In 2007, Shawna Simmons moved to New York City as a young college graduate to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion photographer. Working as an intern, she quickly learned that there was money in retouching and editing. But the experience was emotionally complex. As someone living with vitiligo, she spent every day retouching the types of “flaws” that were reflected on her own body.
“If you look through any fashion magazine, those girls don’t even look like themselves in those images,” said Shawna. “They have a ton of hair and makeup and then their photos are retouched and filtered.”
Despite gaining creative experience in the field, the job eventually took its toll. Editing 50-80 photos a day, Shawna found herself nitpicking whatever was wrong with a person – and not just on the job.
“On the subway coming home I would be retouching people’s faces in my mind,” said Shawna, who admitted that she eventually started editing her own skin mentally. “It was really tough to have vitiligo while my job was to take away people’s imperfections… I would wish I could retouch my vitiligo to make it disappear.”
Shawna had been diagnosed with vitiligo at the age of six. As the condition spread rapidly down her skins and elbows, she used makeup to cover the spots – but that didn’t stop the bullying and comments. Today, years of treatments have reduced the spots to just a few speckles on her feet and ankles. Yet the emotional trauma of living with vitiligo isn’t a thing of the past.
In 2015, Shawna moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue her original love – horses – and launched her own equestrian photography business two years later.
“Today I barely retouch anyone unless someone asks me to fix acne,” said Shawna, who is happy to see the trend towards natural beauty in the media. “I catch people in the moment, show their personalities. It’s refreshing.”
She has also teamed up with Living Dappled to do her part in changing the beauty narrative and raising awareness for vitiligo.
“Growing up, there weren’t role models with vitiligo,” said Shawna, who grew up in Colombia, MD feeling very isolated with the condition. “It was all about doctor’s appointments and covering it up. It was clinical, not beautiful.”
Now it’s her mission to change that – for the better. Through shoots around the country, Shawna has helped women with vitiligo feel comfortable in front of the camera – and in their own skin. This past spring, that included herself as she photographed her spots and shared the pictures publicly for the first time. She’s also taken up mentoring through her work as a photographer – bringing on interns to show them the ropes.
Said Shawna, “I’ve become really passionate about helping young girls – even those without vitiligo. I just want to be the role model I wish I always had.”
Learn more about Shawna’s work at www.sasequinephotography.com.
Erika Page is a writer and blogger with universal vitiligo. Based just south of Washington, D.C., Erika founded Living Dappled to create a community of inspiration and hope for girls and women living with vitiligo.