Belgium-born photographer Eva Verbeeck’s training in human rights and international law feeds into her documentation of global issues such as climate change, social injustice and identity politics. Her most recent work focuses on cultural and gender identity, with her ongoing series America’s Girls exploring the place of young women in the USA today.
Speaking of how the series developed, Eva states: “As a young European woman growing up in Belgium, I really idealised the culture of the United States. I looked at glossy magazines and dreamed of looking like all the beautiful women I saw in these advertisements. Living here now, I see things in a more nuanced way.”
Consisting of portraits of young women and girls aged between six and 16 years old, America’s Girls looks at female experience and adolescence from a place of affirming positivity, without overlooking its difficulties. Eva says: “I really feel like there is a need for images that create realistic, healthy expectations for young women. I feel inspired to make a positive body of work that makes people feel happy and at ease rather than anxious and nervous. That being said, I don’t want my work to feel cut and dry; I want to incorporate some ambiguity that prompts the viewer to think about what it is to be a young American woman in this time. This is what motivates me to keep making this work.”
Eva continues: “I am interested in adolescence as a fleeting and transitional stage of emotional discovery. Young girls go through incredibly rapid changes in their teens and, for many, that transitional period is the most difficult period of their lives. Your body is still growing and developing, and you are surrounded by images that depict what you’re ‘supposed’ to look like. The expectations hoisted onto women from every corner of society can make it hard for young girls to feel like they can measure up.” By celebrating the unique characters and talents of her female subjects, who range from dancers and musicians to rodeos and cheerleaders, Eva combats outdated notions of female achievement as taking a single form that often hangs precariously on appearance alone.
Working predominantly with a large format 4×5 or 8×10 view camera, Eva states: “The nature of the large format photography process helps create an honest and judgment-free environment. Without the presence of a digital screen on the camera, the girls feel no pressure of seeing the photos right away, so they embrace the unknown.” There is, of course, an element of self-conscious, performative posturing in the photographs that comes with the knowledge of being watched, being seen – but this is undercut by the quiet defiance of the young women’s expressions and the evident pride they take in the pursuit of their interests and talents.
Although the portraits are fairly traditional, compositionally speaking, Eva succeeds in capturing individuality by harnessing flashes of character in the most imperceptible expressions – a boldly lifted chin, a certain cockiness in the gaze, the glimmers of a smile at the corners of the mouth. Eva says of the series: “The photographs form a particular visual identity because of the intimacy I try to create while photographing. That intimacy is juxtaposed with the formality of the framing and photographic process as a whole, and I think that this contrast helps viewers connect to the work.”
America’s Girls forges a community of young women with an emphasis on positive recognition, acceptance and encouragement. As Eva states: “My ability to make this work is really based on building a network of trust. I start planning photoshoots weeks or months ahead. I talk to parents, schools, sports clubs about my work and see if they are interested in having me photograph. On the day of the photoshoot, I introduce myself, we talk and I ask them a variety of questions before I make the photograph. We spend some time talking about what they find interesting, what they think is beautiful about themselves, how they feel in this period of transition and so on. After that, I set up the camera and let them chose a position that feels comfortable for them. Once they are holding a position the photograph is made.” For Eva, “The long term goal is to create a body of work that feels diverse and inclusive, showing beauty in its true and pure form.”