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Anna Mascarenhas’s Sisterhood
Photography Anna Mascarenhas, styling Suyane Ynaya

The Brazilian albino twins dreaming of big things in fashion

Photographer Anna Mascarenhas meets a Brazilian family that doesn’t fit into its country’s fixed categories of beauty – but she’s hoping to change that

As a country of people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, Brazil has a long and troubled history of racial inequality which is not often raised in mainstream cultural media. Paradoxically, it is also home to a white supermodel version of beauty standards, represented, unintentionally, by the likes of Gisele Bündchen and Alessandra Ambrosio. But photographer Anna Mascarenhas is trying to promote a different kind of beauty by documenting a seemingly small story of one family. 

Aged 22, Mascarenhas has been interested in photography since toying with a compact analog camera and her mom’s VHS at the age of 10. After graduating from a communications school which seemed a more sensible career choice, she returned to her childhood obsession with the goal of highlighting the diversity of her native country. Her project on sisters Sheila, Lara and Mara shows how social media and the new non-hierarchical approach to fashion could potentially change the system. 

“I came across the girls by scrolling through my Instagram”, the photographer recalls. ”Their parents came from Guiné Bissau for opportunities when their mum was pregnant with the oldest one, Sheila. After a while, she had the twins, Lara and Mara. They are albino, and in the beginning the dad thought she cheated on him, so he left. Eventually, they split and she raised the girls by herself. The mum works as a hairdresser in the centre of São Paulo, specialising in hairstyles for black hair. The older one, Sheila, is 14-years-old, she dreams about being a model, and so do her younger sisters. But the problem is that it seems they don’t belong in any category. Living in a favela in São Paulo, and having a single mom to pay for all the expenses, it’s almost impossible to consider this dream to be a success”.

Instantly, Mascarenhas felt like helping the sisters to achieve their dream. When she shot the girls she hardly knew them, so she wanted to explore the intimate process of them getting to know each other. “The twins are very hyperactive, although sensible. All the three girls are amazing and loving”, she remembers. At the core of the story are the girls’ emerging identities and their understanding of beauty: “I wanted to show how they see each other as sisters, as black girls, as individuals. How they relate to what society expects from them, being marginalised by their class and colour. And, most important, how they relate to what they see in the mirror”. 

Working with the sisters got Mascarenhas thinking once again about the difficulties of getting into fashion in Brazil, and the lack of diversity in the industry. “When I met the girls, it made me start wondering why it has to be so hard for them”, she remembers. “Getting in the industry is hard for anyone, but why does it have to be even harder for them. Here in Brazil, we have a very multicultural population. But when we talk about publicity and fashion in general, we still have a large path to cross. Everything is still very white and skinny like we are committed to a square we can’t abandon. In Sao Paulo Fashion Week, for example, an agreement was signed in 2009 by the state public office to determine that 10 per cent of models working in the event should be Black or Native Indian. And last year NGO Educafro was reporting that this agreement was not being followed by the brands. Can you imagine the agencies choosing albino twins to sell jeans to middle-class mums? I don't think so. That's why I wanted to tell their story, I don't think they would be able to reach their dream the regular way”.

“Getting in the industry is hard for anyone, but why does it have to be even harder for them” – Anna Mascarenhas

I think the fashion industry is trying to change but it's moving really slowly compared to the rest of the world. New and alternative brands are more disruptive but we still have a lot to go on when it comes to inclusion. I can send you a copy of a regular fashion magazine so we can count how many black models appear in the ads compared to white models. It's not cool at all, especially in a mainly black country like Brazil,” she adds. 

Thankfully, Mascarenhas and her peers are vocal about the issue, and speaking out seems the right way to go. “I think the best way to change this situation is talking about it”, she adds. “Talking about it over and over and over. And then getting the attention of important people in the industry, whose decisions can make a difference”. 

Images styled by Suyane Ynaya. More of the Mascarenhas’ work can be seen here