On The Radio: Ellie Ohiso on Photography & Feminism
The following is the edited transcription of my interview with Ellie Ohiso that was broadcast on my radio show, The Economy Of, on August 10th on WIOX in Roxbury New York. Ellie Ohiso, the co-creator of Green Door Magazine, is designer and publisher of Photography For Girls, a Catskills magazine project that was feature here a few weeks ago.
On September 7th, I will interview the photographer on this project, Kelly Merchant on WIOX at 9am.
JN: It’s wonderful to have you and it’s wonderful to have this project in the Catskills. So what is Photography for Girls?
EO: It’s a very small print project, almost the size of a Playbill. It’s a concept of interviewing local women, in addition to photographing them, and allowing them have a large say in how they’re photographed. The photos are not retouched for their physicality, but there’s some color correction that we do. Other than that, we run the photo as it was taken. There’s no manipulation in that sense other than traditional lens manipulation. Then Akira, my husband, interviewed the subjects and then discussed with them the empowerment process of being photographed, how they feel women in general are represented and this greater discussion of feminism.
It’s a brilliant idea. Whose idea was it?
Kelly Merchant, who is a wonderful photographer, we had the pleasure of working with her many times when we used to do the magazine Green Door, which is a local Catskills and Hudson Valley arts publication. Kelly had this wonderful vision and she’s so easy to work with and she loved working with us. She always had this kernel of an idea to turn the subjects she had been working with over the years into some type of larger project of what it means to be a female photographer because she was experiencing that herself. For example, does it make a difference to the subject if it’s a male or female photographing them? Do they open up more? When she approached us with this concept, she asked how she could bring something like this to fruition. Akira and I – I think one of our strengths is to take this abstract concept and give it a little bit of form. Based on Akira’s background as a social worker, he can take intimidating subjects, that normally people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about, and couching it in a very therapeutic way that makes it not intimidating. Then I have a design background and so I can take all these abstract concepts into this physical form, in this case, a printed piece. In the course of last fall and into the winter and through the spring, we’ve been working on bringing this idea into fruition.
How much effort does it take? How many man-hours to publish a brochure like this?
This is different than Green Door in that we were all giving our time for free, meaning Kelly was doing the photography out of a labor of love and Akira was doing the interviews out of a labor of love and I was doing the design. So this wasn’t a project that we were trying to make money with. It wasn’t a for-profit concept. The only hard costs for us, other than time, was printing it. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of number of hours. I’d say at least seven months to bring it from concept to fruition. Countless hours just, you know, and photographing the subjects and making sure they were comfortable with how they were being photographed. There were specific requests and many women had very specific requests. Some did want make-up, some didn’t want make-up. Most of them are not wearing make-up in the book itself. So there was a lot of creative thought that had to go into it and time other than what you see that goes into the finished project.
But I think anyone who works on some large project knows there are countless hours that people don’t see when you work creatively. Even when you think of this community radio station, just the prep work that we did just to produce one show. It’s so large and the community doesn’t see it. That’s what makes art and creative thought and culture so special, because there are countless hours of work behind it.
I’m so glad you brought that up because it really is a huge endeavor to do any creative project and this does take a long time.
Right. I think that also, we live in an area where there is a large farming community. I feel like artists and farmers and very different in a lot of ways and very similar. A farmer has to take a lot of baby steps to produce one item and sometimes, when you’re seeing them do the work, it either doesn’t make sense or you can’t appreciate the amount of time that went into it. I think that art’s a lot like farming in the sense that there’s a final product, whether it’s a fruit or a painting or a radio station; I think that sometimes you have to take a look at that and say, what went into this?
So what inspired you to publish this project as a magazine?
Just based on our background. I’m a Gen-X-er and maybe if I were a millennial, this would totally have been a website, but I love the power of print. I think people pay attention to it more. They’re less likely to dismiss it. So there is something about sitting down with this tiny book, half the size of a letter paper, and the way it was printed we wanted it to look like it wasn’t something that was super powerful at first glance. But, maybe if you gave it a second chance, it’s talking about something pretty hefty. So I think, you know, we live in a world today where, online, there is just so much content to sift through and I think where we are heading is content that’s meaningful, and having an impact. I think sometimes in print it’s easier to have a greater impact than online, because it’s something tangible, you know?
And I don’t have to sit and wait for it to load. I can just open it up. I spend so much time waiting for websites to load. Website content is reliant on you having a really fast internet connection.
Exactly, and part of what Akira was thinking when he was doing these interviews is that the book can be some kind of educational tool to hand to a young girl eventually to read and perhaps be inspired and see herself there.
How do you pick subjects? Is anyone able to be photographed? It’s an ongoing project, right?
Correct. We call this Book One because we’d ideally like to expand it into a larger concept. Most of the subjects in the first issue are women whom Kelly has had the pleasure of getting to know over the years because she worked with them on some other photography project outside the scope of this one. So she felt like approaching them for this project – as something we couldn’t show them what it was going to be – they were more likely to say yes than some random local women who wouldn’t know us or be as trustworthy as doing something good with the first. Sometimes you have to prove yourself first. We have a website where people can get in touch with us if they want to be a subject and what the finished product would look like. We’ve given the women a lot of creative control. We ran the images that the women were comfortable with and there’s power in that.
Yes, in women’s magazines, I’m pretty sure that the model doesn’t get to edit anything.
Correct, and even from working with Green Door, photographers would give me an edited stack from the shoot for the day and I was the one who was making those photographic and editorial choices along with Akira. We were the bosses in that case. I didn’t ask the photographer if it was OK to run that image and that’s what a magazine does. It’s about which image fits the vision of the magazine, but we weren’t retouching things in Green Door. We’ve had women in the covers of issues that we didn’t retouch. Green Door was not a photoshopped magazine. In a lot of magazines, the model sees the ad in the issue and it has either been retouched or not. There have been instances like Kate Winslett who spoke out against her overly retouched image. Some of the images in Photography For Girls were taken with Polaroids, not digital cameras and you can tell with some of the imagery. There was mild color retouching, but no photoshopping.
That’s such a revolution in this world where women’s magazines are heavily airbrushed. Let’s get to the hard-hitting subject. The effect of women’s magazines on young girls in today’s world: is it detrimental?
Oh yes, and I realize what an effect a publication can have on an area, just even in a microcosm. Had I been sending negative messages in a microcosm, I think about the ripple effect it would have had. I do subscribe to certain women’s magazines. I’m a print gal. I like seeing what these magazines are up to, even if it’s something like In Style, even though it’s usually some type of materialistic message. I subscribe to those magazines because I like to see what’s going on out there.
I can wholeheartedly say as a teenager I was profoundly affected by those images because I was a short, Jewish girl with curly hair from Long Island who had a big chest and hips. I didn’t look like the women in those pages. And now as an adult, I have a multiracial family. Akira is half-Japanese, so my children are a quarter Japanese, so what kind of world are they going to grow in? Is my daughter going to see someone like her on the cover of a magazine that realistically looks like her?
I think perhaps social media plays a part in some of the instantaneous feedback that some of these publications receive. When they do run an image they can get instant feedback from their readership saying this is not right, or this is not fair. But I think the majority of the time, women let those issues slide just because we’ve been beaten down into submission, you know?
I read Akira’s foreword and I found it very moving. He’s a great writer and he talked about his daughter feeling like it might be better to be a boy. Do you think a lot of young girls are growing up like that?
Yes, my daughter Cy who is turning four this week. Akira and I are progressive parents and we have personally given her no messaging saying it’s better to be a boy than a girl and yet, still, the stuff she hears and sees… Akira had a conversation with her wherein he said you could be president one day. She said, a girl president? And he said, no a president. So where was she getting that message? It wasn’t us, but it’s stuff she’s seeing and feeling and hearing. I think I didn’t realize the power of having a daughter and it’s kind of like… how do I not do to her what society did to me?
Do you think women feel pressure to be everything and how can we change that?
I think women do feel pressure to be everything and that’s something that Kelly addressed in her foreword of the book. I do feel like we’re in this straddle period in which we’re straddling this 1950s housewife with the CEO and three months’ maternity kind of generation. I’m hoping it will be a little different for my daughter Cy’s generation and maybe some of the millennials, some of which we do feature in the book. You’ll notice that the millennials: they vary from this positive thing where they don’t feel like being a woman has affected them, which is actually wonderful. My follow up question is, is that because they are young and naive, or is that because it’s really true – that their generation doesn’t feel it the same way that ours does? And then there’s another millennial interviewed in the issue who is very aware of the lie that women receive and has been aware of it since aged 12. I don’t think I had that awareness at aged 12, so I think there is something very wonderful happening for 20 and under. I feel very positive about it, particularly our generation because we’re about the same age. We are of this bridge generation, we’re dealing with our aging parents and we’re dealing with our children at the same time. Past generations didn’t have to do that. So we’re in this no-woman’s land. Can I do it all? Is it possible? I feel that all the time.
I do think that a lot of women are defined by their relationship to an external force, like motherhood, or being a wife. So we have to work a little bit on defining our roles based on ourselves at the central point.
How would Ohiso design a better or more appropriate women’s magazine? I would love to see a women’s mag designed just like Photography For Girls.
I’ll answer that question in just a tick – just kind of take a step forward before I go back to that. There is a woman’s national magazine that launched about a year ago. I think it’s called Verily. It’s a very typical women’s magazine except that they do not Photoshop the women’s faces or bodies. It think that’s progress. If I were doing a women’s magazine today, I think it would be so alternative that it would have to be kind of a niche publication. I’m wary of wanting print on a national scale at the moment. We are seeing kind of an uptick in print, but I think that it’s much easier to have an impact on a local level, which is usually where I focus my efforts. Could I see myself doing something like that? I could. I would go past the “does not retouch” and representing real women, even just the content. I think that’s the greatest success: it’s the content not just the imagery of women’s magazines. I don’t need another article on the ten ways you can look for signs that your boyfriend’s going to leave you. Magazines need to appeal to that kind of sensationalism, which is why they’re stuck in that space, so I don’t want to knock them. I know how hard it is to do that and get someone to pick something up. But I think we live in a time where shock value sometimes is authenticity, you know? Everything’s so inauthentic now that I think authenticity goes a long way to having an impact.