The Best Photos of 2021: Ten Powerful Projects by Women Photographers

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WenchuPhotography by Annie Lai

From the awkward sincerity of female adolescence to searing depictions of women protesting the patriarchy: a look back at the best female-lensed series published on in 2021

Does the female gaze actually exist? Sure, if we’re speaking broadly – women do tend to see the world differently to men, in both life and art. But after compiling a list of the ten best photographic series published on over the past year, I can attest that not one single woman in the lineup has a similar perspective on the world, nor on photography, to the next. Themes of intrigue, joy, anger and empathy crop up frequently in their work, but they are expressed in a myriad of different ways.  

Intrigue is surely the preliminary emotion that causes photographers to pick up their camera and go out into the world. That’s what led Czech photographer Marie Tomanova to move to the Big Apple to make it as an artist, Jet Swan to invite strangers into temporary studios around Yorkshire so that she could shoot them, and Hoda Afshar to travel to the Persian Gulf. Joy is the driving force behind Nadine Ijewere’s work, who believes positivity to be an important part of her depictions of Black women. Likewise, joy and transcendence can be found in the work of Vinca Petersen, who sees raves and riots as “autonomous zones,” or in Tara St Hill’s photo zine, where she makes the transition from muse to creator. Deanna Templeton treats girlhood with charm and empathy, while Annie Lai searches for belonging with her portraits of Chinese women making a home for themselves in London. Finally, Donna Ferrato’s razor-sharp photojournalism charts women in protest against the patriarchy, while Bostonian photographer Jackie Nickerson worries about what we are doing to the planet – her Salvage series encourages us to rethink our relationship with consumption. 

Our Own Selves by Nadine Ijewere

In 2019, London-born photographer Nadine Ijewere made history as the first Black female photographer to shoot a British Vogue cover – plus, she was just 26 years old. Two years later, she made history once again – this time in the US – when she shot Selena Gomez for the cover of American Vogue. Following these historic feats, Ijewere released her first book Our Own Selves, which featured fashion editorials and campaign images alongside joyous portraits of locals in Jamaica and Lagos. “It’s exciting that there are more Black creatives now using their culture and heritage to create amazing images that can be used for research or reference, because it wasn’t necessarily available for me,” she says. 

New York New York by Marie Tomanova

Like many before her, Czech-born photographer Marie Tomanova moved to New York City to make it as an artist. “There is a dream here, in New York, and the young are not afraid to follow it, to be themselves, to find themselves, and to be open,” she says. Recalling the gritty, freewheeling mood of Ryan McGinley’s early photographs of downtown New York, Tomanova’s second monograph New York New York captures the frenetic energy of the city via uncompromising portraits of young Americans hanging out at parties, art openings, parks and in their apartments. Plus, original New York it girl Kim Gordon wrote the foreword.

Material by Jet Swan

“Often the most seemingly ordinary people are the most fascinating,” says Yorkshire-born photographer Jet Swan, whose debut book Material features ineffable, dreamlike portraits of Brits shot across three years in small-town studio spaces across Scarborough, Yorkshire and Ramsgate. Her subjects are probed by the camera, with people’s irises, pubic hair and skin textures treated with an almost microscopic level of scrutiny.

Speak the Wind by Hoda Afshar

On the islands in the strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, there is a pervasive belief that the wind is capable of possessing people and causing them to fall ill. Intrigued by this myth and its links to the Arab slave trade, Iranian photographer Hoda Afshar set out to capture the people, their rituals and the astonishing landscapes of the island. “Half of the impact of the image comes from the story behind it,” she says of her MACK-published book Speak the Wind.

Raves and Riots by Vinca Petersen

British photographer Vinca Petersen believes that raves and riots have more in common than you may initially think. “There’s something that happens in both those environments… People think they can behave differently than everywhere else. It’s the autonomous zone,” she says. Her solo exhibition Raves and Riots at Edel Assanti displayed images captured between 1990-2004 of rows of riot police, blazing infernos, and of course, sweaty crowds at warehouse raves. Transcendence, her images seem to say, can be found in both spaces.

What She Said by Deanna Templeton

Adolescence is given the honest treatment in What She Said, a MACK monograph by  LA-based photographer Deanna Templeton. Gig flyers and Templeton’s own teen diary entries from the 80s are interspersed with affectionate, empathetic photographic portraits of teenage girls across the US, Europe, Australia and Russia. “I’m only 15 years old, what’s wrong with me, why am I so UNhappy? This world is so fucked!” writes Templeton. Girlhood is a notoriously burdensome time – as Cecilia says in The Virgin Suicides following her failed suicide attempt, "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

In Between by Annie Lai

Despite moving to London in 2014, Chinese fashion photographer Annie Lai struggled to feel a real sense of belonging in the UK. “Ever since I left where I grew up, I’ve felt like an outsider,” she says. “Even if you get along with other people, I feel like there’s still an invisible barrier there.” This crisis of identity led her to create In Between, a highly personal series featuring six Chinese women lounging in their homes in London. Most of the subjects in the series have since returned to China due to the pandemic, but In Between still stands as a collective diasporic portrait of Chinese women making a home away from home – and Lai remains in the UK.

HOLY by Donna Ferrato

After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, American photojournalist Donna Ferrato was outraged. “I knew we were going into a very dark period, and I realised that, to survive the next four years with him, women were going to have to be bold, out there, and angry.” She compiled HOLY in response, a black-and-white photography book spanning five decades of her unwavering, fiercely spirited portraits of activists, artists, migrants and survivors of domestic abuse. Despite much of the images being taken decades ago, Ferrato’s HOLY is a reactive account of women fighting against sexism in its many forms.

Tara by Tara St Hill by Tara St Hill

What happens when a muse creates her own work? Stylist Tara St Hill was best friend, muse and stylist to one iconic 90s image-maker Corinne Day. “A lot of kids have been affected emotionally by Diary (Day’s cult 2000 photobook), so I have this little kind of community of young people that I speak to.” Over lockdown, St Hill teamed up with photographer Zoë Law and writer Shonagh Marshall to create Tara by Tara St Hill, a charming zine of black-and-white portraits of Tara in various states of undress. “I just felt safe to be myself,” she says.

Salvage by Jackie Nickerson

Bostonian photographer Jackie Nickerson has shot big-time celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Young Thug and Travis Scott, but her most arresting portraits are of people whose faces are obscured by trash. Plastic dinosaurs, fake flowers and egg cartons are humorously strapped to her subjects’ faces in Salvage, a photo book that encourages us to rethink our relationship with consumption. Old Masters paintings provided the genesis for the tongue-in-cheek series, with their depictions of “adornments, emblems and assets [that] are used to create an identity or communicate status.” Nickerson’s portraits prove that, especially in today’s world, one person’s trash is another man’s treasure.