlee Dean Luna continues to show the world that, even without airbrushing, there exists a deep beauty in every person and in every story shared.