More than a photographer
Interview with Chuck Coleman
-Chuck for how long have you been doing photography?
– For over 30 years. I was in the army in Germany and everything was new to me: cars, buildings, castles, scenery, and environment. So I picked up a camera (it was a film camera) and started taking pictures. I was there when the Wall came down, so I took pictures of the Wall. I wanted to remember Germany because I was only supposed to be there for three years. But I got out of the army and continued to live there and do photography. I went to a lot of different countries like Baltic’s, France, Italy and others and were taking pictures over there too.
– How did you switch to fashion photography?
– About six years ago I really wanted to take photography seriously. I didn’t want to continue contests and weddings. So I talked to another photographer, colleague of mine and he said: “You need to find your niche. You need to do what no one else is doing and be an expert in it.” I asked him what he was doing. He was shooting hummingbirds all over the world, he knew everything: when and where they were flying. So all the magazines about wildlife were coming to him for his pictures. So he had a niche and he was an expert in it. The Steampunk became my niche. It’s basically 19th-century style mixed with new technologies. The Library of Congress started asking me to come and speak, I’ve been in three movies, people from all over the world send me their dresses because my style really fits into their type of look.
Our style of photography is very unique and captures attention. Designers around the world understand that there is a value in being able to make people stop and look at the product. This is what we do, we are a marketing company for designers around the world.
– Please tell about your photo shoots.
I have an Italian designer making the sample of dresses to help us market them because he loves our style. I like to say that my photography resembles Rembrandt because it has a lot of shadows, with a dark and edgy Steampunk look.
We are based out of Chicago but we travel all over the United States sharing our experiences with all.
We circle the United States nine times a year and my typical client is a woman who still dreams of being a princess for the day. To make this experience cost-effective, she solicits some of her friends to join in this experience with her and they turn this into a weekend event. They supply my team with housing, food, and travel plus the daily rates that we need to supply them with all the artistry and clothing for this wonderful experience.
So we are coming with all of the wardrobe and props, we bring a masseuse, wine, cheese and fruit, professional hair and makeup and provide a retreat in the client’s house and images are just the final result to commemorate that experience. So we don’t sell images, we sell the experience. It’s a whole two days event, it’s all psychological. I speak to those women on their level and understand them. They call me «the gayest straight guy ever». And I am getting these women to know who they are. I always leave them saying ‘Oh my god I never I knew I could get along with other women so well’.
Here in America, we try to hide our real emotions because we are afraid that people will take advantage of us. When you hide who you are, you send a false representation of who you are. So you and your dual representatives have a problem. There are individuals who don’t want to allow others to know who they are because they are afraid to be hurt but then they wonder why nobody understands them. The definition of love is no fear. You can’t have fear and love at the same time. We have to be willing to get hurt in order to find love.
But it also can be very difficult. For example, I have 5 girls for a photo shoot, there is always one that doesn’t feel good about herself. She doesn’t care how beautiful her dress or her hair is, she will never be happy because she wants to be number one or better than the other girl in the group. Everybody says «You are beautiful but she doesn’t realize it.»
-So how do you handle this?
– I let Vilma deal with that (Vilma Biliene, a model, Chuck’s partner and girlfriend). She is very honest, strict and straightforward, she faces these problems and doesn’t beat around the bush. A lot of people don’t like it but that’s hot it is. I am always trying to make everyone happy by please everyone and people take advantage of that. Vilma is a very good partner. Sometimes she scares me (laughing).
– Chuck, how do you find these designers from all around the world?
– They find me. Because of my body of work and consistency of images that we push on a daily basis.
For the last six years, I have aligned myself with producers of clothing and props from around the world. By working with them, it puts us in front of other manufacturers and designers from around the world as well. This is a main body of focus when we are trying to deliver a strong marketing piece.
The dresses that we shoot are one of a kind dresses which is a definition of true couture.
– How did you start making these designer dresses?
– My dresses are the Opioids of women’s dream of when she wants to feel beautiful. All women dream that’s why when they go shopping they buy a dress that fits the dream they have in their mind at that moment. That is actually Oxytocin (natural opioid we all produce) rushing thru her brain but then she goes home, that high goes away and that dress sits in her closet with all the labels intact for months or years to come.
– So you are not just a photographer? Who are you? How would you call yourself?
– I don’t know. Chuck? Are you shocked? (laughing).
I am the translator of women’s emotions stuck in a man’s body.
-How do people find you?
-Look for Vilma Biliene and you will find me (laughing).
I don’t have a website because that’s usually a conversation closer. People ask you for your website because they cannot afford your services or they fell in love with my art and are trying not to get sold. I don’t have a website because my art should speak for itself. But you can see all the work that we do on: Facebook
So you see I have to go through a lot of things to sell my services. I don’t want people to call me a photographer. I am more of a photographic illustrator. I am an individual that wears many hats. It can be very confusing to put me into a category. This is how a designer should view me.
I will take his product and put it on a client that he would never have an opportunity to be in front of. I will bring in hair, makeup and I will relate a beautiful experience with his designer dress. For this, I will require the designer to have a financial or materialistic responsibility for us flipping the bill to take his product in front of the market that otherwise would not exist to him.
-What is your opinion of models?
One of the things we try to talk about in our documentary television series is trying to make the girls in the modeling world understand what the truth is. Are they trying to be a model or they just have low self-esteem and they are looking for somebody to say: ‘Wow you look great’. Most of the models are looking for affirmation that they are The Best. Very often they hear people tell them “you are gorgeous, you should be a model”.
But a real model is something very different. A model is an individual who is selfless. It is not about her, it’s about going to a dressmaker, a watchmaker and trying to sell the vision of the product maker. A model is a coat hanger for someone else’s product. She should be able to make “Campbell soup” look good and sell it. Most models are only trying to sell their beauty. The goal of the project is to help those women to understand themselves. The purpose is to make them realize who they are and understand how the industry really works. Most of the models in the industry think, that their looks and looks alone will attract someone to give them a contract for millions of dollars.
I’m going to pretend for a moment that I am a big-time promoter or designer and I am looking to bring awareness to a design and project that I have upcoming. I am looking at logistics, hair and makeup artists and timing of all the individuals that are going to be involved. The least of my worries is how beautiful the model is going to be because I know my team can create beauty where it does not exist and I say this with a huge smile.
I don’t know by looking at someone’s Facebook profile of what type of characteristics that model is going to have. The picture does not explain the drug addiction, the low self-esteem, the panic attacks, the relationship issues, babysitter issues, transportation problems, and the fear of “the color blue”. All these things have to be taken into consideration prior to booking this unknown creature that is going to be representing the face of our business.
If a model does not have the ability to have a reputation within the industry that erases all of the negative things that models carry, she is not a model yet.
If I am a successful company, I don’t care how beautiful you are. I care if you are going to show up on time, not bring any drama into the work environment and I want them to enjoy being there. Because if you are a model and no one likes you, I don’t want you to be around. It’s not the outer beauty what matters, The beauty that we look for can be described by a blind person. Looks are worthless in this industry if you don’t have the personality to match. Back in the 90’s beauty meant a lot and models were getting hired for their looks. But now with the social media over saturated with beautiful images, you have to have a lot more than your looks to sell. And that’s what we are trying to show.
-What separated you from other photographers?
-I allow my emotions to control the direction of my photography and not the other way around.
For example, we did a photoshoot with a wife of a doctor, we placed her in one of our magazines and we placed that magazine in her husbands (doctors) office. And he willingly will place that magazine in his office (because his wife is in there).
A 70-year-old grandmother fell down, broke her hip and was put on opioid painkillers by another doctor to help with her pain and after 6 months he says she now should be fine and take the pills away from her. But the grandmother is already addicted, starts going into withdrawals and her kids don’t know what to do. So she goes to this doctors office looking for help, in the waiting room flipping thru the magazine when she sees this doctors wife sharing her story and she doesn’t feel so alone anymore. Everything we do has a reason behind it.
Vilma and I are releasing a new magazine this February and it will be based on women flaunting their dreams and the issues that get in the way of those dreams. We are trying to help women find their self-esteem and confidence that was lost somewhere down the road.
There is no one else in the world who is doing what we do, I cannot put a name to it but I think I should. It helps with marketing a lot. I need someone smarter than me to help with that. Are you that smart? (laughing).
– Why is the drug topic so close to you?
– Because of Vilma. Meeting her had changed my life. She was addicted and I was getting tired of doing everything by myself and no one could understand or share my vision. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how pain pills control people and how it changes your brain. She educated me a lot and I got angry at myself that I was so uneducated before and prejudging Vilma not knowing where and what happened to her. No one wants to talk about addiction, people are ashamed to speak about those topics. We treat addicted people like junkies because we think it’s their own choice but it’s really not. Their brain is hijacked and doesn’t know how to function on its own anymore. 80% of models we work with are addicted to some kind of drugs. And we are trying to bring awareness to this epidemic that touches almost everyone in one way or another.
We have a television series ‘Opioids and Dreams’. It’s 26 documentary episodes (one of the episodes you can watch on Chuck’s YouTube channel
Basically, it’s about opioids and psychology. Our brain produces oxytocin and those chemicals stop your brain from producing it and that’s what women seek, that high, that euphoria whether it’s thru drugs or modeling.
Women in a modeling world are willing to do unthinkable for that high for that illusion. They’re always working for that oxytocin, they spend all their money, going from one photographer to another to get that high. So my documentary is about how they are chasing that dream that they will rarely catch up to. They don’t understand how their mind is telling them what to do. Most of the time they don’t know even how to define the model.
The model tells me: ‘Hey Chuck and Vilma I wanna shoot with you guys’. I ask how long she has been modeling. She says for 5 years. They come to me and then she is asking: ‘What should I do? How do I look? Where is the mirror? Does this dress make me look fat? I don’t like my makeup. Is this OK?’. And my thought at that point is “And I thought you were a model?”
They do not have the confidence needed but they want the reward or to get paid for being in front of the camera, being named ‘the model’.
This is a huge confusion what these women have inside their heads about who they are and who they are trying to be. So there is a constant battle between this fantasy and reality. They are living in this fantasy and building the whole world around this lie and then they are all disappointed because this is not the reality that they thought existed. A lot of models come to our door addicted to something: drugs, alcohol, shopping, starving etc.
When I met Vilma a year and a half ago she was 90 pounds, very depressed and she wanted to die. She had been addicted to pain pills for many years after her 2 failed back surgeries and had lost her mother in a plane crash which only pushed her down even deeper.
I helped to bring her back to life and was there to support her thru it all and getting the help she so needed to get clean. And the documentary project is a lot for her and about her. This is a psychological research.
All women dream, they dream a lot. When they go shopping, they look at clothes and in their mind, they are saying: ‘Hey, if I have this dress, these shoes, these earrings in this situation I am going to be happy’. They buy them and put in a closet and then they get another dream. That’s why you see a lot of women with a closet full of clothes. In that moment they try to live in this fantasy in their head. So the last project was about women who are looking for that euphoria, that excitement and combining that with the opioids. An addict always looks for that high. And never finds it ever again. Models always look for that special image that gave them that high the first time and never finds it. So my project was going to doctors and clinics all over the U.S. and talking to them about how they help the addicts. One of the ways is to change the environment, get out of that crowd that causes triggers.
– When is the release of the project?
– It’s already released in Pittsburg. I was the producer and the editor, I filmed, I did everything with all of my own equipment. I will never do that again. Next time I do something like that I want the budget and I want the team to help me. I didn’t make any money on it and it cost me money. I couldn’t sell any advertisement because I didn’t have a team helping me to sell. And it was too time-consuming to sell the advertisement. Vilma and I did everything all by ourselves.
I can give you a sample of an episode but all of them will be released in April-May. I would like to create a full featured film documenting all of our experiences that we encounter on this journey. I would like to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival.