Portrait Photographer Empowers Women, Builds Legacy for Daughter

Portrait Photographer Empowers Women, Builds Legacy for Daughter

One Minnesota photographer is working to dig beneath the pretty surface in an effort to show women the beauty they hold within. In the process, she is building a living legacy for her daughter, one that she only recently began to see in herself.

Starting at Home

When Rochester-area Portrait Photographer Nicole Mills picked up her first camera as a child, she had no idea that she'd someday be using one to build a business, and empower other women, with her portraits. "I’d always been a shutterbug, even growing up," Mills recalls. "As soon as a roll of film in my little point-and-shoot was finished, I’d run it down to the drugstore to get it developed."

After briefly studying film photography in college, her love for the craft got pushed aside for a few years. But Mills found her passion reignited when she bought her first DSLR to document the life of her then-newborn daughter. As her daughter developed, so did her desire to create amazing, engaging portraits.

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

Mills loved taking images of her daughter, now 7, that truly captured the essence of the child's personality. It was during that time that she began to take interest in portrait photography, and its ability to portray something deep within a person. "Catching those looks, those precise moments that someone’s inner guard is down, their personality shines through."

More Than Pretty Faces

Mills soon found herself more and more drawn to making portraits of women of all ages. She was intrigued by the things that drive women to be concerned with outward appearance, and how those things develop and compound over time.

"I think we all start out as young girls just 'being' what we are; who we are," says Mills. "We’re indifferent to whether or not we’re good, bad, beautiful, ugly, etc.; we just 'are.' But as we grow, the world at large creeps in, and we quickly learn there are standards for everything, and specifically, for beauty." Mills says that as we get older, we begin to seek validation and lose self-acceptance. She believes that in an attempt to conform, too many women try to bury the things that make them beautifully unique.

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

So she began to develop a passion not only for making these women look beautiful, but for showing them a beauty that shone deeper than what was on the surface. "With society seemingly cracking down on gender inequality and sexual predators, I think it’s super important for women to see themselves as the strong, fierce, confident people they should already be recognized as, not be ashamed, indifferent, or shy in regards to their own beauty."

A Passion for Connection

She now strives for this connection in every client she encounters, in hopes that her clients will see and appreciate their own unique beauty. And the beauty that she is seeking to show is much more than the external. It comes from the very strength that it sometimes takes to sit for a portrait. She wants to show women their own confidence, strength, compassion, and vulnerability. And Mills recognizes that it takes a certain amount of guts to sit down in front of the camera. "To open yourself up to the process of having portraits made shows a willingness to be vulnerable, which is something many people struggle to do. Having your portrait made is life affirming."

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

While some women who come to Mills seeking a portrait experience are quick to jump in front of the camera, she can usually determine the ones who she says "need" this experience the most, sometimes merely by reading their reluctance. Mills' job is to bridge that gap by reassuring her client that she is capable of being in beautiful portraits. "Taking that step to invest in portraits can be so liberating. And giving a woman that nudge, or that confirmation, that yes, she is worthy; it’s amazing."

Changing Self-Perceptions

It isn't always in a woman's nature to treat herself to her very own portrait session. Many times, women put their families first, or have their children photographed alone, but don't consider having photographs of themselves a priority. Mills reminisces about the time a friend, whom she had photographed with family many times, finally allowed herself to be photographed alone, in her own portrait session, just for her. "I don’t think she saw herself as either worthy, in need, or beautiful enough to have an entire portrait session centered around just her, but that’s exactly why I knew she needed it," recalls Mills.

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

As is typical for many women sitting for portraits, it took a while for the friend to relax at first, but, Mills says, "soon enough, this undeniable confidence started to appear, and she blossomed before my camera." The change was palpable; the eye contact was more intense, the posture improved, and the client was truly engaged with the camera. Mills says that she still has a portrait from that session, hanging in a gilded frame in a place of honor in her studio. "This portrait represents to me the power that lives within every woman."

And it represented something equally wonderful to her friend. After having received one of the framed portraits as a gift from her husband, the friend told Mills, “as she 'schlepped the vacuum cleaner and toilet bowl wand down the hallway' she would stop and gaze at this beautiful, confident woman she saw there, and would always be so thankful I 'made her' do this. This is why I do this. Sometimes, we all need a reminder of what we are, especially when lugging around the vacuum cleaner."

A Lasting Legacy

Mills wants this all to be a reminder for her daughter as she gets older, as well. "I want my daughter to grow up to be one kick ass woman," she declares. "And I want her grandchildren to see that in images." While her daughter doesn't meet many of the clients that she works to empower, their images are an ever-present feature of the Mills household. Mills' daughter has even memorized some of the names and faces over the years.

Copyright 2018 | Image by Nicole Mills | www.nicolemillsphotography.com

And this is something that resonates with Mills, and her idea of the legacy she is building for her daughter. Like most mothers, Mills wants her daughter to grow up knowing that beauty comes from being honest, kind, and grateful, and that there is beauty in being confident and believing in yourself. Says Mills: "It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started believing this of myself. It’s important to me that she know that from the get go. Life is too short to waste it by not believing in yourself."

See more of Mills' work on Facebook, Instagram, and her website.

Images use with permission of Nicole Mills Photography.

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26 Comments

Great shots! Consistent and recognizable style

Jen Photographs's picture

I feel this photographer's message is tone deaf or falls flat. If she wants empower women, why are they dressed up like princesses? The overall body of this photographer's work doesn't say "empowering". It says "caters to fantasies." Which is a perfectly fine niche to be in.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Beautiful work. Lighting, background, post processing, everything looks really good.

great photography. im wondering. i surf american website a lot. im not american. fundamental discussion is white men are evil, woman and blacks are victims. but what ever happend to Asians and why do we never see anything from east Europeaan photographers or from Asian photographers. and why is this discussion always focused on the whole victim discussion ? why cant it be photographer X made a series of great images with this or that theme ? i think we need to setup a catalog series of white male photographers who are done wrong by false accusations by the #metoo womans movement, its basicly the same as the blacklivesmatter movement. all focused against white men. its now time to attack me,.comments please.

I agree except for highlighting white male photographers who were done wrong by false accusations. Rather than escalate the pattern of division being pushed by a vocal minority, I think it's better to call it out but not reciprocate. Revenge may feel good for the moment but in the end, everyone loses.

just the accusation by a model was enough for an entire industry to ban and end someones 30 year career. even Stan Lee (95) George H.W. Bush (93) get accused of molesting woman. i mean really ? this is getting out of hand. an accusation is enough, no court needed. in several cases over here men went to jail and some for years and finally the truth came out. whats up with the i had sex 30 years ago and now i feel a victim thing ? what ever happend to you are innocent until found guilty in a court of law ? if you done wrong you should face the consequences,.

Balance is impossible. You can only ever be better or worse than others. I prefer to attempt to be better. That's not to say I always succeed but that's my goal.

Jen Photographs's picture

Speaking as a white woman, I'm not going to touch on the Black/Asian question.

"why is this discussion always focused on the whole victim discussion? ... we need to setup a catalog series of white male photographers who are done wrong by false accusations by the #metoo womans movement"

I'm not really seeing victimizing in this particular post (maybe you're projecting?). The thing is, the #metoo movement is important because women have been marginalized and devalued for decades, if not hundreds of years (as other minorities have). Men, particularly white men, have not for most part.

While I have no doubt that there are a few men who were falsely accused and it's very much wrong, as a group of people, it's not an important issue. (Individually, of course, it's important). Women, as a part of the #metoo, want change. They want to be treated fairly, they want to be paid fairly, and they want to not be sexually harassed in their day-to-day lives. It's a culture change. It's a huge undertaking.

So, yeah, we should be talking about this. We shouldn't let this die down like the 1% movement did. We should keep bringing this to the surface like an old scab. Otherwise we'll go back to the way we were, and women will continue to be devalued, marginalized, and sexually harassed daily.

talking like a liberal feminist. white men were the first to give woman voting rights. white men were the first to allow woman to work. white men are standing up for womans rights. on the other hand. islam is suppressing woman on a global scale. sex slavery is part of islam as we speak. muslims are allowed to own 4 sex slaves. woman are put to death when they are the victim of rape in islam. woman are killed in honor killings on a global scale in islam. Wonderwoman was banned in almost all islamic countries because wonderwoman is an Israeli actress named Gal Gadot. this lady got the job because of white men. i dont hear you talk about that. and i dont hear you talk about justice. what happend to "you are Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law" ? what you are doing is called being a narrow minded racist discriminating based on skin color, the white skin color. #metoo is a bs movement that is racist just like the #blacklivematter movement is. here is a fact for you. most black men are shot by black men, not by cops and only a few cops that shoot black men are white. black men are more ligthly to be involved in crime. these are facts.

bottom line, if you did wrong you should face the music in court, not by the hands of a white feministe lynch mob. get your facts straight,.

Jen Photographs's picture

"white men were the first to give woman ..."

That's blatantly wrong. Men didn't just graciously give women rights. We had to fight for it. And it's a shame that, 50 years later, we still aren't treated equally to men.

And yes, the lack of equal rights is a major problem in other countries. That's something that we as a society should continue to work on changing.

you might wanne check your facts before replying. facts and liberals dont mix i know. your so focused on your battle against white men you dont see he world around you. you generalizing comment doesn't help your lies, you can only compare on a case by case situation. so if you want to stand up for womans rights, fight islam. not white men. but then again, you dont want to fight je doctrine of islam. thats not populair now is it.

What facts does she need to check? Women fought for years for the right to vote because men didn't want to give it to them. And today there are still powerful people in this society (e.g. Peter Thiel) who think that was a mistake. Just because the situation is worse in other countries doesn't mean we can't try to improve the situation for women in our own culture.

to protect our growing business and to fight racist people like you who generalized based on skin color we as per direct have new guidelines. we will no longer work together with female makeup artist or hair artist., we will no longer work with people of color. we will only hire white men. reason is that they wont accuse us of rape in 40 years time or not paying them equal pay, nor will they accuse us of racism and they have been discriminated against by people like you long enough, time to fight back. #fightback. of course this is a guide, woman or people of color who have been working with us longer then 5 years we will still hire. if you are a liberal or feminist we dont care what you look like, we wont work with you.

you wont be treated as men because you arnt a man. if you would really care about equal rights for woman you would focus on islam but you dont want equal rights, you want to fight white men which makes you racist. all white men are the same to you. and yes we did give you voting rights thats how good we are as humans.

Jen Photographs's picture

Whatcha smokin' tonight? It seems pretty good.

I can't believe you compared it to the 1% movement. Aside from that, when you generalize the bad guy, whether he be white or black, male or female, Western or Eastern, you're casting a really wide net which serves nobody any good. Treat each incident on its own merit! Talking about it only informs people it's happening, which doesn't really help. This whole thing has blown up to a us vs. them mentality.

a good example of what she stands for would be Donna Hylton she went to jail for murdering a man, because he was gay. she raped him, tortured him for two weeks and than murdered him. she is an activist for womansrights.

I'd never heard of Donna Hylton before. Anyway, I think it's easy to focus on one aspect of a thing, whether it be an individual or a debate such as this. Truth is much more complicated than that. It serves no one well to do so. It would be better to assume the best in a person, and be wrong, than to assume the worst and be wrong.

William Howell's picture

Men and women can not be paid equally, it simply would not be fair to men.

Hmm... most of my business comes through pin up lingerie shoots and I'm often approached by women who are obviously wanting to do this as a form of therapy. Rather than encouraging them, these people always make me very nervous.

I don't get the whole body image dilemma that seems to be all of a sudden a major thing. I'm not sure that trying to pick unedited images of your size 16 body in lingerie, under studio strobes, from a 30mp camera that misses no detail, is going to be a major confidence booster for someone who has come in with pre exisisting issues. Note I'm not saying that that can't be a fantastic experience for a person with the same body who isn't treating this as therapy.

There is something inherently narcissistic and unpleasant to me in the idea of gaining a sense of self worth from a photo of yourself looking better than you generally do. I had some body issues of my own last year so I cleaned out my fridge and hit the treadmill. 13 kilos later I have no issues. That seems to me to be a productive way to tackle the problem. But now it seems to be that the correct way to deal with this is to take a majorly flattering selfie, post it on facebook with a confessional about how you've always hated your body and wait for 20 of your friends to write "omg you're so stunning!!!!" I'm not sure that approach is getting anyone anywhere.

Also it needs to be said, great photos! But for all the talk of women of all ages and shapes thing espoused in the article, all the images are of objectively very attractive people who aren't going to take many bad images.

Kirk Darling's picture

Those women may, indeed, have taken bad images before (the only woman I've seen who has apparently never taken a bad image is Sade Adu, and she's almost sixty).

A friend of mine, Iman Woods, made her name with her "Pinup Empowerment" work, saying, "“I learned how to alter my pose and light to make the photographs better match what I saw in the mirror. I realized that cameras LIE. And it became my life's mission to show other women how beautiful they are at this very moment at any size. "

I agree that there is usually a disparity between what many people who have a fairly healthy self-image see in the mirror and photographs taken of them. A large part of that is the photographer being unable to identify the difference between experiencing a person live and experiencing that same person through a photograph...and taking steps to minimize those differences.

Underground NYC's picture

Have you guys at FStoppers featured any photographers of color this BHM?

Kirk Darling's picture

I probably want to know what BHM means in case I run into it again in this context. The Urban Dictionary definition doesn't seem appropriate to this discussion.

Black History Month. Google is your friend! :-)

Kirk Darling's picture

I did Google. "Bachelor of Hotel Management." "Birmmingham Airport." Even "Bald-Headed-Mother Effer." I've been involved with Black History Month since its inception as such...never referred to it that way.

Personally, I wouldn't want FStoppers to think Black History Month was a particular time above any other to display the work of black photographers. I'd also point out that FStoppers is a "reader supported" venture. If you want to see it, don't wait on others to do it for you.

"Black History Month" was one of the results I got. I had no idea, either, but it was the only one that made any sense.

Completely agree with your second paragraph!

Anonymous's picture

Maybe Aaron Pegg speaks in the third person and calls himself a bald-headed motherfucker, and he was asking to see photographers of color for himself? :P