Patricia Fortlage: Empowerment and Support for Women Through Art
Written by Genie Davis
Patricia Fortlage describes herself as a “female empowerment and activism photographer.” Working both in the U.S. and in developing countries, Fortlage describes her images as created to “make a difference in the lives of women and girls… to help remove injustices and erase discrimination.” She says that she works to support, educate, and inspire to assist in making women feel safe and fully empowered. According to the artist, “There are a multitude of studies proving that if you invest in women, entire communities will be raised. To me this means entire social structures will benefit from the support and empowerment of women.”
Her dedication is evident in her current photographic images, as well as in her past work. “I began by supporting nonprofits and NGOs combating disease and poverty in developing countries,” she relates. She’s documented conditions and shared stories of struggle and success, helped to promote tourism in the poorest of nations, and overall, devoted her artistic work to furthering community development. “All of this work has been focused predominantly on women and girls,” she notes.
Today, her work takes place primarily in the U.S. “I have worked with programs that are rescuing women and girls from abuse and sex trafficking. I have also created a campaign called Wonder, girl! that highlights young women breaking stereotypes of all kinds, in an effort to inspire and empower girls. And now I am working with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in sexual assault and trauma. We are creating images that depict what life is like for women after sexual assault.”
Fortlage works in both black and white and color. Her black and white images are dense, some with inky black backgrounds from which the central image appears to take shape and shed light. Of these works in which she eschews a multi-hued palette, she says “There are times when I feel color is distracting… and the story itself is just too important for distractions.”
Other images use crisp, clear, resonant color images that feel as bold as their subject, as with an image depicting Sierra Yamanaka outside the Pima County Democratic Party offices.
Overall her work is, as Fortlage puts it, “very solutions based.” As an artist, she wants to affect change, she believes strongly that her work is simply how she goes about doing just that. “Mainly I try to think through the topic of each series – the point of the story, if you will, and who the audience is. I then try to get inside their heads to understand what would move that particular audience most. From there I strive to create art that will achieve the desired impact.”
With her Wonder, girl! series she explains that she was highly aware that teens frequently viewed twenty-somethings as representatives of “what is possible, if not desirable. So, everything was shot in a hybrid environmental portraiture/editorial style, as though you are looking through your favorite magazine.” The message she imparts here is “Look at how cool all these young women are, and every single one of them is breaking stereotypes of some kind. This means that whoever you are, no matter how unique, you are cool, too, so rock you,” she stresses.
For her Life Sentence project, Fortlage wanted to “help judges, juries, and the general public better understand the lifelong and often debilitating effects of sexual assault on women… Some women will sleep in their closets for years out of a need for protection. Others will go through one broken relationship after another, or turn to substances. Some will end up with chronic illnesses.” All these scenarios the artist terms accurately as “life sentences for the victim. The perpetrator of the crime, on the other hand, will often get a mere slap on the wrist, as though the embarrassment of getting caught has already caused them to suffer enough. My goal is to change this. The thought is that perhaps if judges and juries could see an actual visual of what the victim’s life is like, perhaps it will resonate more, and the sentencing will become more equitable.”
Although Fortlage’s work is highly realistic, it also evokes a quality that is both intense and dream-like. The reason? “I want the viewer to have an immediate emotional reaction to my images, as opposed to an intellectual reaction. My hope is that instead of having an opinion or beginning to assess my work as art, they will instead have a heart moment, one that will move them and inspire them in how they themselves move in the world.”
This desired intensity of action is just one aspect of what the artist wants to accomplish, however. “I also want the viewer to feel like the scene envelopes them, that all of a sudden, the scene has become all around them. I try to accomplish this with light and luminance. I push and pull the scene to create the enveloping process.”
As an artist and as a woman, Fortlage is deeply committed to creating work that continues to affect change for women and girls, and to work with other programs that are working for this same goal.
For the future, she says she’d like to “take things a bit more abstract so as to keep the viewer intrigued. I am not sure exactly what that will look like just yet, but I am enjoying the steeping process.”
New work may steep, but her current images simmer with life, hope, and a passionate depiction of resilience. It is as fierce as it is fine.