Meet the photographer championing the representation of people with disabilities and visible differences
Anna Neubauer’s work challenges beauty standards and pushes for inclusivity
image Anna Neubauer
words Eve Walker
Award winning photographer and visual artist Anna Neubauer creates images that are soft, thoughtful and intimate, perfectly capturing the carefree nature of youth. Looking through her portfolio feels almost like peeking into a retro family album, filled with portraits that are tender and dream-like. It’s no wonder she’s won so many awards already, including being shortlisted in the Sony World Photography Awards 2022 and featuring as an Adobe Rising Star in 2021.
With a preference for shooting with natural light and editing with warmer tones, Anna strives for her work to make viewers “feel the tension and emotion as if they were right in there”. By focusing on people with visible differences, she hopes to show how beautiful these differences are, explaining that, “the less diversity people see in their everyday lives, the more disconcerting they might find it and that's something I can change.”
One particularly striking image is of a five-year-old girl with Down syndrome called Megan being kissed on the forehead by her older sister, Mia. To get the shot, Anna played with Megan, only picking up the camera periodically. There was no lighting equipment during the shoot, and music from Moana and Frozen was blasted out to make her feel as comfortable as possible. It is immediately apparent how relaxed the sisters are in front of Anna’s camera, allowing viewers the privilege of experiencing this authentic family moment.
“Society decides what normal looks like or what people can and can’t do. With my work, I am moving away from traditional stereotypes by creating images that promote acceptance, kindness, and honesty. I want people to pause and think and I want them to see what being human actually looks like. Sometimes all it takes is an inspiring story told through a powerful image.”
Below, we speak to Anna about what inspired her to get into photography, her favourite project and how her subjects respond to being photographed.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with a camera, and what inspired you to start taking photos?
“I’ve always had a creative drive and loved all kinds of arts and crafts. In my teenage years, I developed an interest in TV and broadcasting and I managed to get involved in acting and hosting Austrian TV shows. I guess I was quite used to being around cameras. I really enjoyed acting and hosting but at some point I realised I’m more interested in the technical side and directing. Around the same time, I got my first digital SLR and was blown away by the things you can do with it. I decided to teach myself the basics and started taking self-portraits in 2012. Initially, I found it easier to be my own model and try whatever I wanted - to tell the story I felt like sharing.
Taking self-portraits and then playing around in Lightroom and Photoshop really opened up a new world of being creative for me. It also saved me in a way. I absolutely loved the whole process, it was like my safe space, just myself, a cup of coffee, some music and my ideas. I forgot everything around me and it made the dark hole I sometimes found myself in a bit brighter. I didn’t really take these photos with any intentions, but as my confidence grew, I started sharing them on Flickr and Facebook. Through the online community, I met people from all over the world and we often met up to hang out, shoot and learn from each other. Those friendships, the little trips and sharing my love for photography with so many amazing and talented people always felt so special to me. And it still does. Throughout the years, as I honed in on my own style, I realised what I love most about photography is telling the stories of people that inspire me, and in turn, hoping to inspire others through my work.”
Do you have a favourite project you've worked on, and if so, what makes it your favourite?
“That’s a hard question because I genuinely love creating and coming up with ideas, so every project feels like a favourite to me. A piece I really like is an editorial I shot for Harper’s Bazaar Brasil Kids last November. I loved documenting Ryan, Valeria and Isla’s beautiful friendship and portraying their cute personalities. I think what I love most about it is that the images reflect some sort of carelessness. The editorial really reminds me of my own childhood and how lucky I am to have grown up in such a safe place.
Even though I always have a mood board, you never really know what you get with kids, so I try not to get too caught up in the concept. I knew I wanted the photos to be spontaneous and candid, so I brought some things for them to play with. When I started shooting through the yellow lid of a marbles jar I had with me, all three kids immediately wanted to see what it does to the photos and we all had so much fun.
Ryan has Treacher Collins Syndrome, like the boy in the book/movie ‘Wonder’. Treacher Collins Syndrome is a quite rare genetic condition, if you try to look it up, all you will find are terrible illustrations listing what is perceived to be ‘wrong’. Deformed ears, eyelids, cheekbones, and jawbones. What you don’t see in these illustrations is a human being. With my series of images, I wanted to make sure to show the person, not the condition. If everyone sees a human, or in this case a boy like Ryan, they will see someone who’s incredibly loving, kind, funny and smart. With more photos like these that focus on the person and not on someone’s physical appearance, I hope we can start to change representation here.”
Which photographers and artists are your biggest inspirations?
“There are quite a few. Some of my best friends work in the creative industry as well (the Flickr friends I mentioned earlier) and seeing them create beautiful art and work on amazing projects really inspires me. To name a few, Alex Stoddard, Rob Woodcox and Brian Oldham. I’ve always felt like I’ve got a special and deep connection to music, so musical artists definitely inspire my work too. When I don’t listen to music or sing along, I usually look for new albums and artists, but I don’t think a day passes where I don’t listen to The Cinematic Orchestra, Patrick Watson, London Grammar and RY X.”
Have you ever spoken to your subjects about how being photographed feels for them?
“One thing I get quite a lot from people I photograph is that they feel confident and completely themselves in front of the camera and also when they see the final images, which for me is the biggest honour. I also really love when someone tells me that they appreciate the way my photos capture their own beauty in a natural and honest way.”