5 Lessons in Gender Subversion from Photographer Bettina Rheims

As a new exhibition opens of her work, we examine how the French photographer overthrows gender conventions.

Left: “Rene Dorski, Polaroid No.1”, 2005. Right: “Hannelore Knuts, Polaroid No.1”, 2005. Images: copyright Bettina Rheims

On almost all of her Instagram posts, acclaimed French photographer Bettina Rheims uses the hashtag #mycameraismyweapon — a paraphrase of a quotation by African-American documentary photographer, Gordon Parks. From the outset, the use of this hashtag establishes Rheims’ desire for her work to be understood as socially conscious  and politically aware. Rheims — who is a protégé of Helmut Newton — does not wield her camera as an innocent bystander, but hurls herself and her lens into the action. The result is a photograph that is far from being a passive record of a person or situation, but instead is a complex, multi-layered statement that demands the viewer to sit up and pay attention.

Left: “Kim Noorda, Polaroid No.1”, 2005. Right: “Asia Argento, Polaroid No.2”, 2005. Images: copyright Bettina Rheims

Certainly, Rheims’ photographs grab viewers’ attention. From her first exhibition of portraits depicting the strippers and circus performers of Paris’ salacious Pigalle neighbourhood in 1981, to her more recent transgender portraits, Rheims’ work sheds light on aspects of society and humanity that might be deemed too risqué by another set of eyes. Indeed, the body — as sexual, vulnerable, intense, complicated, beautiful and ugly — figures profoundly in her work. However, her oeuvre contains a notable absence: with the exception of the occasional celebrity portrait, the bodies of cisgender men do not seem to interest Rheims all that very much, and it’s for this reason that she’s been dubbed the “photographer of femininity”.

On the occasion of her latest exhibition in Paris, “vous êtes finies, douces figures” (“you are finished, sweet figures”),  we reflect on five invaluable lessons we can learn from Rheims’ fearless questioning of gender norms. 

1. Female sexuality is bold not passive

In her equally celebrated and controversial series, “Chambre Close”, Rheims photographed ordinary women in stirring nude poses in shabby, chintz-wallpapered hotel rooms. Far from being merely titillating shots for heterosexual male viewing pleasure, this series takes a frank look at the ferocity of female sexuality. In many of these staged portraits, the models boldly look out at the camera. Their assertiveness is defiant; their pleasure is entirely their own as are their bodies. The lens just happens to be a witness to a provocative moment of self-intimacy.

2. Visibility promotes empathy

Left: “Niniovitch II, Novembre 2014, Roanne” Right: “Vanessa Bareck, Novembre 2014, Lyon Corbas”. Images: copyright Bettina Rheims.

Running concurrently with the exhibition in Paris, Rheims has another exhibition of portraits of female prisoners, entitled “Détenues” (“Detainees”), at Centre des Monuments Nationaux. Between September and November 2014, Rheims – who was encouraged to begin the project by Robert Badinter, the politician and lawyer who championed the abolition of the death penalty in France – visited four prisons to interview and photograph female inmates. The result is a deeply human body of work that intimately examines a group of people, who are commonly forgotten by society. As ever, Rheims was interested in the subject of femininity and how the prisoners engaged with gender under confined circumstances. Rheims’ lens grants the prisoners a sense of dignity and emotional complexity that they are frequently deprived of.

3. Gender isn’t binary

In the late ’80s, Rheims started her groundbreaking “Modern Lovers” series that featured street-cast models, who transgressed gender norms. At a time when the AIDs crisis was just beginning to take hold, the decision to photograph young androgynous subjects was a particularly daring move. Photographed against a pale grey background, the subjects – including a very young Kate Moss – are both awkward and striking as they confront the camera with their unique interpretations of gender. The “Modern Lovers” series challenges our expectations around what it means to be male or female, both or neither, a concept that’s only furthered in her more recent series, “Gender Studies”.

4. Femininity is complex

Perhaps the most significant thread throughout Rheims’ work is her ability to capture the complexity of her female subjects. Whether she is photographing celebrities such as Charlotte Rampling, Kristin Scott Thomas or Madonna, or models such as Daria Werbowy or Lara Stone, Rheims imbues her subjects with an emotional richness often overlooked by other celebrity and fashion photographers. Much of her editorial work for magazines similarly pictures female subjects in multifaceted ways that accentuate their complex interior lives. First and foremost, Rheims is interested in capturing the contradictions of femininity, which she does through her unique sensitivity towards her subjects.

5. Activism is essential

Continuing her lengthy interrogation into the construction of femininity, Rheims collaborated with the feminist activist group, Femen, in 2017. The series, entitled “Naked War”, photographs the activists naked with political slogans smeared across their torsos. The purpose of the project was to make visible the work of the group and to investigate the possibility of non-erotic nudity. The Ukrainian group claims that the body is the last site to resist oppression, and the outcry to – what they call – their “political nudity” proves just that. “Naked War” expresses two of the key concerns of Rheims’ work: corporeality and power.


Bettina Rheims: vous êtes finies, douces figures” runs from March 20 through to June 3 2018 at Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

Détenues” runs through to April 30, and then again at Les châteaux de Vincennes et de Cadillac from June 1 to November 4 2018. 

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