About the project
About the Project
“What do you do?” is a loaded question. It can be asked in earnest curiosity or as a quick way to size up a stranger. It can be answered with pride, guilt, resentment, regret, shame, indifference—you name it, depending who’s asking and how the day is going.
During this project, we explored the complexities of this question for women.
Shannon and I met in our twenties while working for a women’s magazine. Over the course of the next 25 years, we both married, had children, and cycled through various stages of full-time, part-time, stay-at-home, and freelance work, mostly in and around the publishing industry. We did so by choice, grateful beyond measure for the luxury of choosing. But it was a choice that came at a cost, and not just the one reflected in our household incomes. It required a shift in self-definition which at times felt crippling as well as liberating. It altered the dynamics of relationships. And it inspired a certain anxiety around the question “What do you do?”
Talking about this together led us to an idea: What if we rescued this dreaded question and used it as a prompt for women to tell their stories? We could ask them to dig deeper than their LinkedIn profiles and cocktail party summations and paint us a picture of where they are, how they got there, and what it meant to them. Better still, we could accompany these stories with photographic portraits, capturing the essential beauty of each subject in the act of telling her story.
We knew we would hear some fascinating and complicated tales. Conversations with women about their occupation (however they define it) are rarely, if ever, simply about ‘what we do.’ They are about identity and ambition—who we wanted to be as young people, how that changed or didn’t as we got older, and how we define success. They are about necessity and compromise—how much money we need to live a certain kind of life, and, if we have children, how much flexibility will enable us to be the parents we want to be. They are about the satisfaction that comes when we believe we are doing something important, meaningful, interesting. About talent and recognition—how we discover our skills and hone them, and how it feels to be acknowledged, or to lose that acknowledgment, or to fruitlessly chase it.
Our sessions gave our subjects the chance that many had not yet taken to trace the narrative of their lives and work. Just saying out loud what they have accomplished helped them appreciate the women they have become—and prompted them to think more deeply about how they wanted to shape their futures.
And many women, particularly those in mid-life, told us how happy it made them to read about others who have gone through similar experiences and are still evolving.
'What She Does' was an ongoing blog for many years. The project has now ended and lives on in a self-published book.