unpicking gender with the raw photography of jessica yatrofsky
The American photographer's new monograph, I Heart Girl, is an unflinching and real look at the beauty of diversity and the female body.
Jessica Yatrofsky is the New York-based photographer and filmmaker who likes to shake things up when it comes to beauty. Confounding traditional representations of women in mass media and undermining institutionalised notions of masculinity and femininity, her latest photographic offering, a monograph called I Heart Girl, is a stark study of real women, unadulterated and raw. Naked without being objectified, or clothed without accentuating the subject's gender, her subjects are a refreshing reminder that beauty and femininity come in a variety of forms. A follow on from her hugely successful I Heart Boy, I Heart Girl is the culmination of several years of work concerning gender, beauty and body politics, some of which is on show as part of the Leslie Lohman Museum's permanent collection. Ahead of the book's May release, we catch up with Jessica to talk sex, society and why we should all heart girls.
Where did the idea for I Heart Girl come from?
I like to think of the I Heart Girl series as a selection or a curation from a larger body of work that I will continue to create for as long as I'm making photographs. This series in particular is sort of a compliment to a previous photography monograph that I published several years ago titled, I Heart Boy. I've always been drawn to depicting the body and I think it's very important to make images that represent a facet that reflects the current cultural landscape, which is why both series highlight gender identification.
How does it differ from I Heart Boy, other than your subjects now being girls?
There is a lot of cross over in both series because I approach all of my subjects in a pretty routine manner resulting in a sort of uniformity throughout my work. However, if anything, I feel a great sense of pride with I Heart Girl because as a woman I relate more to the subjects in a very personal way.
How do your subjects confound society's perception of beauty?
If we can all agree on what beauty means in our society surely we can all agree that beauty is subjective too, right? I think beauty is seen, expressed, and agreed on across cultures in a variety of ways and I intend to be part of this dialogue as an artist who explores an image that is not always consistent with mainstream media.
What does femininity mean to you?
Personally I would say feminine beauty is a balance of style, poise, and grace. It's a gentleness and a knowingness that I don't believe is always exclusive to a woman. All genders posses these qualities, it's whether it's politically correct to recognise it is what interests me.
Why was it important for them to be naked?
Not all of my subjects are naked! It's funny how a hand full of nude portraits create the illusion that everyone in this series is naked and I like that. I think this happens because all of the subjects convey a vulnerability. While I don't think it's necessary to be naked to capture vulnerability I think it interesting to see subjects both clothed and unclothed existing side by side in my work.
Can a woman be naked without being sexualised?
It's an impossible task to de-sexualise women. I think sexual identity is important for the self and I care about celebrating and honouring what resonates with how each subject chooses to express herself. I'm merely capturing and presenting a facet of women, what the viewer does with that information is her business!
What's wrong with how women are represented in the media?
I think it's getting better actually. There are many strides being made in the media to get closer to a variety of depictions of women. We will get there, we just need to stay vocal.
How should it change?
We are a culture all very willing to share ourselves on the internet and across social media. Because there is a lot of freedom with control of our own image, there is also a greater need for positive imagery to exist in media both reflecting and celebrating our diversity.
What should contemporary female culture look like?
Female culture is not a fixed ideal or characteristic and we need to stop thinking about it in these narrow terms.
Where do you stand on women representing themselves as hyper-sexual? Do you think this can truly empower them if they are in control? Or does this just reinforce society's idea of women as sexual objects?
In our current culture every young person deals with the pressure to discover themselves at an abnormally rapid pace, and this can force women in particular to take on an identity that they are not comfortable with and/or have not yet discovered for themselves. There is a lot of expectation to identify and align oneself with a singular position in order to conform and assimilate quickly. Women have a lot of choices and we need to be reminded that we have them. It's very necessary to continue moving towards gender equality now more than ever and empower ourselves and each other by not accepting the identities society has constructed for us.
Women as sexual objects is an idea that's been in place since the beginning of time. The best thing women and men can do is to embrace and respect sexuality by expressing it as they see fit. I think it's important to push boundaries and keep moving towards a more realistic expression of the body in relationship to sexuality. However, I don't think we should seek to censor or cease expressing female sexuality in the media but I think there are many instances were we should as a society exercise responsibility when it comes to how women are being depicted.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I have several video projects in the works. I am in pre-production for an experimental short exploring gender and I'm in post-production on a feature film I directed titled, A Naked Heart. Other than that I am just planning for the I Heart Girl book release this June!
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Jessica Yatrofsky