Just last month, our writer Chiara Fazzone (@chiaracf_) wrote an article about #metoo in the fashion industry. To our surprise, women photographers are still not comfortable coming forward to open up a discussion on the topic. Only one very brave photographer named Morgane Gielen (@morganegielen) was willing to pin her name to the issue, and for that, we raise our hands up. The Belgian photographer's courage to stand strong while the rest turned away is admirable and she took some time to talk to us about feminism, her work and the fashion industry.
FFU: Could you give us a bit of a background of your work?
MG: I started photographing at the age of 14 when I got a little camera from my uncle Pascal Baetens, who is also a photographer. When I started studying photography at the age of 18 in high school, the pressure I’d put on myself to live up to the standards was so great that after a year I was in the hospital with severe glandular fever and burn-out.
Even though I was very depressed in the following weeks and months – as I had to stop my studies, my health was shit and I broke up with my boyfriend at that time - I never stopped photographing. It was a way for me to express the emotions I felt deep inside. I was also eager to show everyone that didn’t believe in me that I could make it, as I've been very ambitious and stubborn since I was born.
I made a photo series called Pour Toi Un Bisou (glandular fever is also called the kissing disease, so that is why I chose that name) in my own house, with nothing more than one gray backdrop and a window. I was still sick then and couldn’t leave the house without being completely exhausted.
Through social media I met people who wanted to model for me. Pure, raw and natural. In some way, I kept attracting people who were in a similar physical or mental state as me in that moment without knowing before the shoot. It actually did quite a lot for me and the people posing for me. We talked about the things we were going through and we were very honest toward each other. Photography showed me again that it helps me to connect on a deeper level and it helped me during my recovery.
MG: I think in that moment my interest in photographing people that are going against the societal "standards" (on purpose and also not on purpose) grew. By hearing their stories and hearing how they are not getting the help they need or are being pushed away by the people close to them, it only motivated me more to show it. And by chance, makeup and styling was something that helped me with creating a certain mood or story, so eventually I evolved more and more towards fashion photography.
As I didn’t finish my studies, I am a self-taught photographer and I was very unsure of that for many years – but now I see it as a strength. I have no limits when it comes to my creativity, I don’t rely on any technicalities, and I work 100% on feeling. I learned to look at light, composition and models in a completely other way then I think you learn at school. My vision is pure and untouched, and I don’t feel I have any limitations. I am learning every day and every day I wake up excited and happy that I can do what I love.
FFU: I love hearing this kind of story, we CAN succeed in the face of adversity, even if it is tough. So let's get to the nitty gritty. What are your views on feminism in 2019? In photography? I imagine you have some things to say just based on the fact that you were the only photographer willing to be part of Chiara's piece!
MG: There is still a lot of work when it comes to changing society’s views on feminism. They think we are all men-haters who like to burn bras but that is not the case at all. Feminism fights for the equality of women – which I think is not yet the case at all in the (fashion) industry of today.
The fashion industry preys on women’s insecurities and bodies in order to sell. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we do not look good enough, are not good enough...but we could be close if we had this one thing. Feminism is about acceptance and body positivity, something the industry knows nothing about.
For every curvy model, there are heaps more straight-sized, thin women. For every famous colored model, there are a million catwalks of white women.
I’m not saying that the fashion industry hasn’t made strides over time; it certainly has. And not everyone in the industry is oblivious to both its successes and its failures. I also understand that no feminist is automatically a perfect feminist. Many of us better our feminism over time. But fashion hasn’t done enough to call itself feminist and it still operates within the inherently anti-feminist capitalist framework. The white, Western patriarchal society we live is going to be dismantled by someone else. Fashion is about profiting from the ideals of society—it will not be here that the ideals are changed.
FFU: Morgane Gielen, everyone. Keepin' it real. Seriously, I appreciate your frankness on the issue. Going back to Chiara's article on #metoo, I honestly was a bit surprised at the lack of desire for female photographers to participate in her article. It goes to show how much work still needs to be done. What do you make of that?
MG: I have no doubt that plenty of women are closet feminists. However, to be totally fair, many people are closeted when it comes to politics and social systems or anything remotely controversial. Many of us want to avoid having ugly conversations at work, at school, at home, or with friends and family, so we keep some of our beliefs and ideas to ourselves.
I do open up about being a feminist on social media. Many people think it's about women wanting to be superior (even though that isn't feminism) and I want to be part of changing the misconceptions going around.
FFU: Exactly, it's an opportunity to educate and inform on those misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the F-word. What do you think needs to be done for models and women photographers to feel safe enough to come forward?
MG: I think the general misconceptions around feminism need to be cleared up and there is still a lot of evolution that needs to happen to make that become reality. Due to the fact that the term "feminist" contains the word "fem," a lot of people seem to think it's off-limits to dudes. But this couldn't be further from the truth. There's no feminist handbook stating that only females can call themselves feminists. In fact, feminists like myself love it when men refer to themselves as feminists, because the feminist movement is not meant to encourage an "us against them" mentality. Feminism is supposed to be for everyone, because gender equality is for everyone.
FFU: Have you ever experienced anything first hand in relation to sexism or harassment?
MG: When I came out of a bad relationship a few years ago, I worked for months on my self-esteem and self-love and wanted to celebrate that by posing in front of the camera, something I'd done once or twice in the past before. There was a male photographer I knew through social media that made beautiful, yet sexy pictures of women. I wanted to show off my new body so I decided to contact him.
It went completely wrong – he started harassing me the whole time during the shoot. He tried kissing me, he tried to make me do things I didn’t want to do. I was so angry afterwards, because I stayed even though everything in my body screamed I had to leave.
It came down to me posing nude, even though it was absolutely not something I wanted to do. I was just completely wrecked. I felt brainwashed. Weak. Weak for not standing up for myself enough because I was afraid he would spread bad stories about me. Weak for me thinking this is even slightly okay to be treated this way.
In that moment I realized how fucked up it was that women think that they need to undergo these kind of things because they are brainwashed by society and are not self- confident enough to think they deserve better. I have nothing against posing nude (I love nude photography, it is gorgeous), but I have something against the fact they push you in doing something in that moment, you don't want to do. You know what I mean? Unfortunately, this happens to a LOT of girls in the industry and this is daily reality. That is why it is so important to always warn models starting out to follow their gut feeling, always stand up for themselves and also inform them that there are sadly enough a lot of men who claim to be a "photographer" but are just trying to find girls to project their fantasies on.
To be honest, I don’t know ANY girl that CANNOT share at least 1 story as the one I’ve told. Something needs to change drastically because this is just so fucked up. How come we live in a world where every woman I know is already harassed in one way or another?
FFU: Thank you for sharing your story, I know it isn't easy to do. The first reaction is always to get angry at ourselves, even though that's the last person we should be angry at. You are right, in France for example, there is a statistic on street harassment and essentially it's that 100% of women have experienced this (street harassment). Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! Could you tell us what you're working on right now?
MG: I am currently working on my first photobook called No Babes. With this book I want to show my true aesthetics and interests that lie close to my heart. The book challenges the beauty standards in society of today. No Babes is primarily a movement. A NoBabe chooses to resist unrealistic beauty requirements. Other NoBabes have never had the choice to compete with beauty ideals, through a mental or physical disability.
Women need to feel encouraged about who they are on the inside, not torn down for not looking like an unrealistic ideal of beauty. Don’t try to be anyone else other than yourself – be you – that will make you stand out.