These photos explore what it's like for women to feel silenced in the workplace
You might remember photographer Kelsey Higley from her amazing photo series Manipulated in which she Photoshopped 126 pictures of herself to challenge beauty standards. A BFA candidate at the University of Oklahoma, Higley found herself in the national spotlight when reactions to her series went viral. So we decided to catch up with Higley to talk about her new series, What Binds Us, which explores the difficulties of speaking up as a woman in the workplace.Your new project, What Binds Us, shows women in various workplaces wearing a dramatic piece of medieval equipment called a “scold’s bridle.” Apparently, it was used to punish women who talked too much. What was your inspiration for the series?
My inspiration for What Binds Us came from the scold’s bridle itself. One of my roommates came across an image of a scold’s bridle and sent it to me. As I researched further into it, I started developing my project. Around that same time, I was reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which discusses many of the issues women face in their careers. I thought the scold’s bridle was the perfect symbol to represent the restrictions placed on women and the restrictions we tend to place on ourselves. As a college student two weeks away from graduation, this discussion is very relevant to me. I know I constantly hold myself back with feelings of inadequacy, so I like to use this project as a reminder that I’m worth more than I think.
The photographs themselves are so striking. How did you decide which workplaces to include and how to shoot them?
My first attempt at making these photographs failed miserably. I walked into a building in downtown Oklahoma City and asked for permission to take photographs. The security guard agreed, so I found a good spot and set up my tripod. I timidly put the bridle on my head while my friend assisted me with taking the photos. About five minutes in, the same man who gave me permission walked up to us and said, “You can’t do this. It’s just too weird.” My heart sank. I left the building, utterly embarrassed. After that incident, I tried taking self portraits on a green screen and added the backgrounds in with Photoshop, but I didn’t like the end result. Finally, I got up the courage to ask for permission to shoot in a few different locations after-hours. Not only was I able to get permission, but the people I talked to seemed genuinely interested in my project.
It’s interesting that you decided to focus on professional settings — restaurant service, engineering, corporate offices, construction sites. Why did you choose those backgrounds instead of, say, social situations?
I decided to focus specifically on workplace settings because I feel that is a place women have historically struggled in, and still do today. I have a roommate who is working on her degree in Computer Engineering and the other day, she told me she is the only girl in her digital design lab. I’ve witnessed the sexual harassment that takes place in the food service industry. I’ve been to press conferences where the speaker continuously ignores the female reporters while the men talk over her. My mother worked in the construction industry before I was born, and tells me stories of how the men would discredit her simply because of her gender. I’m tired of this dated mindset we seem to be stuck in when it comes to women in the workforce.
When you last spoke to Hello Giggles, we chatted about Manipulated. Since then the project became a media sensation. What has the response been like?
It was absolutely overwhelming. My name started popping up everywhere as my project spread all over the world. I was very pleased to see that so many found it to be a compelling piece. I’ve received many encouraging emails from both women and men who believe body image is an important topic to discuss. On the other hand, I received quite a bit of unkind, critical comments from people who didn’t fully understand my concept or ones who refused to believe it is relevant, but that’s to be expected any time something is published online.
Well we’re huge fans of your work. We’re thrilled you initially reached out to us to share your project, and we hope to feature more of your incredible work in the near future.
And here’s a note to fellow Gigglers, if you have a compelling photo series you’d like to share with our community, feel free to send your images along with a description of your project — under the subject line “Photo Series” — to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[All photos courtesy of Kelsey Higley]