Photographer Steph Wilson destabilises regressive beauty norms through image

© Steph Wilson

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Get to know the photographer behind Crack’s M.I.A. cover shoot

Born Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is a political and musical force to be reckoned with. Using her music and visuals as a political mouthpiece, the Sri Lankan artist has spotlighted women’s issues, the refugee crisis, genocide and internet surveillance – and she’s simultaneously courted controversy on numerous occasions.

It makes sense, then, for London-based photographer Steph Wilson to have lensed the controversial cover star for Crack’s 77th issue. Previously, Wilson has photographed artist and activist Moor Mother, musician slash model Kelsey Lu and Eagulls’ George Mitchell for Crack Magazine. Extending beyond our remit, in her personal work Wilson’s images inherently convey a political message. Her visuals continue to challenge beauty norms and pressures placed upon women; in the past, she’s explored censorship and nudity, and visualised symptoms of anxiety. Her contributions to the artistic landscape of London involve focusing the lens on body hair and women of colour; and by doing so, she photographs multifaceted women who don’t necessarily typify the hairless, white models of beauty and fashion ads we so often subliminally, or consciously, consume.

Below, we catch up with the photographer to talk the cover shoot, her unpremeditated approach to work, beauty standards and the internet.

What was it like working with M.I.A.?
We only had a short amount of time to shoot – about an hour – so we were a little rushed. It was a lot of fun, and Maya was great.

Where did you draw your inspiration from for the shoot?
Honestly, we arrived to a set we hadn’t seen previously, and I spied the chairs in the hallway and kind of loved them. A lot of the time you just have to wing it and work with what you find, so any preconceptions are usually never such a good idea as it’s always very spontaneous.

Do you find shooting a musician different to shooting models? If so, how?
Yes, models are more malleable and take direction very literally. Whereas a musician has their own identity that they contribute to the shoot and the way in which they’re shot, so it’s not as free. However, it can really add to a shoot and work as more of a collaboration.

M.I.A. is known for her outspoken views and her music is intrinsically linked to politics. In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that your approach ties into political and social issues. How has your work been informed by a socio-political framework and is there an overarching message behind your images?

My own work is often linked to something I find important at the time. I think by being a young woman in a, still, very male dominated industry, my work becomes feminist in a sense without having to strictly dictate a specific theme on the subject. Feminism, anti-etiquette and empowering women is intrinsic to everything I do.

She also touches upon how there’s no space for women to express an alternative to the mainstream narrative. Would you say your work lives outside of this narrative and has that been your intention? In what ways do you tackle this narrative through photography?

Potentially. I don’t think about my work’s themes so specifically that often. By casting women of colour, women with body hair, and no generic sexy mainstream models in general, I can help to break down the norm of over-shot suppressive and regressive crap.

© Steph Wilson

In the interview, M.I.A. urges the younger generation to get off the internet and get out there. What are your thoughts on the omnipresent use of the internet?
I think the internet is great, and gives a voice to those that aren’t in such a privileged position to bunk off work for a protest or put themselves in danger in countries that punish women for speaking out. I agree we’re all glued to our screens, but as long as the right messages are being spread, it doesn’t matter about the platform it’s being spread by.

Which Crack shoot has been your favourite and why?
This one! I got along with Maya very well, and there were real moments of excitement with lighting and framing – arty photographer moments that only happen every now and then.

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