Redefining Representation Through Power Portraiture

AOC Election night
Photo Credit IG @elizabethdherman Supporters react to the confetti drop at the end of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory speech last night in Woodside, Queens. Ocasio-Cortez, newly-elected to New York's 14th congressional district, is the youngest woman to ever be elected to Congress. Photographed while on assignment for @nytimes

Earlier this week, the New York Times published the portraits of almost every single woman who is currently holding office on Capitol Hill in a feature titled “Redefining Representation: The Women of the 116th Congress.” Collectively, the portraits are presented online in an interlocking grid. You can access each individual piece, or take in the project as a tapestry that honors the tangible cultural shift in U.S. politics where different voices and faces have been elected to court.

There are 130 portraits altogether (missing just one congresswoman), representing the most congressional gender diversity in American history; prior to this past midterm election, no more than 84 out of 435 seats in the house have ever been filled, and more female people of color were elected in more states. “The story was in idea born while shadowing AOC on election night this fall, thinking of how much the current political class has changed in the past few decades,” explained photographer Elizabeth Herman on social media.

The two photographers running the project were both young women, artists who work in what is considered a male-dominated field. Elizabeth “Biz” Herman, a photojournalist, and Celeste Sloman shot portraits that are modern takes on the straightforward, classic style that casts its subjects in powerful light. “Portraits of power call certain images to mind— those of older, white men, dressed in suits and depicted in formal settings,” Herman explained. “[They] evoke the imagery we are used to seeing in the halls of power, but place people not previously seen as powerful starkly in the frames.” This subversion is reminiscent of the work of Kehinde Wiley (the artist who Barack Obama chose to produce his lush and contemporary portrait) whose Black and Brown subjects are depicted in poses that have typically been reserved for wealthy, White men.

Each of Herman and Sloman’s portraits lets every individual’s character and story shine through. Sharice Davids of Kansas, poised with an ink pen as if it’s mightier than the sword. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, the first woman with a disability to serve in Congress, a prosthetic foot gleaming out in front of her. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, laughing, her vivacious personality is captured in a portrait. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, holding her hands over her belly in which she is carrying her third child.

You can catch tons of outtakes on the photographers’ Instagram accounts, @elizabethdherman and @celestesloman.

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