Ashlee Dean Wells, a Chicago-based photographer, activist, and mother of two, believes strong images can change people. And that's exactly why she created a stunning photo series that celebrated postpartum bodies and shattered unreasonable expectations called the 4th Trimester Bodies Project — it's beyond empowering.
After starting the project in 2013, she's already racked up more than 63,000 followers on Instagram. But Ashlee says it wasn't internet fame she was after; she simply wanted to make parents feel more comfortable in their own skin.
"It was my goal to normalize what is normal by creating a visual archive and representation of what bodies actually look like and to create a safe stigma- and shame-free platform for people to share their stories and experiences authentically," Ashlee told POPSUGAR.
Ashlee admits her own experience is what made her hellbent on starting this project.
"My twins became sick at 19 weeks from twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome and had to undergo an uncertain fetal surgery. My twins were ultimately delivered via emergency cesarean at 24 weeks, and Aurora was stillborn," she explained. "Nova was born weighing one pound, developed a profound brain bleed, then hydrocephalus, and almost died several times . . . in the process I found myself isolated and alone."
"It hit me that I couldn't be the only person on the other side of parenting who felt this way."
Although Ashlee was understandably heartbroken, she channeled her emotions into something positive: her photo project.
"I needed to share my truth but people were afraid to listen," explained Ashlee. "I wanted my body to feel whole again but I felt so broken. It was devastating, but at my lowest low, it hit me that I couldn't be the only person on the other side of parenting who felt this way."
Now that the 4th Trimester Bodies Project has grown, Ashlee has become even more dedicated to sharing other parents' stories through stunning black-and-white photography.
I hope that everyone I work with feels empowered, heard, and gets exactly what they need to out of the process and their images. For some people that is beauty, for others that is strength, vulnerability, or power. The power of the community following along is invaluable and I hope that every human that sees these photographs is able to see the beauty and honesty in them. I hope they are able to identify with the bodies, experiences, and stories they see. I hope anyone feeling alone is able to instead know that there is a whole community behind them seeking to empower them and change societies dialogue surrounding the many things this work and our stories address.
Scroll through to see some of Ashlee's most powerful shots.