Vanity almost makes me late for a photo shoot. I’m not a Klum or a Turlington and don’t particularly like having my picture taken, which, in part, is what adds to this photo shoot’s appeal. The focus is on shoes and maybe some leg. Two of my best assets.
California-based photographer Amy Martin-Friedman created the “A Day in My Shoes” photography project. She photographs women wearing their favorite shoes and publishes the collection in coffee table books. The project raises money and awareness for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
By limiting each image to a woman’s shoes, Amy has found a way to give victims the anonymity they need for their safety and the voice they need to take action. Many models weren’t victims themselves, but know someone who was or continues to be. Buckling a T-strap is an easy way to help.
Why was I curling my hair and applying make-up—and using gadgets I’d only used on my wedding day like eyelash curlers—for a black and white photo of my shoes? Because without knowing or having spoken to Amy yet, I thought I understood her point of view. Looking good is feeling good. And feeling good makes good things happen.
My eyes are red from jabbing them with eyeliner. I’m having trouble holding my head in a manner that keeps my hair out of my lip gloss. But I feel confident and excited to spend the day with women, most of whom I’ve never met, listening to and asking questions about their lives and interest in helping victims of domestic violence.
Lisa Jones-Butz, the owner of Subtle Rebellion Salon + Gallery and organizer of this shoot, has lined-up an entire weekend of participants through Facebook advertising. For today’s itinerary, she’s booked an interview and news coverage with a WJZ-TV cameraman and scheduled meeting times and locations with each model. Four of us will pose in downtown Baltimore today, in our favorite pair of shoes, also in our favorite neighborhood. I’m surprised to discover that even though all of us models have similarly creative backgrounds, we’ve each chosen different neighborhoods to reflect our lives: Canton, Federal Hill, Bolton Hill, and mine Mt. Vernon, which I chose because it’s where my husband and I were married.
The weather is unpredictable. Five minutes before I meet Amy and Lisa, rain is falling in sheets. The fabric of my grandmother’s 1970s leopard-print umbrella, while retro chic, isn’t holding up to an umbrella’s more practical role in blocking water. By the time I buy coffee at the Canton Starbucks and the three of us quickly introduce ourselves, the sun is shining.
The first model, Lisa’s sister, Rebecca, arrives with inches of heel and killer calves. The brick facade of The Shipyard apartments catches Amy’s eye. A row of surface grates run parallel to the sidewalk and the foot of the building. Amy holds Rebecca’s hand as she places the ball of her foot onto the slivers of metal. Her toes peep from the narrow band of fabric holding the shoe on. She strolls along the slats as if her stilettos are skis gliding across the Bay. Amy snaps alongside. A man passing on his bike wobbles from looking.
Rebecca has chosen the area around the Can Company for her shoot segment because it was where she launched SmartWoman Magazine in the years before starting a family. The whole shoot takes 10 minutes. Rebecca’s children are expecting her at a school event and the next model, Andrea, is expecting us at Federal Hill.
Andrea, my friend and hair stylist, told me about this project. She and Lisa are old friends who keep each other in the loop about art, culture, and important causes. Andrea loved coming to Federal Hill with her parents when she was a kid. Her nearby salon, Peter Devine Hair Design, is a connection she keeps to the neighborhood, even though she now lives in the county with her family.
The sun is so intense I roll up my sleeves. I leave my umbrella in the car and grab sunglasses. Amy takes the most essential equipment to minimize the lugging and sweating up the hill. Lisa has spoken to Andrea who is coming from the opposite side of the hill and a WJZ-TV cameraman, Michael, who has already set up. (He knew from experience that you can drive straight into the park.)
Michael’s positioned his tripod to record Amy as she photographs Andrea. Andrea is climbing the hill as we speak, but the clouds are rolling in faster. Lightning strikes over the harbor.
“Quick, Holly!” Amy says. “Stand by that canon. I don’t want to waste this shot!”
I don’t have “my shoes” on—a day in my shoes meant saving the cute ones for the camera and running behind the scenes in my less glamorous brown boots. Amy click, click, clicks as the sky dims to near complete darkness. Andrea runs up in a pair of burgundy-colored boots that she discovered in New York. She has expertly coordinated the reds of her lipstick and the flower accent on her crocheted purse with the boots.
Droplets plink from the sky like a leak while Andrea turns her face from the camera and towards the Baltimore skyline. Amy clicks and jostles to get the shot. Michael tosses Amy something plastic to protect her camera as he breaks down his equipment. The clouds burst open and all five of us dive into Michael’s van.
Michael and Andrea agree to continue to the third location. A few minutes later and a zip code over, the sun reappears. Andrea and I park at the top of Mount Royal beside the predetermined historic Main Building on the MICA campus. After some confusion and a few missed calls, we find the group at the bottom of the hill by the light-rail station. They’ve seized upon a clearing in the sky to conduct the interview.
Amy pulls a black blazer over her t-shirt. Michael asks the “why shoes” question. Amy talks candidly about surviving abuse and its psychological effects. No matter the changes, the weight gains and losses, or the turns for the worse, she’s saying, shoes always fit. “They make you feel good about yourself,” she concludes.
The third model, Johnna, joins us at her appointed time wearing skinny jeans and jet-black high heel sandals that zip up the front. Michael catches on a little more at seeing them and wants more footage. Amy and Lisa dive into their car for their Ferragamos—they too have been spending a day in their “I’m on my feet all day” shoes. Unfortunately, “my shoes” are in my car at the top of the hill.
“Can you give me one minute?” I ask Michael.
I run, trying to disregard the discomfort of my knee-high boots chaffing my shins and the white oxford I washed and pressed that morning sticking to my back. (And I’d thought I wouldn’t fit a workout in.) I resist the urge to take advantage of my rear-view mirror to blot my face with special shine-removing paper.
I run back to Michael, who has filmed the others in my absence, before I change into “my shoes.” (Sprinting will prematurely age my favorite pair.) The ladies compliment my Lucky Penny wedges with floppy bowling shoe-inspired red and navy argyle laces while Michael rolls tape. I cross one foot over the other for the camera like I’d seen tap dancers do between shuffle ball changes.
Michael has another assignment and we’re falling a few minutes behind so we cross the street to the Mount Royal Station. Amy barely has time to set up under the train shed before a train enters the tunnel.
Johnna grips the iron fence surrounding the platform and faces the oncoming train. As the train whooshes by Amy clicks and snaps. The train and the photo op are fleeting, but Amy remains caught up in a rush of the inescapable metaphors. A wall standing between you and freedom. A hope in starting over somewhere new. A light at the end of the tunnel.
“That couldn’t have been more perfect,” Amy says. She shares the digital images with us. We all agree that the power of the image of Johnna’s body braced against the fence justifies being flexible with the “just shoes” concept.
Johnna returns to work as the weather reverts to its darker mood. A sprinkle drops on my untreated shoes. In a second, water marks will pimple the smooth leather. I balance on Andrea’s arm to get out of “my shoes” and back into the boots so we can run like hell up the hill to the car.
During the short drive to Mt. Vernon Place for the last official city shoot of the day—mine—I take stock. I am soaked. My carefully chosen, crisply cuffed and pleated trousers reminiscent of a Kathryn Hepburn era of style are drooping. My hair, which Andrea had recently highlighted with soft amber hues, hangs dark and matted. Mascara smudges evoke a likeness to Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
I dab my eyes, wind my hair into a ponytail, shelter my shoes in my purse, and grab Granny’s umbrella.
Three compromises are made in three seconds because that’s how fickle the weather is. The Washington Monument is out because it’s pouring, the Peabody Library is in because it’s dry, and the library’s entrance ultimately wins because by the top of the stairs the rain stops.
Amy directs me to climb over the handrail to position myself between the pair of Renaissance columns. I turn out my feet like a ballerina, one on each limestone base. Amy shoots from the sidewalk below.
The columns have vertical hollow grooves, or fluting. They remind me of scrolls of ancient history and literature. My vintage-inspired wedges have a stacked heel I associate with librarians. From this height I can see the spot at which my husband and I first glimpsed each other on our wedding day. It’s all coming together. Despite the drama, the picture of a day in my shoes will reveal a woman who hasn’t lost herself in the shuffle.
“Give me some attitude with those hips,” Amy yells. I twist my feet into second position and put my hands on my waist. Library visitors stop to watch. I have two thoughts: Any minute now we’re going to be arrested. And, I’m having a blast.
It is going on two in the afternoon. Amy has another photo shoot in Harford County, Lisa an art opening at her gallery tonight to organize; Andrea has a daughter to pick up from school. I have a husband I haven’t seen in days and an essay to write.
Lunch is about to become an oversight when Andrea and I pull that magic trick with time that women often do. We produce some where there is none and sit down to enjoy a burger.
When people talk about abuse, they talk about the cycle of violence. The honeymoon, the mounting tension, the explosion. Some people who’ve never walked in a victim’s shoes can’t understand the reasons why the victim doesn’t just leave.
But abuse, much like the weather that day, is complicated. The sun’s out; for how long is anyone’s guess, but it feels good. That is until it grows so intense that sweat beads up. A few drops of rain cool the burn until a downpour and cracks of lightning create shivers.
Meanwhile, juggling career, finances, children, partners, and the errands necessary to provide clean clothes and warm meals for those who depend on you doesn’t stop for the weather. It’s much like walking across a grate in three-inch heels while holding your head up.
Maybe something as basic as a shoe can start a new cycle. Look good, feel good, receive good. Iconic women have delivered idioms such as “to get back on one’s feet” with style. Harper Lee devoted one of the greatest American novels to the theme that we don’t know people until we stand in their shoes. Nancy Sinatra turned the sexy go-go boot into a means of power with “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” Tina Turner’s stems—whatever her choice in pumps—are a symbol of survival.
Because it’s not simply leather and laces you strap to your feet all day—it’s attitude. And with attitude you summon that inner strength to do what you got to do.