Photography is this mysterious art form that fascinates me — the light, colour and composition of photos is filled with such complexity it tends to leave me ashamed of my “complex” photos: point and click a button on my iPhone.
So, it’s no surprise that I think Lilli Waters’ photos are compelling, to say the least. These are part of her upcoming collection — ANJA — featuring a diverse range of normal women. Her aim, Lilli says, is to show honest beauty in her pictures, with women who are her friends and peers — normal women — and to challenge what her audience thinks of beauty, and a society which encourages women to internalise sexism and sexual aggression.
ANJA will be on display from 12-29 August at red gallery in Victoria. After the exhibition is completed, the images will be published in a book, and 50% of those proceeds will go to the White Ribbon Foundation, dedicated to fighting male violence against women.
Read on to learn more about Lilli, her photography and what her subjects thought of being part of ANJA.
In all your years of experience, what (famous or infamous) photo sticks in your mind still? And why?
I would have to say that I’ve had a deep admiration for Bill Henson’s work since my early uni days. His dark and disturbing portraits of young adults really resonate with my thoughts about photography and what I am wanting to capture.
Particular images by artists such as Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Jane Burton & James Nachtwey will always stay with me..
Generally, I am drawn more to paintings than I am photographs, and have always loved the portraits and landscapes from the Romantic and pre-Raphaelite era.
How did you come to pick up a camera and pursue photography?
My first exposure to photography came about when I took a photography class in year 11, where I had the opportunity to play around with black and white film in the dark room. I remember taking a photo of my friend in the eagle-legged bath that was in my bathroom, she was holding my blue heeler dog and wearing leg warmers and a tiara.
I was invited to study film at the Photographic Imaging College in Melbourne, based on some short films I had made in high school, and completed an Advanced Diploma of Photography in 2002. I went on to work in the photographic field as an assistant and a retoucher for several different companies, but didn’t start taking photography seriously until 2011, when I gained the confidence to quit my job as a retoucher. I couldn’t find another job for six months, so I used my time to pursue some ideas that had been lingering around in my head for a while. In this period I was broke and had trouble paying my rent, but with the space away from work my creativity began to bloom, and I produced my first series and had my first exhibition. Working within the photographic field for so long acted as a positive as well as negative training ground for my personal work.
Looking back now, what were your worst misconceptions about photography?
I always wanted to be a painter, a dancer, a musician, more than I wanted to be a photographer. I found, and still find, photography to be a limited medium to express my ideas, in certain ways. I find myself admiring mostly the fine and developed skills of the paintings and music that I love, and have always wanted to find a way to achieve this through photography. I am still trying, which is the exciting part of the challenging process that I face.
(Lilli Waters photographed by Jacob Cole)
How did the idea for ANJA come to be?
ANJA started off about a year and a half ago, as a thirst to find some inspiration in what was quite a ‘dry’ period in terms of ideas.. I began to photograph my friends around the area where I live, and the project gradually developed. From there, I gained more tools to express myself and learnt to interact better with my subjects and my internal landscape, whilst working within the environment around me.
What are your aims for the project?
My aim for the ANJA project is to portray women in a beautiful and perhaps slightly challenging light. These women are not hired models, they are simply the women around me; my peers, friends, strangers. I want to represent them honestly, for the real, vulnerable and beautiful humans that they are.
How did you find yourself changed by the end of the project?
For the longest time I have felt that taking photos for me was like driving head-on into something, but blindfolded. I have been really compelled to create, though simultaneously somehow blocked. I spent time alone in a cabin up in the bush in Northern NSW for a few weeks towards the end of photographing the ANJA project, and the ideas behind my work slowly started to make more sense to me. I especially enjoyed photographing the last few women, as it felt like coming to the end of a chapter in my life. Throughout the project, I felt genuinely grateful, and often surprised, at the courage these women expressed; to expose themselves in such an open, honest and vulnerable way. The process made me admire them even more. I was quite emotional after photographing the last ANJA portrait and celebrated with a glass of Grey Goose and some James Brown.
How were your subjects changed?
I would hope that they enjoyed the whole experience as well as gaining something out of it. Some of them told me that they felt safe being photographed naked, that they saw their body in a light that they’d never seen before and that this gave them a new found appreciation for their body and what they perceive to be ‘beautiful’. Many of them told me that they were proud of what they had done. I guess I couldn’t ask for more than that.
“I have been engulfed by quite severe eating disorders for around 10 years, this would have been an unthinkable achievement not too long ago. But there is something about the way Lilli captures form and darkness and femininity that was very appealing and made me want to be a part of it, even in a small way. I felt encouraged by the women that Lilli photographed before me and I wanted to make myself vulnerable so I too could be part of something beautiful and courageous. It gave me some inner peace. It made me look at myself differently. The lead up to it was more challenging than the actual day – the thoughts, anxieties etc…I think it has given me a new sense of calm… an acceptance of self that I have been struggling to find.”
quote 1 from an ANJA subject (anonymous)
“It was empowering to be photographed in a way where I wasn’t thinking of myself as being viewed as a sexual object – the ‘hot’ or ‘not’ conundrum – but where I was trying to give a more holistic image of myself, but one that was still recognisably beautiful, or celebratory in some way, and also reflected my own inner landscape. I feel quite excited to be a subject in Lilli’s photographic exhibition because I’ve never felt like the type of girl who’d be a model, or whose beauty would be celebrated, (and I was alright with that because I explicitly don’t want to be sexualised, or even in that game), but it’s empowering to see myself as beautiful outside that paradigm. And it also reflects my lived experience of being a woman, (where in all reality I am a million different things), but that holistic view of womanhood is something I don’t see reflected back in the culture at large all that much.”
quote 2 from an ANJA subject (anonymous)
What have the reactions been thus far? Positive and negative? Are they what you expected?
Mostly positive, which is really lovely. I think photographing women nude is always going to run the risk of landing you in hot water, no matter how you approach it. It is so important to me, that my images of women are not sexualised, nor are they manipulated to change the subjects appearance to fit in with ‘society’s standards’ in any way. Unfortunately, there will always be people that don’t like what it is you’re doing. I have learnt by now that criticism just comes with the trade, and it gets easier to deal with over time.
With this project, what do you hope people see – in terms of women and beauty in today’s society?
I hope that ANJA is received as a refreshing and realistic representation of women, especially to the women who were themselves photographed.
My interest is in portraying these women as the real women that they are, and not succumbing to the unrealistic and idealised standards of how women should look. I question the pressure that society is constantly applying to women: that we ‘need’ to be more this or ‘need’ to buy that in order to be ‘prettier’ or ‘more complete’. I am not interested in sexualising the form of my subjects, but am on a quest to find self-compassion, and emotional awareness, in both myself and in my audience. Photographing these women helps me in my search for these things, and perhaps helps my subjects to find a moment of self acceptance and recognition, which is deserved and should be encouraged much more within our culture.
There’s a lot to expose in terms of the way we have internalised sexism and sexualised aggression. I feel like as a photographer I am a witness to women’s conditioning, and I’m trying to offer a different perspective. In my work I want to awaken a preferable alternative. My message is therefore transformative, supporting a questioning of the norm.
What can we expect from you this year?
The upcoming ANJA Exhibition is happening at Red Gallery, from the 12 – 29 August 2015 in Fitzroy North in Melbourne. A gold coin entry fee goes towards the White Ribbon Foundation, a Campaign that works to end men’s violence against women in Australia.
The ANJA book will also be available for sale on opening night and throughout the exhibition. 50% of the profits from all book sales will be going towards The White Ribbon Foundation.
I have some threads of ideas that I hope I can achieve and grow on throughout this year and the next.