Words Christina Faaborg
Photography Signe Vilstrup & Charlotte Eugenie
Portrait Naja Munthe
36-year-old Signe Vilstrup is one of those people who can talk up a storm. At the same time, she is unpretentious and you immediately sense something real and honest in everything she says and does. Perhaps that is one of the reasons she is doing so well – not just in Denmark but all over the world.
She is a woman with a job that many consider a man’s job – both because of the heavy equipment and all the technical aspects of photography. As a woman, you may have to fight just slightly harder to make it to the top – or at least know how to utilise your femininity as a weapon instead of just doing like the men. Gender equality came to Denmark a long time ago, but all around the world there are a lot of places where being a woman is not that easy.
In the autumn of 2012, Signe Vilstrup travelled to Rajasthan – one of the poorest states in India – together with fashion designer Naja Munthe and a journalist from ELLE magazine. Munthe had designed a jacket in aid of humanitarian organisation Plan focusing on Plan’s campaign ‘Because I am a girl’. In India, a local group of women were applying the finishing touches to Munthe’s jacket, and Signe Vilstrup was there to document the journey and shoot a campaign photo of the jacket.
“It was a really great trip that allowed me to see India in an entirely new way”, says Signe about the trip, which was her first charity job. “One thing that really made an impression on me was seeing how worn out the women were. They get married off at the age of 12–13, and when they reach my age, most women look twice their age”.
Therefore it also proved a more difficult task to find a campaign model among the local women than they had anticipated. “We had a timeframe of only five days. We quickly realised, however, that only very few women could get their husband’s or father’s approval to model in front of a camera. On the first day, I saw a girl at the Sadhna we visited who caught my attention. She was dressed in the traditional kurta and did not speak a word. And when I asked her – through her boss – if she would be our campaign model, she got up and ran off to another room giggling.”
The team therefore decided to set up on a busy street corner and simply street cast the girls that walked by. This quickly proved impossible too. So, Vilstrup returned to the girl who had initially caught her attention and requested her boss to ask the girl again.
Two minutes later, Megnaa called Vilstrup speaking a perfect English. “I was being very explanatory with her but that was unnecessary. She drove to our hotel in her own car wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and when she got in she ordered a glass of wine and lit a cigarette”, says Vilstrup.
Megnaa turned out to come from an influential family, she had studied at Yale and had now returned to India in order to help make a difference to her people. In India, women must still be submissive and in the small village communities, including the one where Munthe’s jacket was being made, a woman should preferable let herself be burned at the stake, as a saint, if her (often older) husband dies – otherwise she will become an outcast.
Therefore, Megnaa also had to act like a local woman in order to live there. “It was a truly eye-opening experience”, says Vilstrup. Megnaa was perfect as the model in the campaign photos and she gave the entire Plan project ‘Because I am a girl’ an extra dimension. India is a complex country where horse carriages and Lexuses drive side-by-side in the street and with huge contrasts between rich and poor, woman and man.
The Woman behind the Lens
Home again, Signe Vilstrup continues her work – now highly inspired by India. For this issue of Tomorrow’s Journal, Vilstrup has shot a series of photos with inspiration from the Maharajas of India. She has not used real models for the series, and all the women in the photos are related. Perhaps a way of depicting the strong relation that often exists between women. A relation that may also be the reason Vilstrup immediately saw something special in Megnaa.
Vilstrup mostly photographs women. She is not sure what she would make a male model do in her photos. “I have a passion for the female form, which I find more organic and photogenic. Men often turn out very feminine in my photos”.
But does Vilstrup see something in the women that her male colleagues do not? “When my male colleagues photograph a woman, I think that there is often some kind of sexual flirtatious play going on. Perhaps men are also more direct in many ways. For instance, I am more careful when I have to photograph a naked woman. I almost want to suggest that I too get naked – so we can be naked together”.
Many of Vilstrup’s foreign clients often address her as Mr. Vilstrup as they assume she must be a man because of her very extended portfolio and many years of work with female models – and her style does contain something particularly erotic. “The very first photos I took also had a very erotic expression. I had photographed my friends sucking on a grape and I included the photos in my portfolio when I was looking for a traineeship”.
Signe attended the Bernadotte School in Copenhagen where the kids were encouraged to be creative and to do what they were good at. The approach to life was that you could do whatever you want to do. “It was with this rather naive approach that I decided to be a photographer”.