Photographer Bari Balbes from West Bloomfield uses her portraits to empower girls with respect and equality in her Girls Photo Project.
If pictures are worth a thousand words, then banker-turned-photographer Bari Balbes of West Bloomfield makes sure her images of girls reflect who they are, with added declarations of “equality” and “respect.”
Since spring, Balbes, owner of Bari L. Photography, has done portraits of more than 30 local children, most coming from moms who see her post about her Girls Photo Project on the Jewish Moms of Metro Detroit Facebook page.
Her project, a photographic endeavor designed to boost and empower young girls and to teach young boys — often tagalong brothers in the photos — that respecting women is part of becoming a man.
Balbes hopes as these girls grow up, they will look back at these portraits taken in their youth as a reminder and inspiration that they are worthy of respect, from themselves and from others. She charges nothing for the photos and hopes to compile them into a book to raise awareness and funding for girl’s empowerment organizations.
The project is a closure of sorts to the childhood traumas Balbes endured as a victim of rape and molestation at the hands of men she thought she could trust.
When Balbes was in grammar school in Illinois, she wanted to take art lessons and was dropped off each week at a studio. There, she says, the art teacher’s son molested her.
“I was never a quitter,” said Balbes, now almost 60. “But I told my parents going to the studio made me nervous. It didn’t occur to me back then that I should tell my parents what happened, but I told my parents I never wanted to go back to that studio again, and I never returned.”
Then at age 17 in 1977, she was raped by her riding instructor. Balbes, who loved spending much of her childhood around stables riding and jumping Thoroughbred horses, said her attacker called her a dirty Jew after the incident.
If ever a girl or a woman is assaulted, they need to know it is never their fault, Balbes says.
The photographer says she hopes these powerful portraits will teach girls wherever they are that if someone has assaulted them at some point in their lives, they should never feel they have to shut it away but can be empowered by speaking out and getting heard.
“At that moment (when I was raped), my voice was lost,” Balbes recalls. “When something like that happens, you lose the ability to express yourself. The trauma of a rape is devastating and affects every aspect of your life. It took me years of help, support from friends, parents and family, and therapy to make me feel I was worth it.
“This is where this project comes from. I want girls to know they are worthy of self-respect and respect from others. I want boys to know and learn they should treat girls with respect and equality before they become young men. I want the girls to look back at these photos with pride and as a reminder they can achieve anything they want.”
Recently, she received a special tribute for her work to empower girls from the state of Michigan.
During the photo sessions, which happen around town or in Balbes’ home studio on a lake in West Bloomfield, children can wear whatever makes them feel like themselves. Some wear superhero costumes or a white lab coat with a toy stethoscope. Other girls begin the photo shoot wearing their soccer cleats or sports jerseys and later will change into their favorite dresses.
Like most kids, Jennifer Ostroff’s three children: Noa, 15, Maia, 13, and Eli, 11, usually don’t jump up off the sofa and offer to get photographed together. But Ostroff of West Bloomfield says her kids were happy to participate once they learned of the project’s purpose.
“They loved spending time with Bari by the lake,” Ostroff says. “It was a great way to wind down summer. During the school year, there is so much stress about grades. It is nice to have a moment captured where we can just appreciate kids for who they are. And to show they are all beautiful, and physically and mentally strong from the inside out.”
Ostroff said Noa chose to pose with an Israeli flag around her shoulders because this winter she will attend school in Israel through the Ramah Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim program. She held a sign that said “Connect,” as she hopes on her return to strengthen the connection between the United States and Israel.
Balbes says in her own life, she was grateful for a successful, 16-year career at Quicken Loans while raising her two daughters, now 27 and 32, as a single mom. She now has five grandchildren. She thanks her husband, Jonathan, a custom home builder, for his support in allowing her to pursue this second career.
Photography allows her creativity to emerge, but also is an homage to her father, who always had a camera in hand to record memories.
Balbes started out photographing special family events like milestone birthday parties and graduations and did special projects for the Animal Rescue League. Then hit upon the Girls Project.
Before she works with her subjects, she explains her intentions to the kids, some as young as 4 or 5, in a language they can all understand: cake.
“I explain to them that if we only have one piece of cake, we should split it equally between boys and girls,” Balbes says. “That’s how it should be in life, and it is astounding how quickly they get it.”
Balbes says it has been an honor photographing so many children, to gain their trust enough to take photographs where they are allowed to be their truest selves.
One favorite photo that had a life-changing impact was a session she did with 10-year-old Emily Aidenbaum of West Bloomfield.
At first, Aidenbaum was not so sure about taking a picture if it meant her newly acquired hearing aid would show. It was late July and soon she’d be a fifth grader at Hickory Woods Elementary in Walled Lake, where she’d be the only kid there with a hearing aid. But with a little coaxing from mom and Balbes, she posed with a wide grin and tucked her hair behind her ear to show off the device.
Mom Jaclyn Aidenbaum says her daughter took one look at herself in the developed photo and it changed her entire outlook. Instead of being self-conscious about having to wear something that would make her stand out as different, she now saw her hearing aid as her personal superpower.
“Once she saw that photo, everything just clicked,” Aidenbaum says. “Now she shows off her hearing aid and talks about it openly. It’s like her superpower, and this project gave her that confidence boost to show it off to the world just as that.”
Aidenbaum says Balbes finds a way in her photography to reveal inner aspects of her subjects that will be appreciated for years to come. Since wearing her hearing aid, Aidenbaum says much has opened up for her daughter. She can socialize better with friends. She hears the chirping of faraway birds. Now, she looks forward to attending school as well as religious school at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, all because of her improved hearing — and because of that photograph where she beams with confidence.
Aidenbaum’s son Bradley, 8, also got in the shots holding signs of support. She says when it comes to raising boys, it can be tricky to balance how to teach them to be “gentlemen and menstches” while at the same time wanting them to respect girls and eventually women as equals.
Sari Zalesin, a single mother who has had a successful career in the radio industry, including as a founder of XM radio and as one of the National Hockey League’s first female public address announcers in 1993, says her daughter, Laila Rose Goodstein, 9, participated in the photo project because she wanted to teach her girls can be tough yet still lead with a tender, kind heart.
“I wanted to teach Laila that the glass ceiling no longer exists,” said Zalesin of Berkeley. “You can lead with kindness in this world as a woman. You can be that tough girl on the soccer field but still have an inner softness.”
Bari Balbes will be photographing girls the first Saturday of every month to keep
growing the Girls Photo Project. If you are interested, contact her at (248) 766-3676 or email her at email@example.com.