RESEARCH & IDEA GENERATION

Identifying the Theme

“Portraits of Empowered Women”

Before I start this research assignment, I would like to acknowledge that the conversation around gender and gender identity is currently a complex issue. I would like to note that I respect trans and non-binary individuals and am open to inclusiveness throughout this project. I include femme-identifying individuals when I state “women” as an identifier throughout this project.

I am deeply passionate about the theme of women’s empowerment because it is a subject that has resonated with me for a few years now, and it has been on my mind since the beginning of my studies this year. As the owner of a female-led business that exclusively employs women (and persons identifying as femme), this exploration feels like a natural extension of my values and vision. The idea that women should have the autonomy to define their lives, make choices and pursue their dreams is something I believe is essential.

I am drawn to this fascinating topic as a photographer and an advocate for the ongoing progress and challenges women face in their journey towards autonomy and empowerment. This portfolio is my way of contributing to the conversation and celebrating the strength and resilience of women in our ever-evolving society.

In addition to my passion for women’s empowerment, creating portraits of women for this project is a driver because it presents me with a profound artistic challenge. While I have primarily focused on landscape photography this year, stepping into portrait photography is a powerful way to push my creative boundaries and enhance my skills. This decision is symbolic in the context of the theme, as it aligns with the essence of empowerment: going beyond comfort zones, proving capability, and embracing competence. By capturing the strength and authenticity of women through portraiture, I aim to mirror their journeys towards self-discovery, allowing my growth as a photographer to parallel the themes I am exploring.

Helmut Newton; Rushmore, Italian Vogue 1982, © Helmut Newton Estate
Research

Before researching this in-depth, I narrowed my focus to a particular area of interest within this more prominent topic – women’s sexual empowerment and how photography can capture this.

Women’s sexual empowerment in photography holds profound significance as it provides a platform to challenge societal taboos, redefine the narrative around female sexuality, and celebrate women’s autonomy in their intimate lives. It is an area of interest for me as it allows the exploration of personal agency, body positivity and self-expression in a way that empowers individuals to embrace their sensuality, particularly their feminine essence. 

This photography subgenre challenges traditional norms by capturing moments of women confidently expressing their desires and sensuality. It contributes to the ongoing discourse on gender equality, consent and sexual liberation. Through my project, I aim to depict women as powerful beings in charge of their narratives, sparking conversations that promote inclusivity and a more egalitarian society.

Just like everyone else, I am not always confident, I have all the same self-doubt. I just try to love myself and accept things that I don’t like about myself and I think it’s something important for all women to know that we all have those feelings. Everyone has something about them that they wish they could change, everyone I know anyway, and it’s about learning to love those things too.

Dita Von Teese by Penny Lane Photography 2014

Women's empowerment photography Female driven photography projects Boudoir & glamour photography Portraits of strong women Gender equality in photography Artistic, sensual & erotic nudes Feminist photography projects Empowered women in art Women's identity in photography Sex work photography Women's self-love

Notable Photographers

This is such a wide-ranging topic that has been tackled from an enormous number of perspectives over a huge time period. I have researched so many photographers and, in particular, styles of photography that interest me. Honestly the amount of imagery and research I did was overwhelming and I cannot list it all here, however I have kept a lot of it in the back of my mind as food for thought and I know much of it will influence my final portfolio. I have listed two photographers that I think tie in with my theme in an abstract way with regards to women’s issues.

While I would like to focus on female photographers who photograph and empower women, I understand that throughout history, there have been men who have made significant contributions to the genre. I see this as valid and believe that while many may have simply been using the “male gaze”, some of these men would have seen this as standing in solidarity with women’s sexual freedom.

Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin, through her poignant and intimate photography, has made profound contributions to the portrayal of women’s issues and empowerment. Her work, notably her series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, offers an unflinchingly honest glimpse into the lives of women in the late 20th century. Goldin’s photography delves into the themes of sexuality, addiction, love and vulnerability, providing a raw and unfiltered representation of women’s experiences. In doing so, she challenges traditional gender norms and societal expectations, empowering her subjects by giving them a voice and agency within their narratives. 

Goldin’s ability to capture moments of strength and resilience amidst adversity, as well as her celebration of unconventional beauty and sexuality, underscores her contribution to reshaping the discourse on women’s issues and empowerment in the context of contemporary art and photography

Her work serves as a testament to the complexity and multifaceted nature of women’s lives, paving the way for broader conversations on these vital topics.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman’s photography explores women’s issues, identity, and the constant reinvention of self. Through her self-portraits, Sherman has challenged societal expectations of women and questioned identity as a fluid construct. Her ability to transform herself into an array of characters and personas, often with a satirical or critical edge, highlights the performative nature of gender and identity. 

By portraying herself as various women, from glamorous starlets to vulnerable and grotesque figures, Sherman disrupts conventional beauty standards and raises essential questions about representation and agency. Her work embodies the ever-evolving nature of identity and underscores the power of artistic self-expression in addressing the complexities of women’s experiences and the broader discourse surrounding them. Cindy Sherman’s photography remains a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of these themes.

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton, often referred to as the “King of Kink”, is undoubtedly one of the most influential photographers in reshaping the perception of women in photography. His bold and provocative approach challenged traditional notions of femininity and sexuality, ushering in a new era of empowerment and agency for women in fashion and art.

Newton’s lens portrayed women as strong, confident, and assertive, often in control of their narratives and desires. His iconic work blurred the lines between high fashion and eroticism, celebrating female sensuality without objectification. Newton’s striking mages redefined beauty standards and emphasised the strength and autonomy of the women he photographed. His daring and fearless vision continues to captivate (he is personally one of my favourite photographers), leaving an indelible mark on the world of women’s photographic representation.

Bunny Yeager

Bunny Yeager was a trailblazing figure in sexually provocative photography, and her influence remains enduring and profound. Her work, mainly her iconic photographs of Bettie Page, played a pivotal role in shaping the genre of pin-up photography. 

What made Yeager truly influential was her approach, which emphasised the empowerment of her subjects. She captured women with confidence and agency, encouraging them to express their sensuality openly. By doing so, Yeager challenged social norms and celebrated the female form boldly yet respectfully. Her work was instrumental in breaking down sexual taboos and creating a space for women to explore and embrace their desires and fantasies.

Bunny Yeager’s legacy lies in her captivating imagery and in capturing women standing in their power, leaving an indelible mark on sexually provocative photography and reshaping the perception of female sensuality.

Modern Boudoir / Glamour Photographers
Evelyn Hunt
Caroline Malouf
Brittnie Price
Analysis and Thoughts

I feel this research has legitimised the validity of this genre of photography. It has made me realise that ensuring women feel empowered in their bodies is essential. The female form is beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with women taking control of their agency and standing in their fierce power. I hope I can do the genre justice, and I am aware of all the fantastic photographers throughout history who paved the way.

I have mulled over whether this issue isn’t as important as it was historically. However, the social discourse around this topic is still alive and well… for example, in the Barbie movie in 2023, sex work is slowly becoming more socially acceptable, and the younger generations of women can be more accessible in their expression. I want to ensure that my work is still beautiful and a homage to the genre – rather than something sleazy or overtly sexual.

The research I have done has generated some distinct ideas for the portfolio. I am torn between something with more political/social meaning and simply more beautiful in presentation. I am leaning more towards a social statement after seeing the Nan Goldin exhibition. She inspired me to pursue something more radical and a body of work (perhaps ongoing) rather than something simplistic and beautiful.

Honestly I am a thinker, so I tend to let ideas percolate for a while in my brain before really finding a strong connection or structure for them. While I am good writer I don’t find that the ideas flow in this way. I have had some of these ideas ruminating for a while, however it wasn’t until I seriously sat down and looked at research and in particular immersed myself in the research that these ideas solidified. I was drawn to one in particular (#2) but it actually grew out of considering the first idea listed below so the process really did allow for the ideas to flow.

Idea Development
  1. Women in Power: Embracing the Elements” – a photography project that seeks to capture inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and ages embrace their power, sensuality and agency amidst the natural world. Through a series of compelling outdoor glamour portraits, this project aims to celebrate the strength and resilience of women as they stand alongside Mother Nature, forging an empowering connection with the elements. By showcasing the unyielding  spirit of women in the outdoors, I hope to encourage others to explore their own capabilities and embrace the transformative energy of the natural world. I would be aiming to produce some portraits that surprise the subjects by potentially putting them slightly outside of their comfort zone, inviting women to step into their power and embrace the balance between femininity and the wilderness with a deeper appreciation for self.
  2. “Someone You Know is a Sex Worker” – an exploration of breaking down the misconceptions and barriers surrounding sex work. Sex work is a vital part of society, and despite the stigma, a legitimate form of both income for the worker and service for clients. The concept that “someone you know is a sex worker” is an exploration of the notion that sex workers are everywhere in society, and you may not even know that someone is involved in the adult industry. Sex workers are mothers, partners, students, professionals, entrepreneurs and well rounded humans with regular interests and lives to everyone else in society. There is a whole part of the industry that is about women taking charge of their futures, their sexual agency and choosing this profession without hesitation. The project would investigate the performative nature of sex work. Glamour/boudoir portraits in the style of the workers advertising would be displayed alongside photographs of the subject doing something that they love, that isn’t work related. The two photos would be a juxtaposition of each other both theme wise and stylistically. I would be aiming for a highly polished “glamour” portrait and a more candid, casual and raw photograph to go with it. I have also been considering the idea of including polaroids taken by the subjects of them getting ready for work – the transition between real life, and the person that they take on for work.
  3. “Body-Positivity and Self-Love” – this is a personal project idea for me as it is something I struggle with myself. I would look into the transformative nature of boudoir photography and how seeing your own body in a new light can be a transformative experience for women. I would hope to gain some insight for myself and others throughout this process.

As stated above my favourite concept is #2. I believe that this is a true passion project and something that fits within my interests, my abilities and with enough radical social interest to hopefully make people stop and think about their potential preconceived ideas around sex work and sex workers. I love the idea of being able to explore two very distinct styles of photography as I think this will absolutely push my boundaries as a photographer.

Proof of Concept / Current Work

I have attached some of the work I have been working on in the boudoir genre this year. I am still learning techniques and developing my own style. I think I have more of a direction than when I took most of these photographs (a lot of these are from February/March), and would be h0ping to develop my skills throughout this project and find a cohesive style that feels right for this stage of my photographic journey.