As a commercial photographer, Kate Parker first turned her camera towards her daughters as a way to practice shooting in different kinds of light, test out new lenses, and experiment with her visual style. She realized she had the beginnings of a compelling project, however, when she exhibited several prints at a gallery in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2014.
The series, Strong is the New Pretty, portrayed her two daughters and their friends as vivacious, confident, and important. The girls were enough, just by being themselves. The images soon splashed across online publications like CNN and Huffington Post before appearing on the sites of international magazines like Redbook, Elle China, and Vanity Fair Italy.
Two years after going viral, Parker is in the final stages of creating a book for her series. She leapt at the opportunity to expand the scope of her project, and she felt eager to show all the possibilities of strength and womanhood. She has now photographed approximately 200 girls and young women, ranging in age from pre-teens to early twenties, across the United States.
Below, Parker shares what she has learned about empowering girls through photography:
The process of photography itself is powerful.
Deliberately taking someone’s portrait sends the message that the subject is valued. Photographing girls doing what they love – whether that is dancing ballet or training as a firefighter – is doubly empowering.
Accept criticism, and try to understand it.
When Parker’s images garnered worldwide attention, many commenters shared their own perceptions of strength and asked why a specific activity had not been included. Parker listened, and she sought out girls with all kinds of passions from all kinds of places to photograph for her book.
Strength is a mix of the aspirational and the familiar.
Parker searched for both rare vocations and common passions, and she intentionally represents all her subjects as strong. Sometimes, she even looked for specific professions like a pilot or a wrestler (and if you’re a magician who identifies as a girl or woman, you should reach out!).
Embrace your subjects’ emotions and individuality.
“If they’re angry, I photograph them angry,” Parker says. “If they’re dirty, they’re dirty. I try to celebrate [the girls] as they are.”
Movement and motions allow the girls to focus on what they love to do, which relaxes them in front of the camera and results in the most natural shots.
Never encourage your subjects to be something they are not.
Parker tries to preserve her original mode of working – casually photographing her daughters at home – when she meets with new subjects and plans portrait sessions. She tells her subjects to wear whatever they normally wear and to act how they normally act.
Take your responsibility seriously.
Parker is grateful that the girls have trusted her to take their portraits, and she is particular about where and how photos from Strong is the New Pretty appear. She only lends her work to causes or campaigns that support her message, and she will not let her subjects be shown in any negative way.
The impact might come later.
Sometimes, the girls are too young to fully appreciate how they are depicted in their portraits, and they are simply doing what feels natural to them. “When girls reach puberty, they often lose that sense of being bad-ass,” Parker says. She plans to use these pictures later to remind her daughters of their youthful fearlessness. “Look at you – when you were seven, you thought you were a better singer than Mariah Carey!”
Let your subjects inspire you.
Parker was never oblivious to the spirit and determination of young girls, but she says she has a new awe for their resilience. She appreciates the trials they have triumphed over, and Parker sharply remembers one twelve-year-old cancer survivor. The girl, an athlete who can run and jump again thanks to a rotationplasty, lives by her own maxim: “I am not what happened to be – I am what I choose to become.”
What’s next for Parker? As for photographing the strength in girls and young women, she says, “I don’t think I’ll ever stop.” She also hopes to continue her project Blended, which aims to represent diverse configurations of families.
Strong is the New Pretty, published by Workman Publishing, will be released next spring on March 8, 2017. Could there be a better way to celebrate International Woman’s Day?
All images courtesy by Kate T. Parker.
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