Photo Essay: “Our Ophelia”

Our Ophelia    


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Maddie Natoli and I met in high school due to mirroring health conditions. Maddie dreamt of becoming a model, and I dreamt of becoming professional photographer. Clearly it was fated that we collaborate. We were positively inspired by Ophelia’s Hamlet death scene, wherein she commits suicide in a pond.   Maddie had the idea to do an Ophelia photoshoot.  


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We found three dresses at our local Goodwill: The first was a white sheer dress, the second a floor length maroon velvet gown, and the third, black and flowing. We wanted to tell the story of her death through a photoset, we used the symbolism in the colored garments to accomplish our goal. We headed for the pool in my backyard. Once there, she donned the white dress and descended into the water. The dress was representative of Ophelia being at peace with the decision she has made, despite the turmoil of her lost loved ones. Pure and clean, the dress was a deep contrast to the murky pond in which she went to die.


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The maroon gown was next. Floor length and velvet, the pool made the dress heavy and solid, dragging her down and distributing her weight differently. This is an image of her last moments and the physical act of her death. Additionally, the rosettes on the neckline of the dress create a feminine yet strong air that we wanted to include. Draped in her gown as well as her mourning, Ophelia’s last moments were painful both physically and mentally. The dress pulled her down just as her loss and depression pulled her to an act of suicide.


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The sun was setting as Maddie slipped back into the water in the black dress and began to float on her back. Ophelia is often portrayed with flowers, and Maddie was no different as the pink buds floated around her. We feel lucky for these photos, seeing as we made a little magic of our own. My shutter-speed being too slow for the fleeting light resulted in a once in a lifetime shot. In these final photos the water and dress appear to be on fire. This was a combination of the edison bulbs that are strung above my pool reflecting in the moving water, and the blurred effect was the poor shutter-speed. These photos are entirely unedited.


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Ophelia was a strong woman with a tragic backstory, one that Maddie and I have always felt kinship with.. Together we have been through trials and tribulations alike. These mutual experiences have driven us to create The Shakespeare Photo Project, within which the Ophelia’s Death shoot was the first of many. We feel this project is impactful, seeing as we intend on putting a more modern twist on Shakespearean characters. This project will be inclusive of all genders, lgbt+, poc, all body types, as well as disabled people.


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When we asked ourselves, “Why Ophelia?”, the answer came back full circle to our dreams and representation. I myself am a disabled and queer photographer, and Maddie is a bisexual and chronically ill model. We rarely see ourselves represented in modern media, never mind in such traditional characters as that of Shakespeare. Everyone deserves representation; we fully intend on making that a reality, quite literally starting right in our own backyard.


Presley Nassise is a queer and disabled photographer from Phoenix, Arizona. Her work centers around inclusion, diversity and social justice. She strives to create photos that evoke strong emotions and tell stories that are universally relatable. You can check out more of her work on instagram.

All photos © Presley Nassise

Model: Maddie Natoli

One thought on “Photo Essay: “Our Ophelia”

  1. Oh my gosh! These are awesome, especially the ones with the fire effect, how lucky. I like that in the second to last photo there’s something unnatural in the angle her head is at–like, it almost looks like sleeping but there’s something about the way the rest of her body is posed that makes it look uncomfortable or “wrong,” at least to my eye. What made you choose pink flowers?


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