powerful photos of faceless female nudes explore race, gender, and beauty

Documentary photographer Kacy Johnson's FEMALE project looks at women around the world, starting with the surface.

by Kristin Huggins
12 July 2016, 3:50pm


The first thing one notices about FEMALE, an ongoing portrait project by New York photographer Kacy Johnson, is that each woman is shot au naturale from the back. Kacy embraces the loveliness of our physical oddities: our sunburns, moles, rolls, and putrid scars, the indentations left from tight bras. "You know," Kacy says, "I was covered in Brazil and this was their headline: 'She photographed women and no Photoshop.'" But that's not the focus of this project. Authenticity is a given for Kacy's medium of choice, documentary, which she studied at Duke University, and later, with respected filmmakers. "I like the rawness and realness behind it, " she explains. Kacy frowns upon artifice in everyday life, too. Sitting in her studio, she wears little makeup and her twirl of curls falls naturally. The swipe of liner accenting her blue eyes is symbolic: stating yes, she tried, but no, she doesn't care.

Female is a collection of images of that document the presence of anyone that identifies as female, including both cis and non cisgender women, all ethnicities, ages, and shapes. Each is shot nude, from the back, against a neutral backdrop. Subjects wrote their own captions. "There's no castings," Kacy clarifies. " I trusted that the right women would come to me and the only thing I cared about is if they identified as female." Right now, most females featured are Brazilian, but Kacy's consistently adding subjects. 

The real point of this series is to remove the societal perspective on women and show them as they are. In the simplest sense, they are female. FEMALE includes trans and cisgender women of all ages, races, and body types.

To look at your own back, at first felt... unfamiliar. It was like looking at the mirror and seeing another person there. But suddenly you recognize yourself and see all of you there, the transformations of time, the skin color that is already different from all the rest that is always exposed. - Elis

She stepped away from her typical, off-the-cuff shooting style for something systematic---identical posing, backdrop, and lighting in each shot--- to highlight every woman's uniqueness. "The interesting thing about shooting women from the back is that most women don't know what their back looks like...We sit and look in the mirror at our faces, or bellies, but not our back... I usually don't share the images right away, either. I wait a few days or a week, and when I email it out, I enjoy the psychology of what happens." Sometimes subjects struggle internally after seeing these from-the-back, unaltered images of themselves. They often take their time before sending an uncomfortable response. Kacy explains, "It's a lot to come to terms with when you see yourself in a way you never have before."

Referencing Naomi Wolf, Kacy worries that "people still think it's a given for a woman to need to be desired by someone else, but I think….it should be a choice." Placing these restrictions on women "others them," and prevents them from "taking up space in the world." These photos are records of females taking up space without cultural restrictions, without having to be pretty or make people happy, because all those burdens bog women down, preventing them from creating the change they want to see in the world. "I was just trying to grow that seed in women to want to be fully seen in their whole identity because they are here, and that's a big step for a lot of women."


FEMALE grew out of Kacy's time spent in Brazil. She initially went to the country in 2012, staying for three months to study with the documentary photographer Julio Bittencourt. She traveled around the whole country while she was there. "It's incredibly diverse. The religions, the foods. You can find any kind of landscape and thing you're searching for in that country just about, and the people summed it up." That racial diversity and effortless inclusion compelled her to return to Sao Paulo in 2013 and stay for two years. She remembered the beautiful spectrum of women, and decided to tell a story of community. "So many people are excluded from the media's narrative (on women)... like, you never see a women over 30 years old?"

She also wanted to escape fashion photography. "It's always the same thing: you find the most attractive woman possible to sell some story, and it didn't feel authentic." During a shoot in the Lower East Side for an indie publication, Kacy thought she caught a break. "Everything was delayed. The hair stylist and makeup artist were running late, but the model was there." She was a 19-year-old from a small, European country psyched to be working somewhere as fast-paced as New York. "I'm a portrait artist," Kacy continues, "I like looking at people and capturing that intimate connection. So we're talking [with the model], and I'm having this connection with her, and I think, 'Wow, I'm going to be creating art with this person,' And then finally, the team is ready to shoot, and I pull the camera up to my face and then she changes. She's a model so it's her job, yes, but her face changed and her posture changed, and it was a performance. It was the right thing for her to do because, yes, that's her job, but for me, in that moment, it didn't feel real anymore."

"It's very tactile, very sensory what a skin can tell. There are no lies there, skin tells only truths." - Nanci

The project FEMALE is ongoing. Last March, Kacy returned to the favelas of Sao Paulo to record teenage girls. She plans on traveling to every continent because "in every place women have a different reality," and all of that builds into the collective cloth of the female experience. Kacy believes that all women are interconnected and possess a common essence, which is their strength; it's a new-age theory referred to as "divine femininity."

"The world's been at a place," she says, "where women are made to feel small, and not embrace their full consciousness. I wanted to create what I need to see in the world, as an artist. I think we are making a lot of progress." But, remembering her time in male-driven offices, she continues, "You think you have to fit into what our society values, and we end up losing a lot." She hopes this project proves we all would benefit from giving space to all women to express their female essence.

To participate in the project FEMALE, contact Kacy via Instagram: @kac__y

Kacy Johnson is shooting in San Francisco right now, and will be in Los Angeles and New York City throughout the fall and summer.

"My black ancestry goes beyond the curly hair,
the blackness on the skin,
the salient features…
My ancestry comes in the beat of the drums,
in the dance of strong steps,
in the fighting that set us free.
My mirror reflects my story..." - Cida

"It's a way to look from another angle, through the sensitive lens of someone else's eyes, your eyes already trained to find the imperfections in your own body after years of being bombarded with "perfect" images of "perfect" women, utopian.
We are not them. And we shouldn't even want to be, as our differences are much more beautiful and valuable than the stereotypical white-skinny-blonde-impossible that we are sold. We are all beautiful, whether we are white, black, yellow, green, red, blue, skinny, chubby, the shape of a pear, banana or apple, with straight, unruly, curly, short, long or colorful hair! Our differences tell stories, a lot of them. And each history has its own beauty." - Laura

"The skin in Brazil is full of nuance.
A mixed race woman often doesn't know who she is"
White? Black?
I am all of this and none of it at the same time.
Racism hits the mixed race woman when her blackness is used to make her feel less than,
And to be able to assume her blackness comes through the consciousness that there is no reason to be ashamed of roots that were always denied, stepped on, forgotten.
The skin in Brazil was mixed with pain, but this pain made me who I am today.
I am all of this and none of it at the same time." -Luana


Text Kristin Huggins
All images courtesy the artist

photography interviews
kacy johnson
kristin huggins