The artful female gaze

Photographer Bettina Bogar talks about the project she’s finally ready to reveal

Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.


It’s December! That’s not news, but I’m still startled. I expect my nostalgia for normalness to kick in hard this month. Recommendations for cozy distractions (your favourite book, holiday recipe, Netflix binge) very welcome.

SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH BETTINA BOGAR’S ARTFUL EYE

I first met photographer and creative director Bettina Bogar back in early 2019, when The Kit assigned me to write a story on Skinwork, an exhibit she made celebrating the female form. Over a two-day shoot, she had persuaded 60 women (many answered her open call) to shed clothes, inhibitions and insecurities, and the result was an intimate, unretouched series of bared bodies in all their varied beauty. The project had a personal purpose, too: Bogar wanted to raise awareness of skin health after a friend passed away due to metastatic melanoma.

I knew of Bogar long before I interviewed her because, well, she’s popular around here. Originally from Budapest, she moved to Toronto at 22, rebuilding her career from scratch in a new city through sheer force of will. Since then, she’s photographed yogis and runners for Lululemon, travel inspiration for Airbnb, beauty products for OPI, and many other people, places and things. If you need a dose of California sunshine and dreamy beach scenes (Bogar relocated to L.A. about a year ago), follow along at @bettinabogar.

Recently, I caught up with Bogar to talk about her latest project—one that felt so nerve-racking to reveal to the world, her heart was racing when she announced it to others. It’s Series #1, her first foray into fine-art prints. Read on for more on her born-with-it female gaze, her technique for dealing with paralyzing fear, and what she credits for her success.

Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

In your artist statement for Series #1, you wrote, “As a photographer, when it comes to nude photos, I often find that the subtext is: ‘My body is for you.’ My work looks at the naked body through the female gaze. It evokes freedom and personal control—shifting the subtext to say, ‘I am free. I do what I want.’” How did you develop your “female gaze”?

I’m not really sure I developed my female gaze. As a woman, I think it’s something I’m born with. In our culture today, nude images are hyper-sexualized. The intention of this project was to capture the female body in a way that did not insinuate, “This is for you.” To do that, it comes down to perspective and control. Who is really in control when the images are being captured? Is it the photographer trying to create a sense of desire, or is it the subject, letting us into their world?

To truly look at a naked female body through the female gaze, I need to let my subjects dictate the rules, and I do my best to tell their story. I need to listen and approach the creation process with sensitivity and respect.

In announcing this fine-art project, you mentioned how you’ve been wanting to do this for years, but fear always got in the way. What’s your process or strategy for dealing with those paralyzing feelings, or uncomfortable vulnerability as an artist?

Putting your art out into the world is the most paralyzing feeling. It’s extremely vulnerable because you’re sharing a piece of your soul, hoping it connects with other human beings and trying not to feel rejected if it doesn’t. To deal with the pressure around these feelings, I tell myself everything happens for a reason, and at the right time, so there’s no need to worry or rush. Life will not get in the way when you’re ready. In hindsight, I don’t think I was ready to share my art until now.

I also use a technique I learned from author Eckhart Tolle. It’s about connecting with the inner you, the one beyond the ego. When practicing, I imagine taking a step back—somewhere behind my body, where I’m disconnected from all these feelings and able to see the big picture of existence.

At 22, you moved from Hungary to Canada, which meant restarting your photography career, dealing with a language barrier, trying to find the right friends. You’ve talked about not knowing how you’d come up with the next month’s rent, and sitting on a cardboard box in lieu of a desk chair for months. How did you pave your own successful path?

I think most first-generation immigrants can agree that when you don’t have a lot of choices, you have to find a way to make it work. That has always been a driving factor for me. Not having a family safety net protecting me from failures made me work 10 times harder than others. I had to take control of my finances pretty early on and learned to not rely on anyone else for anything. I believe this, combined with my passion for photography, was the ultimate combination that took me so far so quickly.

I think pandemic anxiety has left a lot of people feeling totally depleted. How do you keep your creative spirit and energy high?

I agree. The pandemic was challenging for my partner and me as it hit right after we moved to California. For the first few months of lockdown, we lived in a tiny Airbnb, trying to understand whether or not we should move back to Canada. After much debate, we not only decided to stay but also to double down and lease a bigger home, which we’ve converted into a temporary studio space to provide a safe environment for my commercial shoots. The bet paid off and work picked up quickly, so days here at the house are quite hectic.

Our secret is to keep the weekends sacred, which means absolutely no work on Saturday and Sunday. We fill those days with travel, surfing, hiking and as much outdoor time as possible. The combination of “no phone days” and lots of exercise keep the creative juices flowing.

Last year around this time, you wrote on Instagram, “In 2019, my big lesson was to learn not to associate self-worth with how busy I am at work.” What was the big lesson you learned in 2020?

2020 taught me so many lessons—lessons I think I share with so many other people because we’re all fighting the same fight. We’ve had to deal with loss. We’ve learned the importance of community, and how much more social we are than we think. We’ve learned to focus on our bodies and mental well-being. We’ve learned that maybe it’s okay to step back and re-evaluate and make personal changes. All in all, despite the overwhelming loss and suffering of 2020, I think it’s made a lot of us stronger. In my experience, hardship builds character.

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TIME WELL SPENT

A shortlist of things to do, with a Giving Tuesday twist (I know, I’m fashionably late).

SHOP (FOR A CAUSE): My friends John Honeyman and Miriam Zittell, purveyors of chic Moroccan rugs through their store, Mellah, regularly auction off pieces for charity. Right now (until December 3), you can bid on Instagram for this modern Azilal, with all proceeds going to Black Food Toronto. P.S. They’ll ship anywhere.

SUPPORT: The pandemic has dramatically worsened the hunger crisis everywhere, so if you can, give to a local organization tackling food insecurity in your community. If you’re in Toronto like me, I’ve been telling everyone to sign up for FoodShare’s Good Food Box subscription as a super easy, ongoing way to support a great non-profit, while getting fresh produce you’d need to buy anyway.

SIGNAL BOOST: Every year, L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth honours Canadian women doing impressive philanthropic work (read about the 2019 winners here). I’ve attended the awards ceremony, and hearing the stories is always a tear-jerker. Honourees each receive a grant of $10,000 for their non-profit organization; head here to nominate someone who deserves all the applause.

ICYMI

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LAST BUT NOT LEAST

If you’re wondering who’s writing this:

My name is Wing Sze Tang, and I’m a freelance journalist. I’ve spent my career telling stories for some of Canada’s biggest magazines. (Find some of my articles here.)

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Thanks for reading, and see you next week!