It Was the Best (Half) Day in Paris—Ever!

This is the first in a series of profiles of expats in France, including noteworthy Parisians, who’ve taken risks to create the life they want. This one features photographer Carla Coulson, an Australian expat living in Paris.

©Carla Coulson

©Carla Coulson

A few years ago, while searching for who-knows-what online, Google served up the website of photographer Carla Coulson. It was full of dreamy images of gorgeous women, all shot in Paris. I wished I could be like those women.

Turns out, I could be like those women. A page of before-and-after images revealed Carla’s subjects weren’t models; they were women just like me. I didn’t know how she did it, but she made the women look comfortable, glamorous, and iconic. I’d been wanting photos for my blog, but dreaded having professional pictures taken. Maybe, with Carla, I’d finally found someone who would “get” me, so I emailed her immediately but our schedules didn’t jibe. Then, time whizzed past.

©Carla Coulson

©Carla Coulson

A few years later, Carla cropped up into my life again—this time through a mutual friend. I needed headshots for my book jacket and I couldn’t put it off any longer. So, back in November, my friend connected Carla and me. Our first meeting was like being reunited with a long lost friend. As with many expats who are drawn into the net that is Paris, Carla and I had very similar stories. We’d both gone through personal reinvention and came to Paris by accident (Italy being our first loves). We also share a passion to inspire people and help them brand themselves.

We scheduled my photo shoot for the end of November, but leading up to it, Carla worked with me to shape the feel of the photos. She sent me a branding questionnaire—the same kind I send to my own clients—to help her gain a better understanding of my brand: goals, mission, positioning, image, etc. As many times as I’d asked my clients to do this work, I hadn’t taken my own advice to visualize my brand in this same way. And since I am my own brand, it meant examining me, myself. It forced me to pause and examine who I was. Did I know? Or had I defined myself based solely on how I related to others, where I fit in? This “Susie Co-dependence” found the questionnaire difficult at first. But as the picture became clearer, and I began to appear before my own eyes, I became exhilarated.

Carla also encouraged me to pull together inspirational images: photos I loved; fashion and makeup looks I wanted. How did I see myself? What impression did I want to make? All of this research and reflection was a kind of indulgence I hadn’t afforded myself—maybe ever. It was a powerful exercise in self-realization. It’s one thing to dream, but this branding prep work helped me to define the vision specifically, and to own it.

Hair and makeup came with the shoot. Veronique made sure I was never, ever shiny. It was freezing that day, but you'd never know from the photos.

Hair and makeup came with the shoot. Veronique made sure I was never, ever shiny. It was freezing that day, but you’d never know from the photos.

After all that, the day of the shoot almost didn’t happen. The scheduled shoot date was just a week after the terror attacks that rocked the city. I emailed Carla to say that I wasn’t sure I was in the mood to run around Paris, smiling. And tragically, the locations I’d chosen for my shoot—my favorite places—were in the very areas that had been besieged. But Carla gently suggested that we shouldn’t let the terrorists stop us from doing what we loved, in the city we loved. “You will be with a lovely makeup artist and team who will care and look after you,” she wrote.

And look after me they did. I spent the morning in hair and makeup—a total pampering—then enjoyed personal fashion styling (they chose four different outfits!), before we headed out for the shoot. I felt totally in their hands, surrendering my control and expectations. Carla and her team made me feel safe, comfortable, happy, and confident. The results are evident in the photos here.

"Oh my God, I'm Carrie Freaking Bradshaw," I said when I saw these photos. ©Carla Coulson

“Oh my God, I’m Carrie Freaking Bradshaw,” I said when I saw these photos. ©Carla Coulson

But even before I saw the images, I knew the shoot was the best thing I’d ever done for myself. It started with a simple need for photos for my book, but I ended up with much more. The experience brought me joy in the middle of a dark time. But even more, it was day of celebration: of me, and my life in Paris—something I really hadn’t done before. I’d always felt apologetic about taking care of me, but committing to this shoot was the opposite of narcism; it was a true act of self-love.

Carla knows full well that this is what she gives her clients (she teared up as she watched my reaction to the images she’d shot of me). She captures the light we women often hide away, and shines it outward for the world to see. I’m so grateful.

Still can't believe this is me. ©Carla Coulson

Still can’t believe this is me. ©Carla Coulson

Meet the Photographer

CarlaCarla Coulson talks about Paris, reinvention, and why she loves what she does. 

So, why Paris?  

[Laughs.] Well, Paris wasn’t actually my choice. I had happily taken the leap of faith and changed my life and moved to Italy. Swapped a successful business for my passion for photography in Florence and was getting started. I had finished my photography school, started working with Australian magazines, had my first publishing deal and met Mr. Right. Then one day Mr. Right came home and announced he had been accepted into an architecture program in Lyon, I was devastated. I looked on the map and thought I’ll go to Paris and we can have lovely romantic weekends in both places. The reality was wildly different, but that’s how I arrived here.

What was your former life and what made you reinvent it?  

On the outside, my former life looked great. I had a successful business selling promotional clothing with my best friend. We had worked together for almost 13 years and the business was at a great point, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was single, living in Sydney, and as the years rolled by, I knew if I didn’t change something I would be living the same life when I was sixty. A catalyst came in the form of winning “Client of the Year” at my local Thai takeaway. I was so devastated, it pushed me to do something about it—and this took me on the best adventure one could dream of for the past 15 years.

Who usually hires you for the photo shoots? Can anyone do a shoot with you?

I work with creative women from around the world who have their own online business or brand, and want images for their websites, social media and to promote their business and brand. But I also work with women who love Paris and photography and want to create a unique portrait here.

What is your goal for each photo shoot?  

My goal is to take the best possible images I can of the woman I am collaborating with that reflects her personality and brand. I love photography with emotions so I am always looking to capture the emotions of the woman, her brand and her message—as much as her beauty.

Any great anecdotes to share?  

©Carla Coulson

©Carla Coulson

I had one fabulous client called “La Contessa.” She had an antiques business in the States and it was called the Hen House. When she told me she had a red opera coat planned for her shoot, I immediately thought of a Bruce Weber shot of The Duchess of Cornwall feeding the chickens. I called La Contessa and sent her the photo, and suggested we use it as inspiration—and she told me she had the same picture on her fridge for years. Voila, that is the beautiful thing about working with people who have the same taste, vision, and sense of fun as me.

Visit Carla’s website, here.

7 responses to “It Was the Best (Half) Day in Paris—Ever!

  1. Oh my! The Distant Francophile just had a post about Carla Coulson! She seems to be THE photographer!!! And is the “contessa” the same as THE Vintage Contessa (I realize I haven’t used anywhere near enough caps-lock for her. Apologies). So many fabulous women overlapping. I guess it’s inevitable.


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