I’m grateful for social media. Despite the less-desirable issues it can generate (creating unrealistic expectations, toxicity, and “Cancel Culture,” to name a few), connecting with other creatives from around the world has greatly expanded my knowledge, friendships, and opportunities in ways I don’t think would have been possible without social media. It’s how I got the chance to be a part of The Painted Dress Project.

*If you’re sensitive to discussing human trafficking, consider this your trigger warning!*

I hope you’re all buckled up for a reading journey, because this is going to be a long one, guys. Longer than I realized it would take to write. This wasn’t your typical “traveling dress” project, both in what it represented as well as the drama that surrounded it, and I don’t feel a short blog post would do justice to the entire process. If you were hoping for less reading and more pictures, you can scroll through some of the images over on my instagram account or make your way to the bottom of this post.

In summer of 2018, I happened to scroll past a post in a Facebook group asking if any photographers were interested in a traveling dress project; the person asking was a bridal designer, and her goal was to get at least one photographer from each state/country around the world. The comments rapidly trickled in, including my own, proclaiming interest and the desire to be considered. A few weeks later, we were all added to a private group by the designer, Isla Atropa Design Co. (which, sadly, has gone on hiatus since this project happened; luckily, you can still see some of the work she created on Instagram @isla_atropa_designs).

To give a little backstory, Isla Atropa D.C. was based out of Texas, and she specialized in these amazingly unique, one-of-a-kind bridal gowns. Most of her gowns were either completely or partially constructed from reclaimed materials, and she donated an impressive 20% of her profits to anti-exploitation groups; so not only were her gowns stunningly beautiful, eco-conscious designs that guaranteed no one else in the world would have the same gown as you, but part of their sale also went to an important cause. If you’re assuming I was totally sold on participating, you’re completely right.

The idea behind this traveling dress project was to bring awareness to the horrors of human trafficking by combining these beautiful wedding dresses with creative imagery to create a powerful discord. There were very few rules; essentially, we were given free rein to interpret the theme as we wanted, which I appreciated. Unlike many traveling dress projects, the designer specifically requested that none of the photographers clean or repair their dress before sending it on. “If it gets dirty or stained, leave it. If an embellishment falls off or a zipper breaks, don’t fix it. If the dress doesn’t properly fit your model, then rip it.” The goal was to see a progression in each dress from photographer to photographer—shiny and new to battered and destroyed, symbolizing and paying tribute those who were, still are, or died in captivity. This is where the name “Painted Dress Project” came from; dresses painted with pain, fear, and abuse.

I know. It’s heavy. It’s dark and disturbing to think about… but it happens. It happens in real life, in the U.S.A. and every other country, often right under our noses. In helping each of us really connect with and understand the gravity of this project, the designer first shared her story with each of us individually. Her story isn’t mine to tell, but I’ll just say she took some fucking awful lemons and turned them into lemonade. Her story will truly stick with me until the day I die. However, the aim in telling us her story was to add another perspective to her project: hope and the will to survive. Her final request was that each photographer take the time to find a postcard and write a message we’d like to say to all who’ve suffered in the dark hell that is human trafficking.

You may notice I haven’t mentioned the designer’s name. That’s because I don’t actually know it. While I’ve seen some idea here and there, she made it clear when telling us her story that the name she goes by now isn’t her real name, and I don’t blame her. Hence, “the designer” is what I stick with.

Okay, so now that you’ve heard the backstory of the project, let’s jump into the session itself…

Honestly, I lucked out with everything. Korey and I found materials for props easily and cheaply; I had no problems with finding a model, hair stylist, and makeup artist that were communicative and committed; the weather cooperated with us; and despite being second in line for the dress I was photographing, I wound up being the first to shoot it because the photographer before me ran out of time (I believe I even received the dress in the mail early, which was amazing). On our end of things, our experience with the dress went exactly as we planned.

For my vision, I had plans to set a huge metal hoop on fire that Korey had constructed for me out of an old industrial wire spool. We needed a location with enough space that nothing would be set on fire; being October, it was chilly and wet enough that it wasn’t a huge fear, but still—safety first, man! We found a little spot out near the Butte that was perfect: part gravel pit, part scraggly forest, it was the perfect contrast to the delicate dress as well as provided a large, open, rocky area that wouldn’t be easily set ablaze.

man looking over his shoulder in a foggy gravel pit at the base of a mountain

A test shot (iPhone) I took of Korey when we were scouting for the perfect location. This quiet spot won!

The session itself needs little explanation; looking at the images at the end of this post will hopefully convey more feeling than I ever could in text, but I’ll try to give a brief overview of the thought process. The idea: portray Emily (our beautiful model and, conveniently, next-door neighbor and friend!) as a protective saint or deity of the hurt and abused. An ethereal pale “mask” around the eyes and a crown of zip-ties for the “deity” side; freckles and a braid to signify a forced loss of innocence on the “victim” side. Finally, the hoop of fire to signify the never-ending hell of trafficking, both physically and mentally.

Korey, Emily, Cody (our other friend/neighbor and Emily’s S.O.) and I packed ourselves plus a supply of both fuel and fire extinguishers into Korey’s truck, strapped the metal hoop to a trailer, and started our 45 minute trek to the location.

behind the scenes image of photographer taking photo in front of a metal hoop of fire

Behind the scenes (iPhone) after the hoop had been ignited thanks to our pyrotechnic experts, Korey & Cody!

So you remember I said that we lucked out, right? Well, a lot of other photographers that volunteered their time for this did not. This project was divided into three sections with three dresses: one for the eastern U.S., one for the Western U.S., and one international. An important note about this project is that none of us had to pay anything more than shipping for the dress; for those of us that were honest and excited to participate, this was an amazing opportunity! A completely unique, custom gown with no rental fee and no dry cleaning requirements?! Hell yeah! For others with less-honest intentions, however, it was the perfect chance to steal a custom-designed wedding gown. At one point, within about a month or two of the project beginning, the designer had to make an entirely new dress for the photographers on the Eastern tour because their gown had been stolen. Whoever had stolen it had removed themself from the group and disappeared into the Facebook equivalent of thin air. Things got more and more discombobulated, and to this day, I would wager that more than 50% of the photographers who planned to participate never even got to see their assigned dress.

Going into this, there had been some loose discussion about a big publication of the images; maybe to a blog, maybe to a magazine, maybe in a book. Though we were given the O.K. to share blog posts and images about the project, I held off on anything major because I wanted to wait to see what would come (and, of course, my website wasn’t live, so how would I share a blog post?) I shared a few images and captions on Instagram while I waited, and that was that.

Flash forward to summer 2019: after months of chaos within the group, Isla Atropa announced her hiatus. It was bittersweet; obviously, none of us wanted her to close up shop, and I’m sure even more were wondering, “but what about my turn with the dress?” Still, we wished her well on her next journey, and I still hold out hope that she’ll return. Almost immediately, she shut down her social media accounts (with the exception of Instagram) and with it went any posts she had made regarding the schedule of photographers and pictures of what the dresses looked like. The location of the dresses has been a total mystery since July, and aside from the occasional post that says, “whatever happened to this project?” the group has all but died.

I guess that’s one thing I don’t love about social media: how easy it is to be left in the dark, to have so many questions unanswered. Ultimately, I realize I don’t have much to complain about personally: I got to partake in the project, the images turned out how I’d hoped, and I was able to receive and send the dress easily to the photographers on either side of me because they were amazing communicators.

However, the knowledge that things worked out for me don’t change the feelings I have for the other participants. The well-wishes for the designer; the anger at thieves; the confusion on behalf of every other photographer who didn’t get to participate; and the sadness in realizing the hopes for this project wound up being too big for itself. For now, anyway.

If you’ve made it this far… YOU GO, GLEN COCO! I know it was a long one; I’ve had so many questions since 2018, not only about the project itself, but questions like, “Why hasn’t this been shown elsewhere? Is this going to be published? What happened with this?” and I just didn’t think a short, vague post would have done the entire process justice. With that being said (finally…) please enjoy the session photos with the Western U.S. dress below!

I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this session without everyone else who volunteered their time and expertise. Go give them a look and a follow below. Thank you!
Dress: Isla Atropa D.C.
Model: Emily Anderson
Hair: Kendra Coeville
Makeup: Aurora Reece
Props: Korey Hughes & myself
Assistants: Cody Rodgers & Korey Hughes

Want to see more? I recently posted a request for blog links about The Painted Dress Project from other photographers. Check back here, as I’ll update with links as I receive permission. Have more questions? Post them in the comments section below, and I’ll answer as best I can from my point of view!

  • CLICK HERE to check out this blog post, featuring the beautiful Eastern-tour dress, by Jacquie Erickson Photography in Utah!