Posted on July 06 2018
This week, we caught up with famed photographer Anita Corbin who has spent the last ten years working on a project called First Women to highlight 100 incredible women who have pioneered the field they work in, becoming the “first woman to…”
These women come from a diverse range of backgrounds including sport, media, music and military and are to be documented in a free exhibition opening in London in two weeks’ time. The idea behind the series was much in-line with what we talk about at F = — Anita believes that photography, as a visual tool, can inspire and change attitudes, and by highlighting such role models, we can encourage the next generation of women into fields which were traditionally male-dominated and to become the next 100 First Women.
Newnham: What were you like growing up? When did you first get into photography?
Corbin: I am grounded by my ancestry which is a non-conformist background — my great grandmas and grandpas on my maternal side were heavily involved in the development of the Conway Hall Ethical Society — the oldest free thinking society in the world.
So they were pretty radical and although they weren’t Suffragettes, they were very supportive of Suffragettes and believed in all the causes of the day, the abolition of slavery, workers’ rights, women’s rights. So I’ve got that in my blood and through my life and work, I have basically been channeling the energies of my great grandma Annie Lidstone and wonder what she would have thought of today, seeing my exhibition, seeing these women within a hundred years on — how far we’ve come since then.
And on my dad’s side, he came from a poor working class farming background so a very strong work ethic. He was actually a horticultural photographer self taught — he was a horticulturalist and he then saw a niche in the market in the 60s to start photographing plants and flowers and trees and show people how to e.g. lay the turf and how to prepare the ground, how to stamp it down and how to roll the turf out etc. My dad was basically the first to develop that “how to” series style of photography and he made a lot of money from it too!
I was given my first camera aged eight, and bearing in my mind my dad’s passion for plant photography, I was always in the office with him and editing and then my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side were also very interested in photography, amateur photography, but we had another relative — great uncle Cath— who set up Kodak in Bombay in the early 1900s and who was an aerial photographer, so there wasn’t just amateur but also professional photography in the fringes of the family. A lot of that work from my great uncle came down through the albums and I spent a lot of time looking at this absolutely fabulous black and white photography which piqued my interest.
So I got into photography at a really early age and won my first prize for it when I was 10 and at primary school. I can still remember the impact that had on my confidence but I didn’t think then that I was going to be a photographer because I was good at science and absolutely rubbish at art so I got chucked out of art. I couldn’t draw and the teacher was like, “There no point in carrying on doing art because you can’t draw” and I agreed. “Yes, you’re right, I can’t draw but I love doing all the silk screening and mosaic” — like non — drawing part of art basically so I went off to do Biology, Geography and English or my A levels and, when I finished school I went off travelling to India.
At 18 and in 1977, that was also quite a radical thing to do with three other friends the same age. I took a camera on this trip with me because I had been brought up with cameras so that’s what you did and I took ten rolls of transparency film and went off to India and started photographing people that I met. And I found that I was able to connect with people through the camera even though I couldn’t speak the language which gave me a really good reason to meet people and a good excuse to get inside people’s homes and bridge that cultural gap without words. Of course, back in the day, people were taking photographs but it wasn’t like today when everyone has a camera phone so, for the locals, and the people that I met — farmers and people working in the fields — they were absolutely excited by it, the thought of being on camera. So I think that’s where I learnt to kind of engage with subjects and get their trust and to feel really that ethical responsibility to represent them in the way they would want to be seen. And I think that’s why I never really got into any kind of press photography. I’ve never really got into any photography where I can’t interact with the subject. I really like that factor and I really like that interaction so I think that’s where the portraits (for First Women) came through.
Newnham: Going back to the travelling, did you become a photographer as soon as you came back?
Corbin: So yes, I went off to India and I was supposed to come back for a university degree doing science, environmental science at UEA. I’d been away for a year, a gap year basically. But during that time, my mother become really ill. When I came home she was in hospital and actually never recovered. She was in hospital for 18 months which meant I came back from that opening up of my creativity into a very traumatic situation which focused my mind on wanting to do something with my life that had meaning in a sense. That type of situation makes you realise how fragile everything is — when you have somebody that you love in a hospital situation and you can’t really do much about it. Obviously you can visit them, give them moral support but it’s that whole thing of her not having a choice — she had to stay in hospital and so I suppose from there on in, I was very determined to be the mistress of my own destiny.
I had gone to university when I got back but I left after a term of the science degree and came back to London to be close to my mum. But also because I decided that I wanted to pursue the possibility of being a photographer. I applied for the Polytechnic of Central London to do the Film and Photographic Arts degree there and it was just off Oxford Street so I spent three years there learning the trade and that’s how Visible Girls developed, in that environment, I did Visible Girls as my final year project.
Newnham: I was going to ask you about that, so how did you come up with the idea for Visible Girls?
Corbin: Well I was really into colour photography and I was just getting into portraiture. I’d done a lot of work — sort of abstract, more arty stuff. But, from my India travels I knew that my desire was to work with people and so I developed this project called Women in Uniform. I thought that because they were in uniform, it would make it easier to compose the images because, for a start, everyone will be in the same colour. So it was quite a practical approach but, also at that time in 1979/80, there wasn’t much coverage of normal women, ordinary women working at Marks & Spencer or who go to Brownies or schoolgirls. There wasn’t really that much coverage of ordinary women.
So I started doing that and that developed into the Visible Girls series — really looking at the ‘formal’ uniforms and then looking at ‘informal’ uniforms of subcultures with how we present ourselves and how that either helps people to understand us or gives people the wrong impression. You know, you could dress up as a skinhead and someone would think, “Oh, you’re racist” or you could dress up as a skinhead and someone would be, “Oh you’re part of the anti-racist SKA scene.” So it’s so much about where the viewer is coming from.
That was very interesting and intriguing to me so I was photographing mods and rockabillies, skinheads and Rastas, punks but I was also interested in the young women-orientated scene which was very big at the time. Young women into women’s liberation, young lesbians, that whole scene was quite undercover at that point but coming out, and I was very interested in that aspect — at the time punk enabled women to throw everything out of order and basically start afresh. And that had just happened — punk in 1977 — and so the series was a result of this nonconformity which gave women a lot more freedom.
Newnham: When I looked at the photos, it was always two women together. Why choose two?
Corbin: Yes, so each were a double portrait. That was another reason, another one of the messages was that it was about being in a culture, a subculture, a group like me and my mates. And photographing them as two women adds another dimension to the picture because then there’s a relationship going on between the two women — they might be friends, they might be lovers, or they might be sisters so there’s that dimension as well.
And then I’m the third part of the triangle, if you like, because my involvement is in what I’m presenting to the world through photographing them — a reflection of my thoughts and feelings. It was very collaborative. It was about showing the world what young women look like and I was a young woman at the time. I was only 21/22 when I was taking these pictures so they were my first really massive project and it’s funny because it’s getting more recognition now than it did then which is great! Visible Girls Revisited was born last year, as I reconnected with these Visible Girls again through social media.
Newnham: And then First Women — how did that come about?
Corbin: So I created Visible Girls as a young woman just starting her career… then I studied an MA in Photography at the RCA and simultaneously I started working as a professional photographer but I got to the point where I had my children, twins, and they were growing up, and when they were 14, I suddenly had this light-bulb moment where I woke up thinking how are we going to remember all these first women I kept hearing about on the news and radio? I thought it was a great idea and assumed there was bound to have already been collated by someone, but when I researched it I couldn’t believe that no one had actually done it. So then I thought, well it’s because I actually need to do it. I’m a woman photographer, have been working in the UK all my life therefore — it’s my my destiny to do this series — and that is pretty much how it started!
And the timing — the exhibition coming out in 2018 is personal. You’ve got to have these sort of milestones, haven’t you, especially if you’re working for yourself? It is important to have the exhibition come out a hundred years since The Representation of the People Act. But also, for me personally, it was important because my mum would have been 100 this year and I am turning 60. The exhibition will be open for both of those significant dates!
Newnham: How did you choose who to include?
Corbin: It was a very organic process. What I didn’t want to do was set out with a list from the start because I knew it would be a long process (a ten year process). I knew that in ten years, I’d be able to present the images as a celebration of the 100 years of women getting the vote by looking at how far we’ve come with these contemporary pioneers. These women are an example obviously as there are lots of women that I haven’t photographed so it’s not a definitive list. I want to keep shooting/photographing the next 100 firsts and nominations for more will be open at the exhibition.
So it was about capturing a complete diversity across all sections of society, all sectors of work, sports, activities, adventures, obviously race, age, sexuality. I was quite careful not to have too many in the same field. So what we have are the firsts that I photographed and there are various reasons why I met them, why I was recommended to photograph them. One first would sometimes suggest another first and it might not necessarily be a high profile first e.g.one of my first is the first woman to be a permanent member of the Brighouse and Rastrick Colliery Band — Laura Hirst. It had traditionally been a male only environment but I think she broke the 160 years of male-only full time members when I photographed her, and she said a lot of the men threatened to leave when she joined. She was also only given a man’s uniform to wear which, given that she isn’t terribly tall, meant it was very oversized. So she had this jacket on that was way too big for her and she was trying to play the cornet with these sleeves all round her, all round her arms and hands, and you just think, wow that’s pure determination on her part to continue despite all of that.
Newnham: I guess it’s that determination which leads to such women being the first to break barriers…
Corbin: Yes, a lot of people would be like, “Forget that then” but a lot of these women have had tricky passages. And, of course, many of them have also had fantastic support from their mentors and from men who have helped them to get to that point but this project for me was more about getting them to look back on their achievements for themselves. A lot of busy women who are driven don’t take time out or have the time to sit back and think, “You know… wow, wasn’t I amazing? Look at what I have done.” So actually, many of the subjects said that what was really exciting for them was it gave them a reason to stop for two hours and reflect on how far they’ve come.
Newnham: Which is lovely…
Corbin: Yes, and that comes out in the sessions because there is only me and her. I don’t have assistants; it’s very personal and intimate, the setting. I carry all my own gear, I set up all my own lighting. I talk to the subject and we have a relationship during that session, if you like, and I try and catch the essence of that woman.
Sometimes it takes all of those two hours and sometimes you click straight away but it’s been amazing, the best assignment I could have ever set myself.
Newnham: Was there anything that surprised you from doing this project? Corbin: How approachable they all were. I literally sent out a letter or email to ask if they would like to be part of it and, even from the start, when people didn’t really know me or what I was doing, I would say about 95% of all who were approached said yes straight away without any strings attached or questions asked, without any contracts signed. And that was part of my method, in a way, it was intended to be very informal; for it to be very relaxed with them. They didn’t have to do an interview, no writing involved, I didn’t insist there had to be a biography or anything to go with the photograph although subsequently, we have done short biographies but it wasn’t photography and words at the beginning. It was just a photograph and that helped a lot I think because a lot of people don’t want to give interviews all the time — it’s tiring and its quite time consuming.
Newnham: Indeed. What do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?
Corbin: Well it’s obviously been a big part of my life for the past 10 years so I’ve been thinking about it and wondering how it’s going to manifest itself. What I would love is for people to see this also as an educational exhibition to be seen by children every day, with them asking questions and thinking,
“Well, I didn’t know a woman could do that.”
“I didn’t know a woman could be a scientist.”
“Oh, I want to be the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade when I’m older.”
Obviously it’s created for adults as well but primarily, it’s about creating a legacy for the next generation to say, Look how far we’ve come… Yes, there’s still a long way to go but let’s take stock at this point and celebrate these women that got to these places in their lives in living history. And now we’re going into the next 100 years so what can we achieve in that time? It’s up to you, the children, to determine that now.
It’s a celebratory exhibition — that’s what it’s about. It’s about celebrating how far women have come in the past 100 years by looking at the contemporary pioneers of today.
Saying this, it has been a little disappointing not to have more major sponsors getting involved and we have had so many promises of funding it’s quite hard to keep going sometimes! I have some very supportive smaller sponsors who support women and love the idea of First Women but I haven’t been able to pick up a headline sponsor (£50k) yet, which is quite interesting because it’s obviously very topical this Centenary year 2018.
However, now we have reached out to ‘ the people’ with our crowdfunding campaign, it’s a fantastic feeling to have the support of strangers that don’t know you but just get it!
It’s a completely unique collection so I thought I would have had a pretty big headline sponsor by now… but when we are featured on the BBC Newsnight, I expect things to change!
We have had massive press interest in the last few weeks, which is fantastic. And I have a great team of women freelancers around me, and we are punching well above our weight !
Luckily, I’ve have some amazing sponsors within the industry — the printers and the designers who are all supporting me in kind with their professional services at discounted rates ..but it would be great to get more headline sponsors on board to help us spread the word and reach the public all over the UK.
I have decided to keep the exhibition free for all, and the project has been largely self funded and self driven, but I was determined to make it totally accessible, it’s part of my educational commitment. The more people who see the pictures and feel empowered, the better….
That’s what it’s all about after all!