For this week’s Women on Wednesdays post I share my interview with photographer Kacy Johnson on her project FEMALE. Some edits were made for the sake of brevity and clarity.
HH: Welcome, Kacy. Could you tell our audience about the project FEMALE?
KJ: The idea of the project is to be a diverse continuum of portraits of women. This project is two years old now. I started when I was living in São Paulo, Brazil where I photographed 130 women. Now, I’m doing it here in San Francisco where I live.
The idea is really to be as inclusive as possible. So, I photograph women from 18 years old to 80 years old; from lightest skin to very dark skin; very skinny, muscular, fatter / chubbier women; and I’ve included trans women in this project – just trying to get as many representations as possible. I think that not all women are represented in society, so the project tries to bring light to that.
It’s very simple: everyone is shot from the back. I tried to make it very systematic with everyone getting the same size frame. I treat these portraits as a collaboration and ask women to add their own caption to the photo.
HH: Is this an ongoing project?
KJ: It is ongoing. Honestly, in Brazil, I gave myself a goal of doing 20. And then I got to 20 and was getting a lot of good feedback from the women participating. So, we would do the portraits and I would share the portrait with them, and they just opened up their hearts to me to tell me how much this experience meant to them. And it felt important, like something that I should continue to do.
Then I decided to do 50. I then made 100. I started posting on different websites, and I kept getting hundreds of women wanting to participate. As a photographer, especially as a photographer who likes to do portraits, the worst thing is to feel like you don’t have anyone who wants to be photographed.
Then I just got curious: I felt like I was learning so much about women, the female experience, especially the Brazilian women, which were similar to my experiences, though not exactly. So this made me want to do it in other parts of the world to see what is common in the female experience and what differs from place to place. I think that what can be born out of that is this meaning of sisterhood and hopefully supporting one another.
I really want to take the project around the world to at least one place in Asia, one place in Africa, one place in Europe, etc. I have some specific cities in mind, but it all requires funding and time, so we’ll see what happens. I’m optimistic about it, and I’m very eager to do it, because I do believe there is a narrative to tell across the whole spectrum.
HH: That’s very powerful. One of the things we’ve struggled with in the clothes free community is getting the woman’s perspective. So, when you said that women were eager to share their narratives that really touches me. As a woman who likes to share myself, I don’t know why I’m surprised, yet I am pleasantly surprised that there was such a huge response to the call.
KJ: I don’t think it’s the norm in society. I think one of the reasons why I love doing this project is that I tend to operate with this idea that women have so much to say, so much to share, but are more reluctant than men to put it out there. So then I realized that when I just opened up a teeny bit of space and invited women to do that, everything that they had to share came pouring out. I just felt magic.
I don’t think it’s easy for women to take that risk on their own sometimes. I think we can hold ourselves back, we don’t want to be too emotional, too vulnerable. But, I’m getting emails literally everyday from women around the world revealing some of the most intimate experiences of their lives to me, and thanking me for giving them space for that to happen. It makes me feel that we can use more space like that in the world where women are encouraged to say what they want to say and put it out there.
HH: That reminds me of the description of “FEMALE” on your site, where there is the individual as well as the shared narrative illustrated by the mosaic. I thought that was a brilliant idea to capture the back of the woman, because it’s unique to that person, but also common. What were some of the shared themes among the narratives?
KJ: Definitely body image issues. I think I’ve always had this kind of experience where I haven’t been able to understand how I look in my own body. I think almost every woman has this experience where you see a photo of yourself and you’re very critical. But three or four years down the road, you look back at that same photo, and you’re able to be like, “I looked AMAZING! Why was I so hard on myself?”
I see that coming up a lot, especially because I’ve chosen to do that back of the woman. Women, in general, have no idea what their backs look like. They feel very vulnerable, because maybe the only person who would see their back is someone they’re intimate with, their mom, or maybe on the beach. So even women who have tattoos on their back, they’re not aware of what that looks like. I’ve revisited my own issues with judgment of my body and understanding my body in a realistic way.
There are definitely issues of taking back the right to express, what we do with our body on our terms and what expression looks like. I think those are the big ones.
HH: It’s so funny when you mentioned that we don’t always know what our backs look like. I was recently looking at pictures of me and a friend, the two of us bare chested at an event. And every time I see my back, I’m like….
There are all these configurations that I didn’t know were there. It’s just like, “Huh…”
KJ: I totally get that. I think it’s an uncomfortable thing and it’s easy to be super critical, because it’s the first time you’re seeing it, thinking “I don’t know how I feel.” It also makes you feel really vulnerable because you’re exposed in a way that you’re not used to exposing yourself. But I think within all that vulnerability is a place to create something positive.
I think we are overly identified with our physical bodies. As I get older and am more able to understand the universe, I feel more like a spirit that is larger than what my body can encompass. But it’s easy to become super identified with our physical selves.
There’s something interesting that happens when you can be surprised by your own physical image. It’s a little experiment with women a lot of times. It can be uncomfortable sometimes. The reactions that they have, and how it’s part of this larger project.
HH: Of the women who participated, were they all new to you? Friends? Family members?
KJ: When I was living in Brazil, I didn’t know people, it was very random. I would just talk to the few women that I knew. Once I gave one woman the photo, they would be excited and then post on social media. From there, their friends and moms would want to participate. The same thing started happening here in San Francisco, too. The first woman I photographed in San Francisco brought a friend with her, and since then, three more of her friends have come to do photos with me. I like it that way, because there is no casting. I like the randomness of it.
HH: How is it for you when you’re interacting with the women? What kinds of things do you feel at the end of the day after being in such an intimate experience with each of them?
KJ: I just try to be fully percent present no matter what kind of portrait. I became a portrait photographer, because I just like having an instant connection with people, and the camera allows you to do that. I really try to be my most present self for that woman to encourage and support her. Sometimes you can see there is a vulnerability that the woman is feeling. And sometimes the woman is excited to show herself, very joyous.
I think from trying to give so much and be so present, it can take a little bit to get back to normal. But then, as soon as I’m looking at the photos and interacting with the women and hearing about her experiences, that’s when I get back all of that energy after putting so much into it.
The thing about being a creator is you create a world that doesn’t exist. You create whatever you want to see in the world. I think that’s something I’m doing with this project: creating a world in which women are vulnerable and strong at the same time, and all different types of women get the same space, but represented in the same way.
I do feel like photography is a gift, and I want to use that to do good in the world, however I define “good.” I think some photographers and people who publish photography, there have been a lot of negatives, especially using perfect women over and over and over again. It hurts. It hurts a lot of women who have to live and see those. It’s just unrealistic. So, I use that to guide me to work with people who get that honesty and authenticity, who get that we can create change in the world just by being real.
My hope is that when women see it, they stop obsessing and allow themselves to be vulnerable, to feel more connected to other women, and just be 100% themselves in the world. There are so many more similarities than we typically believe. Be emotional if you are emotional. Be super inclusive even when that might not be how the world operates. I think the world is in a really shitty place right now. We need emotion, irrationality and inclusion to combat the suffering and toxicity in the world. I think women have all of that and are not always welcomed or invited to live that.
HH: Is there anything else you would like people to know about you, your work, upcoming projects?
KJ: So many of us are feeling horrible and insecure. Don’t assume that it’s just you. I have seen so many women who are going through the same things. A lot of what we suffer with is pretty universal. The more perspective we have on that, the less we suffer, because we can connect over that and take it less personally.
Regarding the project, I’m in San Francisco right now. I will definitely go to Los Angeles and New York. I have aspirations of taking it global. I will post about that on Instagram. I would like as many different women as possible to come. So if anyone is listening / reading, please come. Bring your mom, friends, sisters. Bring someone with you who maybe wouldn’t otherwise do it, but maybe will if you urge them. I think it’s a really great experience and something great to do with people that you love.
Keep an eye out for Kacy Johnson as she continues to travel and expand upon this work. You can follow Johnson’s work here: