Women are Strong in Annie Leibovitz’s Photography

It’s encouraging, the way that feminism has been discussed more seriously and more widely in recent years. The coverage of issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, systematic disregard, the pay gap, and other manifestations of gender inequalities has become pervasive. When I open up the index of a major news website, one of those sites that seem to go on forever with headlines and headshots, there’s at least half a dozen stories about gender. Many websites even have dedicated content for these issues (Daily Life, Broadly, Femail, and so on).

The statistics don’t lie about women’s disempowerment. Globally, at least one in three women has been assaulted, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused. Sex trafficking is a major global issue affecting almost 20 million adults and 2 million children, 98 per cent of whom are female. So is sex-selective abortion and the murder of baby girls are also enormous global injustices, believed to have been the cause of 90 million ‘missing girls’ over seven countries. There’s more issues, of course, many more, always more, and it is a massive step forward that the issues are being taken more seriously.

Even just being a woman is a tremendously dangerous thing in this world. We collectively forge ahead in spite of reams of violence and discrimination. I want to hear more stories about the troubles all women face. But I also want to hear about their strength, their capacity for survival. The language of victimhood is right, but so is the language of thriving, of problem solving, of protest and advocacy. Women can tell a story of hope that comes out of oppression.

‘Feminine strength’ is a mysterious thing. Sometimes the term seems like a delusion you might develop as a consolation prize in the game of patriarchy. It casts a New Age-y image of the moon and the ocean, of wearing a red dress, the smell of irises. I’m also reluctant to accept the idea that women and men are so biologically different that the way we manifest strength is different too. But there is something tangible about this strength. I’ve seen it.

women 2And I saw it at Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition, “Women”, in London. Held in the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, her photographs were displayed on huge LCD screens amongst industrial equipment, tall ceilings and steel beams. Each screen depicted a photograph of a woman for a short time before flipping to a new one.

Leiboviz is a US portrait photographer known for her stunning portrayals of celebrities. She took the iconic photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the cover of Rolling Stone just five hours before Lennon died. This exhibition likewise featured people of prominence: Adele, Taylor Swift, Caitlyn Jenner, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Queen… It also showcases some women you may not have heard of. Labourers, cowgirls, athletes, and more.

The exhibition focuses on womanhood, but not in a prescriptive way. Many of the subjects are not stereotypically ‘feminine’. It’s not necessarily about attractiveness (although the portraits are invariably breathtaking), nor is it about sexiness. When I look at the portraits I see personality and interiority. The subjects go beyond their appearance on a screen, Leibovitz has allowed space for their uniqueness, there’s nothing cliché about it, nobody fits a specific mould.

women 1One image fits the power station environment so well that it’s haunting. It’s of a muscular woman pulling a wheel, wearing a black leotard. The woman has an amazing body, but what’s important about the picture, to me, is the sense of focus, and the power of her force.

The fact that ‘feminine strength’ is revelatory to me is symptomatic of the fact that while there is mainstream space to see the problems and compromises facing women, there is less space to bask in our awesome capabilities. To embrace what is good about being a woman, you don’t have to subscribe to biological determinism (just the idea that women have different kinds of experiences to men based on a range of factors), you don’t have to dismiss the ongoing issues that face women and that must be addressed, it doesn’t make the world fine. But it does give you something to work with, something to be proud of.

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