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The fine art photographer questioning gender binaries

Visual storyteller Rossella Agostini explores the relationship between the individual and its surrounding world

How would we live if we did not have preconceived gender schema? Chicago-based photographer Rossella Agostini asked herself this question as she was coming up with the concept for her photo series Gender Theory exploring a reality where identity is not socially constructed.

The exploration of issues surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and social constructions is becoming more prevalent than ever within art and photography – and this is not a bad thing. As we live in a world where strict gender binaries are often instructed from birth, it is the work made by creatives like Agostini that help us start to break down these preconceptions.

Agostini touches on these issues through her still and motion picture work, using both male and female identifying subjects to test the limits of self-image and acceptance. Telling me that she got into photography “from the necessity of expressing my own perception of the world,” I spoke with Agostini to find out more about how she explores ideas around gender theory through her work and why she thinks photography is such a powerful tool for communication.

Photography Rossella Agostini

How did you get into fine art photography and does anyone inspire your work?

Rossella Agostini: It started from a necessity of expressing my own perception of the world. I have always been a somewhat quiet person – a do-er rather than a talker. Visual storytelling (not necessarily photography) was my preferred medium to communicate my thoughts and ideas. Usually people approach photography first and then eventually move into film. I did the opposite. I first got into filmmaking and then developed a passion for fine art photography. Now I constantly switch between the two media depending on the project.

Because I am exposed to visuals on a daily basis, it is hard to tell where the inspiration comes from. However, I do have a couple of photographers and artists I admire. First of all, Can Dağarslanı. His surreal and minimal work was a direct inspiration for Gender Theory. Then Tony Kelly for his ability of bringing you in a different world and Toiletpaper Magazine by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari – their work is insane. I have to mention Eleanor Hardwick as well since she was an influence when I first started.

How do you explore the relationship between the individual and its surrounding world through your photography?

Agostini: That’s a very broad statement I use to say that I am interested in topics that influence individuals in this current day and age. It’s an internal process rather than an external one. I explore my personal relationship with the world, first, by thinking: what do I care about in this precise moment? Perceptions might be unique, but topics are universal. Someone else might be dealing with the same issues as well and therefore the work becomes relevant to other people too.


Photography Rossella Agostini

Can you tell us more about your recent photo series Gender Theory?

Agostini: Gender Theory is named after the homonym cognitive concept introduced by Sandra Bem in 1981. According to her, gender roles were a construction of our society. As soon as we are born, we learn certain gender stereotypes that are ingrained in our society. The photo series therefore rejects the idea that gender is strictly binary by exploring a reality where identity is not socially constructed. It touches upon issues of gender and sexuality and demonstrates how biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression are not always aligned. Both female and male subjects freely experiment with their bodies and self-images, testing the limits of acceptance. While coming up with the concept I had this question in mind: how would we live if we did not have preconceived gender schemas?

“Pictures can be louder than words sometimes because they are less pretentious” – Rossella Agostini

Why do you think photography is such a powerful tool to explore issues around sexuality, gender identity, and social constructions?

Agostini: Pictures can be louder than words sometimes because they are less pretentious. Especially when talking about such topics, words give you less room for interpretation. Sexuality and gender identity are sensitive subjects and everyone seem to have very strong opinions about it, but no one likes to feel like you are trying to teach them something. Fine art photography, on the other side, starts from a concept, but the message is up to interpretation. I heard so many different thoughts on Gender Theory and there is no right or wrong answer. That’s why I think photography can be a powerful tool to start a conversation about important topics.

Photography Rossella Agostini

You say you like to capture isolated characters and unusual beauty. How do you pick your subjects?

Agostini: I don’t think it’s a conscious decision as I am naturally attracted to those subjects. I love clean lines, minimal architecture, and bold colours. I start by observing what’s around me and take note of objects, tones, and lines for future refence. It’s a process I do constantly, whether I am waiting for the train or walking on the street. So that’s the starting point. Then once I develop a concept, all those places I have seen or people I have met become a sort of inspiration book I can draw ideas from.

Check out Rosella Agostini’s photo series Gender Theory here

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