Jen Steele is a photographer and writer living in New York City. In 2011, she began photographing women for a project she created entitled GIRLS I KNOW, which has grown into more than a passion and has become a career as a creative documentarist. Steele captures moments and people in a journalistic sense. In the coming months, she will be shooting a short film in her hometown in rural Wisconsin.
To feel empowered, I ask for challenge. We, as human beings living in New York, across the country and globe have, in recent months, faced new and difficult challenges. I have felt empowered by rising to the occasion of these adversities on both individual and collective levels.
A simple and tragic example of this in relation to myself occurred right before the new year when I lost my mother to the disease of addiction. When I returned from Wisconsin to my home in New York, I was fortunate and strong enough to quickly begin working again. In the direst of times, we have an opportunity to shape new direction in our lives, and to do so we must remember the process of finding empowerment. For all people, that process looks and feels different.Right now, more than ever before, I am excited to work with powerful and vocal people. The Barneys social assignment to interview and photograph a diverse group of women who work in the fashion industry and to build a conversation with them around the theme of women’s empowerment was a project I welcomed with enthusiasm. Women’s empowerment is an expression that is inherently broad and divisively specific all at once, as each person has their own interpretation. What’s exciting about that is that when we’re able to build on one another’s experiences, we allow ourselves the opportunity to grow together.
Certain that I would gather uniquely personal perspectives on empowerment, I began preparing for the interviews. I had not anticipated what would occur once face-to-face with these influential women, some of whom I had previously met and others not. What I discovered in these encounters was more than the standard intellectual connection—it was an empathic uncovering of layers. What does that mean? It means a shedding of pre-conceived notions, a deeper desire to understand otherness, and the rootedness of connection on a humanistic level that supersedes social standing, job titles, or affluence. And afterwards, I couldn’t help but want to share my inside view.
My perspective on women’s empowerment is certainly tied to human empowerment, and the risks one takes to grow. To feel empowered is to learn, work, evolve and feel free.
To feel nervous in the graces of another person is exciting. Very few people make me feel nervous, and Lyn Slater, with her wisdom and depth of knowledge and experience, is a warm version of intimating.
“One of the things I think the women’s marches did this time around that was different from the generations of the ’60s and ’70s, is that they understood that the feminist movement is not just white women—that it is all women. This generation has taken women’s empowerment forward in a more inclusive way than we did in the past.”
Rachael Wang knows exactly what she stands for and she gave me 30 minutes of her time to explain exactly those stances and her relationship to women’s empowerment. With an inclusive attitude and a mind set on supporting the causes she believes in, Wang is a strong leader.
“I was raised by a feminist, and to me, any successes I achieved were celebrated on an individual level rather than as a triumph of my gender.”
In the home of Alyse Archer-Coité, I felt very welcomed. She offered me tea and we sat on either side of her dining room table enjoying the experience of getting to know another person through genuine connection. Warm and direct, Archer-Coité quickly opened up and described specific aspects of her childhood that I was able to empathize with. We spoke of her mother, who bravely raised her and her sister alone, and of her personal triumphs traveling and working aboard.
“There’s such a difference between being alone and being lonely. You can be on your own and not be lonely, and it’s healthy to sort of enjoy your own fear and any trepidation you feel, and to embrace it. It’s part of being an adult and also a woman.”
Undoubtedly a leader in her industry, Christene Barberich is as kind and as she is busy. A friend for many years, I know firsthand that Barberich has an ear and heart-line open to those eager to learn and achieve. In her work and private moments, she looks to bolster the confidence of individuals and women she knows so everyone feels opportunity can be theirs and shared.
“When I think of female empowerment or really empowerment for anyone, it’s really about having options. It’s about possibilities and feeling the freedom in your life to actually pursue and to actualize them.”