Updated: May 20, 2021
Adelina Colucci is a photographer and founder of The Love Lab photography project (@the_lovelab on Instagram). As a feminist activist, she uses boudoir photography as a way to empower women and encourage self-love.
With this in mind, we could think of no one better to have as our featured artist for The F Word’s inaugural issue on the theme of Self-Love. Adelina’s intimate portraiture and female gaze provided the perfect lens through which to explore the Rebellious Self-Love section of our magazine, and her work can be seen in interviews with plus-size comedienne and model Olivia Gilmore and Sirin Mungchareon, among others.
However, as Adelina revealed in our podcast, her own relationship with self-love has not been easy, and despite her powerful subject matter, she feels more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. Here, Adelina takes a self-portrait for the first time, talks about her difficult past on the route to self-love and where she sees herself on the journey now.
My Journey with Self Love
To be honest, I have a broken relationship with self-love. I grew up with a very bad image of myself and I’ve always struggled with self-esteem.
I was raised by a conservative family. The environment was toxic and I was surrounded by people who didn't understand boundaries, harmony, or respect. My parents lived for strife and disagreement, and my mother behaved in ways I now see were examples of manipulation and gaslighting. As a result, I grew up with a lot of anxiety and an inferiority complex.
I was a shy child, who liked reading and was interested in different things compared to other children. I was not really popular. I didn’t like myself for so many reasons.
For me, having good self-esteem is like looking at yourself in a mirror and having a good image of yourself reflected back. But the mirror can be many things. It can be your family, your friends, what you do. And when I was looking in that mirror, I didn't see anything I liked.
For me, having good self-esteem is like looking at yourself in a mirror and having a good image of yourself reflected back. But the mirror can be many things.
I didn’t like the way my parents loved me, I didn’t like the way my friends were behaving with me. I wasn’t doing anything special or interesting, so I didn’t have a good image of myself. I felt that I had no reasons to love myself.
But I thought it was normal and my parents confirmed that, saying it was just a phase. They had gone through that too. They didn’t love themselves either.
In particular, my mother was very competitive with me. I'm not sure why she felt the need to degrade me and the things that were happening in my life. Maybe she was afraid I would look down on her.
She was still my mother though and so I felt even worse about myself because I didn't think it was ok to think bad things about her. I would think about how even bad guys have a tattoo saying “I love Mom!” Hearing statements like “After all, she is your mother,” “Look at all she is has done for you,” or “She's not that bad,” made me feel guilty and unseen.
When I started dating, I replicated some of the negative patterns in my first serious relationship. I got married. The relationship was extremely toxic and abusive. He was violent with me. It was a gradual process. I thought that was the way I should be loved. It was the only way I knew how to be loved. It was the way my mother loved me. It was abysmal.
I realised that if I didn’t start to deconstruct this pattern, it would keep repeating. I would continue to feel that it was normal not to love myself and I would pass this message onto my children or other people in my life. It's a never-ending cycle unless we choose to break it.
I thought that was the way I should be loved. It was the only way I knew how to be loved. It was the way my mother loved me. It was abysmal.
I made a promise to myself to stop the cycle of abuse and never be like my mother was with me. I wanted to do the healing work for myself and for my children. But the relationship that I have with self-love is still complicated and difficult.
Sometimes I cannot escape that I am a child of two mean people. I have tried to convince myself that I am different because I don't feel that I belong there, but I still feel odd and lonely.
My self-love journey started when I became a mother myself and I started to pursue my dream job. The two were somewhat connected. When I became a mother, I felt a need to be who I really wanted to be.
I felt that I was not only giving birth to a child, but I was giving birth to myself as a new person.
My whole life I had taken pictures. It was always my dream to become a photographer, but I didn’t know how or where to start. After having my first child, I decided to work more on my photography as a hobby.
For a few years before my next child was born, I worked on improving my photography skills. I improved a lot and felt I was capable of taking on customers.
When I became a mother for the second time, it became more apparent that I needed to be a photographer. I felt that I was not only giving birth to a child, but I was giving birth to myself as a new person.
I had a second chance to become the person I really wanted to become.
On Fresh Starts
When I had my second child, my boyfriend and I were living in Australia, working as teachers in a French school. We decided to move to Tunisia. There were very few job opportunities for me, so I had no choice but to create my own opportunities.
I decided to take pictures for other families, documenting daily life without any frills, just candid real life. I offered my services to two people and after a couple of months I had many customers. I became quite well known for what I was doing. I was featured in magazines. I was really happy with my work. My customers grew. My dream came true.
Unfortunately, we couldn't live in Tunisia anymore for many reasons, so we had to move. My boyfriend received a job offer here in Bangkok. At that point, I didn't know that being a professional photographer in Thailand was not a legal possibility for me without a specific visa and work permit, which I don’t have.
When I made this realisation, I was heartbroken. I felt stuck, like a prisoner with a never-ending day. My work had given me purpose and without it my self-esteem took a hit.
I decided to continue practising photography as a passion by creating a self-love photography project, The Love Lab. I was totally out of my comfort zone, but knew this was a great path to explore.
I had always loved boudoir photography, but never dared explore it before. It was a good opportunity to start in Bangkok because I didn’t know anyone here.
At first, I wanted to see if I was capable of doing it. So I put out a call out for models on the Bangkok Women's Collective Facebook group, explaining the project I had in mind. I wanted to take photos from the perspective of the female gaze, as most boudoir photography is through the male gaze, with a male photographer and/or the photos intended as a gift for a male partner.
I wanted something more honest, without subjects pretending to be something they’re not, without the need to spend three hours getting ready, doing makeup and hair, and buying lingerie - that is not who we truly are.
Being yourself should be enough to feel beautiful. Having an honest, raw photo can help you see the beauty in who you are. I want people to be comfortable being themselves. This project is about expressing, embracing and loving yourself.
Being yourself should be enough to feel beautiful.
Many women from different backgrounds wanted to be a part of the project, so I ended up working with around 10 or 12 people. The enthusiastic response showed me that there is a real need for this type of photography.
In life, I just want to get to the real truth, even with my photos. Not everyone is willing to strip away the layers, but those who do get to have a truly insightful experience.
Some people feel the need to hide behind fancy lingerie or kinky poses. That’s fine. But they aren't really playing the game, the honesty game. They are naked, but not really naked. They are not their real selves. When they show who they really are, their weaknesses and vulnerability, they feel extremely strong and empowered.
In life, I just want to get to the real truth, even with my photos.
I had no idea what the photos would become in the end. When I took the pictures, I realised there was a big problem amongst us women. We don’t like ourselves.
When I shoot, women always feel embarrassed about some physical features: “I’m sorry, I'm a bit fat, I'm so sorry about that.” Even if I express that I don't care or judge, they often insist: “No, but this is really bad, it’s really ugly.”
I relate because even when I am in front of the camera, I think about how I am really ugly, not like other people. Most people react the same way about different aspects of their bodies. We all have the same pattern. Even women who feel confident in their bodies are afraid that others will think they love themselves too much.
I have met some women who are confident and want to celebrate themselves and I am so impressed. They have put in a lot of work.
This is my first time doing a self-portrait. I did it quickly. I feel happier when I don’t see myself in the picture. I’m not really comfortable in front of the camera; I prefer to take pictures. I need to do a lot of work on myself before I feel comfortable.
Unlike the women I have shot before, I am not ready. I admire them for that. They have come a long way to be able to do that. They are very brave.
Taking pictures helps me on my journey with self-love. It puts me in a situation where I get to see other people and their relationship with themselves. I get to see fragments of others’ self-love journeys, which is a privilege.
I see so many unique bodies and shapes, so many variations on the self-love journey, and the different stages people are at on their own personal path. It helps me a lot. It makes me realise that we are all the same and that I am normal.
My body is not that strange, my self-love journey is not that weird. We are all in the same boat.
We're all struggling with something.
By Becky O'Brien
Becky O'Brien heads The F Word's Rebellious X column. She is a member of the Bangkok Rising Managing Committee, an event organiser, passionate about gender equality and an aspiring storyteller; dedicated to finding untold stories and bringing them to light.