Organic Headshots

Last month we took headshots for a woman who saw a tightly cropped photo of her head and shoulders and said her shoulders looked too “crunched in and cutesy,” so we re-took the photo and pulled her shoulders back and looking more broad. Then in another shoot, we photographed a duo of business partners with the woman sitting and the man standing, and the woman expressed that she was worried people might perceive her as “subservient” to her male counterpart if she’s seen sitting.

This month is Women’s History Month, which has me thinking about these two shoots from last month and how they are symptoms of recurrent dysfunction in female perception in images.

Femininity in photography used to be about selling cars to men in magazine ads, but now we see images of strong women who are powerhouses in sports and industry standing tall AND accentuating their feminine curves. We’ve come a heck of a long way and we need to celebrate that!

But to better understand and listen to our clients’ fears, we also need to acknowledge the generations of lingering baggage with how we’re perceived in photos by our peers in the professional world, where we need to look powerful and feminine, but we also fear not being taken seriously if we look “too feminine.”

For example, a lot of our male clients request posing where they are “man-spreading,” or taking up a lot of space in a hypermasculine pose, to show power in the professional world, and it’s not often that they balk at the image as being too masculine-looking.

But a woman in the same professional position would balk at an image that plays up their femininity because femininity is still not equated directly with power in the same way as masculinity. Is it possible to photograph a woman where she takes up as much space as a man and looks powerful without having to adapt a more masculine pose? Yes!

Decades of looking at the covers of fashion magazines and advertisements have trained us all that the feminine body is submissive and craving to convince you into something, while images of the male body require no convincing. And like this research on gender bias in advertising found, in TV commercials and film, women have speaking roles on screen at rates of about 33% compared to the 66% of men. Whether we mean to or not, as a society, we are all still being primed to believe that women should be seen and not heard.

Body language cues are the same for all genders. These are the unconscious cues we express in our shoulders, arms, hands, torso, and even our feet which show we as humans are feeling scared, strong, loving, happy, or angry. And they’re the same for men, women, nonbinary, and genderfluid individuals.

But body language is different from photo posing, because a photo is two-dimensional and seen as a flat image and not a three-dimensional, real-life occurrence where we can experience a person in the flesh: the way they sound, move, interact with us, and even the kinds of pheromones or other scents our lizard brains pick up from them.

So we as portrait photographers have a lot of things to untangle when posing someone: their masculinity, femininity, or non-binary / genderfluid identity; their own perception of their gender in their industry or profession; society’s perception of their gender in their industry or profession; historical imagery of their gender and if it would be right to keep with that trend or break from it; and how lines, curves, shapes, and color are perceived in the art world with two dimensional imagery.

Whew! That’s a lot!

Here’s an example. In photography and film geometry, triangles traditionally represent masculinity, strength, and stability; as do vertical lines, which are considered “aggressive” in photography, vs. horizontal lines which are considered calming and used for static, non-threatening images. So here’s a strong, professional woman we posed in two ways which use those shapes:

But what about arms crossed? In body language science, arms crossed over your chest can mean defensiveness, anxiety, being closed off or distant, right? Right. Sometimes.

In person, crossing your arms can seem defensive and small, but it also depends on the facial expression and other cues your body is giving (if you’re hunched over and your eyebrows are lifted, for example), but it can also mean aggression if you’re pointing your chin down or smirking and the rest of your body is erect and confident. Or defiance if you’re also a toddler stamping your foot and screaming. It’s all about context.

So an arms crossed pose in photography can mean strength when done right, especially in the above example where it creates a photogenic triangle in the image, and a straight line. It starts by conveying masculine aggression in the professional world, and then it’s softened by a confident smile to show openness and friendliness: further assuring that we’re not transmitting a closed off or anxious signal.

Like a lot of things in life, posing isn’t binary! There are no “rules,” but rather, “trends,” or conditions that tend to trend in certain ways but always have exceptions and need context to balance them out. Or a better way to put it this month: Rules are made to be broken.

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