Teenage photographer Maegan Sundlie focuses her lens on how the media packages women.
Editor’s Note: Maegan Sundlie is an 18-year-old photographer from Marblehead, MA. You can find her images on Instagram.
Q: What got you started in photography?
A: I started photographing images with my eyes long before I had a camera. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always liked the idea of capturing a moment in time, of freezing history so you can look back at it with perspective. When I saw the photo exhibits at Ellis Island a few years ago, I felt as if I’d been allowed to return to a special moment—or set of moments—that the photographers had captured and preserved and saved for us. Everywhere around us we’re surrounded by photographs—shots no photographer has taken yet. When I see something that stands out, an image that holds meaning, I frame it in my mind, then photograph it with my camera. I actually didn’t have a real camera until last year, when I received one as a gift from the family of a friend whose portraits I’d taken with my iPhone. They were so impressed with those photos that they bought me a professional quality digital camera to use for my craft—a gift for which I’m extremely grateful.
Q: You take a lot of photographs of young men and women. What do you think your photographs say about our culture?
A: I’m not specifically trying to make social statements with my photographs, but I often end up doing it. In general, my subject is the urban lifestyle. I grew up in a suburb of Boston, and when I experienced the city—first Boston and then New York—I saw that the city is a different world. There’s more culture, more fashion, a mix of everything—a kind of collage—and everyone is unique. Suburbia is very conformist, and when I photograph subjects in the city, I try to bring out who they are as individuals. I focus on fashion, but my real subject is the person within the fashion, the person inside the image. Lately, my pictures have been conveying a story. The message supersedes the fashion. In my latest shoot (pictured here) I wanted to show how the fashion industry and popular culture package women like pieces of meat. I wanted to send a message to a particular group of men—the catcallers, the sexualizers, the abusers, the voyeurs—to point out that the photos we see in the media oversexualize women, to show how easy it is for us to slut-shame, to treat bodies as objects for consumption, because that’s they way they’re presented to us. Up on the rooftop, wrapped in plastic, my model looked like a doll with an all-American body, ready to be opened by the person who bought her. But there are other meanings in the wrapping, too. She’s contained by the plastic and looks as if she might be suffocating, yet there’s something free about the way she’s naked under the sky. Also, the plastic bag conveys the idea that she’s pollution—bagged up to be discarded. For me, the pollution is the steady stream of oversexualized, disposable images we’re fed by the media, so there’s a lot going on in the picture.
Q: Are there aspects of the way our culture treats images that you would like to see changed?
A: One aspect of fashion I enjoy is the way it presents images of a luxurious life, a life of ease and implied happiness. But it’s so easy to oversexualize, to make something sexual that doesn’t need to be. In my photographs, I like to push against the status quo, to remind people that there’s a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be out there. You can have youth without sexualization. You can have beauty without sexualization. You can even have sex appeal without oversexualization. There’s no need to cross that line. Fashion photos have aspects of fantasy—and that’s OK—but I like to reveal what’s real, to create an element of reality in what is obviously a staged photo. Staging is deception, but when you look for what’s real and capture it, that’s being honest. For example, I did a shoot today of a blond girl in a velvety dress sitting on top of a newsstand reading a paper. She has this look like, “This is my city. I own this place.” It’s staged, but that look, that look of ownership, is one that nearly everyone finds familiar. I always try to find the feeling my subject is expressing. Even if my photos have elements of what the culture wants, there has to be something more. I like to be an eyebrow raiser, to make people think, “Why did she choose that?” I believe beauty is trying to find thought in silence, to determine the message. I think visually, and I express the thoughts I see through my photographs. If you think in images, you speak in images. And since I think our culture needs to change the way we treat women, that thought comes across in a lot of my work.
Q: What advice do you have for men who are being influenced by oversexualized images?
A: Be more aware of what you’re seeing and why it’s being shown to you. Women in magazines are being packaged. Try to strip away the packaging and see that there’s a woman, a person inside it. A real person. And realize that these images have an effect on young people, on how men grow up to see women, and how women grow up to think about themselves.
Photos courtesy of Maegan Sundlie