Colleen Bies | Oshkosh, WI
Maybe we were just completely ignorant at the time. We didn’t live in the best neighborhood of Oshkosh, but we were really fortunate, because we had each other. I had five other sisters and three other brothers. We were a very large family, and I was right in the middle.
Growing up we didn’t have a lot. We were one of the earlier Hmong refugee families that came to Wisconsin. My parents came from Laos, and my dad was a soldier fighting on behalf of the United States. When the war started to end, our people were getting hunted down for helping the US forces. My parents didn’t have an option but to flee. They ended up living in the jungles for almost four years just trying to survive. My mom lost four of my siblings during that time, and she almost passed away herself. Luckily, they were able to make it past the Mekong River, which is the river that divides Thailand from Laos. They made it to Thailand to the refugee camps, and eventually, were granted permission to come to the United States.
In Oshkosh, we definitely felt a lot of that separation. We felt a lot of racism, prejudices, and there were people that just didn’t treat us well. We once had neighbors that really just didn’t like us. My siblings and I would be playing in the backyard and they’d send their dog out. They’d say, ‘sic them,’ you know, to come get us, to come attack us. My brothers were attacked a couple of times by their dog.
There were other things we were really grateful for, like the First Congregational Church in Oshkosh. It is the most amazing and open-minded church that I’ve ever been to or seen. They supported our family when we first moved into the area. They helped my father find work and made sure that he was educated enough to get the work in the first place. It was nice that we had a little bit of support because it gave us some kind of system to lean on.
Purely by accident, when I was seventeen, I went to go see an army recruiter. I thought I was going to see a Peace Corps recruiter, but I was very, very wrong! When I came home from school that day, my dad inquired as to why I came home from school late. I started to tell him what happened, but I didn’t get to the punchline.
He began to say that I was a female. I was weak. I shouldn’t do anything. I shouldn’t strive for anything. The best thing that I could do was to get married and be a good wife and mom. Looking back, I don’t blame him. I don’t have any ill resentment towards him about that. For my father coming from the kind of world and environment that he came from, he did genuinely believe that the best kind of life I could have was to be a mom and a wife. It wasn’t necessarily that he was trying to insult me. He was trying to push what he thought was genuinely the best for me. That all happened on a Monday, and by Wednesday, I was raising my right hand—swearing into the military. That has forever changed the trajectory of my life in the very best way possible. I would not be who I am today, if all of that didn’t happen. They say there’s that one moment in your life that really changes everything. That was my one moment.
Our family wasn’t privileged enough to own a camera nor could we afford one. Growing up in a poor family, an immigrant refugee family, I didn’t really know if I would be successful here. I felt like things were against me. I thought, ‘If I don’t have money for college, then how am I going to pay my bills? If I go to college and I end up having to work a lot, that might make my grades suffer, and then I might drop out.’ I had this whole picture that I had painted in my mind that I would not be successful because I was poor. That is why joining the military was one of the best decisions of my life—it helped pay for my college. I went to school for finance and worked in that field for a number of years until my second deployment to Iraq.
When I realized I would prefer to go to war, than go to work, I knew I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. During my time in Iraq, I did my work. I was pretty confident in what I was doing and a little fearful of what I would do when I came back to Oshkosh. When I returned from Iraq, I knew it was time to make a change. And that came in the form of photography. Eventually, what started as a creative outlet, escalated to the point where I ended up taking my photography business full time.
Now, I have a wedding photography business and boudoir photography business and work for a non-profit helping other business owners. I never imagined I’d stay in the area, but my family is here. If I’m not leaving this area and if the area isn’t changing, how and what can I change to make this a place I want to raise my family?
Several years ago I was asked by Tracey Robinson to be the photographer for an Oshkosh exhibit, “Color-Brave Photo Project: Black and Brown Faces, a New Narrative.’ The Color-Brave photo project will live with me forever. It was such an important project to me and to the community, it features the faces and stories of people of color who live in Oshkosh. Tracey was looking for a photographer that was local, had experience taking portraits of people of color and preferably was a person of color themselves. I’m so grateful I managed to fit in all the right places and cannot imagine not ever being a part of this project.
The boudoir photography I do also has a local impact. Growing up we didn’t talk about sexuality in my house. We didn’t even talk about women empowerment. Prior to joining the military, I was a very shy, quiet person. I didn’t talk to anyone. I was very much in self-doubt all the time. I didn’t have a very high level of confidence or self-esteem. Growing up with that kind of mentality, I didn’t think that women could be strong. I didn’t think I could be strong or confident in who I am. I didn’t think that I could be beautiful or sexy. Boudoir photography unveiled this entire world for me. To accept yourself for who you are, you can accept yourself as a beautiful, confident woman. It has really given me so much. Other people deserve to know this and feel this the way that I have.
In my studio, I have a full lingerie closet with over 300 pieces. I am open to all people—all genders, all diversity, all sizes. In order to be very inclusive, I carry lingerie from the sizes of extra small to 6X. When anyone comes into my studio, no matter their shape, size, color, I want them to feel very confident, and very comfortable, that they’re going to find something that looks wonderful on them.
That goes for my makeup and hair artist as well. I really wanted to work with someone that was able to tailor the look to all people: different shades, different colors, different hairstyles. Everyone gets that personalized pampering and their own tailored custom look that matches who they are. After I take the first or second photo, I immediately show them what it looks like from the back of the camera. Most of the time they’re just in disbelief that that’s them. I love sharing right away because it gives me an opportunity to show ‘this is you right out of the camera. It just happened.’
My boudoir photography helped me get through the pandemic. A lot of weddings were canceled or postponed. As much as boudoir photography saved my business, it also saved a lot of these women and these women saved me. At a time when the entire world fell into a deep depression, boudoir photography was a vital way to lift spirits, build confidence and bring back positivity. Every woman that felt better about themselves when they walked out of my studio breathed life into me and anyone that encountered them after.