Then an amateur photographer in her late twenties, Ohio native Kacy Johnson embarked on a journey to Brazil to further pursue her passion for photography. Among stretches of the country’s most beautiful beaches, lush greenery, and vibrant nightlife, Johnson drew inspiration from one unexpected source: skin.
“When I was in Brazil, I gravitated toward the different skin tones that reflect generations of mixing people from different places, which I wasn’t really familiar with,” she says. Johnson examined ways to capture the plethora of women’s complexions without objectifying their bodies. “It’s difficult to do something that I think is beautiful and that shows everything that I want to show and not have it read as very sexual. It’s so easy for everyone to objectify the female body — it’s just kind of what we do.”
But she didn’t allow that to compromise her vision. “Clothes weren’t adding anything to the images because the women’s skin was so beautiful — their bodies were so beautiful.” That’s when she had the idea to film them from behind.
“I happened to take these photos of the backs of women and got this expansive span of skin, which is something that I was drawn to. The women are obviously nude and very vulnerable and baring themselves, but it doesn’t feel sexual.”
After taking up to 10 photos from this perspective, Johnson says the concept took root. The combination of her own satisfaction with achieving success at capturing an array of skin tones as well as her subjects’ responses to their own photos — a sort of, ‘That’s how people experience me in the world?’ retort — inspired her to launch her biggest series to date: The Female project. Since her start in São Paulo, Johnson has photographed women in San Francisco, Sydney, and, of course, Detroit.
“It’s super fascinating to see women’s reactions when they see themselves from a new perspective. Every woman was different in what they would say, but it felt like it was an opportunity for them to take ownership of their bodies and identity in a different way — which is why I’ve done close to 300 of these because I just can’t stop!”
And she’s not stopping there. Last month, Johnson’s Female project was displayed as an LED installation on the exterior of Lululemon Athletica’s downtown storefront as a month-long celebration of International Women’s Month and the brand’s #Worth100 campaign, encouraging women to recognize their worth. “Lululemon is showing up for Detroit,” she says. “Knowing that they want to feature local artists living in this city made a great first impression. To me, that is real investment. That’s real change. That is a real impact. That will change the world.”
This month, Johnson takes Female to Montreal for an exhibit in collaboration with Never Apart, a nonprofit benefiting social change. “It’s a really beautiful, social-oriented gallery/group/community space. I’ll be shooting photos of women from Montreal as part of the exhibition.”
From there, Johnson is considering doing a few select portraits of women whose stories could create change. “I’ve always said, that I would like to do photos in one place on each continent, just to be able to compare the different perspectives because so much comes through culturally.” Not Antarctica, though because she’s just “not that brave.”
Visit kacyjohnson.com for more information on Johnson’s future projects.