For Bronx photographers Stephanie Ayala and Laura Ciriaco, nothing is more regenerative than spending time with their girl squad, whether it’s strolling the streets of New York City, huddling in hole-in-the-wall bars, or dancing at a Papi Juice party. It’s a feeling that resonates with many young women – and for Ayala and Ciriaco, the duo behind photo collective MoreMulher, it’s the underlying force driving their portraits of young women.
As the name implies, MoreMulher — mulher meaning “women” in Portuguese — looks to create a world where more women stand center stage as both muses and creators in their own right. Their latest project Datebook is an ode to women in calendar form, each model representing a month of the year.
Most of their muses are uninitiated as models and strangers to both Ayala and Ciriaco, yet the models appear at ease and self-assured. Sometimes this means capturing them in the midst of a bout of laughter or staring down the camera, with their hoops on point and shoulders back. Ayala traces this confidence back to their process and mission. Drawing inspiration from the model’s style, passions, and aspirations, each portrait is an imagining of the model at her best.
“MoreMulher is about the relationships we have with our models,” Ayala explained. “We help them grow and help them understand themselves as not only a being of outer beauty, but also of beauty within. We help them release that.”
Their process is firmly rooted in their own friendship, which dates back to their final years of high school. Drawn together by their mutual love for documentaries, art shows, and graffiti — with matching spray can tattoos to prove it – Ayala and Ciriaco not only became close friends, but also collaborators in their artistic endeavors. Both self-taught photographers, they often relied on each other for advice and assistance to realize their visions, a principle that makes MoreMulher what it is today.
“[MoreMulher] is about how we want to show the growth between a friendship, us as a duo, and how we impact each other in creating and producing,” Ayala said. “The things we do to push each other and motivate each other is what we want to showcase to visual artists.”
MoreMulher’s work has became an important voice in the new generation of feminist photography. Datebook, for example, is a strong departure from the all too familiar swimsuit calendars that adorn men’s walls – it’s even a departure from MoreMulher’s inspiration: the steamy Gloria Trevi calendars that at once stirred controversy in 90s Mexican society and sold millions of copies. At that time, Gloria Trevi shattered rigid expectations of women by demonstrating a fluidity in womanhood. In her calendars, she shifted easily from divine Venus de Milo to bikini-clad bombshell to demure bride to bare-all diabla.
This calendar is ultimately meant for the female gaze, not the objectifying gaze of a man.
Still, while MoreMulher may tap into the boundary-breaking, sin vergüenza spirit of Gloria Trevi, (women of all colors and sizes bask in their sensuality in these photographs), their calendar is ultimately meant for the female gaze, not the objectifying gaze of a man.
“We want women to see this and feel empowered,” Ciriaco said. “Sometimes I see the calendar and I think,‘Wow, she’s so fucking beautiful.’ It’s intimate. It’s just me and this girl.”
In contrast to the dewy looks and bubblegum pink lights of today’s online feminist aesthetics, MoreMulher opts for a harder New York-inspired edge for their models, a vibe that touches closer to home for the Bronx-bred photographers. Having grown up in Dominican households led by strong-willed mothers, both Ayala and Ciriaco prefer their women to look intimidating, an aesthetic perfectly encapsulated by one of their idols, the unfiltered “regular degular” from the Bronx Cardi B.
“I want you to feel like, ‘Maybe I’m not the one in power right’ now as a male looking at this female.” Ciriaco said. “I want that. I don’t want men to look at my photos and think,’Oh, I can’t wait to jizz on this.’ It’s okay if you’re sexually turned on. That’s fine, but I want you to be like, ‘I don’t think I could control her.’”
I talked to Ayala and Ciriaco about the importance of body positivity in their work, the power of feminist photography, and the need for female collaboration.
How did MoreMulher come about?
Laura: It started out as a blog, where we would exhibit our photographs of women. We were tired of the way women were being portrayed, especially our generation. It was just too sexualized and we thought, “That’s not what women are. We’re not sexual objects.” We just wanted to change it and we realized it was impactful after we shot a couple of girls and they were like, “Oh hey, my boyfriend doesn’t like those photos. Can you take them down?” And we had to sit down with them and explain this is not what about your boyfriend likes, this is about how you feel. If those photos aren’t good and you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll take them down because of you, but not because of how your boyfriend feels. Seeing how they became empowered through that motivated us to keep going. That’s why the calendar series began.
“I don’t want men to look at my photos and think,’Oh, I can’t wait to jizz on this.’”
Stephanie: What we try to do is wash out all those [notions] of women who have been photographed by men. [The photographs] kind of look uncomfortable. Women get this idea,”I have to be sexy like this” because a man was posing them. That’s not fair.
It’s the same thing with sex. I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but some girls when I was in high school thought they should have sex like a porn star because guys would watch porn and be like,”Yo, fuck like that porn star.” But I’m not a porn star. I’ll fuck like how I fuck.
A recent article on Aperture talks about online, feminist photography. Do you feel your artwork exists inside or outside of that movement, and if outside, how does it differ?
Laura: Funny thing is we kind of tried to be part of that movement. It wasn’t intentional. We were in a show, and our work was so different.
The reason we were outside of [that movement] is that they tried to infantilize women and everything is so…they try to keep the child aspect of femininity intact, which is weird because you’re a grown woman. You’re like 30 and above and you’re dressing like a 12 year old. Which is like, okay, you can have your freedom and everything, but it’s still like, there’s no growth being represented, no strength, no progressiveness. It’s just like, “Let’s stay young.” And it’s just like, why? Why can’t we build on our femininity? We’re going to grow up and we’re going to have kids. We’re going to be mothers some day. We should be building to that. Not building back.
An older post on your blog says you may become a feminist if you model for MoreMulher.
Laura: [laughs] That was so old! A lot of the girls, when we first started shooting, they didn’t understand the power of being a woman. I mentioned that they were so submissive to their boyfriends and didn’t understand that you can be a woman and you can say no. You can say I don’t want to be with you because you don’t respect me and my body.
When we first started shooting, a lot of [subjects] didn’t understand the power of being a woman.
We’re literally accepting rape in many ways. In our shoots, we would talk about this. And it would be educating and we would help them understand they can be feminists and not be, the feminists of the millennial area. Like pink and stuff. Just know, who you are as a woman and how to stand up for yourself and stand up for other women. Because that’s what being a feminist is about. It’s being strong, understanding your power, and understanding how you can help others gain their power and threading that altogether.
How do you think photographing them helped them to discover their inner power as a feminist?
Laura: In so many ways. One being that they’re not models and they haven’t posed for anyone, they are coming into it thinking they’re not going to be good enough for us even though we never say ‘these are our expectations.’ We don’t have requirements. Their idea of a model is so tainted by society that they think they have to be perfect. It’s letting them know they we’re here because of you. I picked you because of who you are and what I see. Because we pick women through Instagram. It takes us at least a month of admiring someone to ask them to pose for us. It’s not just,” Oh she’s pretty. She has a whole bunch of followers, let’s shoot her.” No, it’s like let’s see what this girl is about. What are her interests, what is she doing with her life, what are her goals.
Stephanie: I think that they see that we’re two regular girls and are just doing it. There’s this idea that you got to have money. And I’m trying to tell myself this too. Like ‘Oh, I have to have all this money to make me an artist,’ but you got to build from the ground up. And I think these girls see that too, that they’re building from the ground up, like I got to do the same thing. And I think that’s what empowers them to do what they want to do.
In your work, there are women of all colors and women of all sizes. Why do you think it’s important to promote body positivity in women of all colors and sizes?
Laura: It just helps us and our younger generations to be anything that ever existed of what a woman should be. There’s a lot of women in Latin culture that aren’t perfectly skinny. Even me, I’m skinny and everyone in my country thinks I’m a neglected child, like I don’t eat. But then if you gain a lot of weight, they make fun of you for that too. It just helps all women and girls to feel comfortable with the body that they have, without altering anything about it. Just growing into the body that you have. Just accept it, and live through it. Just learn how to work with it, so that you learn how to feel good with yourself.
Stephanie: Not everybody has this super, strong confidence, but it’s definitely a mindset we can all gain together. I love when one of my friends, she’ll always be like — let’s say she sees me being kind of shy and insecure, she’ll go up to me and whisper, “Steph, you a bad bitch.” [laughs] It’s the best advice! You got to start encouraging each other.
Do you feel that that’s what you do with your photography? Essentially, tell women they’re bad bitches?
Stephanie: [laughs] We literally do!
Laura: I don’t even feel weird saying bad bitch because when you want to embrace that, yesss! It changes you. Once you understand the term for the good aspect of it, it empowers you because you think, “I can be whatever I want, I am this, I am just me.”