Historically, how women are depicted in print and onscreen has been controlled by male artists, which has crafted a narrow, uniform way of looking at women through a solely masculine perspective. The male gaze — a term coined by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey — refers to the depiction of women as sexual objects, filmed or photographed predominately for the pleasure of the male viewer. Think of framing techniques used in music videos, best examined in the documentary Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Videos. Women are often placed around the male focal point, dancing or touching themselves or the artist while the camera pans up and down their bodies. Sometimes women are shot from above, focusing on their cleavage, or shot from below, hinting at a voyeuristic peep up their skirts. These women are framed to be viewed as objects, rather than a whole person. It sends the message that what we look like is the most important part of ourselves — not our minds, creativity or capabilities, but purely our bodies and the oversexualization of it.
Three women photographers who have worked with the likes of Sabrina Claudio, Charli XCX, and Nordstrom are pushing back against these limited portrayals of women with inclusive, feminist work that highlights unconventional beauty, expands how women can be portrayed in art, and most importantly, desexualizes women’s bodies and de-centers the male perspective.
Kanya Iwana is a 23-year-old photographer born in Jakarta, Indonesia. She works as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and New York City. Her work often captures women in a fierce, honest, and vulnerable light, with many of her past subjects noting that photo sessions with her were like a form of self-care. Chloe Sheppard is a 22-year-old film photographer and visual artist born in a small town in Bedfordshire, UK, and currently living in London. Her photographs of women are light and playful — evoking nostalgic feelings of being 16 again, hanging with friends, and exploring the city. Ashley Armitage is a 24-year-old photographer from Seattle who is now based in Chicago and New York City. She photographs women comfortably being themselves, and is known for capturing body hair, curves, stretch marks, and other aspects of womanhood (like menstruation) that are often ignored in mainstream media.
BuzzFeed News asked Iwana, Sheppard, and Armitage to discuss how they navigate being women artists in a male-dominated industry and how they approach photographing women in a positive, affirming light.
Describe a noteworthy and personal moment where you or a subject felt empowered by your photography.
Chloe Sheppard: Probably the most memorable moment would be when I did a zine. It was called Lust for Life. I wanted to do a shoot with people who identify as female [but don’t] conform to the beauty ideals of perfect boobs. I wanted people who had saggier boobs, or smaller boobs.
We made it really fun and went all out with makeup and added loads of glitter because some people were more insecure about marks on their boobs. People got the photos back and were like, “Oh I’ve always hated my body, but you made me feel so much better about it,” and stuff like that. It was just nice because I think some people were definitely more empowered by that and the subjects too, because they were shot in a way they probably didn’t think that they could be before.
How do you practice being your own boss?
Kanya Iwana: You learn through your mistakes. And you just work smartly and fearlessly. And that’s so vague, I know, but I think you just have to honestly persevere. It’s so cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason. There’s thousands of people trying to do the same thing and yes, there is room for everyone, but you also have to just stay in your lane, learn a thing or two while you’re running, and keep going. And I didn’t just sit around waiting for jobs. I really did work hard and pitched myself out to, like, all these brands and artists, all these publications. The universe has been in my favor, but there’s a lot of anxiety and tears that came with it.
CS: It’s definitely tough. I went to university for a year, and then I dropped out because I basically never went to class and fell off a lot. I had this freedom that I never had before where I could stay in bed all day and no one’s really gonna tell me off. It’s kind of like that being freelance too, because I can stay in bed all day and do no work, but then I know ultimately, at the end of the day, that I’m going to feel so bad for not doing any work. It’s kind of tough being your own boss because it’s good not having anyone to answer to but yourself, but then it’s also like, when things go wrong, who do I ask questions to? But I can kind of make it work — you just have to find some self-motivation and stick with it.
Ashley Armitage: It’s simultaneously difficult and fun! I definitely need to learn when to work and when to take a break. Photo jobs are unpredictable, so I don’t have a schedule. I don’t have weekends or weekdays, and since a lot of work I get is in different time zones, I’m always checking my email all day and night. I need to learn how to balance things out more and be able to just turn my work brain off sometimes.
When do you feel most vulnerable about showing your work?
AA: I feel most vulnerable when I take self-portraits and then post them on Instagram. Coming to terms with my body has been (and still is) a journey, but having the ability to self-represent is empowering and freeing.
KI: There's been so many different occasions. I feel that way when I feel like the work itself is the most vulnerable or at the truest form of transparency. When I did the Polaroid Originals campaign with all these different mothers, daughters, sons, I knew that for them, being in front of the camera with their family and sharing their testimony about them is so delicate and precious, so of course I had to do them justice. I also feel so vulnerable when capturing pregnant women. I always want to capture these kinds of moments truthfully and beautifully, and there's so much pressure. Creating something tangible that will be a part of their history is always a big deal.
CS: I think I feel most vulnerable when it’s self-portraits. Most of the time when I’m shooting I can hide behind the camera, and stay behind the camera, and not be seen. Whereas when it’s self-portraits, I feel like it’s an instant level of vulnerability that isn’t present when you do other photo shoots. I think also, on like, big jobs and stuff like that, it’s easy to feel vulnerable because it’s quite intimidating at times, especially when there’s a lot of men on set who are being loud and domineering. I feel like that is also a time I feel vulnerable when I’m like, “oh, I wish I was not so shy so I could say something,” but, yeah.
Ashley and Kanya, you both have shot many editorial and commercial projects for big-name companies. Ashley, you have worked with Gucci and Billie, while Kanya, you have worked with Polaroid and Atlantic Records. Are you working on any personal projects right now, and how do you find a balance between commissioned work and personal endeavors?
AA: Honestly, there’s not a hard line in the differences between “jobs” and personal work. I try to bring in my creative vision for every project I do, and I’ve been lucky to work with people who pretty much hire me for my style. I actually usually prefer to do commissioned work over personal work because it’s funded. I am always working on personal projects though. I typically do 1 to 2 personal shoots a month.
KI: I’m currently developing my ongoing project that is called I Don’t Fit In. It really just focuses on humans at their most vulnerable when they’re not accepted in society. My goal is to go back to my home country in Indonesia and really attack the topic of colorism because it’s such a huge thing there. I was just with my mom and she was all covered up at the beach, and she was like, “Well, I just don’t want to get darker, I just don’t want to hear it from people back home.” That sounds insane to me, but I get it. When I was growing up I was bullied for having darker skin, and in Indonesia they sell skin-whitening products, you know? Like, that just never sat right with me and so I’m really passionate about, like, talking to people who are working in the modeling industry back home and how they feel like they’re represented.
How do you make your models feel comfortable when shooting?
KI: Just treat them as humans. Honestly. Talk to them, and really let them breathe. Assure them that they are breathing, and that they are present and that they are beautiful and that they are full, you know.
I think one thing that happens a lot in mostly commercial shoots is that we are just focused on getting the product across, but you forget who’s selling the product and who is consuming the product… they’re people. So we just have to really connect to them on a human level and really hone into that. And I think that is how people open up, is when you are being treated as humans.
Ashley, many of your photos are shot with colored backdrops and have a glossy, “girly” theme. Do you think these effects play a role in how the nudity, body hair, and “flaws” you photograph are accepted?
AA: I definitely don’t think my photos of body hair are widely accepted. I block so many trolls every day because my Instagram is a safe space for me and the people in my photos. But for sure, my photos of body hair are accepted by a group of people, and they might not be as easily consumed if they weren’t so soft and dreamy looking. People might not accept them as easily if they were harsh and gritty looking.
Do you ever feel insecure or unmotivated? What keeps you going?
AA: Absolutely! I think that’s a super universal feeling for artists. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to not always be inspired. Whenever my creativity is at a lull, I see that as a good time to take a break and practice self-care.
CS: Yeah I do, all the time. I think part of it has to do with the internet. As great as it is most of the time, it’s still sometimes negative in terms of being able to compare yourself to other people, and be like, “Well, why am I not doing this?” So it definitely can make you feel less worthy. I was feeling like that today so I watched [the movie] Palo Alto directed by Gia Coppola, because I love Gia’s work and I knew I’d find it more inspiring. It’s finding other forms of art that still interest you and you can find inspiration from it to help you get out of that hole. If I give up, that’s it, I’m done. Whereas not knowing what’s ahead of you — if you do keep going — is what’s motivating sometimes.
KI: I think what gets me the most down is the business side of things. As an artist, you have to take the initiative to be smart and aware of what’s happening around you in your industry. You always have to protect yourself and know how to navigate yourself in the industry, especially as a young woman. I can’t tell you how intimidating it is to just present your idea to a group of men in suits. It’s so crazy. I had to put on the entrepreneurial hat real fast and learn all these things because it’s very difficult, but it’s empowering to know that you can do it, if you really want to. And I think what keeps me going personally to be honest is my daughter. I want to set an example and I can’t live in fear, because what I am teaching her if I’m doing that?
How do you usually find models? How do you strive for diversity in race, ability, size, and looks?
CS: I realized that Instagram actually is such a good way to find people to shoot with because it’s not like Facebook, where you have to befriend someone and then talk to them. With the rise of social media, it’s definitely become a lot easier to cast models, especially models who are more diverse. I think even in like, 2012, models of different sizes wouldn’t have loads of followers because there [was] still kind of a norm being represented. Whereas now, everyone’s realizing that representation is so important and there are so many people who cover different areas of representation who are gaining loads of followers, and becoming more known.
Kanya, Ashley, and Chloe, many of your photos have a ’70s/’80s feel, but you didn’t grow up during those times. What about these past aesthetics are you drawn to, and are there present-day aesthetics you tend to stray away from?
KI: I think I’m kind of doing it subconsciously. I really am just attracted to archived pictures, like something from the past. I feel like they really use a lot of beautiful colors and textures and it’s just so magnificent to me. I really like Sasha Samsonova. A lot of her stuff is often very contemporary but at the same time it can be really ’50s film noir. I really love Harley Weir’s work too — it’s so abstract and avant-garde that it has this timeless feel.
AA: I think that the ’70s and ’80s were such an aesthetically fun time period and I definitely like to channel that in my work. It’s not that I “stray” away from any current aesthetics, but I also don't want my work to look like it’s from any particular era. I like to keep my makeup and styling natural so that it feels timeless. I don’t want my photos to be easily dated to 2018; I want people to guess.
CS: When I was 8 or 9, I was always so intrigued by family albums, and obviously they’d all been shot on film. So I think those kinds of photos sparked an interest, even though digital was kind of coming about. With the ’70s thing, my family watched a lot of old movies. I just like how everything was much more minimal. Present day [aesthetics] I try to stay away from is things being too overproduced. Packaging, ads, movies, and everything we consume now is just so overproduced, like there’s too much going into everything. Everything that was simpler back in those times just looks better to me.