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Pixy Yijun Liao, Experimental Relationship
Photography Pixy Yijun Liao

Do these photos change your mind?

Gender-fluid models, entrepreneurial sex workers and the black father figure: these photo series subvert class, sexuality and race expectations

Photographers can use their work to interrogate notions of what is true. By focusing their lenses on subjects that are often easier to ignore, they open or reopen new much-needed dialogues. Whether that’s challenging gender dynamics and what is considered masculine and feminine (like in Pixy Yijun Liao’s Experimental Relationship) or presenting images of African American fathers interacting with their children (such as in Zun Lee’s Father Figure project), we are seeing a rise in photographers utilising their skills to effect social and political change by widening the scope for representation of unlikely figures. Below, we chart ten photographers who use their lens to break down stereotypes.


Known for his interest in social and political subjects, Dutch photographer Jan Banning decided to tackle stereotypes associated with homelessness in his book Down and Out in the South. The project, which was released in 2013, aims to change the portrayal of homelessness – steering away from the obvious black-and-white, on-location images that are often taken of them. Banning says of the project, “I wanted to photograph them in a studio setting, against a neutral backdrop, focusing on their individuality rather than on stereotypes. In essence, I want to show who they are rather than what they are labeled.” This change led to images that captured the individuality of each subject, as they were photographed in colour, at a studio, and were interviewed prior to having their portrait taken. This process immediately gives intimacy to the subject of homelessness, and showcases this forgotten pocket of society – standing out in colour, rather than fading into the monochromatic background.


When you think of brothels, your mind usually goes to somewhere dirty and dingy. As photographer Marc McAndrews describes it: “I was expecting to find there would be someone out of a Nick Cave song: lost drifters and social misfits.” The sex workers and strong, entrepreneurial women McAndrews met are documented in Nevada Rose: Inside the American Brothel, a book which saw the photographer stay at 33 brothels, experiencing a lifestyle he didn’t expect. The project, which took place in 2005, aims to explore the lifestyle of ‘working girls’ and their relationship with their clients. “When most people think of prostitution, they think of illegal prostitution and all of the exploitative and negative consequences that go along with it,” McAndrews observes. “I think Nevada Rose shows a side where the women are not embarrassed or ashamed.” In this book, these girls own their lifestyle with pride – a far cry from the sad existence that McAndrews initially believed he would see.


Rania Matar’s photography series A Girl and Her Room explores the misconceptions people harbour about Middle Eastern girls. Matar experienced different cultures through her own experience of being born in Lebanon and living in the US, and wanted to create a project which explored the universality of being a teenage girl, and the common bonds teen girls share – regardless of cultural differences. Many of the images are centred around the subjects’ bedrooms, as they transition from teenagers to adulthood, photographing girls from the US and Lebanon. While Matar found natural cultural differences, similarities remained regardless of culture, religion, and background, as she discovered how girls across the world deal with the pressures that arise with growing up. Matar’s project allows us to rethink the stereotypes placed upon Middle Eastern women, and acknowledge the greater human connection we share, beyond the images presented to us by the media.


The absentee father is a prevalent stereotype in the black community, and, there’s no denying, a reality for a lot of kids. UK statistics show that 59 per cent of black Caribbean children live in lone-parent households. These stats, and stereotypes of deadbeat black fathers, led to the creation of Zun Lee’s Father Figure project, which documents the black fathers who are present in their children’s lives, but don’t necessarily fit into the ‘uber-dad’ archetypes that we would see on sitcoms like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, or My Wife and Kids – the list goes on. The photography series took place in 2011, as Lee travelled across the States photographing black men and their children. Lee allows us to see the importance of the relationship between fathers and their children, and explores an image of black manhood which often isn’t shown – tender, loving, caring and, most importantly, present and accountable. From an image of a father playing ball with his son in the street to a parent and child lovingly hugging each other, Father Figure breaks down the stereotype of black male identity in a touching and honest way.


If you’re a black male living in London, chances are you fit the description. According to a study by the Equality Human Rights, you are 28 times more likely to be stop-and-searched by the Metropolitan Police than white people. This unjust statistic sparked photographer Adama Jalloh to roam the streets of south and east London to document the very people who experience this, in the photography series Stop and Search. The project aims to shine a light on the people who face this prejudice on a daily basis, with Jalloh stating, “the issue is never shown in the media. You rarely hear these individuals openly voice their feelings on the matter.” The lack of mainstream concern for this issue allows for systematic discrimination which disadvantages people of colour and further perpetrates a stereotype of black people in particular. “Communities have lost faith in the police. The way stop-and-searches are used has created a barrier. How can you expect a system to protect and serve properly when racism is happening within their walls?”


Luke Smithers challenges gender norms in his project Rules of Desire, which explores the notion of self presentation and its link to our sexuality. Embracing the ambiguity of identity, Smithers presents to us a world where people are free from heteronormative ideals and gender norms, while demonstrating ourselves and our bodies “as a canvas, onto which others project radically disparate visions”. The series is based upon Smithers’ own ideas of his newfound masculinity, and how sexuality shouldn’t be determined by what we wear, or what is stereotypically feminine and masculine.


Stacy Kranitz’s long-form photographic project As it Was Give(n) to Me is an honest exploration of Appalachian subculture, beyond the common images of strippers, trailer parks and KKK members that are associated with it. “I sought out the stereotypes and photographed them so I could then offer a counter,” Kranitz told The Guardian. “That is what the project is about. It is meant to be a dialogue about stereotypes: the mythology they create, their value and their role in society.” In fragments of text and imagery, we are confronted by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, but also the beauty and spirit of the place and the people – a beauty that often goes unseen.


Based on her own relationship with Japanese musician Moro, photographer Pixy Yijun Liao created the comical series Experimental Relationship – a project that reexamines conventional ideas of gender dynamics. The concept behind the series is to explore what would happen if a man and woman exchanged the assigned gender roles which are placed on us in society, and how these preconceptions are still very much present in China. Using herself and her partner as subjects, Liao presents images of a man lying prone, dressed as a piece of sushi, to the couple laying on top of one another. Of the project, Liao says, “The ideas of traditional gender roles are still very strong in China. Growing up I was always told there is no need to work too hard, but more importantly to marry a man who can support me, have kids, be mother and a wife.” What we get from Liao’s work is an exploration of what a relationship should be without preconceived stereotypes placed upon men and women, allowing either gender to be vulnerable and fluid, from fragile to tough, without any societal barriers holding them back.


Take 39 people of 15 nationalities from five different cities and you’re sure to get a diverse group of individuals. All The People accomplishes just that, a photobook celebrating the diversity of gender expression through photographs by Bernd Ott and interviews of the subjects conducted by Emily Besa. Throughout the book, we are presented with individual experiences and stories which allow the reader to understand the full spectrum of gender identity, explored through images of people aged from five to 69, and hailing from everywhere from Trinidad and Tobago to Spain. Neither Ott nor Besa identify as transgender or genderqueer, but both have a feeling of kinship with the community, and aim to explore the connection with each individual, while celebrating the power to live authentically as yourself.


Carrie Mae Weems knows how to get us to pay attention. Her thought-provoking work has confronted issues of class, gender and racial stereotyping for more than 30 years. In the 1987-88 photography series Ain’t Jokin’, Weems confronts racist African American stereotypes, with titles like “Black Man Holding Watermelon” and “Black Woman With Chicken”. The series explores the ways in which these prejudicial caricatures are internalised by black people and ultimately play a part in shaping their subjectivity. While Weems’ journey follows the African American experience, it has always aimed to show that “people of colour stand for the human multitudes”, and she uses her art to reach a broader audience and globally combat these stereotypes.

All the People is available now from Kerber Verlag