picture this

A new generation of female photographers are turning the camera on themselves (and other women) to redefine fashion, art, advertising and, well, the world.

You’ll be familiar with the term ‘male gaze’ – a phrase coined by feminist critic in Laura Mulvey in 1975. And unless you’ve been hiding under a large rock for several decades, you will have certainly come into contact with it: think any  film, photograph, or  TV show that’s made for the male viewer.

But the tide is turning. Be it the internet, accessibility to cameras or simply the introduction of the first front-facing camera (thanks, Apple), a growing number of the photographs we look at on a daily basis are being taken by women. In the last five years, an unprecedented wave of female photographers has taken the art world by storm, grabbing people's attention with their pictures of women (and themselves). This is the central theme of journalist Charlotte Jansen’s new book, Girl on Girl, in which she interviews 40 artists from 17 different countries. The project is pro-women, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s solely about feminism. “No one would ever say: ‘oh you’re a man, your work must be comment on masculinity,’” Jansen explains. “Yet it’s almost as if you have to start with that question as a woman. Most women are like: ‘of course I’m a feminist’, that’s obvious, right? But it doesn’t mean everything I do is about that.”

To wit: this isn’t simply about ‘female photography’ (there’s no such thing, Jansen says), but addressing and challenging the ways in which the media write about these women.

To wit: this isn’t simply about ‘female photography’ (there’s no such thing, Jansen says), but addressing and challenging the ways in which the media write about these women.
 Monkia Mogi, Taka and Sayaka, Harajuku, 2014, copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Monkia Mogi, Taka and Sayaka, Harajuku, 2014, copyright and courtesy of the artist.

Monika Mogi

It’s hardly unsurprising Girl on Girl is filled with beautiful images. But Jansen believes there are very obvious differences between the way women and men shoot/portray attractiveness. Take Japanese photographer Monika Mogi, for example – on first glance her images look straight-out-of-a-fashion-magazine glossy. But observe a little closer and you notice she’s used a diverse range of models, each with a different body type, who not only smile but also laugh in the pictures. “Mainstream advertising in Japan does not empower women,” Mogi explains in the book, “it seems as if not much thought goes into the casting – they just look for a girl who is “kawaii” [cute]. I look for a girl who has something to say and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in.” She’s subtly subverting conventional beauty ideals. The result? Kawaii fashion images, but not your <average> Kawaii fashion image: Mogi’s photographs are fun, innocent and exude incredible warmth. As Jansen says: “you can see the bond between Mogi and the subjects she shoots. These girls aren’t objectified or sexualised."

Nakeya Brown, From Hair Stories Untold, 2014, courtesy of the artist.
Nakeya Brown, From Hair Stories Untold, 2014, courtesy of the artist.

Nakeya Brown

27-year-old Brown explores the complexities and politics of black hair. So far she’s had three exhibitions on the topic: The Refutation of “Good” Hair; Hair Stories Untold; and If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown, into which she weaves conversations around identity, body image and feminism. “Brown is talking about how history shapes our identity. And how that’s passed on through collective things like art, music and fashion or self-care rituals within the family,” says Jansen. “What you inherit from your immediate surroundings is hugely influential.” Brown herself explains that during the turn of the 20th century, black woman internalised the idea of straightened hair being crucial to attaining beauty, status and wealth. With a British mum and dad who was born in Sri Lanka, it’s something Jansen is all too familiar with: “Growing up I used to look at girls who had slick, beautiful straight blonde hair. I had this frizzy weird mane. Your mum can’t tell you how to deal with it because she doesn’t have the same problem.” By unpicking the rituals and aesthetics around black beauty, Brown subverts this ingrained ideology. Her images have a specific resonance for black women, but they’re inclusive, exploring womanhood and addressing the way we see all women.

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Noshipo Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007, courtesy of the artist.
Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Noshipo Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007, courtesy of the artist.

Zanele Muholi

If South Africa has a liberal attitude towards homosexuality – same-sex marriage is legal and anti-discriminatory laws exist – safety isn’t a reality for much of the LGBTI community. Hate crimes against gays and lesbians are still prevalent occurrences, while one in every two women in the country can expect to be raped at least once in her lifetime. Such hostility/political turbulence has been the driving force behind Muholi’s work. And, as the first, black, gay South African to really carve out a space for herself, she’s tackling her own, as well as the country’s, reality. “As a black lesbian, in a place that’s known for horrific sexual violence and rape, the things she’s had to overcome to even make those images is incredible,” says Jansen. Her most well known work to date is “Faces and Phases,” a series of more than two hundred portraits of South Africa’s lesbian community. “Those images didn’t exist in the media in South Africa or anywhere before that. [Through her photography], Muholi is making those people, and their stories, visible where they’d previously been ignored. I genuinely think she’s changing the world."

Maisie Cousins, From Grass, Peonie, Bum, 2015, courtesy of the artist.
Maisie Cousins, From Grass, Peonie, Bum, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

Maisie Cousins

In the accompanying text next to Maisie Cousin’s entry in Girl on Girl, one sentence sticks out: ‘you can almost smell her images.’ It’s a powerful statement because, well, it’s alarmingly true. Simply glance at the 24-year-old’s super saturated, unflinchingly honest photographs and you can’t look away. Cousin’s work redefines femininity, celebrating the female form in ways most photographer’s airbrush out, and subverts ideals of perfection in the process. She had a terrible time at school, and later university, because they “just didn’t get what she was doing,” says Jansen. Completely dismissed by her tutors, there was no framework in place to understand her artwork. Yet throughout this period, she was slowly building a double life for herself: a high-school drop IRL, but also an incredibly successful digital photographer online. It just goes to show we still have restricted ideas over what female photography can and should be. “It’s the same with Juno Calypso [another female photographer in the book]. She was constantly asked about pastiche and her work in reference to Cindy Sherman – as if there’s not room for more than one woman doing one kind of thing? You’ve got a million Terry Richardson’s and no one questions it. It’s crazy.”

Mayan Toledano, LA Girls, 2015, courtesy of the artist.
Mayan Toledano, LA Girls, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

Mayan Toledano

Mayan Toledano’s work initially made Jansen angry. One photo, in particular, stood out: a woman lying on her front in nothing but plain white underwear emblazoned with the word ‘feminist.’  “The likes of Maya Fuhr, Petra Collins, and Toledano – together they get a lot of exposure in the press. I found it frustrating that this is what’s fed back to us as female imagery. This is what female photographers do? This is the portrait of our generation?” Jansen disagreed. She thought they represented one part of society, but not all of it. As the book progressed, however, she realised she needed to engage with these young photographers. “I came to see the feminist knickers as the beginning of an imperfect but very important process of emancipation,’ she writes. Toldedano’s work riffs off hyper feminine images – lollipops, hair scrunchies, dungarees – in a bid to re-embrace the ‘girly playfulness’ she was told to neglect in order to be taken seriously. Washing her images in hazy, daydreaming hues, she rebrands feminism for the Instagram generation – with 90k + followers in toe. “She’s built a massive community around her work,” explains Jansen, “way bigger than most celebrated artists of our generation. So I didn’t want to just ignore that and be like: ‘this is superficial’ because it’s incredibly powerful.”

Deanna Templeton, ‘Sandi’, Huntington Beach CA, 2015, courtesy of the artist.
Deanna Templeton, ‘Sandi’, Huntington Beach CA, 2015, courtesy of the artist.

Deanna Templeton

As one of America’s foremost street photographers, Deanna Templeton has spent the last twenty years capturing California’s teen subcultures. In one series, Scratch Your Name on My Arm, she documented fan girls in Southern California over a five-year period. As she tells Jansen in the book: “A lot of the young girls remind me of myself when I was young, or how I wish I could have been. There are two different types of women I photograph: the ideal – or what I thought the ideal was- and what I perceived as my reality, which is to say, they are all beautiful. I can say now that I feel good about and totally accept myself, but when I was younger, I couldn’t see that, I couldn’t appreciate what I had.” It’s this kind of nuanced conversation, and reading of images, that Jansen would like to see more of in the future. “If we’re constantly shown photos of women as passive or objects of beauty or sexual desire, of course it’s going to effect how we see women,” she explains. “This book isn’t going to change the world, but hopefully people will read it and challenge their own prejudices. Maybe next time you see an image of a woman you’ll check your own reaction and look just that little bit longer.”

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