100 First Women for International Women’s Day


A few weeks back I had a wonderful bit of serendipity. It had been snowing madly. I was holed up at home for a few days and was getting restless. On Sunday we ventured out to Lacock and to my joy I discovered there was an exhibition on in Lacock Abbey of 100 First Women Portraits. And it was the very last day! The photographer, Anita Corbin, was there, we got chatting, and this interview is the result. The exhibition is on tour (details here) so if you get a chance to see it do go. I loved it. The photos were so engaging, very immediate, intimate. It is so inspiring to see these women in one place, all those women who were pioneers for all of us.  I salute them on International Women’s Day.

Jane: What sparked your interest in photography? When did you realise that you could make a career from it?
: I am an only child and my Mum was very involved in the care of her parents. My grandfather was an amateur photographer and he had a series of albums that he’d made when he’d been travelling as a mining engineer across the world, at the turn of the 1900s. The albums absolutely fascinated me, from the Pagan tribes of Africa to Odessa Square in Russia . I was carried away by the magic of photography. I was so absorbed as a child looking at these albums.

Plus, my Dad was a horticultural photographer, in his spare time, and I would help him out. At weekends I was in charge of checking out how much money he’d made which made me realise that yes, you could make money out of photography. He actually pioneered the step by step photography style, showing people how to ‘prune your roses’ for example. He was dyslexic so couldn’t write well but he could explain brilliantly in pictures.

My Mum was very creative, she was a landscape architect, but once she had me, she had to give up work, thats what happened to women of her generation, I think I inherited her artistic streak and the practical side from my dad.

At school, I liked art but I couldn’t draw to save my life, so the art teacher advised me at 14 to go and be a scientist!

But once I had a camera in my hand I didn’t need to draw to create.

I had my first camera at age 7 or 8. I still have my first one (see below). I took lots of pictures, especially on school trips and even won a First prize at age 10. It was of St Kevin’sTower in Ireland

Anita Corbin’s cameras, old and new

Are there many professional female photographers or are you pretty unusual in your field?

There are many more of us now working to a very high standard, than when I started in the early 80s, but still not as many as men, of course. Annie Leibovitz is one of my heroines. I love looking at her pictures and figuring out she has done it and what she is trying to say.

In 1981, when I was working for the Sunday Times Magazine, we had the Royal wedding of Charles and Di. There were 60 photographers in the press corps from all over the world, including Don McCullin, Cartier Bresson and his wife, MartineFrancke. 4 women only and I was the youngest by far. We did a huge group shot on the roof of the Sunday Times; imagine the male egos on that roof!

I think we women approach things differently and are much more subtle in our approach, less flashy, and we often get much more intimate shots because of that. Quite a few of the 100 First Women I photographed have been photographed many times and remarked how much more involved they felt in the process with me. They had carte blanche to be who they wanted to be,without being directed. I had no editor, no photographer’s assistant, no art director or masses of equipment. It was very collaborative, much more about how they wanted to be, just me and her. I think we women are much better at collaborating and the photos were better as a result.

When did the idea for 100 First Women strike you?
Initially I kept the idea fairly quiet. I was approaching my 50th birthday and my children, I have twins, Daisy and Louis were 14 and didn’t need me as much so I started to have some breathing space and me time. My father was 93 at that point and still fairly well, living close by in sheltered accommodation. I did some BEE group work with 6 women in something called Action Learning Sets where you share ideas and experiences, for about 6 months. The emphasis was on listening to each other. From this I decided I would love to have some of my portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, a goal which I achieved. It made me think ‘what am I going to be remembered for?’ I’d been working for about 30 years at that point, travelled the world, featured in many national magazines, but getting into the National Portrait Gallery really made me think I wanted something more lasting, that I needed to do something significant that would be collected for the nation. A photographic legacy.

The idea for a 100 First Women Portraits collection resonated with the coming anniversary of 100 years since women won the right to vote. I thought it would be amazing to do 100 portraits of women who had achieved ‘firsts for women’. I had 10 years to do it and I had just enough time. And I really felt a calling, I was thenroght woman for the job!

Getting the photos was obviously time consuming and managing diary dates with these busy women was not easy but 95% said yes pretty much straightaway, which was lovely. Obviously during this time, I was still doing my commercial work and looking after my family and my father, I had no funding for the project….when I came to create the exhibition I did get a few lump sum donations and we also ran a crowdfunding platform…but I still had to remortgage the house!

The women were so enthusiastic even though most didn’t really know what they were getting into in. Because ‘First Women’ evolved as it was being created.

It was quite a challenge, physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.; I drove about 100,000 miles and stayed in some dodgy B&Bs to keep costs down!

Another impetus for the First 100 was my Mother. I only had 20 years with my Mum who died young. She would have been 100 in the same year as the suffrage anniversary, so the 100 First Women project was also an homage to her, and in a way, a celebration of all the mother figures in this world. Five days after the launch exhibition opened at the Royal College of Art, London would have been Mum’s 100th birthday and I was 60 years old 3 days before it ended. Serendipity strikes again.

This year’s Valentine’s Day coincided with the opening at Palace House, Newmarket, the next venue for First Women, so I made a point of saying in my opening speech that behind every empowered woman there is usually a someone, often a man, keeping the home fires burning. My advice to men is to relax, stand back and let us get on with it!!!

Women are creating a new wave of reality, there is no road map, and many men feel lost or unsure of how to be….Our intuition will carry us through, but often men have not been able or been allowed to develop that side of themselves. I ended my speech by saying that we have to work together, put our egos aside as collaboration is the only future.

The photos are so immediate, and many feel very intimate, almost as if the viewer is present with the subject of your portrait, like an Old Master (although maybe that should be an Old Mistress…?) I know you worked alone, no huge entourage; did you have any ‘magic moments’ with your sitters? A moment of real connection? Can you share any details?

I wanted to be completely alone with the woman I was photographing. No assistants, no stylists, etc. It was challenging because it meant I had to do everything by myself. The fact that usually it was just the two of us helped to create that intimacy, I think. I’d chat a little bit about what motivated her and drove her. I tried to make it feel spontaneous so I set all the technical stuff up beforehand. Many of the photos are in tricky outdoors places, or busy thoroughfares, so I learned to create a ‘bubble’ for me and my subject to keep us keep connected.

Not using glazing or mounts on the exhibition pictures also contributes to the intimate style. I also often had very clear ideas in advance of how I wanted to photograph them. Every location is totally different which is exciting but also challenging.

With Dame Stephanie Shirley, a kindertransport child, I had a strong vision thatshe should be walking towards the camera out of an avenue of trees, walking away from the Nazis if you like, However, when I got to the location, the trees were wet and dark and foreboding so the shot I ended up taking was of her on a shiny, wet pathway where she is almost skipping down the road, away from something, but the energy is still there.

I am a strong believer in listening to your intuition.

Dame Stephanie Shirley by Anita Corbin

One of the most momentous photos I took was of Baroness Scotland, which was around the time of the Levenson Enquiry. Baroness Scotland was delivering a speech on this to the Lords on the day of our shoot. She didn’t cancel and it felt like a perfect storm.Such a moment in history. She was looking out of the window, with people like Paddy Ashdown MP squeezing past my set up in the narrow corridor. Baroness Scotland was running up and down the stairs  to the chamber, in her Jimmy Choo shoes, fortifying herself with a twix bar and a cup of tea, then back for 20 minutes more of photography.

Baroness Scotland by Anita Corbin

Another particularly memorable session was with Beth French, the endurance swimmer. I wanted her photo to be classical, almost goddess like, representing the physicality of women. She had her severely autistic child with her, Dylan, who was just 6 at the time, he loved being my assistant, which helped Beth to relax. (Me: I think you can see that in the photo, she looks blissed out). We had beautiful light and it was an amazing day which ended with a fish and chip supper together.

Beth French by Anita Corbin

My last photo of the 100 was with Kelly Gallagher, the partially sighted downhill skier. Sadly I had just lost my Dad just 6 weeks prior to our session, he did make it to 101 years ! She was so lovely and welcoming; she understood how to make the image that would make people ask questions about her without her needing to be on a ski slope. We also had a lot of laughs together.

Kelly Gallagher by Anita Corbin

If you could have any other career, at any point in history, what would you choose and why? 

I would have been a midwife a doulah or a silversmith. I love babies and children and am quite caring. ( I think ! ) I’ve photographed a couple of births and it’s so joyous.

I also love silver and precious rocks so doing something creative and practical would suit me.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given, and did you follow it?

Hard work pays off, and I have worked hard.

My dad had a very strong work ethic. If you believe in something and put the time and energy into it, it will develop and blossom. You’ve got to do the work. I work on my photography every day. But don’t push too hard, believe that things will happen when the timing is right.

What advice would you give aspiring photographers?

Follow your intuition and stick at it. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from your goal. Try and find something that you are fascinated and passionate about, if you love photographing ‘animals’ for example, go with that. Be the best that you can be.

And finally, what’s next for you, Anita? Do you havea list of 100 more First Women to track down? I know you invite visitors to the exhibitions to suggest names; have any of those really piqued your interest?

I’d love to keep photographing the next 100 Firsts. I think its important to have an archive foreach generation. I am now looking for a backer for each photo session and framed print. Each portrait costs £5000 in total, which isn’t very much really. So, I need 12 initial sponsors of portraits who can then have their name on those 12 portraits. Finding funding takes a lot of energy and can be very frustrating,  I’m happiest behind the camera. So many more First Women are now coming onto the scene, which is fantastic!  so there is no shortage of subjects.

Anita, thank you.

It is a brilliant project so please do go if you get a chance. You can buy a copy of all 100 First Women Portraits, Anita’s book, highly recommended as you get lots of information about the women, too. A gorgeous coffee table book with an important message. If you’d like to sponsor a picture please get in touch. Anita would love to hear from you. Celebrate women everywhere!

Courses for women

Our March RenewYou filled up very quickly so I am planning another one in May. All details are here. If you’re a reader of Psychologies magazine you may spot an advertisement from me in it for independent trainers in RenewYou. We have a couple of women waiting to train so I am planning to run a day for them and anyone else interested. It is possible to become licensed using our on line resources with individual coaching from me but I am also offering a day working directly with me. No extra charge on the usual licensing fee. Details for becoming a licensed trainer are here. You can also have licensed trainers in your organisation if you wish. Get in touch.

As well as RenewYou, there is my as yet unnamed course for anyone wanting some time out with a bit of coaching, a bit of relaxing, some creative exercises, lovely food, and possibly even a dip in the hot tub! It’s still in the making but we have a third of spaces filled already. I think we might come up with the name on the day. Here is the blurb:

A day to simply reflect, de-stress, and relax, that women will enjoy, find beneficial and life enhancing. It won’t be particularly career focussed, although if that’s important to you you can use it to reflect on work. It will be very small, an absolute maximum of 6 women and it will be in my home near Bath. We may be sitting around the kitchen table, (how many good things in life have happened around a kitchen table?) or maybe in the garden, weather permitting. We might even end up chilling in the hot tub if you want to. I don’t want it to be in an impersonal hotel, however lovely it is. I want to look after you, cook for you, help you relax, and give you some creative exercises that will (forgive me I’m going a bit tree huggy here) ‘feed your soul’. I want to send you home refreshed, feeling far less stressed, and with plenty of food for thought. No pressure, just time out for you.

I haven’t given it a name yet but it’s almost fully formed in my head. If you have any thoughts please share them. I am planning a day to trial this which will cost significantly less than the fully formed experience, at only£160 per person. If you’re interested please get in touch, no obligation, and it would be great if you could share this with friends and colleagues. Come with a friend as a treat! It is likely to be sometime after the Easter break, late April/May, with a formal launch towards the end of September/early October. I’m really looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you. If you’re interested please get in touch by email.

Update on Granny News

Many thanks to those of you who have asked if I am yet a grandmother. Indeed I am. My daughter and partner had a beautiful, healthy baby girl who will be 6 days old this International Women’s Day. My wish for her is that she will grow up in a more equal world where one day she will say to me: NanaJ, why did you need an International Women’s Day?

Changing People licences experienced trainers and organisations to deliver its International RenewYou programme for women.

Read more about it here


Posted on March 8th, 2019 by

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