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.
We are especially interested in the complexities of this question for women.
The two of us 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’s a choice that comes at a cost, and not just the one reflected in household income. It requires a shift in self-definition that feels crippling as well as liberating. It alters the dynamics of relationships. And it inspires 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 means 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 have given our subjects a chance that many had not yet taken to trace the narrative of their lives and work. Just saying out loud what they have accomplished has helped them appreciate the women they have become—and prompted them to think more deeply about how they want to shape their futures.
These women regularly express gratitude for the opportunity to articulate and share their stories. And many women, particularly those in mid-life, have told us how happy they are to read about others who have gone through similar experiences and are still evolving. This feedback alone makes the project feel profoundly important to us. We believe these portraits and stories, and the sense of community they foster, can be a vital resource for women today. Each woman we feature has the potential to inspire at least one other to pause, reflect, and push the boundaries of what she does.