Model & Activist Yasmin Benoit teams up with Photographer Clara Josefine as they interview one another on art, representation, asexuality, and how media shapes what society deems as acceptable.
Yasmin Benoit is a model and activist from Berkshire, England who is all about pushing boundaries. She entered the fashion industry with the goal of providing more diverse representation for Black women. Tackling the predominantly White alternative branch of modeling, she has endured many ups and downs to become one of the UK's most prominent Black alternative models. Now, she is also using her platform to raise awareness for asexuality - speaking at universities, at pride events, and to online platforms like Pink News and Lapp the Brand.
Here, Yasmin teams up with Clara Josefine, a European photographer focusing on empowering women through adventure portraiture and lifestyle pictures all around the world. Her aim is to make women feel strong and confident, no matter the size, skin color, sexuality or personality. When not on the road and/or with a camera in her hand, she enjoys a good cup of coffee, a nap, and all the dogs.
YASMIN: You have some really amazing landscape work on your social media and I remember you saying that you also do commercial product photography. What made you want to start taking images of people?
JOSEFINE: I started out taking pictures of myself and then actually went into people photography before adding landscape and finally product photography. I really enjoy photographing people in combination with nature/their surroundings, though, because of how different everyone is and how different the interactions can be. I strongly believe that every person is photogenic and I love seeing the interaction of my models with their shoot location and environment. I can work with multiple people in the same location and get a different type of image every time. I can also take the same model to different places and get a different vibe out of it. In addition to that, I also wanted to make sure that other people got pictures of themselves that they could enjoy. I have had personal experience with low self-esteem and I do not want other people to feel the same way that I once did, so I try to ensure comfort in front of the camera for all of my clients. Representation plays a part in this too - I want to help represent people who may not always get the same kind of representation as others.
YASMIN: From a model's perspective, I've always thought that there's a certain amount of power that comes with being a photographer, as you get to decide who is seen and who is not. How do you go about choosing who you photograph?
JOSEFINE: I really just shoot whoever is interested in working with me, as long as our styles can somehow get along/if my work reflects what the client is looking for and our values match. I do agree that there is some power though and that photographers should use that power for more equal representation. It can be tricky for me though - I do not want to discriminate, but differing political and humanitarian values can be difficult to manage.
"Media is not only a way to escape reality and society - it also is a double edged sword. It does not only represent current societal norms and virtues, but also shapes how society sees things - show something a million times on TV and it will become socially accepted."
YASMIN: I'm sure that you don't have much trouble seeing images in the media that reflect the way you look. Why do you think it's important to represent different beauty standards?
JOSEFINE: Because that's what life is. People are so incredibly and beautifully diverse, why should that not be represented? I've heard skeptics complain about diverse representation saying, "What is next, a lesbian, demisexual, body positive, disabled, trans woman?" And, yes! That is next. Those people exist and they deserve to be seen in media. Additionally, representation also helps those represented with their self esteem and to embrace their culture. Seeing someone on TV who looks like you and does things the way you are used to is a very rewarding experience. Media is not only a way to escape reality and society - it also is a double edged sword. It does not only represent current societal norms and virtues, but also shapes how society sees things - show something a million times on TV and it will become socially accepted.
YASMIN: Within the photography community, have you noticed an increase in photographers wanting to capture those outside of the rather Eurocentric beauty norms, or do you think that most are quite happy maintaining the status quo?
JOSEFINE: This is a difficult question. I think in my experience, it depends on the style of images/section of photography you are looking for. Unfortunately, in wedding photography there's a trend of white, skinny, boho brides. In boudoir, however, I have seen more diverse imagery, with bigger size or different shape bodies and people of color. But when you look back onto the runways of the world, the standards are still very Eurocentric - tokenism seems to be a problem there. I do hope we will continue more diverse beauty standards in media in the future to come.
"Representation affects the way that people are perceived in society. Accurate and diverse representation can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance, between opportunity and adversity, between confidence and insecurity."
JOSEFINE: You do not only represent people of colour and your African heritage, but you also are part of the LGBT+ community. How does the intersectionality affect your modeling?
YASMIN: Modeling is all about visuals, so my appearance inevitably impacts it. The beauty standards in modeling are still very rigid, and I don't conform to many of them no matter which genre I step into, so that has an impact on the opportunities afforded to me. At the same time, it means that the work I do get makes more of a statement and pushes barriers when it comes to inclusiveness and diversity. My asexuality influences the type of work I take on and the type of work I turn down, but by being open about my asexuality, my modeling helps to increase visibility for asexual people and helps to break expectations.
JOSEFINE: Why does representation matter to you?
YASMIN: Representation affects the way that people are perceived in society. Accurate and diverse representation can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance, between opportunity and adversity, between confidence and insecurity. That's why I think it's really important, and that those in the position to positively impact representation should do what they can to improve things.
JOSEFINE: What is a faux pas or problem that you encounter when working with other creatives regarding representation? Any pet peeves you have that people say or do when working with you?
YASMIN: I'm going to have to narrow this down because there's a lot I could say here! A lot of people don't think about representation because they have the privilege of being represented. So as the majority of photographers seem to be straight white men, and lots of straight white men own modeling platforms like publications and websites, they're mainly interested in images of conventionally attractive, thin, white, young women. That severely limits opportunities for models that don't fit that description. It's very common to see photographers who have only worked with white models, as well as publications and agencies with barely any models of colour.
Ironically, the alternative industry isn't very different. I've encountered issues because - having brown skin - I innately don't fit the 'gothic aesthetic.' I did a whole shoot for a brand before and they told me that it wasn't 'alternative enough' even though I was modeling their designs in the same way as their white models had done. They rejected the whole set.
I've worked with white makeup artists who have no idea how to do makeup on someone with brown skin - and it's the easy parts that seem to stump them, like having foundation or primer that isn't the colour of the moon. By the time one was finished with me, I looked like someone had painted me with Sudocrem and then tried to go over it with a light orange colour. It was ridiculous.
I've had many experiences with photographers - usually older, white, male photographers - who speak to me like they've never met a black person before. They can't help but bring up my race. I've had photographers make weirdly racialised comments that border on slurs, and constantly talking about how much harder I'm making their job because they have to 'light me differently.' I've been asked whether I keep chickens in my garden because apparently a photography studio owner's West Indian neighbours in the 80's kept chickens. I've had so much cringe-worthy stuff said to me.
JOSEFINE: You also do lingerie modelling. How do people react when finding out about your modelling in correlation to your asexuality?
YASMIN: People tend to react to that in the same way as they react to me wearing or doing anything that seems 'attractive' as an asexual woman. It tends to spark reactions like, "Why do that if you're asexual?" It seems to stem from misconceptions that women only put effort into their appearance to sexually attract others, and that - as asexual people don't experience sexual attraction - we shouldn't do anything to our appearance. I guess we're meant to just wear potato sacks or something. Don't get me wrong, maybe some asexual people wouldn't be comfortable modelling lingerie, but for me it's like... I'm not going to lose asexuality points because people can see cleavage and my stomach if I'm wearing a bra. I'm not going to alter my style to conform to other people's stereotypes of asexual people, so if a lingerie brand that I like wants me to model for them, I'll take the opportunity like I would if it was a cool brand that made dresses.