Photographing the Women of the 116th Congress

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“Nothing has been more wholesome in the political process than the increased involvement of women.”
— Speaker Nancy Pelosi


It was in December, on her first day of shooting, that the photojournalist Elizabeth Herman found herself in a room on Capitol Hill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “What a way to jump right into political portraiture,” Herman said.

Herman had begun the process of photographing 130 of the record-breaking 131 women who were sworn in to Congress this month — aiming to turn the stereotypical images of traditional American power (think: older white men dressed in suits) on its head.

Herman couldn’t have predicted how mightily Speaker Pelosi’s power would be flexed this week, of course — as she refused to allow President Trump to deliver his State of the Union address in the House chamber while the government is partly closed. (He ultimately bowed, agreeing to wait until the government reopens.)

Nevertheless, it seemed a perfect time to chat with Herman, 30, about her photography series, titled “Redefining Representation,” which aims to “evoke the imagery we are used to seeing in the halls of power, but place people not previously seen as powerful starkly in the frames.” It was co-shot with Celeste Sloman.

[MORE: See all the portraits here.]

What did you hope to accomplish by photographing these women?

To expand what people view as possible and expand what comes into people’s minds when they hear the word “power.” These women are what power is, looks like and can look like.

How did you think about body language and staging as you were working to get your shots?

I think a lot about photographing women: What are the ways that power is taken away from women in visual representations? How can I be mindful of these broader ideas and themes while still also speaking to the woman as an individual? Especially when you’re trying to convey power, and you’re photographing women of color, it’s hard to do it in a way that isn’t trope-y, that isn’t just power posing. A lot of times, women of color, especially black women, are photographed in a way that portrays them as angry.

Also, a lot of these women are really used to having their portraits done — so [it’s about] getting them to not default into a political smile. I find that you have that same issue if you’re photographing teenage girls, where they know exactly their angles.

Some might say that we’ve been oversaturated with coverage of these women. A worthy argument?

The first woman wasn’t elected to Congress until 1917. The first black woman wasn’t elected to the House until 1968. The first woman of color wasn’t elected until 1964. The first black woman in the Senate wasn’t elected until 1992 — I was alive, and I’m not that old.

Saying that we’ve covered all there is to cover about women and women politicians and women in power is just not true.

What was Speaker Pelosi like to photograph?

I knew that Pelosi’s family had known J.F.K., and the official White House portrait of him was so striking. She walked in, and her suit looked very similar to J.F.K.’s suit. So I explained the concept and asked her if she’d be O.K. posing like him. [In the portrait, Kennedy is wearing a tan suit; his arms are crossed and he’s looking down.]

We tried a few different versions — I have ones of her looking down that exactly mimic his photo — but then, when women look down in portraiture, it often reads as demure. So I asked her to look back up at the camera.

Women do have to make edits to the way they look and the way they speak and the way they present themselves in order to be perceived as in power. They cannot just look down and be read as “thinking” — which is what J.F.K.’s portrait is about.

In my mind, though, it was one of the closest nods to the reference photos.

______

Women who communicate regularly with a female-dominated inner circle — or have strong networking ties to two or three women — are more likely to attain high-ranking leadership positions, a new study by the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University found.

For men, the larger their network — regardless of gender makeup — the more likely they are to earn a high-ranking position. But women who have social networks that resemble their male counterparts are more likely to hold low-ranking positions.

In 1917, 128 years after the first United States Congress convened, Jeannette Rankin of Montana won a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first woman ever elected to federal office.

A headline in The Times in 1917, about a speech Rankin had given on suffrage and child welfare at Carnegie Hall, proclaimed: “‘Lady From Montana’ Talks.”

Here she is, in a Library of Congress photo, shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of men.

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