International Women’s Day with Photographer Emily Teague
Emily Teague on the challenges and triumphs of being a woman in the photography industry.
In December 2018, we were able to provide support as Emily journeyed to work throughout northern and eastern India, focusing on the sex trafficking of women and children. As per law within India, all former victims of trafficking were photographed in ways to protect their identity.
How did you get your start in photography?
When I was 16 years old my uncle gifted me with a 3 day workshop at The Fashion Institute of Technology. The workshop was a program run over the summer and I was free to choose one of the several classes offered. Many of the workshops were related to drawing, bead work, painting- things that required you to be good with your hands. My hands just so happen to be destructive and often times uncoordinated. I chose photography because I had done some modeling for a photographer friend and I thought it would teach me to be better in front of the camera. I was intimidated when I walked in the first day. By the end of that day though, I had fallen in love with photography. I edited the images that night with a free photo editing software online. By the next day I decided I was a photographer. I was still struggling to understand the relationship between my settings, but I was fierce about learning. I decided that week that this was what I would dedicate my life to.
How long have you been shooting?
This year marks my 7th year shooting. It’s insane to compare images from when I first started. Seeing that growth feels really good.
Do you feel like you’ve had to overcome obstacles being a woman in the industry?
Absolutely. It’s been a long road. I think there’s something about being an independent, talented, young woman that really aggravates some men. When I first started I was put down by a few male photographers that I admired and it made me feel so discouraged. I’ve also assisted photographers that have made advances on me, then treated me poorly on set after I rejected them. There’s so many situations during my work where I haven’t been respected. I didn’t stand up for myself many of those times and I really wish I would have. It’s become a lot easier over the years though. I’ve become a lot better at calling it out when it happens. I’m still always working at getting better at this. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.
Your projects and photos go beyond portraits. They are poignant, powerful ; child slavery in Ghana, refugees in Greece — what drove you to photojournalism as a genre of photography? What inspires you to get on a plane and travel around the world to shed light on these issues through visual storytelling?
The first project I took on that got me interested in documentary work was interviewing homeless folks in my hometown. I was really intimidated to sit down and talk at first, but I heard so many incredible stories and it became more comfortable with each person I spoke with. It made me really look at the platform I have that others don’t necessarily have access to. That made me want to share their stories. It’s just grown from there. I want to give voices to people that don’t feel heard. I want to create some level of change, even if for just one person. There’s a passion that drives me, but also a responsibility to humanity. If we’re conscious of the issues in our world, we have to work on doing something about them.
Talk to us about your recent trip to India and what it meant for you to be there. What did you learn about yourself? Your craft? About being a female creative helping other women express themselves?
This project opened my eyes to so much. Sex trafficking is a massive global issue that is often swept under the rug. It’s uncomfortable to talk about. It’s tragic to think about. This trip was both physically and emotionally exhausting, but the thing that made me want to push forward was meeting so many incredible women that deeply inspired me. I think of the women I worked with there and it energizes me to continue this focus. It’s easy for me to feel discouraged with change not happening fast enough, but I’m reminded of the incredibly fierce, resilient, intelligent, passionate women fighting alongside me and I feel that fire reignited.
What is something that will remain with you forever about your time in India, a particular person, location, story?
The survivors of sex trafficking are the women and girls that I think of when I reflect on this trip. I think of everything they’ve been through and it breaks my heart. And it’s not just them. It’s women all around the world that are forced into slavery. Each year millions of women, men, and children become victims of human trafficking. There needs to be a focus on this and change needs to happen quicker. One person in particular from this trip that I continue to think about daily is human rights activist and lawyer, Shama Sinha. Before traveling to India I was connected to her and without ever meeting me, she agreed to help me as much as possible. She took me to interview various journalists, doctors, and helped with getting me access to a prison within the city of Patna, where victims of sex trafficking are often charged for prostitution. We had many early mornings and late nights discussing the complex issues within trafficking and the ways people can help try to prevent it through education. Shama quickly became a dear friend of mine and someone I’m so grateful to have in my life.
How has your style and direction changed since you started? Did you ever imagine your journey would lead you to where you are right now in 2019?
I always had elements of fashion in my work, but it’s evolved a lot over time. I started with just portraits and then jumped into a style of fantasy and concepts. I’ve since taken it in a commercial route, but I still love the chance to play around and experiment. As for my photojournalism, it’s come a long way since working for a college newspaper. Each year I want to document more and tackle bigger issues. I think if I were to go back to my 16 year old self and tell her about all the adventures she’s going to experience, the things she’ll get to photograph, and the amazing community she’ll one day have- she would be squealing in joy.
Marketing yourself and your work is an ever evolving space in today’s world. How has using SmugMug helped you get your name out to prospective clients?
I feel gratitude for SmugMug so often. They’ve done everything from pushing my name out there, giving me a platform, supporting me, bringing my community together, and helping me design a beautiful website that I feel proud for clients to see. Working with them really has been such a blessing.
Tell us about a time, (if any) you felt being a young female may have impacted the way a client or subject dealt with you, and how you dealt with that.
There’s so many stories to tell. One I thought of recently was when I was 17 years old and a male model asked me for headshots. He then told me he wanted them shot in his hotel room and I should bring a tripod so I could be in the photos too. When I declined the photoshoot he told me I would regret it for the rest of my life when he became famous and that I was an idiotic girl. I remember being shocked by it all, but I stayed firm and professional in my initial response. If it happened today I probably wouldn’t even respond.
What are your goals for growth as a dominant female force in the photography world?
As far as goals relating to my fashion photography, I want to keep thriving, taking on bigger clients, and creating thought provoking concepts. For my photojournalism, I’d like to start focusing on sex trafficking and mass incarceration issues within the United States. And then for personal goals, I’d really like to start working with girls to empower them.
Advice to aspiring female photographers?
The number one piece of advice I can give is to be persistent as hell. Shoot as much as you can. Experiment. Learn. Grow. Explore. Network. Be kind. Stand up for yourself. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.
See more of Emily’s work in India, and read the stories behind these powerful portraits, here.
Profoto generously loaned equipment for this trip. All portraits were shot using their A1 flash. Special thanks to the incredible organizations that worked with Emily during her time in India: Blossomy Project, Sanlaap, Hamari Muskan, Her Future Coalition, Bachpan Bachao Andolan
Mar 8, 2019 · 4 min read