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Passion and Pain: Photographer Trains Human Trafficking Survivors

Fine art photographer Brooke Shaden is making final preparations on a photography school in Kolkata, India, that will train survivors of human trafficking to become photographers.

Helping others has always been at the top of Shaden’s list of aspirations. The new school, The Light Space, will represent her most ambitious act of giving to date. The school’s grand opening is scheduled for Nov. 7, which will mark the start of the school’s first semester.

The story of The Light Space began in early 2013 when Shaden traveled to Kolkata, the West Bengal city formerly known as Calcutta, to give a photography workshop to a group of human trafficking survivors. Due to the success of that visit, Shaden and her partners focused on creating a permanent safe place in the city where these women could learn a new craft.

Through the photography school, the 28-year-old Lancaster, Pa., native is seeking to empower women in India at the same time that she struggles to find the energy to survive each day of work. Shaden lives with fibromyalgia. She was diagnosed with the chronic and debilitating pain disorder at the age of 14.

“Everybody’s experience is so personal and so unique and there’s no way to say who is really suffering more,” Shaden said in an interview. “I’ve seen people in India who have nothing and they’re the happiest people, and I’ve seen people who have everything and they’re so miserable. It’s all just how you see life and trying to remember the big picture and also remembering that we all have unique experiences.”

In a post earlier this year on her popular blog Promoting Passion, Shaden first opened up to her fans about life with fibromyalgia. “The goal is to spread the word about a disorder that is very often invisible, since the symptoms do not manifest in any obvious way,” she wrote.

Shaden always took pride in pushing through her chronic pain. She never wanted to use fibromyalgia as an excuse for taking a rest. The pain started in her knees. Today, the pain is mostly centered in her hips, although she often feels it throughout her body.

Having attracted a large following from her work as a photographer, Shaden felt the time was right to talk about her fibromyalgia. She believed her personal experiences of living with the disorder might help others.

Fibromyalgia, she acknowledged, has played a role in her artistic creations. “It has to in a way because people with fibromyalgia spend so much of their life dealing with the pain and dealing with everything that comes with it that even if you’re not speaking out about it, especially to model in a photograph or be the subject of a photograph, you’re naturally bringing forth any experiences you’ve had in life, whether you realize it or not,” she stressed.

Shaden’s photographs are not autobiographical, and yet people with fibromyalgia are easily drawn to them. There are no smiles in her artwork. Instead, there are beautiful gothic Victorian dresses and colorful hooded coats. But the faces are expressionless, obscured, or not visible at all.

Shaden’s work evokes a time when people did not smile in portraits. There are theories on why people did not smile during the early years of photography, but experts have concluded it had nothing to do with happiness, or a lack of it.

Outside of her artwork, when Shaden is standing on a red carpet with a Hollywood director in front of cameras flashing, she is not shy about smiling. In the countless photography workshops and motivational speeches she gives, Shaden generously offers the audience tips on honing their photography skills or suggests techniques for living fuller lives.

Since opening up about her chronic pain, Shaden has heard from hundreds of people with fibromyalgia. Earlier this year, Shaden created images for a fibromyalgia awareness organization showing different stages of pain. Using herself as the model, one image shows weakness and vulnerability, while another shows power. The third image, of butterflies holding her up, shows acceptance.

“I want to create images that promote a change in people and make people see things a little bit differently,” Shaden said.

For many people with fibromyalgia, it takes years to get the proper diagnosis. “It didn’t take that long because my mom had been seeing a rheumatologist for her lupus,” Shaden recalled. “I started having pain in my knees and my mother thought this was a little bit unusual. My mom said, ‘Let’s bring you along to one of my doctor’s appointments and see what they say.’ The diagnosis was actually pretty quick compared to most people.”

About three years ago, Shaden made big changes in her eating and lifestyle that helped to manage her fibromyalgia. She became vegan and eats almost completely whole foods, vegetables and natural proteins. She does a combination of stretching and yoga starting at 6 a.m. and tries to get in a walk or bicycle ride every day, but no running or anything too strenuous.

Shaden graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with degrees in film and English. She moved to Los Angeles but decided her passion was photography, not film. A dedication to her craft and a singular talent contributed to her rapid rise in the field. “I was sharing images that were a little bit shocking and something that people hadn’t seen before. And I was also not apologizing for it and telling people what I thought and why I thought, and that intrigued people,” she said.

In 2011, one of Shaden’s works was among eight photographs chosen by movie director Ron Howard for his Project Imagin8ion. Howard and his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard used the photographs as inspiration for a short film. Shaden’s winning photograph, titled “Running from Wind,” shows two women in period dresses fleeing across a foggy field. As one of the winning photographers, Shaden traveled to New York City for the premiere of the film. “It was my first red carpet experience — lots of cameras,” she said.

About 60 to 70 percent of her works are self-portraits. Her photo shoots generally last no more than 10 minutes. They are usually quick and painless. But occasionally Shaden will need to keep an uncomfortable pose so long that it makes her feel sick. She calls these shoots “posing until you’re nauseous.” On the days when the exertion reaches its limits, she will return home and not do anything for the rest of the evening.

Shaden, who moved to northern Arizona in 2013, also finds that when she is on a photo shoot with several other people, she can feel an adrenaline that allows her to keep her spirits up to make everybody else happy. “I’m the ringleader of the model and assistant and whoever might be helping out. In those days, it’s not so bad because I’m pushing through like I’m used to doing,” she said.

With her latest endeavor, The Light Space, Shaden plans to develop the curriculum and oversee the educators. She hopes to visit the school once or twice a year. Amy Parrish, director of operations for The Light Space, will be teaching classes for the first four-month period along with a local photographer who can speak the language. Raising money to keep the school sustainable will remain one of Shaden’s top priorities.

Shaden’s success as a photographer has provided her with opportunities to demonstrate her generosity. She seeks to impart strength to the people with whom she interacts on a regular basis. “I’m all about just being completely yourself and not apologizing for that. And being open about what your passions are,” she said. “And I’ve always done that from the beginning, shared part of myself and encouraged others to do the same.”

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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