Championing Diversity and Inclusion through Photography: Interview with Anna Neubauer

Championing Diversity and Inclusion through Photography: Interview with Anna Neubauer

As a teenager, Austrian portrait and fine art photographer Anna Neubauer was obsessed with the world of fashion. However, after a negative experience with a particular client, she became disillusioned with the industry.

She resolved to work toward creating a more diverse and inclusive society, and much of her work now centres on people with visible differences. Her aim is to move beyond traditional stereotypes and create images that promote acceptance and kindness.

“Society decides what normal looks like or what people can and can’t do. I think the less diversity people see in their everyday lives, the more disconcerting they might find it, and that’s something I can change,” she says.

Anna Neubauer is currently based in London and has been featured by publications like British Vogue and The Guardian. Her series ‘The Beauty of Humanity’ also won third place in the Sony World Photography Awards 2022 ‘Portfolio’ category.

We had the opportunity to speak to her about how she got started and her unique approach to photography as well as inclusion and diversity.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you first became interested in photography. 

I grew up in a small town in Austria, surrounded by serene lakes and beautiful mountains. Naturally, I spent most of my time outside. Being lucky enough to be raised in such a secure environment was truly a blessing.

I’ve always been driven by my creativity. In my teenage years, I developed an interest in TV and broadcasting, and got involved in acting and hosting a TV show for kids and teens. While I enjoyed working in front of the camera, I eventually realised that I was more interested in the technical side and directing. Around the same time, I got my first DSLR and was blown away by the things you can do with it. I decided to teach myself the basics and started taking self-portraits in 2012.

Back then, my dream was to shoot a major fashion campaign. I couldn’t think of anything cooler than working with a massive team and budget; the kinds of productions I would see on America’s Next Top Model. I’d learned the basics of Photoshop in a media class in high school, so seeing the final images after realising how much hard work would go into the production and post-production was incredibly impressive.

Whenever I picked up my own camera to take self-portraits I couldn’t wait to start editing them. I would spend hours in Photoshop trying different editing styles and imagining the photos on billboards. From time to time, I would even copy and paste the logos of magazines onto my photos just to see what they would look like.

I started building up a portfolio of mostly self-portraits because I found it easier to be my own model and try whatever I wanted. Taking self-portraits and then playing around in Lightroom and Photoshop opened up a new world of creativity for me. I loved the whole process; it was like my safe space. I didn’t take these photos with any intentions, but as my confidence grew, I started sharing them on Flickr and Facebook.

Through the online community, I met people from all over the world and we often met up to hang out, shoot and learn from each other. Those friendships, the little trips and sharing my love for photography with so many amazing and talented people always felt so special to me, and it still does.

Image © Anna Neubauer

How would you describe your style of photography? 

I’m completely self-taught and to be honest, for a long time I really struggled to develop my own style. This was primarily because I believed that my work needed to fit into a specific category or have a particular aesthetic.

Since I constantly used to compare myself to other artists and their work, I often worried about sharing something that might not be good enough. It took me quite a while to get past this worry.

Once I figured out what I want to achieve with my photographs, things got a lot easier for me. I stopped comparing myself to others and throughout the years, as I honed in on my own style, I realised what I love most about photography is telling the stories of people that inspire me. In turn, I hope to inspire others through my work.

I always try to capture someone’s beauty in a raw and honest way, so I tend to work with natural light whenever possible. I think people, and especially children, are more relaxed without tons of lights and equipment around them.

In addition, in the editing process, I usually opt for warmer colours rather than cold ones. I love the cinematic and retro feel of an image. I haven’t shot on film in a really long time because I think I’m a bit too impatient at times, but getting back into film photography is definitely on my agenda this year.

Images © Anna Neubauer

You’ve mentioned that you started out with the aim of working in fashion. What made you reconsider the direction you wanted to take? 

When I got into photography I was truly obsessed with the world of fashion and frankly, I didn’t really think about the way the industry operates. However, after working with an illiberal client who thought they had the right to define beauty, I was left hopeless and lost.

I went through stages of denial and anger. Besides being angry at the client and industry, I was angry at myself. Experiencing how narrow the concepts of beauty are actually motivated me to work toward creating a more open, diverse and inclusive society by showing how beautiful differences are.

While I’m not completely averse to working in the fashion industry, I now know when a project is or isn’t right for me. A few years ago I created a list of brands I had an issue with and because of the lack of diversity and inclusion in their campaigns, Abercrombie & Fitch was at the very top.

However, they have been working really hard to repair their reputation and I was very lucky to work with them last year. Getting to work with such a big brand made me realise that photography is a powerful tool to help people see the beauty of humanity, whether it’s through fashion or any other type of photography.

Images © Anna Neubauer

Tell us about your photography project featuring young people with disabilities. How did this come about? 

In early 2019, I came across ‘The Sanchez Six’ on Instagram; a family that advocates for inclusion, celebrates being yourself, and supports their daughter Sofias’s dream of being a model and actress. In one of her videos, Sofia explained that ‘Down Syndrome isn’t scary’ and it made me wonder why some people would think so.

When I got commissioned to shoot for a German children’s fashion magazine a few months later, I knew exactly what I wanted. I can be incredibly stubborn, so I got in touch with Sofia’s parents and introduced myself and the project.

Luckily, they were happy to work with me and I travelled all the way from London to San Francisco. I had less than four days to come up with editorial ideas and deliver the final images. Up until I met the family, I was surrounded by self-inflicted chaos and little panic attacks. I remember thinking ‘Who do you think you are?’ But when I met Sofia and her mum we immediately connected.

With my images, I really wanted to show the person, not a disability or condition. Photographing Sofia felt so easy. I loved capturing her in the most natural and candid way.

In the past, some brands have had inclusive campaigns, but it feels like some of them just tick the inclusion box and then go back to their conventional strategies. I think it’s important that everyone feels safe and is able to voice their views. I’m determined to break down traditional stereotypes with my personal as well as commissioned projects to try to make our culture more equitable for everyone.

Images © Anna Neubauer

What’s the most important thing you hope people will take away from your work? 

I think the less diversity people see in their everyday lives, the more disconcerting they might find it and that’s something I can change. For me, diversity does not exist without inclusion.

Society decides what normal looks like or what people can and can’t do, so I’d like to move away from traditional stereotypes by creating images that promote acceptance, kindness, and honesty.

I would like my photographs to have an impact on their viewers and with curiosity, I would like them to feel the tension and emotion as if they were right in there. In addition, I would like people to feel the warmth and serenity of a moment in time, and pause and think. I want them to see what being human actually looks like. Sometimes all it takes is an inspiring story told through a powerful image

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