Mhairi Bell-Moodie has never relished being in front of the camera which is why she chose a life behind it as a documentary photographer. For her latest project, she has trained her lens on a collection of 25 women all united by their strength and their ability to keep moving forwards in the face of adversity.
The Edinburgh-based, Forfar-born photographer has captured moving portraits of the women who have dealt with the devastation of cancer, rape, the loss of children, domestic abuse and suicide in new exhibition – Nevertheless, She Persisted.
Inspiration struck Mhairi at the tail end of 2016 when she photographed two women who told her that her images made them feel good. Mhairi said: “One of the women I photographed had breast cancer and had lost her hair. When she saw my pictures she told me that she felt beautiful for the first time during her treatment.”
The other subject was a teenage girl whose mother told her after the shoot that it had been a real confidence boost after she had been badly bullied. Intrigued, Mhairi started to explore if her photography could be used to empower women.
After putting a call out on social media for subjects, Mhairi was inundated by women eager to share their stories. She was touched and taken aback by their candour and willingness to expose deep and tender secret parts of themselves: “I was in awe of the stories coming into my inbox. These women were so open and some of them had never told anyone else what they had been through”, she said. Mhairi felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders to share their stories in the right way. “Documentary portraiture is telling stories about real life and I wanted to focus on the people on the sidelines of society. I never wanted to focus on the obvious or the easily found”, she said.
After speaking to and meeting around 35 women Mhairi couldn’t avoid being affected by their experiences and reflecting on things she had been through during the 18-month immersion in the project. She said: “It was an incredibly emotional journey and sometimes harrowing. I learned something from each woman that took part.”
In the end, 25 women wanted to forge ahead with the exhibition – which was very much led by the women in focus.
Trust was imperative between the photographer and her models who were exposing themselves to vulnerability.
Mhairi said: “I think being a woman made me less intimidating but they could also see I was genuine and wanted to portray them in an honest way.”
One of her models, who had cancer, was told 14 years ago that she only had two years to live.
“She has found such joy in living and has achieved so much. I am completely in awe of her positivity”, Mhairi said. Another was widowed at 31 with a toddler and Mhairi doesn’t know how the young mum kept going after being dealt such a devastating blow.
“It really puts things in perspective and teaches you to appreciate what you’ve got and to consider what others go through.”
The exhibition is a reminder to be more kind, to stop judging on appearances and to recognise that everyone has struggles. The women all met each other in February to collectively view the photographs for the first time.
“The big response came when they saw the images together. They thought it was amazing.”
l Nevertheless, She Persisted will be shown at the Out of the Blue Arts and Education Trust, 36 Dalmeny Street, from May 8-18