Body image, photography, and authentic womanhood

Guest: Julie Adams
Julie Adams is a Sydney-based photographer widely known for her work in Vogue, Harper’s BAZAAR, Glamour, Marie Claire and others, what we’re talking about today is her personal project titled This Is Me. For this personal project, Julie has photographed hundreds of women, all of whom modeled for an unretouched photograph in their swimsuit and shared some of their own reflections about body image, mental and physical struggles, and why we are all beautiful in our uniqueness. Julie reflects on how what started as a body image project targeted at young women, quickly evolved into a more sophisticated reflection of womanhood that appealed across generations.
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Julie Adams Transcript

Sabrina Merage Naim
From Evoke Media I'm Sabrina Mirage Naim, with me is Kassia Binkowski, and this is Breaking Glass - a series of conversations with women around the world who are shattering glass ceilings and challenging social norms. They are audacious, gutsy, and their stories are echoed across borders and generations in a rallying cry that is changing the narrative for women everywhere. Today's conversation takes us to Sydney, Australia, where we're joined by one of the country's leading fashion photographers, Julie Adams. While widely known for her work in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, Marie Claire and others, what we're talking about today is her personal project titled, This Is Me. Starting a few years ago, Julie hosted a series of portrait sessions in beach shacks around Sydney, women of any age were invited to show up, model for an unretouched photograph in their swimsuit, and share some of their own reflections about body image. What unfolded was truly remarkable.

Kassia Binkowski
Yes, women got real, they got vulnerable, and Julie photographed them in their full, joyful glory. She has since photographed hundreds of women for the project and her book was published in 2020. Julie reflects with us today on how what started as a body image project targeted at young women quickly evolved into a more sophisticated reflection of womanhood that appeals across generations. The collection of images is beautiful. The sentiments that women shared are incredibly powerful. And Julie's own behind the scenes story is inspiring. Take a listen.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Julie, thank you so much for being with us today from Sydney, Australia. We're excited to dive into this conversation.

Julie Adams
Hello, lovely to be here. Thanks, guys for inviting me. It's a real pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about it. Thank you.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Absolutely. I'd like to start at the beginning of your career. Give us a little bit of the background of how you ended up in photography.

Julie Adams
I always loved photography ever since I was a child, and wanted to be a photographer. I got my first camera from Kmart, I think as a young teen, but it did take me a little bit of time. I took it until I moved to London and I started working at this wonderful advertising agency in London, which was in the 90s, and it was full of amazing, creative people. And it was there, doing a role actually in account management, that I suddenly went, "what am I doing? I've always wanted to be a photographer". So I quit the advertising world, and started in London as a photography assistant in London for about five years. And then I got my first break working in fashion, shooting for the Independent newspaper. And then from there, kind of went and also studied in Florence. I have a real love affair with Italy.

Kassia Binkowski
Who doesn't? Gotta say, I mean take me back!

Julie Adams
And then yeah, it started from there. After the Independence, I started working for other glossy magazines, and my career has taken me kind of everywhere from that. Then we moved to New York for a few years, but I've traveled everywhere with work from, you know, Kenya to, gosh, everywhere. Morocco, the states. So it's been wonderful. So it all started in London.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So you took a bit of a risk taking that leap out of advertising and into photography, which is not an easy industry for a lot of people. But it seems like it really has paid off for you because now you have photographed for some of the biggest fashion magazines, as well as actors and celebrities and models. And then you created the This Is Me project. And it's a pretty big departure from the fashion magazines and from where you started out in your career and where you really made it in your career. So we want to understand what the motivation was and where did the idea come from?

Julie Adams
I'm the my mum, I've got two little girls, and I was becoming increasingly aware of body image. My eldest daughter who's now in high school, but even in year four, which was very around the age of 10, she started talking to me about things about her body or people commenting on her body. And I just thought, hang on a minute. These conversations that are starting now are really alarming. It also made me reflect on when I was growing up and I had friends who had eating disorders, on how they began or mental illness and how it began, and no one really kind of noticed, but things could start from the smallest comment somebody says to about yourself, and then you start beating yourself up. I guess I started thinking, I play a role in this image based world that is increasingly influencing our children, you know, social media all the images they see, the retouching. What can I do, that's really real? Basically, how can I refreshingly remind young women, which did actually become more sophisticated and ended up reminding women of all ages, but how can I remind young women that we're all beautifully unique, just the way we are? And really, the best version of ourselves is to just be ourselves. And that's kind of where it came from, I really wanted to celebrate all women, rather than singling people out. And so I did a project open to the general public, because I really wanted anyone who wanted to celebrate themselves to come along and get involved.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I want to reflect on a few things there, which really speak to me. One is that both Kassia and I have daughters, they're very little still, they're both under five years old. And it's unfathomable for me to think about a 10 year old girl already coming home and questioning issues relating to her body. That is extremely disturbing. It maybe shouldn't be surprising, given the society that we live in, which really has so much of a focus on body image, particularly for women. But I never think about it for such a young child like that. And I want to know how you responded as a mother. But I also just, before you answer that question, I want to commend you for taking a step back to reflect the fact that yes, you as a photographer in the fashion industry, do play a part in that. To kind of put that mirror up to yourself that, what is your responsibility? And perpetuating some of these unrealistic issues around body image for women, and to kind of combat that in that way, I think is really commendable. So I appreciate that. So then going back to my question is really, when your daughters came home and started talking about that at such a young age, what did you say to them?

Julie Adams
Well, I'd noticed a few things even earlier on, and then wasn't coming from from her. It was coming from playground chat, you know. And the first time she just had such a brilliant response herself that I just thought, "Well, you've got this".

Kassia Binkowski
The best, when they can say it better than you can.

Julie Adams
Yeah, I was like, "Oh, you're all over that". But then when it happened again, and I asked her how she felt, a little boy said something to her in the playground, and I asked her how she felt. Or actually I asked her what she responded to this little boy, and she said, he made a comment that Jen looked fat. She certainly wasn't. And she said, "I just said, okay, then". And I thought, "well, that's not cool. No, that's not cool at all", One. Two, why is this going on in the school playground? Anyway, I went up and gently spoke to the teacher, and just said, "just so you know, this is happening". And she said, "I can't believe anyone would ever say that to her". And I said, "Well it is happening, and it doesn't, you know... these things can have a really long lasting effect. So they can't go on". It really started for me from that moment, and I actually started the project then, because it took me a few years. And yeah, I've basically just kept an open line of communication about it. There's no truth in it. Sometimes, I think people... it's so nasty, this commenting. Even at a young age, people feeling that they can comment on other people. And it happens on the playground, it happens within families, it happens within friendships. And sometimes I don't think people even realize that they're being hurtful.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Yeah, you got to question where that came from for the little boy because as a 10 year old boy, does he really understand the implications of what he's saying? Does he understand what it means, how it lands? Where does it come from for him, and then it kind of peels back so many different layers of the family, the media, society, where he's getting that from that would then come back to her.

Julie Adams
And I wanted to do something proactive, but I also was probably digging into my own past. Remembering my friends who suffered from an eating disorder perhaps because they overheard their brother's friend saying they put on, you know... It was always comments, so I think I was sensitive to the topic. I knew that was an issue, and I had to have eyes in the back of my head with things like that. I felt like it was my protective nature as a mum, feeling that.

Kassia Binkowski
And I want to talk about that a little bit more, because I think when we peel back those layers, I'm curious about what your experience was growing up. My parents, to their credit, were never judgmental of other people's bodies. However, they also never demonstrated acceptance of their own bodies. That was never something they modeled, they were always very critical of their bodies. And that shows, and that impacted things, and I have multiple generations of relatives, who all struggled with eating disorders or unhealthy fixations on fitness in various capacities. What was your experience, what was modeled to you?

Julie Adams
My experience growing up was great in a family sense, but I did notice at school, going to a girls' private school which I think is very much, in Australia, girls' schools are rife with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I did notice that's where it was a real hot spot for body image problems. And maybe that's got a lot to do with only having females in the school as well, I don't know. But that was definitely a problem in Australia. It's so much eating disorders, high schools, and girls' high schools. But what the book really taught me, really showed to me, was really where the huge influence comes on young people about how they feel, is how their mother, their role model, feels about herself. So it's so easy as a woman to, in your own home especially, to try something on and say, "Oh, god, I'm so fat", you know? "I'm not eating that", or "I'm being all healthy this week", or all this kind of constant chatter. But it might be stuff that you think you're in saying in your head, but you're saying out loud, and it's all absorbed. And I think if the mom herself, even if inside she may be still very much working on it, but I think what we vocalize in our homes is really influential to how our children gauge what's normal for them.

Kassia Binkowski
Yeah, and I think that's really a lot easier said than done. I mean, I don't know a single woman who hasn't been close to somebody who struggled with an eating disorder. I know a lot of women of young children who are very consciously trying to filter that chatter and kind of model something different. And that's hard. It's super hard. Let's talk about the book. So your This Is Me project, your book, was published in early 2020. Let's go a little bit deeper into the project itself. Tell us about the logistics and the details. How many participants, how many hours of shooting over the course of how many years? What did that project look like? Logistically?

Julie Adams
Sure. Okay. So I wanted to do a project that was super organic. So I wanted to invite the general public with absolutely no casting call or anyone booking it, so therefore, I had no idea who was turning up, to come along to a shoot. I would set up in a surf club, we have these lifesaving clubs on the beach in Australia. So I set up a studio in there. And then, because I didn't know how many people would turn up, I didn't want to over advertise and get so many people I couldn't deal with, but I had a few days in advance. I'd start advertising but I did it like so grassroots. We're talking posters on bus stops, little flyers in cafes. I didn't want to just contact my social media channels or my friendship groups. I really wanted to make sure some people might just pick it up and come along. So it was in a surf club. The first one, I was just standing there, not having any idea how many people I'd shoot that day. And I think I shot about 50 women in four hours. And there was a queue out the door which I couldn't get through really. And then after that, I'd say I did a probably about another five of these shoots throughout the year. Probably over a two year period, I was shooting and even now the book's finished, I still am shooting. It's still something that I carry on. The amount of women in the book, probably around about 200 women and I've tried to give everybody who I photographed an opportunity to get to be in the book as well, that was really important to me. Also, the setting just so people understand, it's quite daunting because it wasn't like, "oh we're just standing on the beach", nice bit of backlight, you know. They had to come into a studio setting. So the whole idea was it would be unretouched. That was key.

Kassia Binkowski
And we're going to talk about that. I think that's fascinating.

Julie Adams
Yeah, that's a really big topic. Unretouched, in their own swimsuits, I did have a makeup artist there doing touch ups. But that was more to make people feel comfortable. It was just a little bit of grooming. In their own swimsuit, and really having the courage to come in and stand in front of the camera and have your photo taken.

Sabrina Merage Naim
You know, our listeners can't see your book right now. But like you are describing, you amassed hundreds of beautiful portraits of women of all ages, sizes, shapes, all of whom are modeling in their swimsuits, like you said, the photos are completely unretouched. And the one thing that I was really taken by was not only the fact that in a majority of these photos, there is just a pure joy from these women, there's just this kind of like carefree, throwing it all to the wind, whether we have these kind of self conscious thoughts of ourselves or issues with certain parts of our body or whatever it is, you showed up in a bathing suit, you know what you're there for. And so there's this joy, there's this carefree... at least that's what came through for me. And then the one thing that I think is really powerful is that each photo has a little quote or description of the woman, what she wants to convey. And what I really took away from that is, every single woman struggles with something. I was too flat chested, growing up, I was too busty growing up, I was too skinny, I was too big boned. I have scars, I'm surviving these illnesses. It's just the gamut, that you can't win. No matter what, women in our society, no matter what you look like, you just can't win because there's always going to be something that makes you feel less than, which is so sad to me. And so what I want to know is did people struggle? You said that doing the shoot was only part of the process. The really tough bit was liking the image afterwards. What happened when people saw the photo? I mean, I imagine they came and they were like, "Alright, screw it. We're here. Drop the robe. Here I am and my full glory", but then you show them the image and what were their reactions?

Julie Adams
Yeah, this was hard. And this is something I've been really open about. I actually think to be honest, probably the most powerful part of this book and this project has actually been the time I've spent photographing the women. Because you know, it was that moment of them, just enjoying themselves and letting go. And that was really powerful. The problem was that, especially after the first shoot, when people weren't exactly sure what I was doing with the images as well. I think that was really hard for me, because after the first shoot, a lot of the women didn't like their image. And there were comments like, "Oh, you can use my picture but cut me from the like, you know, shoulders down, you'll have to crop me".

Kassia Binkowski
I really like my ankles, only photograph my ankles.

Julie Adams
Yeah! And it was so bizarre because the first shoot was actually probably for me the really most moving. Really moving, the energy in the room blew me away, how kind women were to each other and I actually sat on the project for about three months, and thought, I don't know what I can do with this. I don't want to make anyone sad. I want to do a project that is making people feel good about themselves. Am I doing the wrong thing by doing this project? And then what I really thought was okay, a couple of things but one, this project needed words. Pictures are not enough, we absolutely need, people need to be able to say something about this. This is a hugely sensitive topic. So I got in contact with my great friend Georgie Abbe, who used to be the former deputy editor of Australian Vogue. And we've worked together a lot over the years and I asked her to come on board and she's also the mother of two little girls. So you know, that was fantastic. She came on board which really, really helped. But I also just, it made me really realize, okay, I could not do this project, or, flip side, this project is actually so needed because it's so sensitive. So maybe this experience of people not loving what they see is really the reason to move forward with the project. So I did so with huge sensitivity. People may have signed things on the day, but nothing went out anywhere without me going backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards, and for those who wanted to drop out, they dropped out. And some people who dropped out, maybe a year down the track, once they saw the project up and running, got courage when they saw other women that looked like them taking part, and they came back.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I want to I just want to highlight how important the context is, though. First of all, I do think it's very relatable, of course, that when you see, I consider myself someone who has a pretty healthy relationship with my body, and yet, of course there are times when I see a picture of myself in a bathing suit, and I'm like, "damn, really?" But then in the same picture, my husband will be like, "babe, you look gorgeous". This is how we see we see ourselves that is so different than how the world sees us. But going back to the context, I mean, just to give a little sample, there was a woman who was talking about her struggles with anorexia and bulimia and she said, "I still don't have the answers as to why I did. It wasn't a cry for attention, or because of bullying at school or the stress of dealing with how boys would look at me. I needed to hurt someone for how unhappy I felt, and it was easiest to hurt myself". And it was so powerful just to read that, because I think that there are so many women that do that to ourselves. We take all of our unhappiness, we take all of the pressure, the bullying, you know, all of that, and we just hurt ourselves first. And the easiest way to do that is through our bodies. And how sad that is.

Julie Adams
Absolutely right. A lot of women in the book spoke of things like that.

Kassia Binkowski
What were the other moments like that, that really stand out after photographing hundreds of women? Are there others that come to mind?

Julie Adams
Oh my gosh, so many amazing ones. I mean, there's an amazing woman who it turned up with a colostomy bag, but I think you call an ostomy bag? Very similar to a colostomy bag. And she has lived with that her whole life. And she was, I think in her late thirties. But since she was 18, and she'd said that she wanted to be photographed she said, "I usually hide it under my full piece swimsuit, but I'd like to be photographed in my bikini". And she came along and wanted to make a real point of that, which was pretty amazing because she had two children, and one was only six weeks old. And she travelled from one side of Sydney to the other to make a statement about it. And her words are so open about what she has to go through with this, changing it through the night, the reality of it. But her strength, she's like "it doesn't really get me down". The way she put it was so remarkable that I had a lady message me from a hospital, who just had a little baby who has to have a colostomy bag for the rest of its life. And she sent me a picture of the baby, this lady from the hospital and said, "thank you so much for this picture in your book", I think I'd also put on Instagram. "It's just so wonderful to see it being normalized because I've just got a little baby who's going to have to have one for the rest of their life". Once I really put it together, I think they really embraced it. They kind of were brave and had the courage to be involved in something.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I want to talk about Belinda for a second. Belinda is 45 and she took the photo. She's a breast cancer survivor. She had a double mastectomy, she talks about that journey. And then she took the photo showing her scars, which takes a tremendous amount of courage. And frankly, women for so many generations have been defined by our chest, our chest is the thing that makes us feminine. It makes us women. We also feed our children that way and an object of our sexualization. What was it like having her in front of your camera?

Julie Adams
She was an amazing woman actually. She got in contact with me because she saw the project and she told me a little bit of her story over a message, that she'd like to come in but she didn't have any idea that she was going to do it without her top one. That wasn't something that she had thought about, and then she came along, and we were taking pictures with the top on, and she was just going to talk about it, I think in her interview. And then she was like, "you know what, the reason why I'm really here is about the breast cancer and about the e, and I just want to be photographed showing my scars. So which was incredibly brave of her. And I think when I look at that picture, she just looks so joyful, and so stunning. and beautiful. Everything about her like, looks, you know, she looks so at one with it. It was a pretty amazing moment because I had my youngest daughter on set with me that day. And we were behind actually, I had some poly boards up so you couldn't see what I was shooting. She was on the other side on this day. And then she came around, and we'd finished shooting and we were looking at the pictures on the screen. Before she looked, I said, "Belinda, would you mind if I show Vivian the pictures, but I want to tell her a little bit about the situation". So you know, I told Vivi, "Linda's very bravely had these pictures taken, she's had cancer, she's had a mastectomy, which is when you have to have to have your breasts removed". And, Vivian looked at the picture. She's about eight I guess. And, she just looked at it, and she was astounded. And then Belinda looked at my daughter and went "better than dead, don't you think Vivi?"

Kassia Binkowski
So I want to pivot this conversation away from the personal for a second and look at the industry. I mean, I know you as a photographer, you reflected early on, you shared that you felt a real obligation to tackle this issue as a photographer, as somebody in the media. What is the Australian culture like? I mean, obviously with there's a huge obsession in America with body image and women's physical appearance. And there have been a lot of publications that have been very, very direct in trying to tackle that. We had a conversation with Sarah Dubbeldam recently, the founder of Darling magazine, which was the first publication, in the states anyway, to commit to no retouching. I'm curious about your feelings as a photographer, who has obviously invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in this, in studying body image and producing more inclusive and authentic content. What is your kind of perception of the media industry right now? What is the culture around body image? And what lines have you drawn as an artist in this space about the the content you're willing to produce? That was a lot of questions.

Julie Adams
That is okay, I'll give it a crack. I think Australia is probably quite similar to America in many ways. I mean, one, we are very body conscious. We walk around a lot in our swimsuits, and things being in that kind of climate. So I think there is a huge focus on body image, and social media is playing a massive role on that. I think social media more than anything, more than magazines and everything at the moment. I think the media industry in Australia is really trying. I do see that. There is a real shift at the moment towards a much more diversity... I think brands are really trying. It's only been recent. I think brands are trying to be a lot more diverse. We are seeing more diverse shapes, cultures, ethnicities being shown in media, but it's taken a long time, and we're still not there yet. Yeah.

Kassia Binkowski
And you yourself committed to no retouching in this project, that was obviously important to you. What lines did you draw specifically? I mean, you said there was a makeup artist on set. I'm just curious. You know, photography is an art. What are your thoughts on that?

Julie Adams
The only retouching in this book is just like cleaning up the floor, or you know what I mean? Like in terms of cleaning it up in that sense, there's absolutely no retouching whatsoever to the women's bodies, unless there was something sneaking out of someone’s costumes that someone didn't want - in terms of like, pubic hair, you know? Someone’s told me they haven't had time to do their bikini line. I guess I've never said that, but I will say that because I think that was just being a good woman.

Kassia Binkowski
But I think that's interesting, right? Those are like the dirty details.

Julie Adams
Yeah, you know, I think that's just being there and having a heart. But absolutely no retouching. Hand on heart, these pictures are what you see. And I'm 100% married to the idea.

Kassia Binkowski
But what about another project? I mean, are you seeing that trend?

Julie Adams
To be completely honest, there are some commercial projects that call for an element of retouching. And on a commercial level, I can't say that I say no to everything, but my style is very, very natural anyway. So a lot of my work does go out completely unretouched even seeing the shift towards film again, and things becoming more raw and less, I think digital really took things into another, another level with this perfection. Especially because the general public have, even on their apps, on their phone, retouching themselves before they send a picture to their family. Or before they post a picture amongst their friends on Instagram, which I think is terrifying. I think in the commercial world, it'd be really nice to see a lot less less retouching and to see real women and nothing I love more than seeing a cover with some truth. Real editorial, particularly with celebrities. But people are still looking beautiful. Being unretouched doesn't mean "Oh, it's all gonna look bad". That's the bit that I think is so bizarre. We're just gonna look real, you know? It's like what I was trying to say to these ladies in the book when I told them, "I won't be retouching it", I'm like I still want to make you feel your most beautiful. I forget sometimes to talk about retouching. It's a huge part of the book, but I forget to talk about it sometimes, because I don't think anyone needed it. I loved it the way it is. So I actually have to write a mental note to myself: Talk about retouching! But I love it the way it is. And that's what I was trying to say, going back to the beginning of why I did the project. I wanted to say to all women, we are all beautiful the way we are, we are all unique. It's very difficult in this world at the moment when we're constantly being shown, I mean we all admire beauty, and it's a gorgeous, gorgeous thing. I think everyone admires beautiful things, but when we're constantly showing things that are just actually not true and it's setting the standards at a level which is not even attainable for women, I think that's where it's wrong. I'm not against the beauty industry or celebrating beauty, but I just think that we need to be a lot more inclusive and especially make our younger girls feel special.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I'd love to turn the tables on you for a minute. Have you ever stood on the other side of the camera put on a suit, and stood in front of the lens rather than behind it?

Julie Adams
Yes. I purposely, because I always knew I would be asked this question. I purposely made sure I did this. I got in my swimsuit, at the end of a long day of shooting one day with my kids, I stripped down, because I thought that was really super important. It's all very well saying these things, but I've got to do it. I need to take part too. And it was challenging for me as well. I had to do it twice because my mom ended up doing it and didn't want to do it alone. So it was actually really excellent for me because I quite often as a photographer, do take a moment to jump in front. If I'm asked to be photographed, I'll do it to remind myself how awkward it is. Because I think that gives me great empathy when I'm working with people. Because I can tap into how I feel, like you know, maybe if you put your hands in your pockets, maybe if you try this, maybe if you sit on the chair first... How to warm people up to feeling happy with themselves, and I needed that same approach. So yeah, I have and actually the book in itself, I learned a lot during the book. To stand there in my swimsuit too was a really good journey for me.

Kassia Binkowski
How has this work shaped the messaging that you're parenting with at home? I'm curious now that you've done this for multiple years. What is what has shifted for you?

Julie Adams
I'd say we've just got a really open conversation. It's just discussed, like everything's on the table, which is so nice. Has my book on my kids made a lasting impact? I don't know. I won't know I think until I see them particularly through teenage years. But what I do hope is that they and other young girls may occasionally pick up the book and just maybe land on a page that resonates with them. Maybe if they're having a day when they're questioning themselves, or I do hope that they feel they can talk to me, should they not be feeling great, and that we may be able to have a really great conversation. I guess I hope this book is a conversation starter. I'm by no means an expert on this topic. I just thought I wanted to do something really organic and really beautiful for women. And if it starts conversations at home, because it sits in on the coffee tables at home, then that's wonderful. And if they get a little bit of something from it that makes them feel better, that's really what I'm hoping for.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Breaking Glass is a production of Evoke Media. Evoke is a nonprofit organization that exists in order to elevate the people and stories that are working to make the world a more unified and equitable place. Learn more at weareevokemedia.com

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