If you’ve encountered the “Boundaries” project before, you may remember it as a photo series that went completely viral- but it didn’t start out that way. It was created for the 2014 installment of the Young Photographers Alliance (YPA) Mentoring Program, a program designed for beginner photographers (I had been out of school for two years at the time) to create a project under the eye and guidance of professional photographers in their region. The prompt for all participants that year was simply “Boundaries”.

When I began my project, I knew that I wanted to interpret the single-word objective as social boundaries faced by women. My dear friend Erin Cooper, the model in the photos, and I got the ball rolling over several dinners spent confiding in one another about our personal experiences, large and small, with sexual harassment. At the time, the phrases “everyday sexism” and “rape culture” had been touted to the point of meaningless overuse, however those concepts played an important role in the conception of these photos. We wanted to depict a gross intrusion into everyday circumstances - a visual representation of the jarring emotions that come from being cat-called, followed, or screamed at on the street, being intimidated by the advances of a coworker or boss, or realizing that the person you’re spending your life with is not who you thought they were.

Ultimately, the formula for the photos came down to this: One woman, an average young professional, depicted engaging in daily routines. Each setting was loosely based on my and Erin's own personal experiences. The concept of rape culture is represented by male arms and hands performing a variety of actions that are overwhelming intrusive on the woman's body and life. In each situation she maintains a blank expression, a visual choice that demonstrates how conditioned we as women have become to accept this atmosphere as excusable and even normal. See the photos below:


After the YPA exhibitions had concluded, and Erin and I had a fun round of sharing the photos with our friends, we thought our experiences with the project were pretty much over. Until, on a whim, I submitted the series to PetaPixel, one of my favorite photography blogs. I thought the chances that they would publish it were low, but publish they did. That same day, a reporter from Buzzfeed called me and asked if they could interview me and share the photos. And early the next morning, the post had received enough views to reach Buzzfeed’s “trending” section. From there it continued to steamroll; the photos, Erin, and I were featured in everything from the local paper to a radio show in Canada to the websites of major U.S. and international publications.


The public’s reaction to the series was certainly a mixed bag. On the positive side, I received shares, comments, and personal messages from women identifying with the photos and thanking me for creating them, as well as messages from men saying that the series had inspired them to take a closer look at their actions. On the flip side, the negative comments ranged from something as basic as criticizing the quality of the photography, to several attacks on my physical appearance, to angry hate mail. The irony of the sexism embedded in some of the critical comments on my project calling out sexism was not lost on me. Some of the most thoughtful criticism came from individuals who were concerned that the photos were not inclusive enough. They correctly asserted that not only white, middle class women (and not only women) face these issues. I believe it is worth noting that the logistics of the project were such that there was only one model for all five photos, and therefore fundamental aspects of her appearance, such as skin tone, cannot change from photo to photo. That being said, I am glad people spoke their minds about this, and I value the importance of equal representation and inclusivity.

At the end of this journey, the phenomenon of “going viral” had become almost as much of the story as the photography itself. It concluded with an invitation to speak at “The BlowUp”, an event about viral photography, hosted by popular photo blog Feature Shoot. See my segment below, but full disclosure: public speaking is not my forte!

Allaire Bartel discusses her viral photo series, 'Boundaries' at The BlowUp