Photojournalist Arantxa Cedillo has worked all over Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. But in 2011 she decided to spend a few years in Nepal. She says it interested her because it's a country in constant political turmoil, as well as "one of the most beautiful corners of the world."
While in Kathmandu, she heard numerous stories of discrimination against women and decided to pursue a project focusing on the strong women who had fought back against entrenched sexism there. The women she profiled were the first to break rules in their fields in Nepal — women who now are powerful representatives of change.
Cedillo's portraits cover a wide range of women, including a former sex slave, an elephant trainer, a swimmer, and the first female pilot in the country. Each photo includes a statement from a woman telling a small part of her personal story.
Cedillo says that finding women to participate was a challenge at first, but once she got started the project grew organically.
"All the women I photographed were very determined to [tell] their stories and hope to bring some positive change," she says.
Instead of a traditional plain backdrop, Cedillo used intricate hand-painted tapestries that are traditional in Nepalese formal portraiture.
"[Those] photographs are always placed in special corners of houses and usually the people wear traditional clothes and display very serious expressions," she said. "I decided to reverse that common form of portraiture, allowing each woman to represent herself, thereby opening a visual debate of what being a woman means in a changing society like Nepal."
Tracking down the backdrops was often as difficult as tracking down her subjects. Cedillo scoured old photo studios for the backdrops, and found that many had been thrown out or given away over the years. With the help of an assistant, she often negotiated to rent them for her shoots.
Cedillo says that the most joyful part of producing her series was getting to meet all of the women.
"They are symbols of resistance, courage and determination in a country that still suffers from repression and where men still have the last word. They have also become my heroes."
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