How Photographers Created The Images That Will Define The Me Too Era

In the midst of a sexual harassment revolution, female photographers are finding ways to infuse a historically fraught (and male-dominated) tradition with empathy.
Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost

Two middle-aged women sit next to each other, their bodies tucked closely inside the cab of a commercial truck. They’re nearly identical, both sporting neat blond hairdos, neutral makeup and pink T-shirts. And they’re both staring intently at the camera fixed upon them, their slate-blue eyes searching out contact.

The February article in The Hollywood Reporter, about harassment of female transport workers in Hollywood, is a classic of the budding Me Too genre, right down to the artwork: A portrait of twin sisters Brita McCollough and Brenda Ryan, looking proud and defiant.

The story’s photographer, Sally Peterson, told HuffPost that the photo shoot had a clear prerogative: “It was about the strength of these women coming out and talking about what happened to them.”

Peterson said the Teamsters article is the only Me Too story she’s photographed. But her acute shots reflect a shared aesthetic that has grown up around the wave of sexual misconduct exposés of late. You’d recognize it from Time’s 2017 Person of the Year spread; The New York Times’ reports on Louis C.K., Ford factory workers, and more; The Washington Post’s investigation into the restaurant industry.

The portraits that accompany these stories are solemn and dignified, calm with a slight glint of anger or accusation. The lighting is often somber and shadowy, the colors muted. The women photographed stand level with the camera, dressed in modest, everyday clothes ― perhaps what they’d wear on the job.

Frequently they look straight at the lens, just like McCollough and Ryan.

There’s something potentially unsettling about a woman’s account of objectification being accompanied by her photograph. It’s treacherous ground, almost as if the reader is asking, “What was she wearing?” In these portraits of women who have spoken out against being sexually harassed and assaulted over the past several months, there’s a submerged but undeniable tension: Now that we’re actually listening to women, can we find a way to look at them without diminishing them?

Looking at women is a beloved tradition that extends back centuries. The Western art canon in particular has long jostled with female bodies depicted as desirable objects, often in inviting sexual poses and minimal attire.

“I always worry about that,” Peterson told HuffPost, when asked whether she was concerned about playing into the tradition of the “male gaze,” a term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1999. It’s become a ubiquitous turn of phrase among young women “woking” up to a patriarchal culture in which men see and women are seen. The term accurately describes the logic behind much of artistic and cinematic history, which depicts women not as human beings but passive, pleasurable images in the eyes of artists who were, more often that not, men.

Of course, no clear consensus exists as to what kinds of photographic or artistic representations are “empowering” to women, and which aren’t. In February, Sports Illustrated was criticized for their “In Her Own Words” photo spread, a reaction to Me Too featuring images of women with words like “strong” and “fierce” written on their naked bodies. Some women praised the spread, noting that the shoot gave subjects a voice and control over their own sexuality. Others, including our colleague Emma Gray, argued that another nude photo shoot, portraying seductively arch-backed, classically beautiful women, did little to disrupt the paradigm of female objectification for male enjoyment.

“I feel like there’s different ways that you can photograph women and men in a way where it’s not this huge sex appeal,” said Peterson.

The common aesthetic of most Me Too photojournalism likely arises, in part, from this idea, as photographers turn to similar visual cues for presenting a woman as a person with gravitas rather than appeal. Positioning a woman as honest and dignified, in this context, is particularly vital. Before the Me Too movement took hold, women risked being discredited or disbelieved when they came forward with sexual assault allegations.

It’s a concern at the forefront of many photographers’ minds, and it’s being addressed in deliberate ways.

A post shared by Alyssa Schukar (@alyssaschukar) on

Subtle changes in lighting and pose, freelance photographer Alyssa Schukar explained, fundamentally alter the way a photo ― and the person portrayed within it ― come off.

Instead of being posed in seductive positions ― for example, chin tilted down for an alluring upward glance ― she presented women she photographed in The New York Times’ Ford factory investigation in power positions. “They’re not being photographed from above,” she said. “They were photographed straight on and standing tall, showing a lot of strength and dignity in how they were posing.”

She made a conscious effort to show the Ford workers in a “heroic way” in their portraits, she added. The other photographers HuffPost spoke to expressed similar intentions, a desire to see and frame the women as tough and courageous rather than vulnerable. Peterson explained that she wanted to capture the Teamster women she shot as “strong ladies [who] are doing their job.”

“I see these women as brave, unafraid and powerful,” Eliza Hatch, the photographer behind the Instagram project Cheer Up Luv, told HuffPost in an email. In her series, she takes portraits of women who have been harassed or catcalled.

“I want to capture the women’s expressions looking impassive and confident, as they would look in their usual surroundings,” Hatch explained. “I want the images to say, ‘Look, this is me living my normal life, but putting up with something I shouldn’t have to.’”

One specific technique kept coming up: Showing the women looking directly at the camera. “A lot of the women were making direct eye contact, which I think is a very powerful thing in photography,” Schukar said of her Ford photos.

“I just wanted them to look good and strong and aware ― and looking at me, so you can connect to them,” Peterson explained.

“I think that for the stories to be as powerful as possible, you need to be looking into the eyes of the woman as you hear her story,” said Hatch.

Catriona, part of Eliza Hatch's "Cheer Up Luv" series.
Catriona, part of Eliza Hatch's "Cheer Up Luv" series.
Eliza Hatch

All the eye contact sends a particularly strong signal about accountability: The woman isn’t just being watched, she’s watching back. Although women have historically been discouraged or prevented from reporting their experiences with harassment and assault, they’ve been paying attention ― and now they’re speaking up.

“I’m very aware of how women and people of color have been portrayed in photography, and I think it’s a history we’re only starting to contend with,” Schukar said. She wanted to give her subjects “an opportunity to have a voice, too. That’s a very subtle thing in photography.”

Many of the photographers HuffPost spoke to said that they work to make their photo shoots collaborative, another way for the women to share their own story. Hatch told HuffPost that she believes it’s “important to meet, connect and form a bond of trust with the person whose story you are telling.”

Schukar agreed, saying this sometimes meant spending time connecting personally with subjects, making sure they were comfortable, and even sharing her own experiences of harassment. During her photo shoot with Rebecca Corry, a comedian who told The New York Times she had been harassed by Louis C.K., Schukar noticed the woman seemed nervous. So, Schukar said, “I just took my time. We walked around this comedy club and tried to make images both she and I felt were good for the story.” The shoot was in a comedy club; Corry “wanted it to speak to the fact that she’s still up onstage performing. She’s still a comedian. This is what’s at stake for her.”

“I think that the editors were very intentional in hiring women for these stories,” she said of the projects she’s worked on. “Although not everybody did. There were still a lot of publications that hired men for these stories, which was shocking.”

Peterson agreed that her gender helps ease any sexualized dynamic with female subjects, though she emphasized that men can photograph women with empathy.

“Being a woman, it’s easier to photograph other women,” she said, adding that in her case, “My intent is not, I’m horny to have sex with these women.”

Nonetheless, given the fraught historical relationship between photographic representation and sexual exploitation of women, one might wonder whether using images of these women is even the best way of illustrating Me Too stories, which may make the sources more vulnerable to attack or encourage judgments of their appearances.

Many sexual harassment stories, including many of HuffPost’s own scoops, don’t include photos of the sources at all. Instead, the articles are visually accented with original illustration, wire photos of the accused or accusers, or stock images of women facing away from the camera or relevant workplace settings. This may have less to do with principled objections to the male gaze, of course, than with practical concerns, like the subjects’ own hesitance to fully shed their anonymity.

But portraits also carry certain advantages. For one, they may signal the news outlet’s investment of resources in the story: Original photos are more expensive than pulling wire photos or using stock images. Perhaps most important, these portrait shoots simply are an investment ― an investment of time spent developing intimacy between the story’s subjects and the people covering them.

“It’s a tough thing to photograph, because it is so incredibly sensitive, and because of that, portraiture ends up being the best route to take to illustrate these stories,” Schukar told us. “The most important thing is for other people to see the faces of women who have dealt with sexual abuse and sexual harassment, because that’s the best way to create empathy, and I think that’s really the goal of these stories and these photographs.”

The photographers we spoke to said that the portrait shoots, as well as being a uniquely effective way for their subjects to present their own stories, can be a healing space. Schukar even photographed some of the women from the Ford plant story at her home studio, where she made them cups of tea.

The photographs accompanying Me Too stories afford women control over their narratives while allowing them to physically take up space, unfettered. Reminiscent of stately portraits of politicians and nobility, their visual language frames women not as victims but survivors, not objects but subjects.

For centuries, the male gaze has privileged women’s appearances at the expense of their voices. The photographers surrounding Me Too are crafting portraits that communicate their subjects’ interiority and agency as well as their images. “Sexual harassment takes a woman’s voice,” Schukar said. “The people who have spoken up have to be the priority if we want to tell this in a truthful way.”

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