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Meet the woman who uses photography to shake up the unfair system designed for women

When photographer Stephanie Goldfinger was left stuck in Bali with no money after Covid caused her flights to be cancelled, she had no idea this series of events would lead to her starting the most meaningful work of her life...

Stephanie shooting in Bali, by Jade Nina Sarkhel

Q. What were you like as a teenager growing up?

I was a strong-willed and high-spirited kid - a storyteller, adventurer, athlete, and artist from the time I could form a sentence. I had a million things going on, always competing on the field or in the classroom, volunteering and stuffing envelopes for the women’s charity my mom worked for and sorting bins at the non-profit she started which turned recycled scrap bits into art supplies. I also sat in on focus groups and mad-men style meetings my dad led at his advertising agency.

But my true love was always photography. Looking back, I realize I framed my world through a 35mm viewfinder, even when I wasn’t looking through my camera. I was always drinking up the world around me - the colors, the textures, the shapes, the faces. I was always observing, always finding the light, always looking for the story.

We had a darkroom in our basement where my dad and I would watch as the black and white images appeared, as if by magic, in the chemical trays. The red light made me feel like I was in another world.

I dreamed of exploring the world like the men in my novels, or on the pages of National Geographic, finding that man and capturing the look on his face on camera, but somehow I never really saw that path as a possible career.

So I kept it as a hobby. I took my last film shots while in Italy during my Junior year abroad in college, and forgot about it for years, in favor of following a more practical path.

But the practical jobs never really stuck. After decades of wandering the world, photographing the faces of women and telling their stories, and I eventually founded Woman United in 2020.

Q. What is Woman United?

We are a UK-based charity empowering women around the world to bravely share their stories in order to heal, break down stigma and shame, and shift the attitudes, behaviors, and systems which keep women silenced, disempowered, and at an unstable, unsafe, and unequal position in private and public life.

Each year we choose an urgent and systemic issue facing women, and design an action-oriented education and awareness photography and film campaign which focuses on amplifying the voices of women with lived experience in our chosen topic.

London Domestic Abuse by Stephanie Goldfinger/Woman United

We have recently launched a campaign featuring the stories of domestic abuse survivors. According to UN Women, an estimated 736 million women globally - almost one in three - have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life. 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity increased women’s vulnerability to violence in the home around the world.

This must change, and our campaign will do its part to illuminate the issues at hand and ignite a spark for action.

Q. How did Woman United start?

In 2019 after years of false starts, career pivots, failures, and almost-successes, a wild set of serendipitous events led me to finally land my dream job working as a professional photographer, exploring the world shooting food and travel content for a huge international company. I could not believe I was finally living my dream and getting paid to do what I loved most in this world.

In March of 2020, my contract was renewed and I was in Bali waiting to fly to India to kick off a six country tour, and I was on top of the world. I received my deposit into my bank account, providing the most money and stability I had ever known, then 24 hours later everything came crashing down when my job was cancelled due to COVID and I had to return it all.

After three cancelled flights I found myself stuck in Bali for the foreseeable future.

As most of the island’s tourists fled, the situation for the locals became dire really quickly. The women of Bali are the beating heart and soul of the island, carrying the weight of caring for their families and community through their labor. Their energy makes Bali an incredibly special place.

Stephanie and Lara shooting in Bali, by Jade Nina Sarkhel

But the enormous stress of job losses for women working in the informal, domestic, and hospitality sectors began to take a huge toll on them. I knew my friends and I had to do something to bring them a little bit of hope.

We didn’t have money, but we did have time and talent. We designed a film and photography experience to reflect back to these women the beauty, power, and resilience they had within. What started as a small local fundraiser and Instagram project, quickly expanded after we saw just how much our work changed the lives of everyone involved. Since then we have doubled down our efforts to create lasting change in the space of gender equality as a formally registered charity in the United Kingdom, all through creative storytelling.

Q. Why did you want to change the way the world sees women?

The way the world sees women, and how we see ourselves, is built on old, broken and toxic systems designed to keep women quiet, small, and stuck in a cycle of shame and disempowerment. These systems teach us to hide the bad things that happen to us, out of fear we are somehow to blame. These systems encourage us to view other women as our enemies, instead of seeing them as our greatest allies and most powerful source of wisdom.

As we’ve experienced with our work at Woman United, when we begin to bravely share our stories with the very women who we have been taught to compete with, and start to compare our similar lived experiences, we quickly realize that something is very, very wrong with the system we've been taught to obey. And when we band together, we realise that we also have the power to break and dismantle it.

Q. How do you use photography to tell someone’s story?

In our campaigns we create two creative, editorial-style portraits which represent each person’s own unique story.

Our first campaign shared the stories and amplified the voices of women in the informal, domestic, and hospitality economy of Bali. Each woman is posed with the tool of her trade, but our aim was to show that it’s not just a tool. Instead, it is a magical wand, a royal staff, and a powerful totem that transforms the common object of her labor into her superpower. It illuminates the way that she provides for herself, her family, and her community - with beauty, strength, and grace.

Bali by Stephanie Goldfinger/Woman United

In October, we released our #HearHerRoar campaign featuring the brave stories and portraits of seven domestic abuse survivors in London, with the goal of breaking the systems of disempowerment and shame that keep victims and survivors silent and leave abusers with the final word. Each woman’s first portrait represents the control she experienced in her abusive relationship and the journey toward healing. The second represents the freedom she gained after the storm, and how she has risen from the ashes to find empowerment and make meaning out of her pain by helping others.

These stories show that abuse is not just physical. These are real women who are all bravely sharing their stories in service of breaking the silence to help other victims and survivors like them.

London Domestic Abuse by Stephanie Goldfinger/Woman United

Q. What is the experience like for you, and for your subjects?

It’s so difficult to describe the experience of what happens during our shoots, because it feels so unbelievable that something so big can happen in such a small moment in time, and the moments are so transformative that no words seem to do it justice.

Stephanie and Sam on London set by Daria Szotek

Speak to any of our storytellers and you’ll hear time and time again that the shoots mark a “before and after” moment in their lives, a time where something inside them shifts, a seed is planted, or a spark turns into a flame, and they are forever changed.

For many, it’s the first time they have shared their most painful, personal moments in such a public setting and as you can imagine, that is an incredibly vulnerable place to be. But the reward for their courage is the experience of having a group of women who greet their story with a massive amount of love, support, and encouragement.

And let me tell you, when the things we feel most ashamed of are met with this kind of open-hearted response, our greatest fears seem to dissolve right before our eyes.

On my side of the lens, I’m so connected in this moment with their emotions, their rising, that it almost feels like I’m not taking their pictures but instead witnessing and recording their rebirth. It’s absolutely wild, and profoundly moving, and I hope I get to experience it for many years to come.

Q. What is the biggest change you would like to see for women?

I stencilled this quote from Jasmin Kaur on my Women’s March sign a few years ago, and it has been my personal mission since: Scream so that one day, 100 years from now, another sister will not have to dry her tears wondering where in history she lost her voice.

I want to see a world where women feel safe, confident, and strong enough to use their voices in every situation - from the home to the workplace to the global stage. Where women connect, rather than compete, to amplify all our voices - especially those who have lost or never found their own - and band together to use our collective stories to heal and transform our world. I want to see more women - knees shaking, hearts racing - stand up and share their vulnerable stories so we can dismantle the systems that have kept us silent for too long.

Q. Can you offer any advice for young women and girls who are interested in pursuing a career in photography?

My path to photography was an extremely twisted and long one, and I didn’t see it coming. I only picked up a camera again when I started a culinary business at the exact same moment in time Instagram started, and I realized taking pictures of my food would be good for business. And I did, with my iPhone 4s, and man, was I SO bad at it - seriously, scroll back on my @cookingforluv account to the beginning and you’ll cringe. But I kept at it, and slowly, imperceptibly, I got better. I found my style, I got a real camera, I kept shooting, and I kept sharing.

Stephanie shooting in London - Daria Szotek

When I lost that dream job after the pandemic grounded all travel, and I returned back to my hotel from the Bali airport after my final attempt at leaving the island, I sat eating dinner with the owner and told him about my sorrows and dreams. I said as a kid I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. He looked at me and said: "I know a National Geographic photographer - want me to connect you?"

He did, and when I told him I was stuck on this island and needed to find a way to make money and survive, he said: "Stop searching for the job, and start looking around for the story you want to tell."

So I did. For months I looked around for the story, rather than the pay check. And it came in a way I never could have predicted. I had only shot maybe five portraits before in my life, and had zero experience running a charity. But it has been the most profoundly life changing experience of my life and has led to me living my purpose.

So just keep shooting. Even when you look at your work and want to burn it you think it’s so bad, keep taking pictures - with your phone, with a cheap camera, with film, or with digital.

And share your work, your passion, and your dreams widely and loudly - on social, with your friends, family, the barista at the local coffee shop, the owner of the tiny Airbnb in the countryside, the stranger in the queue at the pub. You have absolutely no idea the conversation, moment, or thing that will change everything for you.

Q. Are there any upcoming events to know about?

If you’re ready to bravely tell your own story about your experience with domestic abuse, we have recently received funding from the National Lottery Community Fund to launch a series of Empowered Storytelling Workshops for survivors.

In the two -day workshops in London, we will use our unique blend of modern storytelling tools to develop an actionable "I Have a Dream" speech in film form for each woman involved, and provide her with the knowledge and support to help her go out into her community to use her voice to change the broken, toxic systems that keep women silent, disempowered, divided, and unequal.

Follow Woman United

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At The Female Lead, we want to make sure every child has access to positive female role models. If you want to read and share the stories of 67 remarkable women from around the world, you can purchase our NEW BOOK, or nominate a school to receive a copy for free.


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