Inspired by 'Shoegate,' Susan Bennet Photographed 39 St. Louis Women — Not Their Shoes

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All photos courtesy of Susan Bennet. ©2016 Susan Bennet/Ooh St. Lou, All Rights Reserved
  • All photos courtesy of Susan Bennet. ©2016 Susan Bennet/Ooh St. Lou, All Rights Reserved

Like many women, Susan Bennet had an immediate, visceral reaction to the St. Louis Business Journal gallery depicting a series of powerful local women brandishing the shoe that "defined" them

But Bennet didn't just get mad. She did something about it.

"Sometimes when things happen, you're frustrated and you're irritated, but there's not a concrete action you can take," she says. "But with this one, I realized there was something I could do."

After all, the outrage over the Business Journal package was about its photography — specifically the conceit that reduced the city's most influential women to their choice in footwear. 

"It came to me immediately," she says. "You know that saying about how when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well, I'm a photographer. So of course I thought, 'I can do this visually.'"

With her friend Kaylen Wissinger, who owns Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop, Bennet hatched a plan. They'd put out a call on Facebook for accomplished St. Louis women, asking them to volunteer to be photographed, with a project that would let them choose the props to define themselves (novel thought, that). Wissinger offered her bakery space as a sort of pop-up studio.

And then their friends solicited their friends — and their friends' friends. "The response was overwhelming," Bennet acknowledges. "It really struck a nerve." Ultimately, in a two-day sprint last Monday and Tuesday, Bennet photographed 39 women, only eight of whom she knew before starting the shoot.

Not now, though — now they all feel like friends.

"It made me feel so much less alone to hear so many women say, 'I want to take part in this,'" she says. "There was finally something concrete they could do to stand up to what they'd seen."

On Monday, Bennet published the photos on her website, oohstlou.com. They are a beautiful series, with each woman's unique personality captured in a way that simply wasn't done in the shoe-centric Business Journal spread. Chef and writer Robin Wheeler brandishes an impressive cooking knife. Blogger Rashida Dinehart shows off her medal from a marathon. Chiropractor Sara Strohmeyer poses with a neat chain of human vertebrae. Others don't include any props at all, but their women's intelligence and humor shines through wonderfully.

Previously the director of marketing for an educational institution, Bennet dropped out of the rat race last year to work as a freelancer. "There's less money and less prestige," she admits, "but I feel like the work I'm doing now is a lot more meaningful." 

And the ability to pursue projects like this is a real reason why. She has big dreams for the Undefined series — she's hoping a gallery will be interested, or maybe a publisher. And she's hoping to continue photographing the women of St. Louis. These photos only scratched the surface of the talent in this town; why not make them first in a series?

She's intent, too, on connecting the women to each other. "I got to meet all the women at the photo shoots, but they did not get to meet each other," she says. Thanks to the Facebook group she started this week, her subjects are now excitedly communicating — but she can't help but think how much more fun it would be in person. 

And a show, too, could open the eyes of more than just the women who reacted so viscerally to that misguided Business Journal gallery. One participant's husband even told her, "I get why you're upset, but I don't see why all this is necessary." 

"Sometimes other people in our lives don't understand," she says. "I think a show would be an opportunity to bring the public into it and start a conversation."

Kaylen Wissinger donated space at her bakery, which became a two-day pop-up studio for the project. Here she is in Bennet's portrait. See more of Susan Bennet's Undefined  series at http://oohstlou.com/undefined/ - PHOTOS ©2016 SUSAN BENNET/OOH ST. LOU, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • Photos ©2016 Susan Bennet/Ooh St. Lou, All Rights Reserved
  • Kaylen Wissinger donated space at her bakery, which became a two-day pop-up studio for the project. Here she is in Bennet's portrait. See more of Susan Bennet's Undefined series at http://oohstlou.com/undefined/

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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