East Nashville photographer finds herself on a new stage
“Everything is so new right now!” Stacie Huckeba says, settling in at Bongo East on a warm June morning. A bright, brassy lady with auburn hair, fun glasses, and a ready smile, she nurses her coffee and muses on her career as a photographer and filmmaker, her blogging success and nascent public speaking career that’s come out of nowhere, and what it’s like to be half the person she used to be, at least by how the bathroom scale measures things.
She’s bobbing in the waves of a massive sea change. For 10 years, she’d been a successful photographer and filmmaker in East Nashville, and that’s all she’d wanted to be. Then one of her blog posts went viral, and she wound up being offered a job writing for The Huffington Post — not taking photos, writing, a whole ’nother line of work. From that have come offers from the TED world to tell her story. And on top of all that, she finds herself physically redefined; no longer 350 pounds of heavenly joy, she’s discovering how everything changes when you lose 170 pounds.
Huckeba moved to Nashville to pursue her photography and is now a veteran of shoots for everyone from Motley Crue to Tom T. Hall. She has shot Billy Joel, Don Was, Rod Picott, the Wild Ponies, and Sarah Potenza, as well as having had a long professional relationship with Todd Snider, shooting his “Unbreakable” music video and his The Storyteller Live performance video. He calls her the real thing — artistic, professional, and a great hang, too. Elizabeth Cook thinks she’s artistic, focused, and funny as hell.
She counts Sony, Gold Mountain, and the Americana Music Association among her clients. She produces video memoirs of rock legends for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for which she spent a riotous afternoon with Grace Slick), and is currently partnered with Richie Owens on a long-form documentary on his kin, the Partons, and their titular matriarch, Dolly.
Huckeba photographs people. Not sunsets. Not bowls of fruit. People. More specifically, musician- and singer-type people. It’s her favorite thing in the world to do. She captures people in live performance at full throttle, and in her photo studio she coaches them, cajoles them, and seeks to unlock that inner self that ordinarily dances off one’s face for the world to see, but disappears precisely when a camera enters the equation.
“When I shoot, I’m digging around inside of people,” she says.“I really work hard to get to that real place with people, to pull something out of them, some facet they don’t just walk around and show to the public. A shoot unfolds like a relationship. In the beginning everyone is nervous, but as it progresses a level of trust develops and in the end, for at least one frame, you find a soul mate.”
For years, Huckeba had blogged on her own WordPress page. In one entry, she came close to nailing East Nashville artistry in a short paragraph: “Awesome people don’t walk around trying to pretend that they or that anything is ever going to be perfect. Awesome people walk around with their scars hanging out right in the open. They will show them to you and talk to you about them if you ask. And they desperately want to know about yours, too. Awesome people understand that part of true beauty comes from those parts of us that are the ugliest, darkest, and most flawed.” She blogged about anything and everything, but a thread of existentialism ran through most of it — who we are, who we posture ourselves to be, who we are to others.
Then one day, filled with the fury reserved for self-centered leviathans, she penned an open letter to Comcast, and existentialism had nothing to do with it. Wickedly funny, sharp and damning, it was a love letter brimming with facetious admiration for Comcast’s flawlessly duplicitous, crap customer service, their downright dishonesty, and the apathy birthed of their own monopoly. She begs for tutelage on how she herself might harness the havoc wrought in the souls of those who stand up to be counted, only no one cares to do the counting.
In one purgative screed, she blew up the Death Star. The post got over 100,000 hits, and then a million, then two million. It was the righteous wrath of two million people slapping their foreheads and saying, “You go girl! Preach it!”
“It wasn’t just about Comcast,” she says of the response she got. “It resonated with people on a lot of different levels. On a customer service level, it resonated with all cable subscribers. It didn’t have to be Comcast, it could be Time Warner or Cox cable. People were like, ‘My God! It’s the same thing here!’ And then the political aspect seemed to touch people, because I wrote ‘You all have to tell me how you get the government to make it where you’re the only ones who have access to high quality stuff, because if I can just shut down all the other photographers in town, I’m in business!’” With that one blog, Huckeba went from speaking for herself to speaking for millions.
Editors at The Huffington Post took notice of her sharp, no-bullshit writing style and came calling, and before she knew what was happening, she found herself blogging for them with carte blanche to write about anything and everything.
“I didn’t expect the blog to happen in the way that it did, and I didn’t expect it to reach people in the way that it has,” she says. “The weird thing for me is transitioning from that place behind the scenes, behind the camera, to this thing where people are paying attention to me. And that’s where I get a little bit awkward right now.”
The observer is now being observed. The adjustment is complicated and ongoing. For this article she had her first photo shoot in which she was in front of the lens as opposed to in her comfort zone behind it. It was agonizing to allow another photographer to dig for the very stuff in her that she seeks to reveal in her own subjects.
“The idea of doing that with someone I don’t really know, another photographer, was almost paralyzing to me,” she confesses. Indeed, she wound up micromanaging her own photo shoot to the extent that it fell apart, and Stacie’s assistant wound up doing the final shoot. “I’m happy for her,” she says, “I’m sure the pictures are going to be beautiful, but there’s a part of me that says I should have just sucked it up and let the photographer take my picture. Eventually, I’m going to have to do that if this keeps going. Somebody else is going to have to take my picture, and I’m going to have to trust that process.”
Her wariness has as much, or more, to do with her dramatic weight-loss as it does with feeling the heat of the klieg lights. She freely admits that she doesn’t quite know who she is right now. Her weight had long shaped how she saw the world because it informed how the world perceived her. She long ago took note of how no one helped her if she dropped something in the grocery aisle, or how it was harder for a fat person to get waited on. “If you’re heavy, you won’t be bothered because nobody wants to have anything to do with you. So it’s a safe place to be. You can’t get hurt. People don’t just walk up to somebody who’s 350 pounds in a bar and start a conversation.” She is painfully aware now that people are looking at her differently. And it doesn’t feel great like the Jenny Craig commercials might imply it should; perhaps because the weight loss was not borne of years of counting calories and visualizing herself lithe and winsome.
“I wanted to be a better human being,” she remembers. “A better friend, partner, lover, photographer, artist, writer, and person. I started walking the dogs because I wanted to be a better dog mom to Earl and Peanut. The pounds just naturally followed. If that makes any sense at all.”
It’s changed how she behaves on photo shoots, too. “I feel like I’m having to relearn or modify my behavior,” she says. “When you’re that large, you’re clumsy because the world is made for small people. You naturally bumble and bump into things. And people don’t like to say it, but it’s true — when you’re that big, there’s just something sort of shocking about it, so you learn to maneuver a certain way. You use a lot of humor, and make jokes about your clumsiness. We like our fat people either really funny or really talented — you’ve gotta be either John Moreland or John Candy. That’s how we like our fat people. And for me, it was easier to be funny to break down some of that discomfort with my appearance.”
But that doesn’t work now, she says. Something has changed, and she’s still so in the thick of it that her perception of the change is still blurry. “Now when I’m doing shoots, being so much thinner, my humor can come off as hyper or off-putting somehow, for some reason, because I come in a different physical form now. It’s something I’m very much still struggling with.”
The impetus driving her towards public speaking was a particularly polarizing blog entry on The Huffington Post this past January. The article, “Real Women Have Back Fat,” is in itself innocuous enough, focusing on the time-honored notion that men are not the focus of the fat-shaming that women have to contend with. A photo was included of Stacie from the back, nude save a strategically placed feather boa. Something, for whatever reason, raised the hackles of chauvinists and fat-shamers the world over. Huckeba had been accustomed enough to the odd nasty feedback, but this was beyond the pale. And it hurt.
She retreated into her own self, brought down by the hostile storm and what may have been winter blues giving a heavier pall to it. Then she got a piece of mail that changed everything.
“I got an email from a young woman who was planning on taking her own life that day,” she says. “She told me that after reading my blog, she reached out to her mother and sought professional help. And that’s when I realized I had written that blog specifically for her. I also got the feeling that I had something to say.”
She reached out to Jen Gunderman, local pianist and Vanderbilt professor, about a place to speak. Laurel McFarland, who Huckeba used to work for on the West Coast, offered to help facilitate bookings, and another career was born.
Stacie is readying herself for her debut as a public speaker, and ideas of self-image are central to her message. “I had a photo shoot yesterday with somebody who’s stunning,” she says. “She’s 40, and is struggling with stuff, and she kept hiding. Hiding behind a hat, hiding behind her hands. I would get close to her, and she was very apprehensive. So much so that I finally said, ‘Okay, stop.’ I pulled out my zoom lens, and I took a photo of her that was literally cropped at her chin and her forehead. And I turned the camera around — to show her the raw file — and said, ‘LOOK at you! First of all, trust me, and second of all, you’re STUNNING! Even in extreme close up. So stop being so worried!’ I think we get so caught up in feeling our physical selves is not enough for the world, or we’re not presenting ourselves in the right way.”
The message Stacie aims to take to the stage in her public speaker’s role is one of just such empowerment, and encouraging people to accept themselves because, as she says, “Our flaws make us beautiful.”
Expanding on that, she says, “People get so wrapped up in their flaws — like I have a big nose, or I have a big ass, or I have this or that — and the thing that bothers me about that is that they DON’T! But somebody, somewhere, said something to them, or made a comment, or kids were mean, or they got dumped for a girl with a smaller ass or whatever it is — there is some psychological trigger that caused them that sort of anxiety over their physical characteristics. Your flaws are what make you strong!
“When people leave my talks, I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to look at whatever that thing is that they didn’t like about themselves walking in and see it differently walking out. I want them to see other people with those eyes, too. And I want more than anything for them to start to change the whole conversation about beauty and self-love when they go back out into the world.”