sophie day makes radical portraits of teen girls, by a teen girl
The 18-year-old photographer is documenting New York youth, sometimes clothed, sometimes not.
The soft golden light-soaked pictures in Sophie Day's debut series "Mine" are confronting -- topless teen girls in combat boots with absolutely crushing stares. A new confidence radiates from their eyes in their moment of triumph. They all argue that contrary to what everyone tells girls, their bodies are actually theirs. Electric and arresting, they're the kind of pictures that tell intensely charged stories, and she captures them all on Fuji film using a subdued color palette.
Sophie just graduated high school, and she'll start studying photography and art at California Institute of the Arts this fall. She's never had a show yet. She wants to have her first one before August is over, somewhere downtown.
Lately, Sophie has been purposely ruining her images for Instagram with harsh black bars to cover the nipples. She has an anti-censorship message to deliver to people who, at this very moment, still think women's bodies exist to score attention from men. And now at a time when Instagram deletes every picture of female nipples if you don't censor them first, she hopes she can make young women rethink how they look at themselves.
"It's kind of shocking for some people," Sophie tells me. "I think my body is my earthly possession, but as girls, we're taught we're public property, and that our sexuality is on the table."
When I climb onto the Tribeca rooftop where Sophie is shooting her 24th subject, Lumia Nocito, 16, Sophie yanks her black tube top off.
"That changes the power dynamic," Sophie tells me. Because she runs this shoot the way she'd like to see women treated: equitably.
"Sick. I can't believe you're topless. That makes me so comfortable," Lumia says.
Sometimes, when she shoots her subjects in their bedrooms, Sophie will stretch a sheer red shirt over portable hot lights to fill the room with a dreamy electric scarlet cast. But today it's summer, and she's all over her friend's sun-dappled Greenwich Street roof tapping the shutter button with a quick bend of her wrist on the Pentax K1000 around her neck. She has pointy milk-white nails and platform shoes, which she takes off so she can balance on the ledge to get Lumia from above. "Gorgeous!" Sophie screams.
To create the pictures, she tells the girls to think about power when they pose, and she's obsessed with simple backgrounds, "so the focus is about the girls," she explains.
Sophie gives more than her camera takes. All her subjects approach her to model first once they discover her inspired Tumblr, or they hawk her ferocious Instagram like I did over the past year. Each one has a say in where her images end up. Because the girls photographed all have a body acceptance story - each one not totally resolved.
Sitting on the roof, Lumia tells Sophie why she wanted to do this. Lumia's depression started in middle school when girls called her a slut every day because she hit puberty early. "It's about saying fuck it," Sophie tells Lumia, and they're both at ease.
Who is this 18-year-old fighting body shame for girls who are supposed to be coming down from the height of their insecurity? Sophie, who grew up in the West Village, already seems to know herself. She's attuned to the solidarity that young women crave. Most of her followers, like her, are inflamed by the way Instagram censors women. But not every photo earns a "BAD BITCH ALERT" comment. Boys still post pervy comments. Sophie takes nude self-portraits too, and yes her mom loves the pictures, but some parents don't buy the message. Some claim that this is just good old objectification.
Deny her intent if you want, but talk to her for fifty seconds and she proves she's far too sophisticated to be naive.She knows how to handle the people who try to milk the movement as sexual. "I block people who don't get the point."
Her outrage about sexism is oddly polite. It's that polite outrage that helps her win her opposition over. "I tell them #freethenipple isn't just about boobs. It's the way we view women's bodies and try control them to such an extent that it's inappropriate for a childs' eyes, which is so crazy."
When she first started shooting at 17, she wanted to make people get over the shock factor of female anatomy. But tellingly, her work shifted to explore female sexuality as an endless source of power. "It was really centering. It went from normalization to reclaiming it," she says.
Sophie's voice rises an octave when you bring up self-hate. "For me, I had to unlearn the idea that men's opinions should shape the way we view ourselves."
She built the collaborative site Durable Girls to serve as a platform for her own brassy gang of eight teen girl artists. At one of the their meetings, the point of her project hit her. "I touched my arms and my legs, and I realized that these are my things. I started crying because I finally believed that for the first time."
When her models start to lay into their flaws, Sophie says, "be forgiving."
Some shoots touch Sophie in an unforgettable way, like when she shot a ballerina who just got out of rehab for an eating disorder. "It was such a liberating step for her to openly display her body," she says.
By the end of the session, Lumia is weightless, dancing and skipping after Sophie for the final pose. "It's a rush," Lumia tells me afterward. "Doing this physically gives me a new confidence. It feels good that a girl has my back. She's one of the reasons things are changing."
Text Ashley Hoffman
All images courtesy Sophie Day