Ellen Stagg is Pushing Boundaries as a Feminist Photographer
In the age of Instagram, it’s becoming increasingly common to find self taught ‘photographers’ who know how to use take photographs that will do well online. But Ellen Stagg isn’t what you might call a ‘creative’–the term entrepreneurial millenials are using these days to describe themselves where other words fail. Stagg is the real deal, an artist who graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts before mobile platforms like Instagram became an opportunity for young twenty somethings to turn iPhone photos into a portfolio. She’s a prolific photographer who has worked with everyone from Interview Magazine to Teen Vogue.
“I truly believe that every photographer gets into the business to see naked women. The only difference is that I don’t want to have sex with them. I just want to high five, get some dinner with them afterwards, and send them beautiful photos of themselves.”
Now, as a veteran photographer with several large scale commercial campaigns under her belt, she’s branching out to edgier projects that showcase her point of view as a feminist photographer and artist. One of those is a new short film called “Scrapbooking” which tells the story of a woman whose seemingly innocent hobby of “scrapbooking” is actually a record of all the men she’s bedded. The film makes several interventions in how we understand traditional gender roles–for one it creates a scenario in which activities associated with femininity (like crafting and scrapbooking) are actually used to empower the woman in the film rather than occupy her time while, say, her husband is at work.
“At Playboy before we started shooting they said to me ‘Don’t forget to focus on the woman’s face not her vagina’ which was crazy because—I usually do.”
Empowering women is Stagg’s mode of operation it seems. When I asked her if all her work is informed by feminism, she answered me flatly, “With my work, I want to support women. Every size and body type, I want to lift them up and make them feel beautiful and empowered.” Certainly Stagg’s portfolio showcases her commitment to that premise. She’s known for pushing the boundaries of what can be shown in a typical fashion magazine. When she’s not shooting for clients who are constrained by the laws that dictate what can and can’t be printed in a magazine that’s on newsstands, Stagg shoots nudes that explore the erotic and sensual, but without reducing women’s bodies to mere body parts abstracted from their personhood.
Some would call the work erotica, and though Stagg has shot work for Playboy and Penthouse, these photos don’t merely serve those who view them as material to jerk off to. According to Stagg, it’s her feminine perspective that makes all the difference, “At Playboy before we started shooting they said to me ‘Don’t forget to focus on the woman’s face not her vagina’ which was crazy because—I usually do. But I realized that most men who shoot for them are just completely focused on their vagina, or their asses, or their boobs,” she tells me. “I truly believe that every photographer gets into the business to see naked women,” she continues, “The only difference is that I don’t want to have sex with them. I just want to high five, get some dinner with them afterwards, and send them beautiful photos of themselves.”
What’s next for the sex positive feminist photographer? “I’ve recently been thinking about making a short film about a stripper,” she tells me. “I don’t want it to be a ‘wah’ story though. Every story about strippers is always about how the woman is stripping until she can do something better. Magic Mike isn’t like that. Why can’t women just enjoy their bodies and want to be sexy?”