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Radical acts of self-love

15 November 2021

One of the country’s top creative photographers is on a mission to help young women find their strength and self-confidence through art, while creating imagery that fosters positive attitudes towards our bodies 

Words | Kelly Lynch

The Abstainer, Canon 5DsR, 50mm, 1/200s, f/2.5, ISO 160

Award-winning creative photographer Mandi Lynn is challenging women’s self-image through art — one body at a time. 

It was when her five-year-old niece began questioning her own body image that alarm bells started ringing for Mandi. When had children become so image conscious, focusing on the superficial? This question became the catalyst for her expanding project, and now a charitable trust, called Every Body is a Treasure.  

Known for her feminine portraits and whimsical imagery, Mandi draws on her experience as a photographer, as well as her work as a nurse and health professional, in developing Every Body is a Treasure. She began the project two years ago by adorning six women of differing body shapes and sizes in an organic golden clay, similar to paleolithic figurine Venus of Willendorf. Naming them golden shield maidens, Mandi kept the women’s identities anonymous, photographing each one front on, between their neck and belly, using a similar lighting style. After some media exposure, this led to 70 brave women approaching her to have their bodies adorned and photographed.   

Mother Nature, Canon 5DsR, 85mm, 1/80s, f/6.3, ISO 320

The photographer is now helping to change the way in which women perceive their bodies, getting their mojo back and understanding their inner value. What began as a medium to convey to her niece that we are all one humanity has burgeoned into a message Mandi wants to extend to all women. Her goal is to photograph 600 females to match the daily dose of digitally altered body images that bombard our media. 

“Each day our daughters see between 400 and 600 photoshopped images, so they’re experiencing a challenge to visually understand what reality is in their world,” she explains. 

The complexities behind why women are so self-conscious during photo shoots had Mandi wanting to explore further. She travelled the country carrying out mother and daughter (teens and tweens) workshops, focusing on giving the girls tools for self-compassion. Afterwards, she photographed the teens and tweens in natural poses, showcasing their unique beauty. On the final evening, the mothers, if they wished, were transformed into more of Mandi’s golden shield maidens. 

The Victim, Canon 5DsR, 35mm, 4s, f/18, ISO 100

The workshops, thanks to a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission, saw Mandi in a new role as film director.  She, and her all-female film crew, shot a documentary during the workshops called Finding Venus. It’s currently in post-production and is destined to appear in future film festivals.   

Late last year, news of a female teenage youth suicide rocked Mandi’s community. This motivated Mandi to use the information she gained at the mother and daughter workshops, along with her past experience as a health professional, to embark on her latest development to empower young women to use art to change the world: “Heartivists”. At its base is heart, plus art, plus activism.  

“It’s teaching girls non-violent communication, emotional literacy, self-compassion, so they have an ability,” Mandi says.  

Mandi’s Every Body is a Treasure charitable trust has partnered with Upper Hutt City Council to deliver a Heartivist creative wellness pilot programme to a limited group of 10-year-old to 14-year-old girls after school, as well as providing evening courses for parents.  

The after-school programme incorporates non-violence, and combines ancient wellness philosophy with various wellness platforms. Mandi uses art to help communicate her deeper thoughts, and wants to share these techniques with youths, as a way for them to understand their emotions in a supportive environment.   

Every Body is a Treasure shoot, Canon 5DsR, 85mm, 1/125s, f/1.8, ISO 640

“The conversation will be pretty broad, creatively,” she explains.

The girls will be able to choose either photography as their medium or another genre, such as poetry or dance. Mandi will be teaching the photography, describing it as clean, simple photography with no post-production. The girls will learn to shoot on manual, showcasing what can be captured on camera. Some of the girls won’t have access to camera gear, so Mandi is putting out a call for donations of spare camera equipment to the trust’s cache. 

She says the nature of the course will be fun and supportive. 

“It is to instil self-compassion, before it shifts to a negative critical voice. Making a beautiful place to play, turn down the critical judgemental voice, and turn up the voice of the muse in their heads.”  

Every Body is a Treasure shoot, composite

Once students successfully complete the photography course, they can continue onto a video programme called ‘Girls Grit Film School’ and be paired with emerging film-makers. Established industry professionals will mentor them to create a documentary web series. While Mandi will be teaching the Heartivist pilot course, the intention is to implement a teach-the-teacher model, so that others within their community can then deliver the content within schools.  

The students don’t know yet how lucky they are to be getting such a caring, creative, experienced photographer teaching and mentoring them. Mandi says she has found her calling, and she’d love to continue full-time work with the trust but, like the majority of folk, she needs an income. She’s found a solution called “Foundation 50 members”, and is seeking 50 members to pay $20 a week to help finance her work within the trust.

Ethereum Chakral, composite

In the end, Mandi admits some of her motivation is in making amends for all the images she’s “photoshopped the hell out of”. Her imaginative creations produced by hours of post-production paved the way for her success as a creative, innovative photographer.  Now, with a force of passion and social activism, she is encompassing all her skills to improve how females see themselves, inside and out, and ultimately, through art, treasure themselves.