- Enrique Limón
- “I think the importance is exposing others to what’s going on in our community and state,” photographer Nico Marsh says of the significance of her 100 Strong Women of Utah Portrait Campaign.
Nico Marsh started out by taking portrait photographs of a few of her friends. In search of a project, she decided to spotlight strong women in Utah, an undertaking that quickly grew thanks to word-of-mouth. Six months later, Marsh has taken 15,000 pictures of 130 women who reside in Salt Lake City, Provo and Park City.
"I thought with the timing with what's being showcased with women, it would be a good idea to highlight what's going on in Utah, and women here," she says. "I noticed with everything that was going on with the #MeToo Movement and this huge focus on women, that there wasn't really anyone featuring what women were doing in Utah."
Marsh's vision has since grown into the 100 Strong Women of Utah Portrait Campaign, a collection of photos that honor women's identities and achievements and rejects the idea that women suffer at the hands of a male-dominated society. Marsh's subjects are mothers and daughters, CEOs and architects, politicians and law-enforcement officers. Their ages range from 5 to 70, and they are diverse in terms of their races, ethnicities and professions. "There's not just one way of living or one way of thinking, so I wanted to make sure I was capturing all different types of women and backgrounds," Marsh, who is Cuban American, says.
Among those photographed is Jenny Wilson, the Democrat who put up a valiant fight against Mitt Romney, vying to become the first Utah woman elected to the U.S Senate. "I appreciate that she recognizes that there are amazing leaders in the community, and many of them happen to be women," Wilson says of Marsh.
More than 100 of Marsh's portraits will be displayed from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15, at Publik Coffee Roasters, 975 S. West Temple. Live music and food will underscore the party-like atmosphere the photographer hopes to convey. "I want these women to feel celebrated," Marsh says, "because we are not victims."
Marsh gave each woman she photographed the opportunity to dress or outfit themselves in the way they wanted to be seen. The idea was to celebrate each person's professional and personal identities—to give them the chance to draw attention to issues or personality characteristics important to them, and to present them as they are, not as an idealized version of themselves. "I think there's something really beautiful about being vulnerable and sharing your weaknesses," Marsh says.
Mika Christmann was the first person photographed in the South Salt Lake studio Marsh shares with her husband and where she shot all the portraits. They'd known each other for about a decade, and Christmann was interested in helping her friend place strong Utah women in the limelight.
Twenty years ago, Christmann was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder she says is often misunderstood by the general public. Participating in Strong Women of Utah allowed her to be the face of women in Utah who live with epilepsy. "Being an advocate was really important," she says.
Marsh had some emotionally heavy conversations with the women she photographed as she'd try to make them comfortable during the shoot. "I heard this from numerous people, that they called me the 'photo therapist,'" she says. But those talks inspired her and fed her passion to keep taking portraits, she says. "When you're exposed to different things in the world and in your city, there's a responsibility to share that with others."
Despite ongoing national conversations about the #MeToo Movement, the Women's March and the spike in the number of women running for office, Marsh's goal isn't politically motivated. She says emphasizing politics implies women are damaged victims and passive participants in a world dominated by men. She wanted to elevate and celebrate women and their positions in the state—not portray them as wounded souls struggling to stay afloat.
Marsh might have left politics out of her motivation, but that doesn't mean she stopped subjects from making their own political or social statements. Local artist Tracy Williams used her portrait as a sort of social art experiment. "It was a great opportunity for me to show my artistic side," she says.
Williams splashed paint all over her body and hair when she was photographed. On her legs, she wrote words like, "rape," "molestation," "colorism" and "suicide"—all issues within Pacific Islander communities that she has talked about with friends and family members. "I wanted to speak up for those who are scared to do it," she says. "I wanted to use this platform and art as a way to tell their story but also keep it anonymous."
Christina Rojas was eager to use the space to honor her mother's memory and depict her hard-won, happy life. Rojas suffered from depression after her mother died several years ago. "I decided I had to change for my kids," she says. Just more than three years ago she started La Cubana, a catering service, food stand and food truck that sells Cuban food Rojas makes from her mom's recipes. The business fulfills a daydream Rojas and her mother shared almost 20 years ago. Rojas rebuilt herself and found happiness, accomplishments she was proud to personify in Marsh's series.
"None of us are coming out as victims. We've all suffered, we've all had to endure, and we are stronger than any man who wants to stand up against us," Rojas says. "We're stepping up to the plate saying, 'We deserve to be treated right.'"
Rojas suggests that each woman Marsh photographed is a part of a special group. The independent women allowed themselves to be vulnerable and came out even stronger than before Marsh shot their portraits. "This confidence that we have," Rojas says, summarizing her pride in five short words. "There's a huge group of us, and we're not alone. We're strong."
Christmann is excited to bring her 12-year-old daughter to the show at Publik—which Rojas' La Cubana is catering—so she can experience "strong women, strong community, strong coffee." Christmann expects it to be empowering for a young mind. "I think as a young lady it's nice to see how many different careers there are, different bodies, people of different cultures," she says.
Rojas and Williams hope people leave the show feeling inspired. "I hope they walk out of there feeling a little taller, a little stronger and a little bit brave," Rojas says.
"I hope mothers and daughters leave there thinking, 'I can be more,'" she adds. "And that they're also enough. They don't have to be more. They can just be who they are."