Ana Del Castillo had been suffering from bulimia for 13 years when, in 1995, a photographer friend, Ellen Fisher Turk, asked to take some nude portraits of her as part of an experiment. Desperate to extricate herself from the binge-and-purge cycle, the 26-year-old office temp agreed. And in the course of the three-hour photo session, Fisher Turk’s lens captured Del Castillo’s body language as she blossomed from a shrinking violet, covering up her 5’6″, 150-lb. frame, into a more confident woman, standing tall with her arms outstretched.
Still, when Del Castillo, now 32 and a singer and film producer in New York City, first saw the black-and-white images, she only focused on her perceived flaws. Then, “all of a sudden I saw something different,” she recalls. “I saw the curve of my hip and said, ‘Oh, that’s lovely.’ It’s a moment of compassion for yourself.”
For Fisher Turk, the hopeful response of Del Castillo—who has since overcome her bulimia—and the 100 women she has photographed since cemented her belief that allowing people with eating disorders to see themselves through the camera’s unbiased lens can help them face their problems and eventually learn to accept their bodies.
Fisher Turk, 55, came up with the idea six years ago after taking pictures of a friend with a distorted body image. While viewing the contact sheets, the woman said, “I’m starting to see myself as you’re describing me, not overweight and big, but beautiful.” Intrigued, Fisher Turk found seven women with body-image concerns. She asked them to keep journals about their feelings before and after the shoot. “They started to look different,” Fisher Turk noticed when they came back to see her. “They cut their hair, dressed differently, went after different jobs.” But she emphasizes that the photographs aren’t quick cures. “It’s not like penicillin,” she says. “I see it as a healing tool.”
So do experts like Dr. Ira Sacker, head of the eating-disorders program at Brooklyn’s Brookdale Hospital, who often sends patients to Fisher Turk as part of their therapy. “As a visual tool, this is the most effective thing I’ve ever utilized,” he says. “Ellen’s work gives a person another window. They begin to see themselves.” And once that occurs, says psychotherapist Barbara Meyer, who has conducted workshops with Fisher Turk, “you have everything from total shock to sobbing.”
Growing up in North Valley Stream, N.Y., Fisher Turk never suffered from poor body image. Her parents—sculptor Bette, 76, and retired insurance negotiator Martin Fisher, 80—doted on Ellen and her brother David, 51, a pediatric cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio. After earning a history degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Ellen married her college sweetheart, lawyer Harry Turk, 57. While raising their two sons—Eric, 35, a music producer in Atlanta, and Matt, 30, a singer-songwriter in New York—she held jobs as diverse as radio reporter and special-ed teacher before taking up documentary filmmaking and photography in 1987. Divorced from Harry in 1989, she lives alone in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
Fisher Turk’s empathy for her subjects dates back 25 years, when she joined Overeaters Anonymous to deal with sugar cravings. (She was later diagnosed as hypoglycemic and has been treated.) “I know what it’s like to be controlled by a demon,” she says. “I know the darkness, which is why these women let me inside.”
Julie K.L. Dam
Debbie Seaman in New York City