Picture this: you're a successful photographer — known, noted and kept busy with commercial as well as book photography — when you're offered an opportunity which probably won't earn you a cent, will involve journeying on roads less travelled and, at times, prove to be a logistical nightmare. Not to mention the fact you'll find yourself in lively discussions about whether you should do the work at all.
A year after you finish the assignment, you'll reflect on it and describe it as one of the best experiences of your life. "Not just from a photography point of view," says Kieran E. Scott, "but more from an experiential point of view. I wanted to do it because I love photography. I don't think of the commercial work I do as the 'bread and butter' that allows me to do other work; it's the brioche with a slice of ham because I love all the work I do."
From early 2016 to mid-2017, Scott photographed 240 women — all around the world — for the book 200 Women: who will change the way you see the world, by Ruth Hobday and Geoff Blackwell. There were famous and unknown women of all ages, creeds, colours, classes, and castes; all were asked the same five questions, including "What really matters to you?" and "What would you change in the world if you could?"
Fifteen of those portraits, including New Zealand interviewees Louise Nicholas, Marilyn Waring, Kimbra, Lydia Ko and Marama Fox, go on display this month at the Aotea Centre. The exhibition also includes exclusive video interviews that explore diversity, equality, and authenticity. It's part of Auckland Live's Women 20-18 to commemorate 125 years of women's suffrage in New Zealand.
Scott says on the first trip to Africa, to photograph women like Graca Michel, a political and social activist who's also the widow of Nelson Mandela, he became more conscious of the politics around the work. At a dinner, he was challenged as to why a man was photographing the women.
"To be honest, I still haven't completely reconciled it but I'd started, I couldn't really stop," he says. "I have had one woman say to me, 'why are you taking my picture? It should be a woman' but, essentially, I see myself as a service provider and I was there to take pictures and provide technical support.
"Geoff [author Geoff Blackwell] said to me that it was all very well women listening to other women, but men are the problem so it was about time we started listening."
Scott says he became more aware of the nuances of women's daily lives, how often we say sorry and the times we simply smile and are agreeable even when men are talking nonsense.
"It doesn't matter what a man says, there's an agreeableness there that seems to be so ingrained," he says. "It's something men don't do. We'll say to another guy, 'what are you talking about?' or 'I don't agree with that'. As a guy, I'd never thought about that before and then it made me worried that maybe I've been a dick my whole life and hadn't known it."
He ended up agreeing with writer Roxane Gay, whose portrait appears in the Auckland Live exhibition and who said she'd like it if men just shut up for a year.
"It would be very interesting to see just what happened."
Scott kept the equipment he used minimal, saying he realised it would be difficult to negotiate customs in a number of countries if he carried bulk loads of lights, lenses and filters. Each woman was photographed in front of a plain sheet of fabric in a make-shift studio Scott could construct and move around to make the best of natural light. It all packed away into two small bags.
"I was fascinated by the idea of taking a plain background, whether we were in the mountains in Nepal or on a roof-top in Kolkata because it seemed to create a more democratic feeling."
Despite losing "the studio" en-route to Berlin, a handful of corrupted files, interview subjects they didn't get and, occasionally sickness, Scott says it wouldn't have missed the assignment for the world.
(Scott photographed 240 women because different photos have been used in different editions of the book)
What: 200 Women Art Exhibition
Where & when: Aotea Centre Foyer, August 15-September 23
Women 20-18 events at Auckland Live also include:
Lower NZI, Aotea Centre
Women in the arts will gather to talk, debate and dig deep into some of the issues facing us in contemporary Aotearoa. Kiwi creatives including broadcaster Karyn Hay; actors Miriama McDowell, Alison Quigan and Nancy Brunning; Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O'Brien and Silo Theatre artistic director Sophie Roberts take part.
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
Inspired by the life of trail-blazing New Zealand astronomer Beatrice Tinsley, Bright Star by Stuart Hoar is the story of an extraordinary woman fighting to make her mark on the universe, in an era when a woman's place was in the home. Stars Lisa Chappell, David Aston, Bruce Phillips, Chelsea McEwan Millar and Matt Baker.
19 Sep, 7am
Join female politicians, the next generation of women leaders and musical guests on Suffrage Day as the National Council of Women of New Zealand and Auckland Council honour the fight for gender equality in Aotearoa.