Tips + Techniques

Raw Portraits of Acceptance — The “As I Am” Project

April 25, 2024

By Mitzi Starkweather

On Valentine’s Day 2023, I began a personal project creating raw portraits. I was nervous (read: terrified) to follow my heart in this way. In fact, I’d put it on the back burner for nearly two years. But when you survive cancer, scary things (like photography projects) feel less scary. And when you survive cancer, the things you do and do not want become crystal clear.

I wanted to offer a photoshoot that was different: no professional hair/makeup, no new clothes, no Photoshop, all black and white. I wanted to call it “AS I AM” because two years prior I had a return client reach out and request to be photographed as those three words. But I was afraid because I’d built a career on fancy, highly-stylized photography, and I didn’t want to confuse my audience or devalue my existing work.

But Something Else Happened — Something Else Entirely

When I started my “AS I AM” Project, I didn’t have much of a plan. “Trust the process,” I repeated to my type-A self. I took one step at a time and let it unfold. People showed up for this. My clients inspired me in ways I never thought possible. These sessions healed (and continue to heal) some of the deepest, darkest corners of my heart. I let my heart lead. I listened to my body.

Turns out, my journey of offering to hold space for people to exist in raw portraits just as they are required me to be able to exist AS I AM first. And when breast cancer rocked my world in the summer of 2022, disfigured my body, and destroyed my pride, I realized so much about what I believed about life, self-love, body image, etc. Going flat after breast cancer forced me to pull one block out of the bottom of the Jenga of my core beliefs (clumsily, as I do) and make all the rest collapse.

Long story short: I learned that true love is acceptance.

Love does not demand more.

Love says, ‘I see you,

and you in this moment are worthy


Mitzi Starkweather


I believe that more every day. As I move through this season, I wake up with more hope each morning. For the first couple months, I (surprisingly) did not have many words to write about my “AS I AM” raw portrait project. So many people have engaged with it, come up to me at coffee shops and said they love it — and I thank each and every one of them for that. At first, the portraits were the words. They were the only expression I had, and they continue to hold such a beautiful place in that medium. But I have some words now, and many of them are not even mine. They are the words of the beautiful souls who trust me to photograph them for my project. Thanks to them, I am healing. I am believing. I am hoping. I am loving.

I am so grateful to the beautiful humans who have met me in my studio and have been open to loving themselves exactly as they are. I know now my “AS I AM” project will continue as long as I am breathing. I am so grateful for that.

Self Portraits

Here’s the other piece of this new adventure: Photographing others’ raw portrait sessions inspired ME to show up in self-portraits in a real, authentic way. My clients couldn’t reschedule because they had a bad hair/acne/tummy bloat day, so why would I?

My self-portrait practice in those first few months of my raw portrait project were deeply transformative.

If you are a creative/visual artist in any medium, I encourage you to start a self-portrait practice. It’s like journaling (free of judgment, rules, or expectations), but using a medium different from written words. If it’s your craft, it will pour from your heart and show you incredible things about yourself. Here are a few steps to get you started:

  1. CONSUME TO CREATE: What fills you up and inspires you? Take it in. (For me, it’s movies.) Whatever elements resonate with you, take those and run with them!
  2. CREATE TIME TO CREATE: my mentor Sue Bryce, creator of The Portrait System, taught me how vital it is to prioritize time for creation. Put it on your calendar and stick to it! Remember, you have time for what you have time for.
  3. HAVE FUN AND BREAK RULES! If you’re someone who has perfectionistic tendencies or struggles with creating with no limitations, think of a “rule” or a way you’ve “always done it,” and then break the rule or do it wrong on purpose. This will help you break your brain out of tunnel vision and into the joy of creation. Ever watched a three-year old color a picture? They pick up whatever color they want and do whatever they want. Tap into your inner child and have fun.

My “AS I AM” raw portrait sessions have healed deep, dark parts of my heart and have connected me more than ever to my creative expression. My clients feel it too, and I love the way we connect authentically during these sessions.

Reach out to me if you’d like to book an “AS I AM” session with me, and don’t forget to have fun, ok?

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared on Mitzi Starkweather’s blog.

Mitzi Starkweather is an Associate Photographer accredited by The Portrait Masters. She’s also an educator, writer, and speaker based in Southwest Missouri. You can schedule a raw portrait session with her here, and learn how to do raw portrait sessions yourself from her course in The Portrait Masters Store.