Photos that Show How Our Society Can Break Women
Award-winning photojournalist Marie Hald shares some of her most powerful works and the stories behind them.
Marie Hald is a Danish photojournalist who photographs women in a way few people can. The 29-year-old award-winning photographer has a way of getting close to the women we're all talking about but whose struggles we continuously fail to understand – whether those struggles involve gender identity, eating disorders or prostitution.
"I've never seen myself as a photographer of women. I mean, I'm a woman, and I'm a photographer. But a while back, the curator of my exhibition about young girls with anorexia commented on the fact that I always focus on issues and stories that feature women. It's not a conscious choice, but maybe I just feel a stronger connection to those stories, because I can relate to them in a certain way," says Marie.
"My photos always draw on something that's close to my heart, but I've also learnt that I tend to photograph women who want to tell their stories in order to make a difference. They're either trying to fight prejudice, draw attention to an issue or call for action."
For this article, Marie Hald went through her archive and picked some of her favourite works. She explains why she thinks the stories of these women in particular were worth telling, and what it was like to photograph them.
Bonnie is a 39-year-old mother of three, who does sex work. I started photographing Bonnie during my last semester at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Bonnie always dreamt of telling her story – showing people that she was more than "just a whore". She is a person first, and more than anything else, a mother who would do anything for her kids.
I spent two years on the project, and those two years also happened to be a turbulent phase in my personal life. Good stories take time to tell. I became almost a part of the family, and would often spend the night at their home so I could accompany Bonnie to work the day after. I'd already known Bonnie for over a year when this photo was taken. We'd both gotten so used to my being there, and so I suddenly was able to gather the courage to get really close. I think I even grazed the guy's foot. I often get asked why the hell people even let me take pictures like this. I've reached the conclusion that they must trust me, and that really means a lot to me.
Bonnie cleans the house between client visits. There would usually be a lot of men coming and going during the day, and that was pretty hard to watch. I helped a bit, opened doors and served sodas and beers. The house was always spotless. It always smelled like fresh laundry.
I think that us, women, we're always striving for perfection. I see it in my female peers, my girlfriends and myself. A lot of people tell me that that kind of stress is just a part of being in your twenties – you drift around, trying to find the path that's right for you. But when I look around, I feel that something has changed. More and more of my girlfriends are having mental breakdowns. They drop out of school, or start taking anti-depressants or need regular therapy. And what's weighing us down is that we think the world expects us to make perfect decisions in any and all life situations.
My generation of women; we are constantly trying to overcome our self-loathing, which has been imposed on us by society's expectations. There is pressure to look right, to carry and manage other people's problems and to be special. We're meant to be skinny, smart, good-looking, be good girlfriends and maintain a healthy social life. I photographed and talked to my girlfriends and other girls from my generation about what happens if it all becomes too much.
"We live in a time, when as a woman you're constantly having to prove yourself. You're very much judged by the things you do – not so much by your character and who you are. In our result-oriented culture, you evaluate yourself based on your achievements.
That whole cliche about just doing what you want to do – it's such an easy thing to say. I'm not able to feel what makes me happy, or what I feel like doing. Some days, everything is just dark and chaotic, life seems trivial and meaningless. Most of the time, I just walk around feeling sort of empty inside. I'm not really present, mentally. Everything is just too overwhelming."
Anna Kathrine, 21
"Before I started my company, Body Fitness, I wasn't happy with my body at all. I've had really low self-esteem ever since I was a teenager, because I never liked my body. A lot of my girlfriends had those typical skinny, elegant bodies, and they always complained about being fat. "If you're fat, what am I?" I would think to myself. Everything changed once I took control of my body."
The Girls from Malawa
Young women and their relationship to their bodies is a topic I constantly think about. I try to imagine how I would've felt if I had grown up in this time – which is filled with even more plastic bodies compared to when I was a teenager, about ten years ago.
That led me to spend the summer of 2015 in the town of Malawa, Poland, at a centre for girls battling with anorexia.
Kaia (19) and Karolina (18) became best friends during their time at the treatment centre Tree of Life, in south Poland. They've had anorexia for two and three years respectively, and were both hospitalised before coming to the private institution.
At Tree of Life, the day is broken up by a schedule of five separate fixed meal times and therapy sessions. In this photo, the girls share an e-cigarette before bedtime at 10PM.
Agatha (17) looks out the window of the little shack that houses 16 girls. When people see this particular photo, they often tell me, "Wow, she looks like a real model."
I've shot the series trying to achieve an aesthetic that sort of plays with your mind. At first glance, you might see a beautiful girl, but then you realise that she's sick – and I thought there was something really interesting about that moment of comprehension. The appearance of girls with serious eating disorders is so close to our ideal of beauty.
After every meal, the girls had to sit at the table for an hour before they were allowed to be excused. This was to keep them from going to the bathroom to make themselves sick, and if they had to use the bathroom, there was a mandatory open-door policy. They also had to count to 10, so the personnel could hear that they weren't throwing up.
I took this photo one day, right after breakfast. It shows Agatha (17) sat in the garden. She is rocking back and forth, while she battles with the voices in her head that are telling her how horrible it is that she has had something to eat. Many of the girls describe the anorexia as a voice that lives inside of them. They call that voice Ana.
The Third Gender of Pakistan
In December of last year, I went to Pakistan on an assignment. Among other things, I photographed the country's rapidly growing transgender community. In 2016, the Pakistani government passed a set of legislations which, among other things, gives transgender people the right to have an ID that defines them as a third gender and secures them the right to vote, but in practical terms, acceptance by the more conservative parts of the population is still a long way off.
Something I found really special about Pakistan was the fact that Pakistanis view transgender people as a sort of holy figures, despite the stigma surrounding the country's transgender community. Hiring transgender people as dancers for weddings, baptisms and other events has been a tradition for centuries. In this photo, actor Lucky is seen on her way to such a performance.
27-year-old Jannat Ali is one of the most active members of 'Khwaja Sira', a large organisation in the city of Lahore that fights for transgender rights. In this photo two security guards are looking after Jannat as she heads out to perform at a music show on a Tuesday. With transgender Pakistanis facing harassment on a daily basis, Khwaja Sira had had to hire the guards in order to ensure the safety of its members.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.