On The Ground: Interviews With Young Feminist Activists
Welcome to "On the Ground," a new interview series that highlights the work young feminist activists are doing in their own communities.
“Before my sophomore year at Andover, I didn’t even know what the term 'feminism' meant," feminist activist and Barnard College student Corinne Singer told me. "Although I grew up in feminist-structured house where my dad is a full-time caregiver and my mom is a full-time 'breadwinner,' we didn’t talk about gender in my house as a system of power.
But during Corinne's sophomore year at her high school, Phillips Academy Andover, a group of 12 or so seniors started a movement on campus called F=E, Feminism Equals Equality. The group hosted forums, started a Facebook page that provided a space for people to post things and engage others in dialogues about feminism, and received a tremendous amount of backlash from a wide variety of people on campus. While F=E wasn’t Corinne's first time being exposed to feminist ideology, she said, it was her first time being exposed to comprehensive feminist ideology that helped her make sense of things in her life.
In the spring of 2015, Corinne Singer transformed her school’s Bicentennial Sculpture by dressing it with a red sheet bearing resemblance to a bloody tampon for her installation, “Raise the Red Flag.” Throughout the spring semester of that year, Corinne worked on a number of photography projects to create platforms for marginalized students to share their narratives and exist as a space of resistance against multiple forms of systemic oppression. Her projects include Áshána, Exploitation/Reclamation, Female Representation in Religion, Menstruation, and Identity and Transcendence, all of which aim to dismantle power systems through the powerful medium of photography.
When did you decide that you wanted to transform your feminism into activism?
I think that I’ve considered myself to be an activist as long as I’ve considered myself to be a feminist, but I just didn’t have a purpose to bring that passion to life. When the F=E movement started, however, I became incredibly active in doing a lot of the groundwork in outreach and fostering conversations about this topic which launched my life as an activist. In terms of photography, I’ve been photographing since my freshman year of high school, but it wasn’t until senior year that I really decided that I could explore the intersection of my feminist activism and my photography.
I had never explored transforming people’s ideologies via a visual medium and I had already had a lot of experience with it, so the decision to bring them together was so obvious. I know how transformative visual mediums can be for people who aren’t necessarily willing to engage in dialogue because looking at a piece of art is a process just as much as having a conversation is a process. When you come in contact with a photograph, there’s almost less of an opportunity to disengage because you can capture people’s attention immediately in a way where they can easily reject dialogue. That’s not to say that people didn’t reject my photographs immediately without thinking about them further, but I think that images have the power to stay with people in a way that introductions to conversations might not stay if they decline to pursue the conversation further.
What have been some of your most memorable projects?
The most memorable project I’ve ever done is the one that I did in the spring of my senior year called Áshána. Áshána is actually a word that means to menstruate peacefully in Láadan which is a specific feminist language that was created by second-wave feminist Suzette Haden Elgin in the 80s. The project consists of three individual series: Exploitation/Reclamation, Female Representation in Religion, and Menstruation.
With Exploitation/Reclamation, I was really fascinated with deconstructing this notion of a marginalized person exploiting themselves because I fundamentally don’t agree with the idea.
In terms of Female Representation in Religion, I’ve had an incredibly toxic experience with Catholicism, which is structured in such an unapologetically misogynistic manner. I wanted to explore female figures in different belief systems that are symbols of power, instead of being symbols of shame or wrongdoing like so many are.
Finally, the Menstruation series really targeted the system of American nationalism among other systems of power — like racism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. The responses I received were very akin to people’s initial responses to the F=E movement. People reduced my work and refused to call me an artist. They refused to recognize how complex the visual imagery is and instead just reduced me to an angry, bitter person who hated soldiers.
But the best thing that came of my project is the community I developed with all those who participated in it. I wanted it to be a collaborative process wherein people who experienced the intersection of marginalized identities could use it as a platform of liberation and essentially a space where they could express and claim their narratives and identities in a really powerful way.
What was the purpose of your project?
Essentially, in line with my intersectional feminist thinking, I wanted to reject campus trends of white feminism that were incredibly pervasive and so the majority of those who participated in my project were female/trans/non-binary people of color. My intentional decision to focus on intersecting marginalized identities made the community all that much more strong and all that more impactful. Whether it was photoshoots or the final presentation of my project, there were a lot of spaces where contributors would gather and it was so powerful to have so many beautiful people in one space together, sharing their narratives and affirming one another’s experiences on a campus that erases those narratives.
How has your own identity played into the work you’ve done?
Perceiving and representing the world through cisnormative, racist, heteronormative, sexist, capitalist, imperialist, and other oppressive lenses is immeasurably dangerous and entirely unacceptable. I fully recognize the disturbing amount of privilege I have access to at all times, and I aim to dismantle such privilege through my art. Through all the projects I engage with, my goal is to collectively design spaces wherein my models and collaborators can fully utilize their agency, and their brilliance to create images that we believe are incredibly empowering on a personal level, and have the potential to transform other people, larger cultures, institutions, etc.
It’s been a difficult process to reconcile my own privilege with my art because I inevitably see the world through specific lenses that are determined by my privilege, and I do as much work as I can to deconstruct that. The process is continuous and there’s no definitive end to it so it’s a process that will continue on for the rest of my life. It’s a complex and long journey, but I always want people to tell me when they think that I can do better or if I’m making them uncomfortable or if there’s anything that I can better do to navigate this. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of simple answers so it’s a constant dialogue, a journey, and trying to navigate the world in a certain way.What are hopes do you have for your activism? Any upcoming projects?
Since my senior year project I’ve been completing my work at a much slower pace because I’ve been recovering from a lot trauma. I’ve been working on creating space for myself and space for others who need that sort of healing. In terms of projects, I’m still working on my "Identity and Transcendence" project which focuses on a person’s narrative, their journey and their intersecting identities to transcend power structures. I’ll continue to document people’s experiences with power structures and their journeys to transcend them in their day to day life.
Of course there’s always that question “Is it possible to transcend power structures?” I think people do in their everyday lives in small scale ways and are constantly fighting for some space to exist. I wanted to document that constant battle, but it’s not just a battle: it can be really beautiful when people discover new spaces for themselves or carve that space in the world that grants them so little.
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