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All-female Toronto photo collective SOFIA are on their worst behaviour

SOFIA is an all-female photography collective on a mission to amplify the female voice in yet another male-dominated industry. This week, SOFIA launch their first ever exhibit at the 20th annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival -- the largest photography festival in the world.

Scotiabank CONTACT Fest show "Bad Behaviour" came out of collective need for expression

A photo by Anya Chibis, a member of the SOFIA (Society of Females In Art) collective whose show "Bad Behaviour" is part of this year's Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. (Anya Chibis)

Meet SOFIA: Society of Females in Art. SOFIA is an all-female photography collective, on a mission to amplify the female voice in yet another male-dominated industry.

All of that work that I ended up creating is a result of me finally being free.- Michelle Yee, photographer and member of SOFIA

A Toronto-based group of highly regarded commercial photographers  who among them have shot everyone from Adrienne Clarkson to M.I.A, SOFIA's members are daring to take a step out of their secure professional world into more vulnerable territory, expressing themselves through fine art photography.

What started out as supportive talks over copious amounts of snacks and wine has turned into something much bigger. This week, SOFIA launch their first-ever exhibit at the 20th annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival — the largest photography festival in the world.

Curated by Report on Business Magazine director of photography Clare Vander Meersch, the exhibit — entitled "Bad Behaviour" — presents courageously personal takes on the theme.

We spoke with members May Truong, Angela Lewis, Raina Kirn, and Michelle Yee on SOFIA's "artistic midwifery," the female experience in photography and the fear of putting yourself out there.

(Regina Garcia)
(Brooke Wedlock)

So how did this all begin?

RAINA KIRN: I think it had really started just to meet and see what our practice could be, and share our work amongst other women and push other women to create personal bodies of work.

MAY TRUONG: And I think we all like the accountability of having a group of women to voice our insecurities about our work to, and to share different ideas because [commercial photography] is such a male-dominated industry.

Can you recall any experiences that demonstrate what gender disparity in photography looks like?

RK: I have a male business partner, and art directors would always ask him the questions — his voice was louder, and he seemed more confident. And art directors would [say to me,] like, "oh, sweetie." There times where I would have to go to the washroom and cry.

Artifacts of Alchemy (Kerry Shaw)

On a personal level, how has this support system affected you?

MICHELLE YEE: All the work that I've produced in the past year wouldn't have happened if it weren't for this group. Before this collective, I felt like a hired gun. I wasn't really expressing myself, and I was starting to feel really lost. I feel like SOFIA is, like, the midwife to my work.

The members of SOFIA (Society Of Females In Art). Top row: Kerry Shaw (left), May Truong; Middle: Michelle Yee (left), Regina Garcia, Angela Lewis; Bottom: Raina Kirn (left), Anya Chibis, Brooke Wedlock. (SOFIA Photography Collective)

What does theme "Bad Bahaviour" mean to you?

RK: My images explore themes of loss, rage, anger. One of the pieces, called Wild Things was inspired by just this period in my life. I had moved into a co-op, it was an all-women's co-op in Vancouver and all my friends were raised by single moms and we were, I guess angry and crazy. …this was when we were 8, 9, 10 years old. We'd break into construction sites and light fires in alleys and vandalize things.

(Raina Kirn)

So the theme of that was based loosely around that. But then the characters I chose were childhood friends who had died. You would never get that looking at the picture, but when I was casting the kids, I made sure to represent each of these kids. Two committed suicide, one was a victim of Robert Pickton. So, it was deep and dark, but it didn't need to be explicit. The overall feeling I wanted to convey was a sense of freedom.

ANGELA LEWIS: I'm always interested in the badder side of women and girls. I had shot a couple images of teenage girls smoking.

I discovered that I was living [vicariously] through Mina who is the younger [of the two sisters] and she's 10.The older one, [Brianna,] is 18, and she's a fashion model.

(Angela Lewis)

It's a part of myself that I'm still struggling to control. I'm trying not to let beauty to take over in the images and really show their real selves, that growth of love, the development of character, the will to succeed, and discovering ourselves.

I want to be Mina still, and have that curiosity and freedom, but i'm kind of dragged down a bit by the standards of society and what are supposed to be doing as adults.

MY: I was so proud of my marriage before and I was so proud of our relationship. And I really tried hard to have this sort of appearance of having this perfect life.

All of a sudden, all of these feelings and frustrations were put in a pressure cooker and then just everything blew up at the same time. So all of that work that I ended up creating, that I'm showing in the show, is a result of me finally being free.

(Michelle Yee)

MT: "Bad Behaviour" captures four scenes from my adolescence. I was forced to play piano and take dance lessons and Chinese lessons because that's what all Chinese kids did. It wasn't, like, "Hey, do you want to play piano?" or "Do you like music?" All of a sudden, a piano showed up at the house.

(May Truong)

Even if I got an A on a test, which is 80 or 85 per cent, it wasn't, like, "Oh congratulations! You're so smart." It was like, "Where's the rest?" So, a lot of expectations.

I think a lot of kids of immigrants feel the same way, like, you have to be better than the kids born here because you don't want to be seen as somebody who takes advantage of the system. We just have to work harder. It doesn't matter if you're happy or not. Being happy is not an option. You just have to do these things.

Bad Behaviour. Part of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Featuring SOFIA (Raina Kirn, May Truong, Angela Lewis, Regina Garcia, Brooke Wedlock, Michelle Yee, Kerry Shaw, Anya Chibis). Mon, May 16 to Sat, June 4 at Artscape Youngplace, 160 Shaw, Toronto. Opening night Wed., May 18, 6-10pm.

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