From the looks of her professional achievements, eighteen year old photographer Lula Hyers is no ordinary teenager. She was recently one of 29 women chosen for Instagram’s #mystory initiative. Only a month into her first semester of college this fall, Hyers’ photo graced the cover of New York Magazine’s “Sex on Campus” issue. Her work has been published on vogue.com, Opening Ceremony, and in Oyster Magazine.
Hyers’ photographs speak to experiences of girlhood and coming of age. Her female subjects, often her close friends, are seen naked, kissing, or posing in underwear in front of her camera. Unmistakably sensitive, but unflinchig no less, Hyers’ photos paint a portrait of a young woman exploring her sense of self and her sexuality on her own terms.
When she was in high school, Hyers began posting her images to Instagram. As she gained a following, she began to notice that her photos were being connected with a growing discourse on feminism. People began to engage with her, critique her, and ask her questions. Instagram became a tool for Hyers, not for “likes,” but for learning.
Since its birth in 2010 (when Hyers was in 8th grade), Instagram has gained a reputation as a hotbed for the self involvement of the millennial generation. Millennials themselves have been labeled selfish and apathetic. But a look into Hyers’ feed proves otherwise. She’s one of a growing number of young women using Instagram to confront and discuss feminist issues, from trans awareness to reproductive health. Women in the World spoke with Hyers about activism on Instagram and beginning her college career as an up-and-coming photographer.
Women in the World: How did you get into photography?
LH: Both my parents are photographers, and if they had to travel for a shoot, they would bring me and my little brother. We’d get bored watching them all day, so they would give us a little camera and tell us to go shoot. I was always resentful of photography, because they took pictures of everything I did. It’s funny, because now I do the same thing to all of my friends. Around 7th grade, everybody would do these funny photoshoots for their Facebook profile pictures, so I started taking these pictures of my friends. I thought it was fun, and somehow it just developed.
WITW: When did you start using Instagram?
LH: When I got an iPhone, one with a good camera, I made an Instagram, and from there, people were really nice about it. They were really encouraging. They said to keep doing it, and it felt good. So, I kept putting my photos out there. I got my Instagram deleted maybe a year or two ago, though.
WITW: Was it nipple-related?
LH: No! It was really weird actually. I posted a picture of my friends Ivy and Gabriel, and in the photo he’s just spitting a long thing of spit into her mouth. I’m not really sure what’s inappropriate about that, when there are other images that suggest rape and violence all over Instagram.
WITW: Your work shows nudity and sexuality. What was it like to show your photos in high school?
LH: For my senior project, I wanted to make a small film about how porn has affected young people’s relationships and sex life. They almost instantly shut that down and said it wasn’t appropriate for all the ages that could see the show. That might have been true, but I wanted to focus of something that mattered to me. Instead, I put up pictures of my godmother and her children — the kids were in the bath, naked — and oh my god, I had to fight the school so much to put them up. I ended up saying to myself, “either I’m putting them all up, or not putting any up.” So, I did, and they let me. I didn’t want to give them that power, to over-sexualize these people that I love so much.
WITW: What about putting your photos on Instagram? How have your followers influenced and informed your work?
LH: When I first started, I had no intention of making these pictures about being a girl, or about feminism. I made them because that’s what I felt and that’s what I was experiencing. The feminist aspect of my work really blew up once Instagram had had its run for a couple of years, and people started to use it for that purpose. That’s when that “feminist” label got slapped on my work. While that’s true, I am a big feminist, and a proud feminist, at the time I was really thinking only about able-bodied white women when I talked about feminism. It became much more purposeful once I stepped back from myself and learned what intersectional feminism was. In the beginning I was approached anonymously or in person in conversations about my lack of understanding, about my privilege, or just that I had this platform, but I wasn’t using it to the fullest extent.
WITW: What do you think makes Instagram such an effective platform for feminist dialogue?
LH: My favorite part about the app is that it’s so interactive. I’ve met so many people through it that i’m close friends with now. I’m so young still and I’m going to keep evolving and growing, but in these past few years, the people that follow me and the people I follow have been so helpful in figuring things out, like what kind of person do I want to be? What do I want to say with my work? Who do i want to speak to? Or what do i want to do with my privilege? There’s a generation of kids using these apps to talk about what they want to change. People are harnessing that, and really taking a stand for each other. I’m so grateful to have grown up in a time when I have the option to reach so many people.
WITW: What about the criticism that all millennials are selfish on social media?
LH: It really, really bothers me when people throw a label on this generation of children and young adults, who have grown up with apps and the internet and the iPhone in their lives. I think its really shitty to slap on a label that we’re this generation that’s obsessed with ourselves, and that all we care about is posting about the food we ate, or what we’re wearing. Obviously, if that’s the only thing people are willing to focus on, we have no chance to prove ourselves.
WITW: What compels you to take a photo?
LH: I rely a lot on my experiences and my friends’ experiences to make these projects. I really like knowing I can look back and see my friends in a particular moment, whether they’re laughing or crying or doing drugs. I can see them shaving their head or going through a break up. We’re all going through this shared experience of growing up, even though we’re not always on the same page. People are very drawn to youth, and all those cliche themes, but I have tons and tons of photo albums of pictures of my friends where, when you open them, you can be taken back to the smell of a room, or how hot it was, or what your skin felt like on that day.
WITW: Tell me about shooting for New York Magazine‘s “Sex on Campus” issue. That must have been exciting!
LH: Obviously, I was dying. I was so excited. I thought it was such an awesome concept, to have people who go to the school shoot what sex at college is really like. I was thinking about how to ask people without giving away the story, so I just used my friends. They were all really down and willing to be shot. They told me a few days before they were considering me for the cover, and I almost had a heart attack.
WITW: What are your other influences?
LH: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and Feminism is for Everybody by Bell Hooks have really informed my work. I think there’s just a messy, beautiful collection in my mind that I refer back to when I’m trying to get inspired.
WITW: What’s next for you and your photography?
LH: I’m really interested in doing more work for publications. I think it’s super cool to have this Instagram platform, but I want to make it bigger than that. I want to challenge myself. I want to take on these big projects and prove to myself that I can do it, and prove to people that young artists are actually responsible. We’re not wasted all the time and not doing our work. We’re reliable. I want to be able to represent young people. People should hire us more. We can speak for our generation without having to force it.
This conversation has been edited.