What it Means to be Empowered

The yellow plastic chair I was sitting in at the head of the semicircle felt like it was about to swallow me whole while I sat sweating. My work was being critiqued in class which means that for 15-30 minutes I had to listen to my classmates give criticisms of my work straight to my face and take their comments to heart while still defending my art. It was at the end of the semester, and I genuinely cared about this teachers opinion, so when she asked me what it means to me to be empowered and I had no quick witted, thoughtful, or even audible response, I began to blush. "What does it mean to be empowered? What kind of question is that?"


Honestly, I had never thought about it before. For my entire college career I had been blindly following my gut, never stopping to question or reflect on my intentions. To my teacher, my photos didn't show empowered women - all semester I had been taking pictures of frail and fragile women, pale and beautiful. But what I came to realize is that I don't have to justify what makes me feel empowered, just like my teacher doesn't have to justify to me what makes her feel empowered. It's a completely subjective feeling and I can't dictate or pass judgement on others when the same thing doesn't empower us both. The best I can do is create art that makes me feel confident and empowered and hopefully it resonates with other women.

What I learned from the exchange with my teacher is that I can't let others define what makes me feel empowered - only I can decide that. To me, being empowered doesn't mean that you have to be strong, fierce, and confrontational. For me, being a sensitive, compassionate, and loving woman is enough. I don't have to speak loudly to deserve others to listen, and I'm continuing to learn that I deserve to take up space. I'll stand my ground when it comes to something I care about, I'll admit when I'm wrong, and I'm not afraid to ask questions for fear of looking foolish. Because this is what the word means to me, the photos I take do show empowered women. The girls in my photos are demanding space quietly, their presence is unavoidable, while at the same time they appear serene and beautiful. 

I'm still learning daily what it means to me to be empowered, and that's completely okay. No one has all the answers, and as long as I am content, confident, and happy, what else do I need?

Katharine Hannah

Katharine’s work has graced the walls of institutions such as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Harold Washington Library of Chicago, and local galleries such as Dreambox Gallery, Siragus Gallery and Blick Art Materials. She has also been featured on websites such as the Huffington Post, Phlearn, Fstoppers, Tigress Magazine for Girls, Bitchtopia, and Golden Boy Press.

In addition to photography, Katharine has been a mentor and educator in the arts since 2013. She has worked with students in various organizations and projects over the last two years, including Hive Chicago’s PROjectUS initiative and Digital Youth Network’s Digital Diva’s and Chicago City of Learning programs.