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Taking back the power of self-image

Empowerment photographer, Tigz Rice, talks about redefining the ageing process and deciding who we want to be in front of, as well as beyond, the camera.

There are some people who simply exude warmth and Tigz Rice is one of them. Perhaps that's how she's found her path into being what she describes as an "empowerment photographer", or perhaps it's simply what makes her good at it. Whatever the reason, Tigz brings a particular perspective to her work that places the subject of a photograph firmly in control and the results, both literally and ideologically are something to behold.

Reclaiming photography

Lots of us grew up in a world where photography caused some problematic challenges when it came to the presentation of the body, setting unrealistic expectations when it came to image, beauty and personal expectations. In 2003, Kate Winslet was famously outraged when GQ went overboard retouching images of her, saying:

"The retouching is excessive. I do not look like that and more importantly I don’t desire to look like that. I actually have a Polaroid that the photographer gave me on the day of the shoot… I can tell you they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third. For my money it looks pretty good the way it was taken."

Today we live in a world where not only can professionals alter photographs, but so can we, whether it's adapting the light, adding a filter or completely editing our appearance. In some contexts, it's deceptive and misleading, in others it's simply a photo tweak to improve the composition, and in others it's arguably intended not to be a true representation but an opportunity for the 'owner' to take charge of what they want to present to the world. The question is, who has the power?

Tigz is 100% clear when it comes to her work - her subjects. Her combination of personal branding and boudoir photography is a glamorous, fun, empowering space that's about so much more than beautiful photos. It is, as she puts it "a rebellious act of self-love."

Discovering Dita

Having grown up in theatre, spending lots of time in amateur dramatics and watching tour shows, Tigz says she always wanted to be on the stage. However, when she discovered burlesque, seeing Dita Von Teese perform her Opium Den act, the 20-year-old Rice fell in love with the glitter, sparkle and decadence of it all: "It was everything I could ever want in a performance", she says.

Whilst studying illustration she became more involved in the world of burlesque and decided to pick up a camera with a view to creating picture books, teaching herself the process and drawing inspiration from the seductive world of performance.

"The photos were bad," she says, "but the experiences I was able to offer people, mostly women, connected with them and more and more friends asked if I would take their picture."

After sending out CVs she got an unpaid opportunity with a PR company to take photos at a burlesque festival at Café de Paris in London, a moment which proved to be the catalyst for the next decade:

"I knew instantly that's where I belonged. These were my people. I spoke to the owner of the festival and offered to photograph the rest of the week’s shows, building up enough contacts that by the next April I went fully self-employed. I then spent 10 years travelling the world photographing burlesque performers, seeing incredible legends of the stage. In 2019 I published my book STRIP/TEASE, and I started to get messages from people saying that they loved what I was doing, and although they weren't performers, could I make them feel that way in their underwear?"

Boudoir beauty

Boosted by time to think during the pandemic, and a burgeoning audience for boudoir photography, Tigz found her way into a flourishing line of work giving people the space, licence and opportunity to explore who they are in front of the camera.

"It's a whole sense of empowerment - being given permission to take up more space in the world and stop playing it small. It's not just women I work with, but I feel from a female perspective we're told not to take up space or be too loud or decadent. Having a photograph taken is literally that point where someone in the world is giving you permission to be your most authentic, wild self, take up space and exist in print.

It's the version of yourself that you want to present. There are expectations of us to be a specific way in society, but in a photoshoot you have the power to show the world how you want to be seen. It could be a hyped up sense of reality, it could be a cosplay of a person you want to be sometimes, it could be escapism, it could be a side you only want to show to yourself or your partner. Whoever you want the audience to be, it's about having the power and the permission to decide how you want the world to see you in that moment."

Creating confidence

Naturally, part of the challenge when presented with that kind of opportunity, is overcoming or addressing one's own anxieties and comfort zones. Tigz says that often when people come to her they don't feel confident at the start, but part of the process is building that together, creating a space that nurtures confidence over the course of the shoot.

She says: "Afterwards people always say 'I just didn't know I could feel like that'. I haven't changed anything, but the situation has given them a different sense of self. I think the sexiest thing you can wear is confidence, it changes how you walk, smile, etc - the external body you're in cannot compete with what's inside."

Moving the dial on ageing

Crucially, as a woman who is not only helping other women to navigate the internal and external challenges of self-image and self-confidence, Tigz is acutely aware of what feels like the dawn of a new era for women as they get older. Many of us in or approaching our forties are thankful to trailblazers like Meryl Streep and America Ferrera who have moved the dial when it comes to how we see women over the age of 35.

She says: "We're in this incredible age now where women are seen over 40 for the first time. You only have to look at BAFTAS where women over 40 were invisible a few years ago and now you have these amazing women doing incredible things. There's this incredible space where we're celebrating women and giving them power. That dynamic of our generation of women who refuse to be put in the shadows by saying I will bring my own spotlight - it's wonderful. It feels as though more women in that 40 to 65 gap are being celebrated and, on a personal note, I feel like as I get older we get bolder as well. There's something about growing older in a female presenting body where we stop caring about expectations as much and think I'm not going to listen to what you think about my body, it's got me this far."

As a case in point, Tigz cites Michelle Yeoh’s Academy Award acceptance speech, when the 61 year old actress took home the Oscar for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Supremely articulate, she said:

"This is proof that ... dream big, and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up."

Writing my own story

In terms of what her own path holds going forwards? Tigz is clear that it's constantly evolving, but what she remains passionate about is this connectivity she has and creates with other people:

"I know my 'why' is to help people feel deeply connected to other people and themselves. I feel conversations I have with other people shape that journey. I get to write my own story in a way that helps other people."

Watch this space.

Find out more about Tigz and her work

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