Five rule-breaking photographers you should know

Untitled, Courtesy of Ren Hang 

Qezz lists her favourite photographers who challenge the status quo.

As a portrait photographer I am constantly seeking inspiration from unique photographers across the world. Through my interest I have come across many artists who fascinate me; most of whom are provocative and thought-provoking.

I have curated a list of portrait photographers who have very different styles and imagery, but they all disrupt societal expectations. Portraiture as an artform makes for great intimate images. When you challenge expectations in this way it starts conversations and makes the viewer question our reality.  The result communicates empowerment by displaying challenging themes like gender, cultural values and beauty standards across nations.

As a young female photographer, the rule-breaking themes these photographers represent inspire me, and I admire the way their artistry challenges societal norms, even in the present day.

  1. 1. Robert Mapplethorpe

Age: Died at 42

Location: America

Thomas, 1994 Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe was best known for heavy, black and white work and stylized nudes.  His provoking imagery in documenting New York’s S&M scene in the 70s is renowned. During his own battle with AIDS, the portraits he created of others with the condition made him one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. The bravery of photographing themes of gay identity and capturing his battle with AIDS was, and is, highly empowering to stigmatised sufferers.

2. Simrah Farrukh

Age: 21

Location: America

Ek Ladki, Courtesy of Simrah Farrukh

Born in the United States, this American Pakistani photographer is a big inspiration to me. Simrah describes her work as being centred on female empowerment, particularly covering themes of colourism and LGBTQ discrimination in Asia. At a young age, Simrah’s body of work challenges south Asian archaic values of femininity and gender roles. The LGBTQ community remains unprotected in South Asian culture, so to show positive queer representation in her photography empowers the underrepresented.

3. Ren Hang

Age: Died at 29

Location: China

Untitled, 2015 Courtesy of Ren Hang

Chinese authorities named Ren as one of China’s most controversial photographers. He died at the age of 29 by suicide triggered from depression. Ren Hang was notorious for his scandalous work; in fact, he was arrested many times for his sexually celebratory photography in China.  He was highly disinterested in any political or social interpretation of his work; infact he never titled or dated any of his work. I see that as a form of uprising in itself: there is power in creating art without any explanation. Although he was globally renowned, he never gained the recognition he deserved in his own country. Most of the women and men in his photography series are his friends and people he knew personally. His work was repeatedly rejected from being displayed in Beijing as his work involved naked imagery which offended the conservative values of Chinese culture. He played with symmetry and uses naked bodies as a form of rebellion, challenging Chinese traditions.

4. Diane Arbus

Age: Died at 48

Location: America

A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, 1966, Courtesy of Diane Arbus

Dianne was best known for her intimate black-and-white portraits of marginalised people. She was highly criticised for basing her art on complex subjects such as individuals who identify as mentally ill, transgender people, and circus performers. At the time, her work was violating many social expectations of ‘normality’ but her medium remained photographing unique characters. Now, she is praised for showing sympathy and power with the stories she shared of the misfits of society. Her fearlessness with shedding light on underrepresented individuals in America at the time is applaudable and inspiring.

5. Noma Osula

Age: 26

Location: Nigeria

Dayo Akinyemi, Courtesy of  Noma Osula

Noma is best known for his colour portraiture work. His use of florescent paint on dark complexions create beautiful and sharp images. He claims to get a lot of his inspiration from his own hometown, Lagos.  Noma describes the city as ‘chaotic’ and ‘colourful’ and believes these two words translate Nigerian culture in his work.  His rule breaking medium is to disrupt African beauty standards and gender. He does this through bending ideas of femininity and masculinity in the characters he photographs; often they are captured in awkward and unsettling body poses in odd environments.

Editorial for Schon! Magazine, Courtesy of Noma Osula 

Each of these photographers offer different themes of rebellion in their works. Throughout history, artists have challenged society’s beliefs and have made many political statements through their work. These five photographers carry on the legacy of disruption and consistently creating new narratives that showcase hidden and marginalised beauty.

Which of these photographers did you find the most interesting? Let us know on our social media.

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