Renegades

The Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Who Found Her Voice When She Lost Her Clothes

Born in an ultra-strict community, Shelbie Dimond found freedom in nude self-portraiture—and cost herself everyone she loved.

The Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Who Found Her Voice When She Lost Her Clothes

Shelbie Dimond drops her high-waisted jeans, shirt, bra, and thong into a pile beside her camera kit. She looks over Hollywood’s rooftops from a large patio. Strangers amble out of the house, smoking cigarettes or chasing their dogs.

“Um, can you get naked?” she asks Kevin, who’s given her access to this place. She’s just met him in person, though they’ve followed each other on Instagram for a while.

“You want me to get naked right now?” he asks.

“Yeah, we’re going to make this quick. I’m cold.”

Kevin’s girlfriend presses a button on her laptop, and “Take My Breath Away” begins playing.

“O.K., you don’t have to be naked yet,” Dimond says.

Kevin clambers across a mattress set in the corner of the space, onto the balcony ledge.

“Is this going to take a while?” he asks.

“Yeah. It’s film,” says Dimond. “And I’m the photographer and the model.”

Dimond began taking pictures as a child, but only forayed into nude self-portraiture a few years ago. Using vintage cameras, Dimond makes vulnerable, emotionally expressive photographs that have been shown as far away as Denmark, in both solo galleries and alongside the work of Sally Mann and other photographers.

Dimond’s expectations for today’s shoot match those she’s had for any other: She’s trying out the space, seeing what comes from it.

Ordering Kevin off the wall, Dimond covers his face with a mask, bobby-pinning it to his hair. It’s clownish, with a blunt red line for a mouth, one blue-shadowed eyehole, and a blue splotch where the other eye would be.

She winds the timer on her camera. Her skin raises with goose bumps as her blonde, pin-up-girl hair blows up off her shoulders like a cape. A light smell of sweat drifts from her body as she quickly kneels on the wall beside Kevin.

Her Polaroid spits out the photo and Dimond lays it on the mattress to develop.

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The scene: A small, masked man leans away from a thin, pale woman, gazing up at her. Her fingertips rest on his shoulder; her bent knee is close to his chest. At his eye level, her nipples stand against the wind. The roof above and the wall below frame their bodies, blue sky, a pair of thick cypresses. The mask covering Kevin’s face is unsettling, evoking the hard-edged silence at the start of desert-set horror films. He’s clothed, and this adds a menacing quality to the photo, since Dimond is vulnerable, bare and youthful.

Far from this freewheeling corner of Los Angeles is Dimond’s rural home in Delton, Michigan. Born into a devout Jehovah’s Witness family, Dimond chafed against religious constrictions early. Her photography led her out of Delton, beyond the close circle of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents united by belief in Jehovah. Living in line with her desires and ambitions meant being shunned by most of the people she loved.

She’s been trying ever since to find replacements. One idea she has would visually fill in this loss through a photo series made up of different takes on her biological family’s portrait.

People would stand in for her original family members, dressed as her family was, and she’d create a host of different versions of the same shot, imagining what could take the place of the home she can’t get back.

After the shoot, Dimond slips on a light-green silk negligée and matching short-sleeved bed-jacket, both hand-sewn during the 1930s. She taps glitter around her eyes and smooths some through her hair before applying a fresh coat of hairspray from a gold can. She’s got a party to get to.

Dimond loads her belongings into her Volkswagen SUV. The narrow road requires frequent turns as it winds down the hill, but the tight quarters don’t temper Dimond’s somewhat aggressive driving. She eats from a plastic container of chocolate-covered almonds and tells me about life before Los Angeles, before photography, before atheism.

Dimond’s parents, who didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, married young, as is usual for Jehovah’s Witnesses. They settled near Long Lake, in Delton, close to family, and Dimond’s early life revolved around the water.

“Every year, there would be a turtle that laid [its] eggs too late in the summer,” she says. “I would go and harvest the eggs and hatch them over the winter and then release them in the spring.”

Dimond’s dad sporadically pulled her out of bed to their rowboat to watch meteor showers or the northern lights. Together, they planted a sunflower that outgrew her and gathered pieces of the old railroad that had run nearby. He taught her to use an analog camera, the Canon A-1. Taking it everywhere, Dimond shot the icicles hanging from her roof, her black cat, and a wall full of vintage hats at a store in Grand Rapids.

“My childhood was awesome,” she says, “outside of the Jehovah’s Witness stuff.”

Shelbie Dimond and her cousin, Whitney Roberts, at the Long Lake, in Delton, Michigan, circa 2008.

Meetings at the “Kingdom Hall” — what Jehovah’s Witnesses call their houses of worship — were dry gatherings. “There’s only one Bible, so you go over the same stuff a lot,” Dimond says. At school, Dimond was prohibited from celebrating classmates’ birthdays and required to leave the classroom during lessons on evolution.

These restrictions could be borne, mostly, but Dimond found ways to occasionally subvert the rules. She often got away with sneaking out of her house, but one winter day she and a friend weren’t so lucky. They thought their tracks would be covered over by fresh snow, but the snow didn’t come soon enough. The girls got caught. Within days, Dimond was called to confess at a “judicial meeting” with the church elders and her father, who had to be in the room since Dimond was only 14.

The meeting was held at the Kingdom Hall in a small room with purple accents. The group sat at a long, blonde-wood table — Dimond, alone, across from the three elders, her father at the head. “He was visibly so uncomfortable,” Dimond says. As though on trial, she had to give detailed answers to the elders’ questions: Yes, she’d kissed a boy. Yes, she’d let him touch her vagina. And, yes, she’d smoked marijuana. Following Dimond’s confession, the men read scriptures, prayed with Dimond and her dad, and sent them out of the room.

Kids are supposed to look up to the elders. But compelling “a little girl, who barely understands anything about her body,” to talk about these sexual things is misogynistic and degrading, said Jennifer Boedecker, a lifelong friend of Dimond’s. Part of the elders’ official role is to decide whether confessors are suitably remorseful. “Because I got caught,” Dimond says, “they decided I wasn’t actually repentant enough.”

Dimond’s punishment was public. The next church meeting covered teenage fornication and marijuana use. Dimond listened, mortified, hotly aware that this was all about her. Still, more embarrassment was to come. After the talk, an announcement: Sister Shelbie Dimond was reproved from the congregation. A reproved congregant can’t comment at the meetings or go out in service. “Everyone turned around and looked at me,” Dimond says. Her public shaming was complete.

Dimond and her parents, Robert and Sarah, before she moved away, 2010.

Dimond’s problems at home grew more frequent. She continued sneaking out, skinny-dipping, dating, smoking weed. She was pulled out of high school several times. From 2009 to 2010, instead of graduating, she got her GED and then attended community college, where she took her first photography course. Another student in the class, Kahyl Stevenson, said he was “a bit inspired and a little jealous” of Dimond’s precocity with the camera. While her classmates were imitating magazines, or just trying to make “cool pictures,” Stevenson said, Dimond was doing something different, something “heavy, emotionally.”

Dimond at her going away party a few days before she moved to California. She is standing in front of her grandpa’s truck in Delton, 2010.

Around the time of her 18th birthday, Dimond visited her cousin in California and began to date a Jehovah’s Witness she met there. Dimond’s mother convinced her she should be baptized, saying that, with a move to California and marriage being discussed, people would wonder why she hadn’t made the choice to officially join the fold. So, against her better judgment, Dimond went along. Getting baptized was something to celebrate, and Dimond, wearing a yellow dress, enjoyed being the center of attention that day. Now, she’s unsure why she was allowed to take this step. “I was not a good Jehovah’s Witness,” she says. If a person doesn’t formally join the congregation, they can’t be kicked out. They needn’t be shunned by those still part of the community. With time, she has come to view the choice to get baptized as the worst decision of her life.

Right after her baptism, Dimond flew to San Francisco. It was her time; she was so excited to be leaving. But her plans quickly unraveled. Jehovah’s Witness friends would only allow her to live with them if she went door-to-door preaching 50 hours per month. Instead, she lived in her car in the Sausalito Ferry Building parking lot. This couldn’t last. She was barely an adult, terrified of being destroyed in Armageddon for her sins, and quickly running out of options. An acquaintance introduced her to Oscar Edwards, who was living on a boat docked nearby. Out of necessity and attraction, she moved in with him.

The two became inseparable, collaborating on photo projects, riding their rusty 1940s bike around the Bay Area, and hiking through Muir Woods while tripping on mushrooms.

(R-L) Dimond’s ex husband, Oscar Edwards, Dimond, Chelsea Peacock, Josue Gonzalez and Erica Segovia at her first birthday celebration when she turned 19 in Sausalito, California, 2011. She met her friends on Flickr and they came from San Antonio, Texas, for the celebration.

Dimond struggled perpetually with guilt over breaking the rules of her religion. But this wasn’t just about faith. Dimond couldn’t visit her family while living “in sin.” Had she tried, she likely would’ve been officially cut off from the congregation and unable to talk to her parents. So, Dimond and Edwards decided to get married. She claimed she didn’t want a big wedding, knowing few people from her past would come, and so their invitation list stayed short. Still, she was hurt when the day came — October 22, 2012 — and just two relatives besides her parents showed up.

“I cried the next day,” Dimond says.

The wedding wasn’t the solution she’d hoped it would be. She considered returning to the faith, thereby reuniting with her extended family, but that’d mean giving up her freedom and renouncing her new community. She couldn’t go back. She hadn’t regained her family, but, strangely, she was free. She had nothing more to lose.

At the end of that year, she did her first nude portrait shoot. It was something she’d wanted to try for a while. Self-exposure goes against the religious feminine ideal of chastity, purity, asexuality. During the shoot, the photographic process felt the same, but Dimond was altered. Soon, she would expose her own body on film. “It was the next thing for me to do,” she says.

The first nude Dimond took of herself conveys the depression she was experiencing throughout much of this period. The photo is black and white, darker near its edges. Thin and pale, Dimond lies on a daybed with three low-cushioned walls. A long cylindrical pillow at the bed’s head parallels her body. She rests on her side, faced away from the camera, her knees pulled to her chest. Her feet give the impression of fidgeting in the way they lie one on top of the other. The composition portrays a distinctly feminine sadness.

“I felt liberated,” Dimond says. “It opened up the path to where I am now.”

Dimond’s first nude self-portrait taken in Richmond, California, 2013.

In 2013, Dimond met Todd Hido, a Bay Area photographer. As his intern, then assistant, Dimond observed a professional at work in what she was coming to see as her field. She took more self-portraits, beginning to act out different behaviors in her photographs — suicide, sexual acts. In this way, she says, she manifested different parts of herself that otherwise might have remained unarticulated.

“I find it really interesting as far as sex goes, and religion, because they treat it as something that’s holy and pure, but dirty and wrong,” Dimond says. “It’s a really confusing way to grow up.”

Through these photos, Dimond reclaimed her sexuality, she says. Or, maybe, she was learning about it for the first time.

Self-portrait taken the second time Dimond visited home after she left, 2014.

In early 2014, Dimond traveled to Paris, and her work assumed a distinctly vintage aura. Often taken outside or in old buildings, her pictures play with imagery of the 1950s housewife, reversing the happy ads of that time and visualizing a dark, empty interior life through spare spaces and Dimond’s blank yet pained face. Lou Noble, a medic on film and television sets and friend of Dimond’s, sees her images as works of “emotional catharsis about identity.” Noble thinks it’s important Dimond knows why she’s making nude portraits, but the nostalgia evoked by other photos of hers concerns him more. As a black man in America, he’s suspicious about outlooks that encourage sentimentality about the past.

It didn’t take long for influential people to notice Dimond’s work. Over Facebook, she heard from the curator of a show at the Brandts Museum, in Denmark. He wanted to exhibit her work alongside Sally Mann’s. Though suspecting a scam, Dimond gave the man her address. A few weeks later, she got an official letter from the museum asking her to be part of the “Selfie” exhibit. “I about shat myself,” she says.

A personal low followed this professional high. Just before turning 23, Dimond got the flu and spent a string of days in bed recovering. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series was one way to occupy her mind while her body healed. Soon, though, she was more than just occupied. Watching the program, “The indoctrination began to melt away,” Dimond wrote later in a blog post. “I felt this huge sense of relief come over me: I finally began to understand that life, the Universe: it’s all so much bigger than anything I was ever taught.”

The documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” was released soon after. “I watched it alone one night — tears streaming down my face,” Dimond wrote. “It was my childhood — give or take a few things — but with different terms for the practices. The realization washed over me: I was raised in a Cult. My family — all of them — are stuck in a Cult.”

This clarity brought a long-buried memory to the surface. She’d been molested when she was five by her then 14-year-old cousin, who’s now a congregational elder. This was the breaking point. She couldn’t hold herself back anymore. It was time to face her past, and the people she’d been so afraid to be truthful with. Full of anger and sadness, Dimond called her father. She couldn’t understand it: He works in science. How could he have let me grow up inside this anti-science culture? She called her mother and told her what had happened with her cousin almost 20 years before. She was tired of hiding herself, of feeling guilty, of feeling scared. Tired. “I told them that I felt it wasn’t fair — how could they tell me that they loved me unconditionally?” she wrote.

Having, at last, articulated these feelings, Dimond felt able to ask her parents for help. She wanted therapy but couldn’t afford it. They have paid for her healthcare since.

Dimond is lucky. Other Witnesses’ parents have disappeared with the rest of their community, leaving the person who has separated from the faith truly alone. Though grateful, Dimond says therapy “does not make up for such a monumental loss.”

Six months after she got the flu, Dimond was floating on a surfboard in the Pacific Ocean. In the aftermath of her realizations about her childhood, though she’d been in therapy, her depression had taken her to a new low point. She’d begun to self-harm, even breaking a hairbrush over her face. Desperate, she called Lou Noble, who bought her an Amtrak ticket to Los Angeles.

She had grown up near water, but, though she’d always wanted to, had never learned to surf. That day, she did. When Dimond popped up on the surfboard, her perspective about what was possible shifted. What she’d done, where she was in life, none of it had any relation to her husband, family, or childhood faith. “I realized: O.K., I can do this on my own.”

Dimond pulls onto a side street in the Larchmont neighborhood and parks. Checking her face in the rearview mirror, she rubs a smudge of mascara from her nose. The walk to the party is colder with the sun gone. Though she has a blanket and scarf, she’s still only wearing the silk nightgown and bed-jacket — she has an image to maintain. Tonight’s event, introducing the new season in a friend’s swimwear line, is in the back of a design-store-cum-curiosity-shop, and is fairy themed. Dimond greets friends and a few strangers who recognize her from online, gliding from person to person, smiling easily. Almost all the guests wear dresses and glitter, but Dimond is the only one who looks as though she just stepped away from a 1940s movie set.

She wasn’t always so self-possessed, but when she returned to the Bay Area after learning to surf, she was beginning to be sure of her way forward. It was time to travel to Denmark. Wearing flowy black pants and a short-sleeved, collared top, Dimond visited Brandts. In a sparsely furnished, high-ceilinged room, five of Dimond’s prints hung on a white wall. There’s a photo of her standing beside them, red-lipped, beaming. “I died,” Dimond wrote about being there. Across the hall hung photographs by William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, and Martin Parr. The trip passed quickly; this faraway success couldn’t solve her problems at home. A week after she returned to California — five years into her marriage — Dimond informed her husband she was moving to Los Angeles. They lived together for another month, but their relationship had ended.

Dimond has continued making work. Last year, a Paris gallery threw her a solo show, inviting her to the city. Shortly after this second trip to Paris, Dimond, suffered a mental breakdown, was admitted to a center in L.A. for a month of inpatient psychiatric care, and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. For some, a diagnosis of mental illness would heighten their affliction. For Dimond, it was a revelation. Finally, she could make sense of her mind. The depression and anxiety, at last, had context as symptoms of a larger illness.

Having borderline personality disorder can mean experiencing a distorted sense of self. Fears of abandonment and behaviors such as self-harming can make even healthy relationships difficult to maintain. Dimond’s treatment regimen — Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) — involves keeping a mood-diary, of sorts, and going to individual and group therapy sessions. Dimond thinks she’s had the disorder since she was a teenager “at least,” and sees the way she was raised as directly related to her mental state. Belonging to a community based on meeting certain conditions “really fucks with your brain,” she says.

Self-portrait taken at Dimond’s artist residency in Corsica, France, 2017.

“I think, in my work, you can tell that sometimes I don’t know what the reality is, or what my reality is, and that I’m sifting through a lot of pain,” Dimond says. In a photograph taken in Paris last year, Dimond stands, completely nude except for her Keds, which are untied. She gazes back at an ominous trailer-home with dark black windows, but her feet remain facing forward. “That photograph really illustrates the hold that my past and my brain has on me,” she says.

One of Dimond’s motivations to keep making work and to post about her religious history online is the response she’s received from complete strangers trapped in the Jehovah’s Witness world. A chart Dimond posted comparing Scientology to Jehovah’s Witnesses made one viewer realize “that it was a cult.” The commenter also said, “What you do, keep doing. You will never know how important that moment was to me.” But Dimond does know. She’s had that moment herself.

Through the online photo-community — Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr — Dimond has met some of her best friends, quite a few of whom are at the fairy party tonight. They reminisce about past shoots, sip pink drinks, eat off each other’s plates, share from a plastic bag of cookies someone’s mom made, and pass a blunt. Less about the fashionable swimwear, this party is a homecoming for the fairy in the green negligée. We stay until most people have left, and then we, too, leave. In her VW, headed back toward the freeway, toward home in North Hollywood, Dimond is quiet for a moment. Then she says, “That was the closest thing I’ve had to a family reunion since leaving home eight years ago.”