Photographing beautiful moments of self-love and acceptance

Photographer Chloe Sheppard’s upcoming exhibition pays homage to women and shows that it’s our flaws that make us universally human

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Chloe Sheppard’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
Photography Chloe Sheppard

Chloe Sheppard’s dreamy portraiture has always focused heavily on the female experience. Whether she’s calling out body-based clichés or capturing the women she surrounds herself with, the London-based photographer offers a fresh perspective on contemporary womanhood.

It’s a focus she will roll out in her first solo exhibition next week, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Scrapping the notion of a one-size fits all 'perfect self', Sheppard sets societal expectations up against the realities we actually live out – and can all too often relate.

Sheppard opens up to us ahead of the exhibition with a personal anecdote: “I’ve never had an actual relationship, but I have had a lot of ‘almosts’ and the show title connects with that. When you meet someone the beginning is rose-tinted, you only see their good traits and you want them to see the same, until they believe you are nothing short of a dream incapable of doing wrong. But, you can do wrong – you will do wrong, you’re a living being made up of mistakes and flaws. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden balances expectation with a reality that will inevitably surface. It is this level of imperfection that makes us universally human.”

The exhibition, which will be open in London at the Republic Gallery next week, will see the photographer offer up a visual imprint and a compilation of her work to date. The aim, the show spec says, is to encourage women to see ‘that you can’t always live up to expectations’ and that’s OK.

Below, Sheppard drills deeper into the inspirations and personal experiences that inspired the exhibition, and we find out how this 20-year-old plans to inaugurate the feminist consciousness of a new generation.

How does it feel to be running your first solo?

Chloe Sheppard: It’s exciting for sure. I did an exhibition in Berlin in collaboration with a magazine last year, it was so much fun but I didn’t oversee creative direction. I’m quite stubborn when it comes to my art, so to be in complete control is really nice. It was always my dream to take over a designated space for a while and make it my own. I’m very very last-minute, so now with a week to go I find myself having to make decisions – definitive ones – to make calls and stick by them.

“You can never fulfil everyone’s expectations, and I think I’ve come to realise that this year. I don’t feel like I’m at war with myself anymore” – Chloe Sheppard

The show title, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, feels heavy with subliminal messaging. Can you give us your take?

Chloe Sheppard: I took these words from a song by Lynn Anderson because they really resonate with me – especially in light of personal events a few months back. When you meet someone the beginning of the relationship is usually rose-tinted. You only see their good traits and you want them to see only yours, until they believe you are nothing short of a dream incapable of doing wrong. But, you can and you will do wrong, you’re a living being made up of mistakes and flaws. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden balances expectation with a reality that will inevitably surface. It is imperfection that makes us universally human after all.

The show kinda fixates around that idea, you have to take the good with the bad. “There’s gotta be a little rain sometimes” that’s another line from the song, and it’s so true, like you have to know there’s always going to be bad shit happening but you get through it - that’s life.

Why does societal ‘expectation’ feel so unshakeable right now?

Chloe Sheppard: Social media. I see models on my feed every day and they are supported – sometimes congratulated – with comments of praise all centered around their face and form, and this immediately invites you to question your own body. Sure, the industry is changing and we’re seeing a lot more representation but this notion of the ‘ideal’ body is still so far out of my reach and this eats away at my self-worth.

I also think that social media can be a difficult space for artists – it breeds competition and unhealthy insight. On the one hand, we use it to promote our work, but then you see what everyone else is doing and it’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. You can never fulfil everyone’s expectations, and I think I’ve come to realise that this year. I don’t feel like I’m at war with myself anymore.  

Are you challenging or empathising with unhealthy expectations?

Chloe Sheppard: Both really. I guess I am now empathising more so. The lyrics sprawled over my collages will send out messages like: “admit it that you wanted me smaller,” and “I never was good enough” – blah blah, cliché stuff like that. A basic encapsulation of the words in my work would be: “Yeah I really liked you, maybe we could have been something. I wasn’t what you wanted, you let me down by being a dick that time, but now I’m over it.’

I read that you will be decorating one of the gallery walls to reflect the walls inside your own bedroom. What does your bedroom symbolise?

Chloe Sheppard: Intimacy. My bedroom is where I spend most of my time, it’s where I feel and think so much and I want my walls to reflect that. Covering your walls with the stuff you’re passionate about is just another clear form of self-expression. My bedroom at home is literally like a 24/7 exhibition for me, it’s an amalgamation of everything I love.

The exhibition will open the night before your 21st birthday, and in your press release, you say this will almost mark a sense of departure. What can we expect post-closure?

Chloe Sheppard: I still feel like I haven’t lived enough of my adolescent fantasies out, so my fixation on women will remain. I didn’t realise until I left my teenage years how safe they were. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing or why certain things were happening to me, I knew there were things to look forward to and that I didn’t have to worry about certain responsibilities – but I guess that’s what growing up is right? And my work must grow up too. I can’t shoot 17-year-old girls forever.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden opens May 26 – 28 2017 at Republic Gallery. Special thanks to Diageo for supplying Gordon's G&T cans for opening night

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