On November 11th 2014 the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is an honour to have my work included in the 60 portraits selected for the show. The portrait I entered was from my ‘Women of Iceland’ series which is nearing completion.

Freyja Haraldsdóttir, MP and Disabled Rights Activist Outside Parliament, Reykjavik Iceland

Freyja Haroldsdóttir and I met in a cafe near parliament in Reykjavík for an interview and portrait session in November 2013. Freyja is Iceland’s first disabled MP’s and is working towards better care, support, and equality for the disabled.

The idea for the “Women of Iceland” series was sparked by an article in the news about Iceland’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. Icelanders were quoted as saying that a more ‘feminine’ approach to finance was needed and a series of high-profile women were put in senior positions in the financial services industry to clean up the mess.

It turns out that this attitude to gender is not limited to a response to this one issue but pervades the whole of Icelandic culture and has done for some time. Every year the World Economic Forum publishes a list of the most gender equal countries in the world based on various metrics including wealth, social position, and employment patterns. Iceland has ranked number one six years running. The UK and the USA aren’t even in the top ten.

Curious, I began researching Icelandic women’s stories which resonated with me.  To date I have interviewed and photographed over 50 women, all of them successful in fields ranging from arts to politics, from education to entrepreneurship.

To be clear, it’s not that there is no gender gap in Iceland at all: men are still paid more on average than women in the same positions, there are still cultural stereotypes about the role that men and women should play in the family; but it is striking to see what is possible when you have a generous and gender neutral paternity/maternity leave policy – and when you have an affordable child care system in place.

Through portraiture and candid interviews interwoven with written observations, the project examines how a progressive society can change the way we think about and engage in the process of education, business, psychology, science, art, music, language, and child development. These areas and more are explored from the perspective of women who are beneficiaries of a feminised society.

Through the publication of this project it is hoped that the ideas presented and the perspectives shared by these women will inspire the reader to make improvements to their interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships – and, by extension, will encourage the creation of positive policy changes to our social systems, affecting the way we live, work, and raise our children. 

The Taylor Wessing Prize is on view in the Porter Gallery in the National Portrait Gallery from 13 November 2014 – 22 Feb 2015
Admission £3 Supported by Taylor Wessing