These Photos Celebrate What Empowers Women

Sexual assault, cultural heritage, reading, body dysmorphia, tattoos, socialism, acne—even McDonalds. Those are just a few of the answers I received over the past three years by asking women what empowers them. The photography project that showcases their answers, CELEBRATE WOMEN, has become a uniquely multidimensional, transnational dialogue on the universality of diversity—and the complexity of the female identity.

CELEBRATE WOMEN was born on cold winter day on a cold bus to Brooklyn. My aunt had gifted me a sweater that read “The Future Is Female,” and I wanted to photograph myself wearing it. That sweater, to me, was like a badge that officiated my membership into the young, aspiring feminist club. I was excited to have a picture that represented myself in a deeper sense: a portrait that encapsulated something meaningful about myself that I was proud to share with others.

In that moment, I began to think of my friends. I thought of how they would rarely have the same type of excitement that I was having on that cold bus ride. I had camera equipment and years of shooting experience. I could confidently get a nice portrait of myself looking however I wanted whenever I wanted. But for most people, a portrait session was an expensive splurge, perhaps only for graduation, or engagement or their wedding.

I realized I had the ability to help other people share something meaningful about themselves through photography—if only I would ask them to.

The basic framework came together rather quickly. Women would sign up for private, 30-minute photo sessions. The goal was to give as much creative control to the participants as possible; this meant scheduling shoots rather than holding impromptu sessions, so people could put in as much or little preparation as they wanted. The final image would be chosen by the individual. I decided CELEBRATE WOMEN would be published on International Women’s Day, with text written by participants showcased alongside their photos. I invited photographers I knew in Shanghai to participate, widening the project’s reach and adding an international lens.

In the first year, CELEBRATE WOMEN included over 70 women from New York City and Shanghai and was presented at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In the second year, CELEBRATE WOMEN partnered with NGOs Daughters Rising and Lensational, bringing the project to countries including England, India and Thailand. This year, the project included women from Italy, Brazil and Vietnam—and was shown for the second time at Ladyfest Shanghai. Its increasing reach is especially meaningful, because increased visibility correlates with increased impact. The more people who see CELEBRATE WOMEN, the more people I hope can rethink their stereotypes of what it means to be a woman and what matters to women.

Women are underrepresented in all positions of wealth and power. The world grants them fewer opportunities, while the media objectifies them and oversimplifies their stories. But through projects like CELEBRATE WOMEN, women are given a platform to instead share whatever they decide in the spirit of simply loving themselves.

Your turn. What empowers you? Tell me in the comments!

Nicole Chan is a self-taught artist. She draws inspiration from Japanese animation, fantasy novels and pop surrealism and believes in the power of visual arts as a mechanism for storytelling and social change. Nicole is currently working as Associate Creative Director at LearningLeaders and is the Manager of CELEBRATE WOMEN.

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