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We Asked an Artist Fighting the Exploitation of Children What It Means to Be an Empowered Woman

Stephanie Farr is spreading an important message of empathy over exploitation, and she has some important things to say about empowerment.


What does it mean to be an empowered female? In the last post of this series I spoke with casting director Donna Morong. Our third interviewee is Stephanie Farr, an artist, photographer, and founder of Project Reflect, an artistic initiative with a poignant message about mainstream media’s effect on children and morality.

Farr worked all over the globe in commercial photography, a career that opened her eyes to the systematic and pandemic commercial exploitation of people, especially children. Moved by her firsthand experiences and witnessing the objectification of women in media, Farr created Project Reflect, an interactive art installation challenging the viewer to reexamine information they digest daily—information that shapes them, yet is rarely questioned. When I caught up with Farr, she told me how she shifted her career to be a full-time artist spreading the message of empathy over exploitation.

In your view, what does it mean to be an empowered woman?

My empowerment comes from continually striving to be honest with who I see in the mirror and finding forgiveness for that person. It has taught me to look into someone else’s eyes and have empathy. Emotional experience is the language of human connection; it gets rid of all the fear. Connection is the world’s biggest equalizer. That’s where the strength comes from: knowing I am no better than anybody else and knowing nobody is better than me. Not equal in aptitude, but very equal in value.

Actually, Project Reflect is about empowering people to find their own innate value. We have become so inundated with consumerist media that falsely suggests we are less than our fellow human beings. We aren’t free anymore; children certainly aren’t.

Think about all the potential wasted by bombarding young minds with consumer-driven media. Kids aren’t even allowed the time and space to discover what they’re truly passionate about. Our culture is denying children the right to figure out what their gifts are.

Do you think it’s a bombardment of media misinformation or overarching social scripts that make daily media input especially hard to navigate?

The physical shape of the brain is formed by repetition. The more something is repeated, especially in young, malleable minds, the stronger the connection becomes between specific neurons. The path formed by those connections is what creates both our emotional and physical experience of the world.  Meanwhile, psychology has informed us that feeling loved and accepted is one of our strongest innate emotional needs. This knowledge, along with demographic studies and research analytics, has been utilized by the marketing industry for at least six or seven decades now. It is common practice to create advertising campaigns specifically designed to make the audience feel inferior to others. Why? Because it emotionally motivates us to react in the desired manner.

Consider the impressionability of a child’s brain, combined with an entire lifetime ahead of them in which they could consume, it is no wonder that kids now account for a billion-dollar chunk of the consumer pie.

Kids deserve a world where they’re just loved and able to figure out who they are. I know that’s a grand dream, but I think that we’re standing on the threshold of change.

What was your wake-up call or breaking point for this discovery?

After high school, I was on a journey. I was pursuing the goals I had been programmed to fulfill, somehow still knowing I had been programmed to fulfill them. I was just being the body that was ‘Stephanie Farr,’ being that character in life. I was experiencing things as a female who’s about 5’8” with blonde hair and brown eyes would—a female with this dialect, these parents, this upbringing, that education, etc. Where that led me was all over the place. I’d throw caution to the wind, no problem. I really felt at times I was parading around as a character, all the while observing and exploring the world in which I found myself.

For example: After graduating from the University of Missouri, I went on to do more work at Brooks Institute of Photography. I had a 4.0, received an outstanding achievement award, and thought, “Alright, I think I’ve fulfilled the whole academia thing,” and I dropped out of school to start my photography career instead.

A short while later, a long-term relationship I had been in since I was nineteen ended. I was alone and trying to make it as a freelance photographer in Southern California. It wasn’t long before someone convinced me of the benefits of stripping in Vegas on the weekends to make my way. They were even willing to drive me out there, get me started, and to serve as a sort-of chaperone, all for a fee of course.

Luckily for me, my parents raised us with a heavy dose of self-esteem and after about three or four weekends, I had seen and successfully avoided enough pitfalls for a lifetime! But many others aren’t as lucky, and it was listening to their stories in the locker rooms and seeing their defeated expressions that began to shatter the Victoria’s Secret illusion for me. We had been lied to by greedy mouths—manipulated and exploited. It was a powerful thing to stand there, eye-to-eye in the makeup mirror among them, as one of them. They are soldiers—the veterans—and I began to understand why and how they started lying to themselves even though the truth is written all over their faces. I saw the underbelly of the industry exposed, and it was disgusting.

My experience moonlighting as a Vegas “dancer” was no mistake of the universe. The experience ignited a spark, which would soon grow into a raging fire, inspiring the beginning of my studio practice. In my head and heart I became aware of how precious a gift my childhood experience was and how our aptitudes are blessings that come with responsibility.

How did you come up with the idea behind Project Reflect?

It was December 2010. I had discovered and moved into the Brewery Artist Colony in downtown Los Angeles the previous May. The raging fire I mentioned earlier?  It had just about run its course, and my transformation from the ashes was imminent. All of those years spent feeling, living, seeing, and surviving as a young woman were culminating in my mind's eye. It was a vision reflecting the way all of those experiences left me feeling about myself and my perceived value to others as a human being. In the middle of an empty white room, I imagined a mountainous pile of trash, littered with the naked bodies of at least a dozen women. Cast out in prone positions, I saw my own face, and then my mother’s, and my sisters’, my friends—we had all been discarded. We were replaceable.

At the time where I was in my career, I hadn’t ever really shown my work and certainly hadn’t sold any. However, I was already working with translucent images and epoxy; I had completed my “Daughters” series. I’d spent so much time developing techniques and methods, and by that December I’d already had a full-time studio practice for about four years and the body of work to show for it.

In April 2011, I showed the “Daughters” series at the Brewery Spring ArtWalk. As the universe would have it, a couple came in, wanted to purchase “Your Daughter Has to Make a Choice,” and things just took off. They invited me to show my work at their house for the summer, every weekend hosting an event. I met my agent, was part of a fall show in Tribeca, another in Watermill, and have just kept building from there.

The more I showed work, something began to occur to me that hadn’t when building the pieces in my studio, in the privacy of my own little universe: What was healing, comic relief for me was, for others, a message that was not only needed but wanted. I previously had assumed that the people my art was affecting knew and discussed things like the proliferation of date rape among youth or how devastating popular media can be to developing minds. This realization gave me the confidence to continue making work that came from this honest place.

Ultimately, it’s not just women in the trash pile. It’s women and men and children; it’s all of us. By allowing exploitation—psychological, physical, financial, or otherwise—to be part of our culture, we hinder our ability to create honest, emotionally fulfilling connections with each other. I think we’re really starting to see the consequences of what happens when children grow up in a world of disconnected people.

What I’m hoping to do is to interrupt the flow of data bombardment, if just for a second, and reframe it in a manner that illuminates the extent to which young minds are being exploited and how dangerous and unfair that is for all of us. Then before they leave, I want to remind people they have a choice. The power to create change is in each and every one of us.

Your artwork includes what some would consider controversial imagery. What is your reasoning behind this?

Being viable competition. Between the wild world of modern marketing and mobile media, we live in a time where a billion words are all competing for our attention every day. In order to break through the chaos, in order to compete with very well-funded and executed marketing campaigns, you have to go big, you have to be shiny, you have to be noisy, and you have to be willing to be shocking at times. I’m doing whatever it takes to positively affect as many people as possible.

[updated 6/20/14]