Girls by Girls: Portrayals of Womanhood by Female Photographers

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GIRLS Luo Yang retrospective exhibition
Xie Yue, 2015© Luo Yang

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, a look back at ten photo series previously featured on, each of which is both by a female photographer and about women

Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas

“I think in truth it was really the turning point for me. Before that I don’t think I had a vision of what it would mean to be a photographer,” Susan Meiselas says, referring to her seminal series Carnival Strippers. Meiselas was 24 when she encountered carnival dancers and began photographing them, initially struck by the way that the women were making a living from men objectifying them. “The idea of projecting a self to attract a male gaze was completely counter to my sense of culture – to what I wanted for myself – so I was fascinated by women who were choosing to do that,” Meiselas says of the series. The photographer put these women at the centre of her work, and even arranged for their voices to play alongside the resulting images when Carnival Strippers was first exhibited in the 1970s.

Body by Camille Vivier

Camille Vivier’s Body is a celebration of a female bodybuilder’s strength and softness. Vivier’s subject, Sophie, has proven herself a muse for the French photographer. “When I met Sophie, I was not only fascinated by her powerful, sculptural body but I was also drawn to her face which is sweet, feminine and tender,” Vivier explains. For Body – the photographs have also been published by Art Paper Editions, in a book called Sophie – Vivier wanted to explore how the female bodybuilder challenges accepted notions of femininity. “I felt that by reshaping herself with a very intimate, strong and personal motivation to feel good and comfortable with her own image, Sophie was reshaping the criteria of what the feminine body is supposed to be.”

Tallawah by Nadine Ijewere

The Jamaican Patois word ‘tallawah’ translated describes something “strong-willed, fearless, not to be underestimated”, according to photographer Nadine Ijewere. She and the hairstylist Jawara Wauchope decided to name their recent collaborative series Tallawah to evoke this spirit of strength and beauty found in Jamaica and its people. Featuring dancehall-inspired hairstyles by Wauchope, Tallawah – which was recently exhibited in London, presented by Dazed Beauty – celebrates Jamaican hair via a series of vibrant portraits. “Jamaica is such a colourful place and people love to wear bright colours and their hair in bright colours – that’s their way of expressing themselves. They want to stand out from the crowd, they want to be unique,” Ijewere says. 

Yumi and the Moon by Alexandra Leese

The 10th-century Japanese folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter was the starting point for Alexandra Leese’s mystical photo series and zine Yumi and the Moon. The story centres on the beautiful and much-desired Kaguya-hime, who is revealed to have come from the moon after a series of suitors ask for her hand. For the series, Leese was inspired by the moon and its associations with energy, femininity and rebirth – qualities that also appealed to her protagonist, Yumi Carter. “Kaguya-hime was a strong and independent girl, full of mystery, divinity and beauty, and Yumi is similar so I wanted to translate this through the pictures,” Leese explained to AnOther. 

11 by Lina Scheynius

Lina Scheynius’ beautiful and unflinching photo series 11, which was published as a book last year, documents her best friend Amanda’s final month of pregnancy and birth, and represents an extraordinary portrait of a ritual of womanhood. “I was surprised by how much of it is a form of waiting and anticipation,” Scheynius told AnOther of the tender and visceral series, which was partially inspired by Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographic document of his honeymoon. “I wanted to offer a bit more nuance on what giving birth looks like ... it was really beautiful. I think my bond with [Amanda’s daughter] Ruby will always be extra special.”

Paris Nude by Mary McCartney

Mary McCartney’s series Paris Nude captured one woman’s liberating experience of being photographed nude. The New York-born comedian Phyllis Wang was McCartney’s subject, and the intimate series showcases “the human form in its simplest, most authentic state”, according to the photographer. “I suppose some of it has to do with us both being women and having a better understanding of each other, but also of the process of becoming a woman and being comfortable with your body,” McCartney explained to AnOther as the series was published by HENI last year.

Day to Day by Maria Pasenau

Oslo-based artist Maria Pasenau’s series Day to Day was recently exhibited at Soft Opening, Antonia Marsh’s gallery in Piccadilly Circus tube station, in a show curated by Dazed’s editor-in-chief Isabella Burley. The uniquely intimate series saw Pasenau take a self-portrait every day for a year, and she describes the initial idea as “like a social project or an experiment”. “I really want to make another year when I’m older, so I’ll have this year and another,” she told AnOther. “For me, it’s a lot about being able to see what was happening when I did it. It’s not about each and every picture being perfect.”

Paris Red Light 1976–1979 by Jane Evelyn Atwood

Dating back to the 1970s in Paris, Jane Evelyn Atwood’s Paris Red Light documents the city’s female sex workers. “I learned everything I need to know about taking the photos I’ve taken ever since in this brothel,” Atwood explains. The photographer was in her twenties when she created the series – “there’s a freshness you have when you are naive,” she says – having found herself living in Paris and beguiled by the forbidden glamour of the prostitutes she encountered and eventually became close to. 

GIRLS by Luo Yang

Luo Yang’s GIRLS is the result of a decade spent attempting to capture what it’s like being a woman in China. Yang’s bold and beautiful portraits offer a nuanced look at how modern Chinese women embrace different strands of femininity. “Women are both soft and strong, a combination of vulnerability and toughness,” the photographer told AnOther. “Their complexity has always inspired me, and through photography I always tried to understand them – today, I feel I’ve worked out most of the problems and confusions as a teenage girl which drove me to start this series.”

BODY by Lotte van Raalte

“I want people to see the beauty in imperfection and impermanence,” Dutch photographer Lotte van Raalte explains of her series BODY. “This is something we are all scared of and don’t really understand. What we mostly see is not reality.” The series comprises photographs of 46 women captured nude, ranging in age from teenagers to nonagenarians. Van Raalte intended the series as a celebration of the female form, and all the individual ‘imperfections’ that are often covered up or brushed over.