Gusty Conspirator Angela knows a compelling image when she sees one. When she tipped me off to a gorgeous photo of a woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the words, “Strong women intimidate boys and excite men,” I knew I needed to share it with the Gutsy Broads community.
So I did. I shared it on Facebook, and it went gangbusters.
A month and a half later, I received a Facebook message from a man named John Brown of John Brown Photography. Brown, as it so happens, is the photographer who shot this amazing picture. He’d written to ask (extremely nicely, for the record) if I’d mind crediting his work. He also gave me the name of the model (Ashabi Owa) and the retailer who sells the T-shirt (Rebel Soul Collective).
Certainly I was happy to comply. This work is awesome, and credit is due. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask John, who is based in Nashville and represented by 1680pr, if he’d be willing to tell us the story behind the image. To my great elation, he said yes. He also sent me a version of the photo that hasn’t been bastardized by Instagram filters and the like.
Here is a lightly edited version of his detailed and thoughtful responses to my questions:
Samantha Shaddock: How and when did the photo come to be?
John Brown: Long story short. I was an art student. I flunked out my junior year in college when my mom fell extremely ill and moved back home. She finally got better, but I found myself without hope or direction and having no clue what I wanted to do with my life. To get out of that small world of a town I drove an 18-wheeler. Super random, 15 months total. After a close call I quit and moved to Nashville. My first job was as a valet at a nice hotel, and that’s where I got my first camera from the lost and found. That was 6 years ago this month.
So the next 6 years consisted of working too hard for other people and not feeling happy and often not making very much money. But I started taking photos any chance I could. I started back to school for photography, and quit after 5 weeks realizing I didn’t need it, and also didn’t need the insane debt that school was going to give me. A friend hired me on at his documentary company, and part of the deal was I could use their secondary camera for my own work. So for 10 months I built a portfolio with a Canon 5D mkii. Amazing camera. He then let me go on a whim, which at first was very hard to deal with. I no longer had a camera and also no money. But a personal family friend popped up out of the blue and gave me a business loan. So I bought a 5D mkiii, and once I had all my gear I took a 2 week trip to Chicago. That’s been about 6 months ago. Partly work, partly vacation. That’s where I met this model Ashabi. And she wanted to hire me to take her photos because she loved my work.
What inspired it?
Ashabi is a very strong woman on her own. Has a lot of things to say about the female experience. It’s something we’ve talked about quite often. She had found this shirt and bought it and wanted to be photographed in it. The funny thing is I really, really love the shirt but at first was hesitant about photographing her in it because I usually try to avoid any kind of logos or words. Just from the OCD artsy side of how my mind works. But the more I read it the more I loved the shirt.
Did you know the model before?
No I didn’t. I had started networking ahead of time in Chicago through Facebook and instagram and that’s how we connected originally. And we still talk to this day quite often. Especially after this image started going viral like crazy. It’s been a very frustrating thing to see our photo shared by the thousands and maybe millions of times without us getting credit, but at the same time it speaks volumes to this need for women to be seen and heard properly. The photo struck a chord.
What about the T-shirt’s message speaks to you?
Over the last couple of years I’ve made a lot of amazing friendships with many different kinds of women here in Nashville. And many of them have stories to share that aren’t pleasant. And almost always involving delusionally entitled shithead excuses of men. Rape, being used, inappropriately coming on to girls sexually, shitty dudes with cameras trying to get them in lingerie… I mean the list goes on and on. It’s really just made me more aware that there’s a bigger perspective to see in the female experience than I ever realized before. I still can’t quite get a grasp of it all. It’s just such a backwards thing, and it’s just been the norm for so long now.
The image has received a huge, positive response. Of all of your work, has this piece elicited the biggest reaction?
Yes, and no. Obviously, this photo out of all my work has been seen by more eyes than all of my other images put together. And I believe a lot of women have felt empowered by it, and it’s been thought provoking to many, and many things have been shared. On the other hand, I can’t ignore that many times it’s just shared casually with some stupid hashtag in completely shallow and trivial manners. But hey, that’s the Internet.
To me personally, the biggest reaction I’ve ever had was from a friend I photographed. We’re very close, and last year we both had our hearts broken around the same time. She reached out and said she wanted to do a “revenge shoot” to make this guy eat his heart out in regret for dumping her. I’ve never been one to shoot nudes or boudoir, but I agreed to do it. She’s a single mom and is ridiculously attractive and iconically beautiful — on top of being this amazing mom, and a talented artist and musician.
So we do this shoot. Every idea she had was with less clothing. So I was a nervous wreck seeing my beautiful friend basically nude for the first time, and she was a nervous wreck because she feels really insecure about her body… which still blows my mind to this day. So we finish up the last set, she’s only wearing jeans, and I just had her hold herself. And I show her the photo straight on the back of the camera, and she says “Wow. That’s me? That’s what I look like? Damn I’m hot!” And she got a little emotional and felt joy and excitement. To me, with it being someone I know personally, that’s the biggest reaction I’ve ever had. Making a woman see how beautiful she really is. Her name is Asheira and she’s a total badass.
More about the “strong women” photo:
Photographer: John Brown
John Brown is represented by Ken Lingad of 1680Reps.
“Strong Women” Model: Ashabi Owagboriaye
Shirt: Rebel Soul Collective