Arts & Culture

Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture

Olivia Arthur, Cristina de Middel, and Susan Meiselas take part in the National Portrait Gallery’s project to increase the representation of women in their collection, organized in partnership with the CHANEL Culture Fund

Mary Beard, classicist and author. 2022. © Cristina de Middel / Magnum Photos

Currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London are seven portraits shot by Magnum photographers Olivia Arthur, Cristina de Middel, and Susan Meiselas. The portraits are of inspiring actors, activists, lawyers, and authors, and are part of the Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project, a three-year initiative to increase the representation of women in the Gallery’s selection, organized in partnership with the CHANEL Culture Fund. 

“This commission made me feel like a part of history,” explains De Middel. “it provided me with the opportunity to meet and photograph remarkable women who embody excellence and resilience — essential qualities for standing out and inspiring an entire generation.” 

Below, Arthur, De Middel and Meiselas share their experiences behind shooting the portraits.

Mary Beard (pictured above)

“I was very nervous about meeting Mary Beard,” De Middel explains. “As someone passionate about mythology it was a great honor to photograph her. We met at the British Museum. That was such a good choice for a location because we could put in context not only her personality but also all her work. All these statues of goddesses and serious men, the light of the museum and her relaxed way of approaching the session made it all very easy to create an image that could contain all the layers that I wanted. 

“We tried different corners outside and inside the museum, but in the end we chose a line of philosophers’ busts as a background. The coolness of Mary in contrast with the empty and frozen expression of these men’s heads added a defiant layer that is very particular to Mary Beard’s work. It is sometimes difficult to photograph someone who has so much to say, but  in this case, the combination of elements worked as a perfect recipe to create a portrait that definitely makes you want to know more about this amazing woman.” 

Bella Lack, conservationist and environmental activist. London, England. 2022. © Cristina de Middel / Magnum Photos

Bella Lack

“I met with Bella at the Barbican Conservatory, which is a place as strange as it is inspiring. It has this futuristic dimension that is weirdly so familiar to us because we have watched versions of our future so many times on the big screens of cinemas. This connection with a future that is familiar but also unknown was the perfect background to photograph someone like Bella, who works so hard for the future of the planet and the new generations. All these contained and domesticated plants were in full harmony with what she represents: the proof that a jungle can survive in the city, that exceptions are the first step to change.

“It all looked very natural and the shooting was a joy. We come from different countries and cultures, belonging to different generations, but we worked very well together. In full respect and aware of the importance of the portrait and what it meant for women and our visibility.”

— Cristina de Middel

Rose Ayling-Ellis, actor. London, England, 2022. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

Rose Ayling-Ellis

“[Rose] was very open and down to earth, showing me the Barbie doll that had been inspired by her, with its own little hearing aid. We made very simple portraits in her living space and she showed me some sign language and explained what it meant. I didn’t want to make a picture that defined her by deafness but I also love to photograph hands and since they are so important to her, it felt like the right thing to do.”

— Olivia Arthur

Elif Shafak, novelist and activist. London, England, 2023. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

Elif Shafak

“When [Elif] opened the door, I was met with the warmth and gracefulness of the woman behind the words. I had heard her give a speech a few years earlier and been struck then by her thoughtfulness and strength and now I saw the same feeling glowing out of her in a very calm way. The picture was very simple, just to capture that calm strength with a background of books behind her.”

— Olivia Arthur

Farhana Yamin, British lawyer and climate activist. London, England, 2023. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

Farhana Yamin

“When I went to Farhana’s house, I could tell what a busy woman she is, juggling her several work hats as well as family and being about to move house. But she also gives off an incredibly calm feeling and sense of authority. Her house is full of wonderful colors and I wanted to bring that into the picture. She had also chosen a colorful salwar kameez to wear for the shoot so in combination with her yellow walls it felt like something that could represent her far beyond being a lawyer in a suit.”

— Olivia Arthur

Amika George, activist and founder of Free Periods. London, England, 2023. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

Amika George

“Amika was just over briefly from the US, where she has been studying, when I met her at her parent’s home. She is full of energy and more or less can’t stop smiling the whole time I am there. I wanted to show this energy and how she has stood up for something that is really not easy for most young women to put into words so we went out into the rain with an umbrella and we took some pictures with her big smile and the flash on the falling rain. Then we also retreated inside for something that represented her more from her student, academic side: her childhood bedroom full of books.”

— Olivia Arthur

Caroline Criado-Perez, author, at the London Library. England, 2022. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Caroline Criado-Perez

“I was especially pleased to meet Caroline Criado-Perez on a rainy day, when we found each other in the open stacks of the London Library at St. James’s Square. It seemed like the perfect place, amidst the feminist volumes that surrounded her own book, Invisible Women, which had already sold over a million copies. Of course the alternative space could have been next to Millicent Fawcett, the first statue of a woman she campaigned to place in Parliament Square. Yet it was that dark, quiet landscape which gave us the possibility of an intimate exchange.”

— Susan Meiselas

The seven portraits are on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until June. Plan your visit here.

Stay in touch
Learn about online and offline exhibitions, photography fairs, gallery events, plus fine print news and activities, on a monthly basis.
Get fortnightly tips and advice articles, find out about the latest workshops, free online events and on-demand courses.
Stay up to date every Thursday with Magnum photographers’ activities, new work, stories published on the Magnum website, and the latest offerings from our shop.