Portraiture and the Female Gaze - Meet Guen Fiore

The unapologetic intimacy of Guen Fiore's portraiture catches the eye immediately. You feel almost present in the picture, transported through the camera and the gaze of the women she captures, creating a bond between viewer and subject. The captivating and comfortable nature of her work is often lacking from the portrayal of women and their bodies. Guen's photos show beauty in its rawest form and do so in a manner that blurs the often stark relationship between photographer and photographed, viewer and subject.

Originally from Rome, Guen moved to London just over a year ago where her work has taken off and her style solidified. We spoke to Guen about her practice and the importance of the female gaze in photography.

Hi Guen, your photography is both intimate and soft, what inspired your photographic style? 

I’m inspired by what I know and by what represents a certain kind of personal experience for me. In terms of references, I am inspired by other photographers. Big masters of the past like Vivian Maier, Alfred Wertheimer, and Robert Frank. Annie Leibovitz is one of my favorites, especially her earlier work. I’m also very influenced by younger photographers like Jamie Hawkesworth or Colin Dodgson - too many to mention! Movies are a also big reference of mine, especially for colours and atmospheres. I really like Sofia Coppola and Woody Allen.

How do you create a safe space of intimacy for your subjects?

Whenever possible, I like to photograph my subjects in an environment that is familiar to them. When this is not possible, I try to know a little bit about them and who they are, so that we can both feel more comfortable working together.

Does the ‘female gaze’ - instead of the more commonly noted ‘male gaze’- help create the ease you can feel in your work?

For sure! Being a woman myself photographing mainly women positions my work in the sphere of the Female Gaze. The female perspective in the last few years has brought a fresh point of view, one that shows the reciprocity of the female gaze. I think there is something about a woman photographing another woman that is maybe more personal, representing women’s bodies and projecting a personal experience related to it. I think it’s very good that women are 'imposing' a kind of control in how they want to be shown and seen as humans.

How important are the female gaze and inclusivity in portraiture? 

I think it’s fundamental. Nowadays, 'feminism', 'inclusivity' and 'diversity' are themes abundantly debated in the photography and fashion community. The risk is that - when a topic becomes a trend - people start to see the theme with superficiality and for some people it becomes almost boring, making it lose the importance that it had at its origin. The female gaze and the representation of the woman from a different perspective is not such a new topic anymore, but I think it’s still very necessary.

There is no doubt that for many years the male gaze dominated the scene, imposing beauty standards and showing women exclusively from a male perspective. I’m happy to see how women are taking back control of their image. At the same time, I think we should keep the focus not only on the subjects but also on the other side of the camera. Diversity must be applied on both sides. It is too easy to change the subjects, in line with a trend, and keep working always with the same

kind of photographers. Women photographers still get a very low percentage of their commissions compared to their male colleagues.

What’s a favourite story you have captured through the lens?

I’ve been enjoying taking portraits of Charlotte. I found her on Instagram over a year ago, and I always thought she had something special. I got in touch with her as soon as I moved to London last year and I involved her in a project right after. Since then we stayed in touch and kept meeting for quick photo sessions whenever possible. We’ll definitely keep this collaboration going on and see where it goes!

What have you learnt from the people you photograph?

Everyone is different; with some models there is a mutual esteem and it’s easy to stay in touch and build a “relationship”. When I was able to connect with the subject I always learnt something coming from their experience. I notice how much I admire the confidence and at the same time the honesty and vulnerability of many of the girls I photograph. In other occasions I’ve been lucky enough to work with girls who had powerful stories to share and I’ve been impressed by their perspective on the world,

and their admirable strength. There were also occasions when I wasn’t able to build that connection, but that’s also fine.

As long as everyone is respectful the experience is always nice.

Has your candid portrayal of the human form affected your own sense of self-image as an artist?

For years, the male perspective has dominated the concept of beauty, dictating impossible standards for women. Only now I realise how much this affected the idea that I had of myself and of others. When I was much younger I honestly thought that I

had to look different to get everywhere in life.

As a photographer, I always get feedback on my pictures. A few years ago these comments were mainly from boys. I used to photograph my friends, or friends of friends; none of them were professional models but I remember that every time I photographed a girl who was ‘beautiful’ - according to everything we are used to seeing in television or fashion - I got so many messages, especially from boys. They were expressing their appreciation for the picture, but especially for the subject. Even if it was not something personal, this indirectly affected me because it reinforced the idea that I had to look like them to be considered or be valued as a woman.

I started to change my direction slightly, finding my own voice photographing women that inspired me more. I did not do it for any feminist reason or because I wanted to spread a message, I just photographed who I personally found beautiful.

The kind of feedback that I started to get was very different. I must admit that sometimes the 'meanest' comments about my subjects came from women. But more generally I now receive messages from girls telling me that my work made them feel better about themselves. I also now can see how many people actually find that ‘attractive’, ‘sexy’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘interesting’, often comes from a different beauty. I just realised that what is mainstream is not necessarily the only truth in life, and portraying all of these girls that I find so incredibly beautiful has had a huge impact on me.

How do you think social media has impacted young visual artists like yourself, both positively and negatively, as well as the people you photograph?

I started to use Instagram relatively late and I think it was positive for me because it allowed me to experiment and “fail” without the stress of posting all the time, as well as allowing me to find my point of view doing my own research and selecting my references. I think this is a very important step, especially at the beginning. I think the ‘problem’ with Instagram is that we see images everyday, 24 hours a day, and for me it is kind of toxic. You don’t really get the time to develop what you really like and who you want to be as a photographer. We all see the same images, we have the same references and everybody tends to do quite the same thing. I sometimes need to take some distance from Instagram to clarify my ideas, work on some concepts and do my own research without being distracted by what other people are doing.

The positive side is that Instagram is a very powerful tool. It allows you to show your work to a much wider audience and allows you to build a strong network in a much easier way. As in everything, balance is the key. I use it to show my work but I’m trying to use it much less for research.

You’re originally from Italy. How have your experiences of living in different cultures shaped your creative identity? Was it a difficult transition? 

I can say that living in London gave me a strong motivation to create. In Italy, I was living in Rome where I was studying engineering, and where the photographic landscape had never excited me that much. I knew that if I wanted to give photography a go I needed to move somewhere else. There was not a specific reason I came to London instead of Milan or Paris, I just felt that the photography community here was closer to what I wanted to be. London was the best place for me to start; there are so many talented people willing to collaborate and so many interesting faces to photograph. Everything was new for me, I found every subject so beautiful and exotic. The transition wasn’t difficult at all. Maybe it was because I was doing something different in Italy so I wasn’t able to compare it with any other similar experience, but for me everything happened quite quickly in London. I don’t want to say that it has been easy because it has not, but if you make the right moves London has a lot to offer! I found my dimension there.

What is your advice for young creatives looking to pursue their own, unique creative practices as you have?

I would encourage everyone to experiment a lot, it is the most important step to understand what you like to do. I wouldn’t stress too much about getting commissions, just focus on your portfolio and your personal work because, from my experience, your vision is what will guarantee your first job and it has to be coherent and say a lot about you. Everyone’s experience is different so take your time and don’t look too much at what other people are doing, but always keep one eye on what is happening around you in the photographic community as it is important to stay updated.

The last advice I can give you is that nobody is going to knock at your door, so get out there and show your work to the right people to get feedback from the ones that matter. Don’t focus on followers and likes, you need to meet people in person and see what they think about your work.

Interview by Devon Armstrong

All imagery by Guen Fiore