In recognition and celebration of International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, NYU Shanghai (NYUSH) junior Nicole Chan launched “CELEBRATE WOMEN,” a photography series open to anybody who identifies as a woman at NYU’s New York and Shanghai campuses. The project asks participants “What empowers you?” allowing them to be photographed with a signifier of their choice. It is “an opportunity for young women to explore and express their identity as they choose, and to take control over their visual narratives.”
Nicole states that her inspiration for this idea came from a sweater from her aunt that says “The Future is Female.” Upon receiving the sweater, she thought about how she really wanted a self-portrait of herself wearing that sweater, representing herself and a cause she really believes in, which led to the idea of whether this is something other people would also like to do. “Also, several months ago, I watched an interview with Ariana Grande where the talk show host asked her something along the lines of “Would you rather live without your phone or your makeup?” I think that’s a really good example of very casual, subtle sexism that is really prevalent in a lot of societies. You can also see this when you look at the emojis on your phone related to women, so these kind of nuances really promote the fallacy that women are vapid and superficial. This project is trying to challenge those pre-existing gender stereotypes by allowing women to express themselves however they want.”
As a cross-campus collaboration between the New York and Shanghai campuses, the initiative has allowed Nicole, who is currently studying away in New York City, to work with photographers based at NYUSH. “As a result, we are working together to create a transnational commentary the celebrates the diversity and complexity of the female identity.” Volunteers willing to participate in this project signed up either for the New York or Shanghai photo shoots based on their location, and participation involved modeling with any signifier of what makes them feel empowered, loved, intelligent, strong, and/or beautiful. “It is an outlet to share what you find deeply important. Maybe it’s a book, maybe it’s a necklace, maybe it’s a cultural or religious symbol, maybe it’s a food, it’s all good. It does not have to be a physical object. Clothing, haircut, tattoos, and piercings are not ‘objects’ but can definitely be empowering and used as expression”, adds Nicole.
After the photo shoots were over, On Century Avenue had a chance to ask the organizers and photographers involved on the Shanghai side why they participated in the project. David Santiano, photographer, organizer, and Junior at NYUSH, says he got involved because, “I have many strong women in my family that I admire greatly, so I wanted to bring attention to all the strong women that are here in the NYUSH community so that they may be admired as well.” Millie Wong and Brian Ho, both NYUSH freshmen, became involved in the project after Nicole reached out to them. Brian, who had seen a lot of Nicole’s work previously and was a big fan, saw this as “a great opportunity to work with a photographer [he] respected and could learn from” in addition to finding the theme of the project meaningful and in line with his beliefs. Millie also loved the central idea of the project especially because it “allowed ALL women to feel like supermodels by giving them full creative control and an amazing photo shoot… The best part was learning what empowered my close friends and seeing everyone who participated go from being shy and unsure about themselves to happy and proud of their photo shoot!”
“I think the most positive thing I’ve learned through this project is that people are really receptive to initiatives like this. There has been an overwhelming response to the photoshoot as all the slots [in New York] were gone in less than 12 hours, and it is really affirming to see that people are excited to share what’s important to them. I also really appreciate the amount of thought some people have put into what they are bringing as their signifier,” states Nicole. The biggest hurdle in the project seems to be the communication between New York and Shanghai, largely due to the time difference, along with finding a reliable space for the photoshoots as the project is not affiliated with any club.
Other than to celebrate International Women’s Day, the project also aims to recognize the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal number 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. CELEBRATE WOMEN addresses “lack of female representation in the art world, lack of varied female representation in the media, and the objectification and oversimplification of women. Within this project, women have extensive creative control over how they are represented: from their clothing, to their props, to the final image selected and text accompaniment. CELEBRATE WOMEN deviates from traditional portraiture, in which the photographer’s own biases can heavily influence the end result, and also is differentiated from organizations that empower women by teaching photography. CELEBRATE WOMEN is a project in which experienced photographers use their technical skill sets in order to help empower young women.”
Currently, Nicole is also working on the promotion of this project in order to improve the spreadability of CELEBRATE WOMEN’s message of female empowerment, in order to reach an even larger community. Photoshoots were conducted in the New York and Shanghai locations from Mar. 1 to Mar. 7, and all images captured as part of the photography series will be exhibited on various social media platforms on International Women’s Day, Mar. 8. The Red Elephant Foundation, an NGO enthusiastic about promoting the cause of gender equality through photography, will also be showcasing some of the photos on their website.
When asked about whether she would like to make this project an annual event, Nicole answered, “I think it’d be good to make it an annual event. It has been a great learning experience and so if I were to do it again next year, I would definitely understand the process more in terms of reaching out to other organizations and photographers and maintaining more stable communication. As a visual project, I think that giving people the opportunity to work with photographers one-on-one is great, and what we are trying to create is a collective narrative that provides commentary on what is universal about women. This is why having people view the series is also very important, to engage people who can’t participate directly. As a project for this year, I think just getting participation has been great, but moving forward, if this is going to be a long-term project, I think it is important to reach out to more organizations and make this not only cross-campus but also including different universities to strengthen the message.”
To view the photos from the project, click here.
For any questions, comments, or concerns related to this project, you can contact Nicole Chan in New York City (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Shanghai liaisons David Santiano (email@example.com), Brian Ho (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Millicent Wong (email@example.com).
This article was written by Lathika Chandra Mouli. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Nicole Chan