Women with Tattoos: an interview with Eleni Stefanou

Eleni Stefanou, photo and video maker, is taking her time to look in women’s eyes and listen to their stories. What would you tell her? What would you find out about yourself? Her project, Women with Tattoos, is one of the most refreshing reads you can find on the internet. It’s about tattoos, women, and their own identities. Here she tells us something more about her ‘behind the scenes’.

What is self expression for you?
For me, it’s when you’re communicating or creating something that feels truthful to you. Self-expression comes so naturally when you’re a child. You say what’s on your mind, you paint a picture free from the influence of rules and norms. Then you start to notice that some behaviours are rewarded and others aren’t, so your ability for self-expression becomes inhibited. Taking photos of people is my way of freeing myself from that because it makes me feel connected with others, which in turn motivates me creatively. I’m taking the time to know someone, study them closely and represent them in a series of photos. It’s an experience that requires me to come outside of myself and my thoughts and be more present and expressive in the company of others.

Laurence Sessou, Women with Tattoos
Laurence Sessou, Women with Tattoos

What is the main reason behind your blog Women with Tattoos?
I wanted to create a place populated with beautiful imagery that also gives women a platform to talk about their tattoos in a meaningful way. Tattoo culture isn’t immune from sexism and objectification – tattoo magazines and conventions have traditionally reinforced the sexualisation of women for the male gaze, so the images we’ve had have generally been very one-dimensional. I wanted to help change that. On the surface, the project is about tattoos, but once you’ve spent time reading the interviews and exploring the photos you realise it’s about the connection between a woman’s self-image, identity and relationship with her body.

Is getting tattooed becoming more and more a way to love your own body and be conscious about it?
If we go by the people I’ve met through the project, this definitely seems to be the case. A lot of the women I’ve met talk about getting tattoos as a journey, where the desired destination is a place of greater self-acceptance. One woman I photographed, who is now in her 60s, said that her tattoos make her stand tall and proud. Ownership is a common theme I’ve come across as well, in the sense that tattoos are a permanent and bold way to shape your identity and signal your individuality in a society that still has a very narrow view of what’s acceptable for women and their bodies.

What do you love the most when you get to meet new women for your project?
I really love the moment when the person I’m photographing begins to relax and become less aware of the camera. It happens 90 per cent of the time, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I wish, during that moment, I could spend more time engaged in conversation in order to get to know the person better, but the truth is that I’m so focused on the photography and capturing them in that relaxed mode that it becomes more about the unspoken connection. I’m always very humbled by the fact that someone has allowed me into that space; it can be a very vulnerable thing to have someone observe you through a lens so I don’t take it lightly.

Carey and Lois, Women with Tattoos
Carey and Lois, Women with Tattoos

Do you usually get emotionally involved? Do you like that? (If not, how can you ‘avoid’ it?)
I’m very conscious of how the other person is feeling and am constantly monitoring the ‘mood’ to make sure that they feel comfortable. I’m emotionally invested in the sense that it matters to me whether the person enjoyed the session, likes the final product and feels accurately represented. I could be extremely happy with the photos, but if I felt like the session lacked a positive energy then that will affect me. During one photo shoot, which I did outdoors in a park, a drunk man passed us by and shouted an insult at the woman I was photographing. I felt horrible about it and responsible for putting her in that situation. The memory still pops into my head from time to time and haunts me. Sometimes I wish I could be more detached and clinical about things, but for better or for worse, that’s not who I am.

I won’t ask you to pick your favourite portrait, but I would like to know what is the best feeling you had while developing these beautiful pictures and interviews.
I have so many amazing memories. One of my favourite shoots was with Sophie Wilde. She made a special trip from Essex and we were in this big pub-cum-hire space (kindly given to us by Dalston Heights). A wedding had been held there the night before, so we were working while the wedding family were cleaning up, constantly moving back and forth between us. Normally this would be really distracting and stressful, but Sophie was so warm and playful that it felt like we were these two children having fun in a big playhouse. Sophie was initially quite shy, but as soon as we started shooting I could tell that she was committed and trusted me. It was so easy to ignore everything else happening around us, which feels like the perfect recipe for creativity. Photographer Giles Duley recently said in an interview that “the best photographs are never taken, they’re given”, which I agree with completely.

Who/what inspired you along the way, both for Women with Tattoos and also in your private life?
I’m inspired by women who have lived their life with passion and fought for what they believe in. Frida Kahlo was one of the first women I was introduced to as a teenager who represented that strength, so she’ll always be very special to me. Nina Simone, Melina Merkouri, PJ Harvey, Whoopi Goldberg all inspire me to embrace life with creativity and conviction. Some of my favourite photographers are Lise Sarfati, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Helen Levitt and Sally Mann. My partner has also had a huge influence on me.

I’ve been taking photos since I was 14, but never considered myself to be an artist.

He was the catalyst for that changing, both in the way he encouraged me to pursue my photography and the themes I was interested in exploring and in the way he lives life on his own terms as an artist.

Anne, Women with Tattoos, portrait
Anne, Women with Tattoos, portrait

After listening to many different people and stories, what advices would you give to the young women and men of tomorrow?
Gosh, I don’t know if I’m the right person to be giving advice. Here’s some guidance I try to follow, based on life experiences and conversations I’ve had over the past few years:

  1. If you have doubts or reservations about getting a tattoo (or anything for that matter), listen to your instincts and give yourself time. When people talk to me about the tattoos they regret, they’re usually the ones they got on an impulse. Of course many people get spontaneous tattoos with no regrets and that’s awesome, so this is just general advice to listen to your gut.
  2. Try and say no to the things you don’t want to do or aren’t relevant to your goals and put your energy into the things that give you a sense of fulfilment. If you find yourself taking the safe road or you’re stuck and can’t find your calling (both familiar feelings for me), look out for those moments where you experience ‘flow’. In other words, pay attention to the aspects of your work that come naturally and give you energy rather than drain you.
  3. Read Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me and if you like it and it resonates, share it with others. I really believe our world will become a better place the closer we get to gender equality.
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