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Interview with body confidence photographer, Annie Holloway!

In this piece, we’re speaking with photographer Annie Holloway, the architect of an ongoing body positivity project entitled ‘The New Normal’. During our discussion, we find out what prompted Annie to initiate the project, the ways photoshoots of this nature can empower women, what men can learn from viewing these types of images, how it differs to her boudoir photography, and more!

Female models posing in black underwear for Annie Holloway's photography project, The New Normal
Models at one of Annie's photoshoots for her latest project, 'The New Normal'

Britain Uncovered: Hi Annie! To kick things off, can we start by asking how the concept for The New Normal project first came about? What was your original intent and aim when you launched it back in May 2021, and what made you want to celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes?

Annie: The concept came about because I was talking with a few of my friends about how they felt about themselves, and I discovered that many of them were feeling quite insecure. The more and more I scrolled through my social media, the more I realised that there weren’t many women who looked like me or my friends, or who tackled some of the things we were going through, so I decided that something needed to be done about this.

At the boudoir photoshoots I’ve been involved in before, I’ve found that the women always come away feeling positive about themselves – so having dabbled in this already, I decided to create The New Normal and to make it this really big project. I settled on having 100 women involved, because I think working on such a big scale ensures that every single woman should see someone on this project that looks like them, and thus someone they can relate to.

A female model posing for photographer Annie Holloway's latest project, The New Normal

BU: With 100 women involved, the project certainly does a great job of presenting a real diversity of models – not only in terms of size and shapes, but with respect to differing race, ethnicities and physical abilities too. Is this something you have had to work at to create, or has it happened organically?

Annie: A little bit of both. I wanted to create an organic feel to it, so I would advertise for models on social media, and there was no set criteria. So I’d have people coming to the shoots, and all I would ask is that they share with me a little bit about the journey they have been on with their bodies. I didn’t ask to see any photographs or anything like that, because I wanted it to feel like the everyday woman – so part of that process is the organic type.

However, the more and more I got into the project, the more I realised there were gaps. Ethnicity is a big one, and I’m still finding it difficult to get anyone involved that isn’t white. I think that some of that is to do with culture, and some of that is to do with modesty and that sort of thing. So in terms of recruitment, I will sometimes actively seek out profiles so that I can make sure that gap is covered.

But also, I realised I didn’t have anybody suffering with a disability, despite my sister and my Mum both being disabled – and I realised that they maybe don’t have somebody they can relate to. So I sought out a few people that I knew were body positive, but who also struggle with various disabilities. I do look at categories and ask myself, “Where am I not reaching those types of people”, but I also want to make sure that I’m not filtering it too much, because I do want every kind of woman to feel able to approach me, and to feel comfortable enough to take part.

Female models posing in black underwear during a group photoshoot with Annie Holloway
Annie hosts group shoots as she firmly believes that women empower other women

BU: You host photoshoots for the project on a regular basis, typically with at least five models at each. What would you say to people who might be interested in participating, but who perhaps aren’t feeling body confident enough to be on set in front of the cameras? You mentioned on Instagram that people don’t necessarily need confidence ahead of time, and that you can act as their biggest cheerleader on the day?

Annie: Even though I shoot the models individually, the purpose of having the group shoots is because I do think that women empower women. So when people don’t have confidence, I still encourage them to come anyway, because I guarantee you, either someone on set will also feel like you do, or they will be able to cheer you on because they know how you’ve been. So part of it is actually the group atmosphere that supports that level of insecurity or nervousness.

But then on set, I’ve worked with many women that sign up and take the plunge, and then on the day they are absolutely cacking themselves! If so, I actually spend a lot of their one-to-one time having a conversation with them. So before any clothes are taken off or anything like that, we’ll just have a chat, and I will ask them how they’re feeling, where they’re at, and what brought them to this place. I try to get to know them on a relational level, and I will then offer a few tips about posing; such as how they can naturally hold themselves in a certain way to help themselves feel a bit more self-confident. I also let the models know that I will never lie to them on set, so if I think something looks a bit uncomfortable, I’ll maybe move them – but I will never hype them up for no reason.

On set, I do also try to encourage things that I notice. For example, if someone holds themselves in a certain way and their legs look really elegant, I will say that to them. And it might be that the model doesn’t really like their legs, so the more and more that kind of interaction develops, the more the model will think, “Oh, okay, Annie says I look alright, and now I’m starting to feel alright.”

We spend about 30-40 minutes together, so it’s quite a nice amount of time to ease yourself into it. By the end of it, I put a little bit of music on, so we have a little bit of a dance to relax them, and then at the end of everyone’s individual sessions, they also get to select a card which has an inspirational quote on it. I ask them to select one that speaks to them, which they can then take home as a momento of what they have accomplished.

By the end of the shoot, which is about four hours long, I’ve never had a single woman walk away saying, “That was rubbish”! It sounds really big-headed, but so many models have left saying that it was so much better than they had expected, and that they never expected to feel the way they do. I feel like my personal job is to make sure that the women feel better when they leave than when they came in.

A female model displaying body confidence during a studio photoshoot with photographer, Annie Holloway

BU: Well done for creating such a positive atmosphere where people can feel relaxed and empowered, and can leave feeling more confident than they did when they turned up that day!

In terms of modelling for these types of photoshoots, would you say that even if you’re not really feeling that comfortable in front of a camera, or even if you don’t love seeing yourself in the actual images, the actual experience of participating can be just as valuable as the final product sometimes?

Annie: Oh, definitely. What I’m hearing from the women I meet on set is that even though their friends love them, they’re not hyping them up. So just spending four hours around women who want to share their stories and who are all there for the same reason is a great experience. Sometimes I just want to spend hours chatting with the group, because I just think that in itself is fulfilling.

There’s also something about stepping out of our comfort zones, and I’d like to think that we can actually get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Just taking that step to put yourself in the unknown and outside of your comfort zone means that you’ve already, without even having a single photograph taken, taken a really big step. I always say to people, the fact that they’re on set is step number one, and that should be celebrated in itself.

At one shoot, I had a person who I really thought wasn’t going to have any photographs of herself taken, because she was so nervous – and every time I asked if she wanted to have a go, she would say no, and she got to the point where she really wasn’t sure. I said to her, “Look, at the end of the day, if all you’re here for is just to be surrounded by these women, and to hear a bit of encouragement, then I feel like that’s my job done. Yes, obviously the photograph is a big aspect for me, but in terms of self-development and self-growth for yourself, you’ve come here to do what you wanted to do. You took that bold step, and that’s enough.”

After this chat with her, she actually decided that she did want to be photographed, which was actually really nice – but there’s absolutely zero pressure. I really wouldn’t women on set to be getting to the point where they’re giving themselves an anxiety frenzy, and I’ve actually had some women feel as though they need to be slightly drunk to be on set. Everyone has different coping mechanisms.

I say to them, “Look, I don’t want anybody to feel crippling anxiety when they’re on set, but give me five minutes of your time.” If within five minutes you absolutely hate every second, then let’s cap it at that, but I always say to people to give it a go. And I definitely think the experience alone, regardless of whether you have photographs taken or not, is impactful enough.

A model posing in black underwear and smiling during a photoshoot with photographer, Annie Holloway

BU: The stories and testimonials also seem like a very important part of the project. What has it been like reading these following the photoshoots?

Annie: It just feels really heartwarming. Initially, I would have the models write down their testimonials on the day, on paper, but I now get them to reflect, and I send them a Google Form with different questions which they can respond to later on. But honestly, it’s so nice, and I’ve never read something that I hadn’t already heard on set on the day.

It’s just really uplifting, and it makes the project feel worthwhile. I’m not doing this for me or to boost my ego or social media accounts, or anything like that. Although they’re all great pluses to doing this, my heart is for other people. I’m so happy when I see people walking away feeling more confidently, but it’s equally as pleasing to see people simply taking time for themselves. Because some of the women involved have never taken four hours away from their children, or four hours away from their jobs, to actually just focus on themselves.

So giving them the space for that is really rewarding, and I walk away thinking, “That’s one more confident person that’s going out into the world again.” The more you empower somebody, the more they can then empower somebody else, and it ends up becoming like a chain of events.

A model sat on steps and smiling during a photoshoot for Annie Holloway's photography project, The New Normal

BU: Has hosting the shoots and reading the testimonials had a big personal impact on you or helped change your perceptions of your own body (and body confidence levels) since you started this project back in 2021?

Annie: Oh, definitely. I have an okay relationship with my body. I don’t think I have anything special, but I don’t hate on myself either. But the more I see people that have been through things, or who are insecure, the more it’s made me think of all the things I’ve gone through, and all the things my body has gone through.

When I started this project in May 2021, we’d had a year of Covid, and like many of us, I hadn’t left the house or really done any form of exercise, or anything good for myself. I think The New Normal project actually got me back into the rhythm of it, because I thought that if all of these people are feeling bold enough to attend the photoshoots, and if they’re putting their trust in me, then I felt as though I needed to look after myself a little bit better and to make sure that I’m taking on board the comments I’m giving out to other women.

I’m far more accepting of my own body shape now. Like I said, I didn’t hate myself before, but I definitely feel very comfortable with who I am now – and I didn’t when I first started.

Female models in black underwear striking a celebratory pose during a group photoshoot with photographer, Annie Holloway
Annie's photoshoots enable women to embrace themselves exactly as they are

BU: You’ve been quite outspoken about the “clean, edited, flawless body types” we see in the media, and as part of your quest to present real people with real bodies, you generally avoid editing the final photos from these group shots. Do you think that’s then beneficial to the viewers who will end up looking at all your work from this project? What do you want them to take away from this project overall?

Annie: I want everybody who’s looking at the project to feel inspired that if someone like that can have photos of themselves taken the way they did, then they can do the same. Or that if someone that has gone through self-harming, or domestic abuse, or an eating disorder – anything like that – if you can resonate with that, and you can get inspired by someone else who has stepped out in boldness, my hope is that this will give the person seeing it a little bit more boldness to take that first step towards accepting themselves.

But I think also it’s about awareness. It’s interesting, but a lot of my male friends still don’t quite grasp how insecure women can get. Don’t get me wrong, I know insecurity is a male and a female thing, but I think even now a lot of male people that I interact with still don’t realise. So when my male friends see parts of this project, they will say, “Oh wow, I didn’t realise that that was a big deal, or that this was a big thing.” So I think it’s important for a male audience to see it to also encourage that we should be accepting of the everyday woman. It’s not about being filtered and showing your best self all of the time, because that’s incredibly unrealistic. It’s about accepting you.

So yes, it’s interesting. It’s a project that involves women, but I really do think it speaks to males and females. And I’ve already had men who I don’t know message me to say, “I’ve actually looked at your posts and I find them really inspiring.” My hope is that the photos aren’t sexualised. Yes, it’s women in their underwear, but they’re not in really sexy poses (although I do want women to have the freedom to feel that way about themselves if they want to.) It almost feels very pure in a way, to actually show men that there’s a way to hype up women that doesn’t just involve them taking off their clothes and looking really sexy and doing a boudoir shoot But actually helping them embrace themselves for the way they are is also just as important.

A female model in a wheelchair posing for photographer Annie Holloway's latest project, The New Normal

BU: Have you had to work to create this specific desexualised atmosphere you’re seeking? And having served as a boudoir photographer in the past, has it been challenging adjusting to these types of photoshoots that aren’t designed to be sexual or provocative in nature?

Annie: Oh definitely. Even when I did boudoir shoots, I always wanted to instil confidence in the person having their photograph taken, so that part comes quite naturally. But I’ve noticed that with some of the women I’ve photographed before (for an underwear shoot, for instance), sometimes they think they know what to expect and start putting themselves in sexy poses – and I have to almost rein them back in and try getting back to basics. So it’s a training for the model on set as much as it is for myself. It’s also about finding that line, and ensuring that I can help women to feel sexy and empowered without it being lustful.

BU: It’s definitely a fine line to tread, especially when it’s so difficult to control the reactions you get from viewers – who can often see things in a sexual light even when that isn’t the intention.

Annie: I think being a female photographer is actually a massive advantage, because a lot of people in this project who have taken part in photoshoots before have typically worked with male photographers; and even models go through insecurities. So at the end of the shoots, some of the models have said to me, “You have picked out things that I’ve never had anyone pick out before.” And I do think that’s the advantage of being a woman. I can relate to other women, and I’ve probably felt similar pains to how they feel. But also, I’m not looking at them in a sexual way.

I work with a lot of male photographers, and it’s not that I don’t like them! But with this project, it creates an atmosphere of safety for women where they’re not having to worry about how they can make their boobs bigger, or their bums bigger, or whatever. It’s more about how they can show all aspects of themselves. Sometimes my favourite pictures of them might be the ones with their goofy smiles. At first they might find them really embarrassing, but when I show them the photographs on the back of my camera at the end of the shoot, they’ll say, “Oh actually I really like that one, I’ve never seen my smile like that before.” And it’s because I feel like I pick out certain things that maybe other photographers don’t. I really just want to bring out their natural beauty as much as possible.

BU: How many of the shoots have you hosted so far, and how far have you progressed in your efforts to reach the original target of 100 models?

Annie: I’ve currently photographed 67 women over the course of eleven photoshoots, so I’ve still got a way to go. The aim is always eight models per shoot, which is the maximum amount of women I’d have on set – but on average it’s about six.

A female model posing in her underwear during a studio photoshoot with photographer, Annie Holloway

BU: Once you’ve reached the full century of models, how are you planning on showcasing all of these images and testimonials? Is there an in-person exhibition in the works, perhaps, or will it be more of a digital showcase online?

Annie: This is a very interesting question! I have a hope and a dream, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet. I would really like to put on an exhibition, and I’d really like to have a celebration where all the women who took part can come along to an opening evening with their friends and family – but the definite hope is to have an exhibition and some form of party to celebrate it. But those things cost money, so I don’t know how we’re going to get there yet!

Although I’ve held exhibitions before, I’ve always had funding for them. But this entire project is self-funded, so it takes quite a lot of organisation and money for that.

BU: A real passion project then! Do you think you will continue promoting body positivity once this project is done, or will you likely move onto different things?

Annie: Oh, for sure. I’m always into body positivity, and all my friends will say I’m such a hype girl! So I think it just comes naturally to me. But even before when I worked with models and did more catwalk work, even then I still didn’t want to work with stereotypical models who were a size zero and very petite. I always wanted to work with those who were a bit quirky or a bit different.

I think because it’s a natural part of where my heart is at, and where my passions lie, I think it will naturally occur anyway; but it’s not like I will go straight onto another body positivity project. For me, this was just a moment where I wanted to engage in that community, and I wanted to flood social media with some good stuff! And when I feel like I’ve done that, I don’t feel like there’s a need to do another project after that, because I think that would be forced. If I get to a point where I feel like I want to do another one, then of course I’d do one, but I’m not in a place where I’m thinking about what my next project will be. This is it for me.

- To see more images from The New Normal and to keep tabs on the project's progress, you can follow Annie on Facebook and see more of her excellent work over on Instagram at @anniehallphotography. We're pleased to report that Annie is still recruiting models to work with on this project, so please feel free to fire her a DM if you might be interested in participating!

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