Kate T. Parker is a fine art and commercial photographer living in Atlanta. As the mother of two girls and a former collegiate soccer player, Parker has long invested her time in thinking about the portrayal of women and girls in pictures. She has previously partnered with The Bully Project and Girls on the Run to use her professional talents for a philanthropic purpose that is close to her heart and her experience. These efforts have culminated in Parker’s first book, the inspiring and delightful Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves, available on March 7 from Workman Publishing. With almost 200 photos of girls being themselves, every daughter and niece will be able to find a story in these pages that reflects their own.
ArtsATL talked with Parker about the mission of the book, how she put it together and what the future may hold for projects like this.
ArtsATL: Lindsay Vonn published a book on healthy eating six months ago with the title Strong is the New Beautiful. As your own chapter headings make clear, “strong” is mostly a stand-in for any character trait that empowers girls to value themselves beyond their physical appearances, such as resiliency, creativity and determination. What makes this idea “new”?
Kate T. Parker: Women and girls are strong — that’s not new. But it’s convincing them that their strength has value and is worth expressing is something that can take some work. So it’s a message that bears repeating. While every generation of girls is dealing with a similar scenario, what is new and what is different about this generation of young girls are the pressures they face — mainly from the internet and social media — to look, act and be a certain way. I wanted this book and its message to be a little oasis for the girls. Something for them to look at, to read, to take in and internalize that they don’t need to change, add a filter or be someone or something else to be beautiful. They already are.
ArtsATL: You have two girls yourself, and one of them is featured on the book cover. In the introduction, you say that the project came about organically though photographing your own kids. You“didn’t ask them to smile or go put on a pretty dress,” but instead simply “wanted to capture these girls as they were, and how they were was amazing.” Once you began shaping the book project, what kind of impact did that have on photographing your own family? Do you ever find there’s a difference between professional and family photos?
Parker: Yes, there is a huge difference between family and professional images. With my own kids, I have another level of access and comfort that not is there with a professional job. However, it is my job to engage my subjects, talk to them and find out just what it is about them I want to capture. With the girls in the book I usually had a basic idea of what I was aiming to photograph (say, a self-identified cyclist or musician), but oftentimes in conversation with them, other aspects of their personality would reveal themselves — layers that I tried to share in each photograph.
ArtsATL: It’s clear that you traveled widely and emphasized diversity in your choice of subjects. These girls present a broad spectrum of race and ability, in particular. Surely there was consideration of socioeconomic status and sexual orientation also, but those identities may be harder to show with a camera. Were there times when you wished you could have included more of each girl’s backstory to capture a fuller picture of the subject’s strength?
Parker: Definitely. Each of these girls has a story so interesting and amazing. We actually did a small series of videos of five or six of the girls to do exactly that — dig a little deeper. It could be a whole other book! My goal with this book, though, was to have everyone that read it be able to find someone that inspired them or that they identified with — someone they could relate to or see a little bit of themselves in. I certainly tried my hardest to make this book as inclusive as possible.
ArtsATL: Each girl’s photo is accompanied by a short quotation where the subjects self-reflect on their strengths. This ranges from “I could be as tough as I look” to “perfect is boring.” How were these quotations obtained? By direct interview questions, or picked up in passing during the photography sessions, or were the girls presented with their own photo upon which to comment, or some combination of these?
Parker: I actually used all of these methods. Our approach depended on the age of the girl (many of the younger girls were more comfortable answering verbally), her answers to the questions in our post-shoot survey (there were some answers that required follow-up), what chapter she would end up being featured in, and what image we ended up using.
ArtsATL: All the girls in this book are old enough to speak for themselves, from age six to eighteen, but the majority of them are too young to consent to be photographed. Did you have any trouble with reluctant or overbearing parents? Did you ever become concerned that a girl’s parents weren’t particularly supportive or understanding of their own kid or your project?
Parker: Not at all. We took great care to keep any identifying information confidential, and the parents and caregivers, on the whole, were all very supportive and proud their girls were a part of this project.
ArtsATL: Not all the photographs are of athletes, but the majority of them are action shots. There are depictions of dancers doing splits and kids flinging their bodies into gushing fire hydrants — lots of leotards and bathing suits. Was there a conscious effort on your part to avoid choosing images that would inadvertently sexualize your subjects?
Parker: There is nothing inherently sexual about leotards and bathing suits, so no, it never entered my head. I always want my subjects to feel that they can trust me and I would never use an image that would be construed any other way than powerful or inspiring.
ArtsATL: The few introductory paragraphs in each chapter seem very much geared toward young readers in their vocabulary and message. Do you envision your book primarily landing in youthful hands, or are you aiming to empower adults as well? Do you think boys and men ought to reflect on this book, or are you more focused on speaking to girls about girls?
Parker: The primary focus is, of course, women and girls, though I think fathers of daughters will also appreciate the message. I want the book to be one that can be shared intergenerationally — so accessibility via the language was very intentional and made a priority. It’s a book I’d share with my sister, my mother and my daughters.
ArtsATL: The publicity materials for the book allude to a philanthropic arm of this project. You already donate photography campaigns to nonprofit organizations that focus on empowering girls. What does the rest of the future for Strong is the New Pretty look like?
Parker: I love and feel so honored to be able to shoot commercial projects and at the same time continue to shoot long-term personal work. I don’t think I will ever not be shooting Strong is the New Pretty. I hope to have the chance to expand it to girls all over the world. Or women. Or both. There are so many possibilities there. And so much left to explore. I also have a personal project that explores family, how it looks, how we define and how at the core the love is the same regardless of how it is composed.
Today our girls are under so much pressure. Pressure to look, feel and be happy and perfect all the time. Social media encourages this unrealistic level of perfection that is unhealthy. I hope that this book and message pushes the truth out there, that no one is happy all the time, that no one’s life is perfect and that we are all just in this together trying to figure it all out.
I have been appalled by recent events, how women have been treated and marginalized. I thought this message was important before, but I have a renewed sense of determination and am ready to fight for this to be heard. I hope that this message grows. I hope girls believe — and retain that belief — that they are amazing and strong and powerful. I hope our government hears this. And I hope my daughters and their daughters don’t have to keep fighting this same fight.