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First Women – what a year!

A decade ago, I began this project journey, not knowing what would happen but knowing that First Women had its own spirit and that, come what may, I would follow its lead.

The images of 100 women: and in their images, their stories, the her-story of modern trailblazing women, so often woefully neglected by the history writers. Yet their work so critically important for the generations to come.

I knew it would be an immense task. And that was ok. I was carried along by my belief, my passion and brilliantly supported by the incredible number of women and men who rallied to the cause. 

Those who said, ‘yes’ to having their photograph taken, ‘yes’ to collaborating, ‘yes’ to writing, designing, fundraising, PR-ing. I was supported by every single one who said, ‘we believe in this too and we want to help you.’

2018 however was the year it all came together. From January to July, the 

First Women book was being birthed; picture editing, research, planning, writing, design, printing.

And alongside it, of course, was the preparation for the London exhibition; editing, printing, framing, captions, posters, branding, catering, painting walls, hanging and cleaning!

Again, the extraordinary level of collaboration more than made up for the 2am finishes in the office and the hundreds of miles driving up and down the country. The importance of getting the show up and out in 2018 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage wasn’t lost on anyone.  It had to be this and it had to be now, to throw into potent relief how very little women had been celebrated for how very much they had done. The timing was everything.

The show and celebration at the Royal College of Art’s Dyson Gallery was beyond my wildest dreams. The energy in that room with nigh-on 350 guests (my apologies to the caterers who were constantly having to adjust to the constant influx of people)!, sixty-five ‘Firsts’ and their families.

The families, too of the Firsts who had passed away before the exhibition was up and public.

It was my humble privilege to provide a place in which they could finally celebrate a sister, a mother, an aunt, cousin or partner in such a public space.

It was such an emotional experience, fuelled by the energy of inclusivity and positivity. So many of the Firsts knew first-hand how isolating it can be to be a woman trailblazing in a patriarchal system and there seemed a beautiful poetry in the fact that here, at this show, they could be together, celebrating one another, signing their books for each other posing for selfies and meeting their own heroes with who they now shared wall-space!

And what a thrill for me to see a once embryonic idea, alive and birthed – sustained and championed into future projects by the women it was created to honour. The determination and commitment that got them their First is now being applied to the project itself and to keeping its spirit alive and inspirational for generations to come.

It was deeply gratifying that the Firsts who were not so much in the public eye due to the nature of their fields got their chance to shine and have it acknowledged that what they have achieved has importance and relevance – as much as the world-famous Firsts.

Reading the visitors book after the show was confirmation of this; it’s expressions of hope, gratitude and enthusiasm about what has been shown to be possible, accessible and inclusive transmitted by the images on the walls of the Dyson Gallery.

As a photographer, I never wanted to produce high art. Anything that perpetuates exclusivity cannot, I feel, evolve us as a species. Art should inspire. It should be about the people and for the people, unrestricted so that it can be a medicine for change and for society.

I have to be careful not to become used to seeing the 100 portraits! They have been a part of my life for ten years now and I want to stay close to what I saw in the women the first time I ever got in a room with them. I always try to remember what it is each viewer sees when they come to the images fresh. In this way, the project can never end for me but can keep on doing it’s work.

Nevertheless, in practical terms I can at least take a short rest! I heard the call of the project’s spirit, I responded and I hope it is satisfied by what was created.

After 10 years of never really being off-duty, thinking abut it on holidays, when I was going to sleep and upon waking… I can now see it as complete. And yet in some ways, all that has unfolded from it has served to highlight all the possibilities it offers in terms of what comes next!

The spirit of the project is in many ways like the women it showcased: tenacious, necessary, enduring, relentless – with no finite goal. Except perhaps to continue to be a symbol of hope, inspiration and sisterhood, an invaluable piece of work to change for good how the history books are written.

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