CINCINNATI -- Brian Girton is used to taking provocative pictures. It's part of the lure of boudoir, a growing genre of intimate photography that involves women wearing lingerie or sometimes nothing at all .
His latest project is anything but erotic. Women still go bare, but this time around, they're revealing much more than skin, and it's all part of a nonprofit Girton launched early last year.
ReStory Studios, now an official 501(c)(3), uses the power of photography to provide healing. Or, as Girton puts it, to help clients "see a different reality" and another version of themselves. After shooting boudoir for nearly four years -- he founded Boudoir Of Cincinnati in 2014 -- he saw a need. And given his background (he's a clinical counselor by trade) this was his opportunity to do more.
"A lot of us believe the story that society has told us about ourselves: That we're not good enough because we don't look a certain way, or because we don't do this or that," Girton said. "So everybody hides their issues, or they pretend they don't exist. When I came up with this idea initially, it was very simple: basically, tell me your insecurity."
ReStory's signature project, The Naked Truth, launched in March, and it's maybe his most revealing yet.
Volunteer models pose nude while covering themselves with large index cards inscribed with handwritten notes that voice some kind of insecurity, fear or pain. So far in these photo sessions, women have confessed everything from emotional, verbal and physical abuse to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and more.
Although the bulk focus is body image, Girton would also like to work with those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or survivors of major physical traumas such as breast cancer.
By writing things down, "it gives the issue a voice," he said. It's based on a treatment tool called cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, which can be effective for PTSD.
Although the photo shoots are not counseling sessions, Girton stressed, he is surprised at how effective and therapeutic it's been for the subjects themselves.
"I've actually referred people to other counselors for prolonged treatment because they're now able to talk about it and realizing that it does help when you do," he said.
"Words really do weigh us down, and this gives people power over those words," Girton added. "I've spend a lot of time sitting here just listening … a lot of women come in and say, 'I've not ever told anybody else about this thing,' and just saying it out loud, a lot of them are like, 'Oh my gosh, I feel so much freer.' "
That's at least how Mindy Bittner, 47, felt. A teacher and personal trainer from Columbus, she saw a post about The Naked Truth Project on Instagram and had to be a part of it. Same with Brittany Dickmann, 23, of Walton, Kentucky, and Alannah Arnett, 25, from Newport, who number among the dozens of women to take part so far.
Growing up, Bittner said, she felt isolated, invisible and ignored. She was taught to keep quiet, even if there was a problem, which led to self-esteem issues and a battle with bulimia. She hopes the photos will help others.
"Sharing your struggles leads to healing," she wrote on her card.
"It was therapy for me and a way to tell my story," she said. "I found my voice."
Dickmann, a student, found the shoot empowering. She opened up about her battle with health and food, an issue often exacerbated by social media.
"When you log onto Instagram or Facebook, (you) see people's bodies you strive to have," she said.
Today, she's found a balance.
"It felt good to be raw and real; to not hide (a) huge part of my life," Dickmann said. "What I was doing was not about looks or the body or anything like that. It was about empowering other women and sharing that life gets rough for everybody, and everybody can overcome rough patches. Sometimes I think back to the shoot and how I felt writing my 'truth' down, and I promised I'd never let myself fall into a dark place with relationships with food (again)."
Arnett, meanwhile, was in a rut. The Naked Truth Project was her first professional photo shoot -- but she was so nervous, she almost turned around in the parking lot. Her truth? She keeps "people at a distance," she said, for fear they'll see her weaknesses.
When she saw her pictures, she was shocked. In a good way.
"We live in a world full of unattainable beauty standards. I feel like I spend a lot of time idolizing models and women online," she said. "I didn't see a lot of the imperfections that I imagined other people see at first glance. I felt like I was the rawest form of myself, and the truth on my sign was way more to take in than the naked body. It's an insane feeling and words can't describe it."
Although the nudity behind the project has certainly garnered some negative reviews -- the cards, roughly 14-by-6, cover more skin than a bathing suit, Girton argues -- it's more a metaphor for vulnerability and transparency.
Sex sells, and skin gets attention. "But it's not about that," Girton said. "It makes people stop and really look at the issue.
"If all you see is a naked person," he added, "you're totally missing the point."
Girton honed his idea through Mortar, a business boot camp for budding entrepreneurs, and last year placed third in its "Life's a Pitch" contest. So far, nearly 50 women have participated in The Naked Truth. Girton's goal is 100, but he doesn't plan on stopping there. He wants to continue beyond the century mark by sporadically scheduling shoots throughout the year.
He has other goals for the nonprofit but said ReStory is still a work in progress. He's excited to see how things unfold.
"Seeing the reaction of the people who've done this," he said, "it's been great."
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