After Trump’s election, the despair that many of us felt was crushing — and it felt, and still feels, like our country is more divided than ever. But in the months leading up to the election, through events like Standing Rock and in the energy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Juliann McCandless was inspired to take action and to prove that discussions about identity, privilege, intersectional feminism and more didn’t have to fall by the wayside in light of Trump’s presidency.
McCandless, a creative director, stylist and photographer, started brainstorming the idea for her new project Opposition. It’s a book that interviews women and femmes from across different backgrounds within fashion and visual arts — and gives them a platform to speak candidly about their views on social and political issues. The result is a beautiful and engaging compendium on the hopes, fears, goals and thoughts of women and femmes at this critical time in history. McCandless spoke with COOLS about the book, how it came together, and what she hopes people will take away from it.
I’d love to know about the background of the book, and the story and how it grew.
It basically started in 2016 when the Democratic primaries were happening. That got me very politically engaged, and I think it did for a lot of people. There were so many things happening that were really messed up, whether it was Trump running — which everyone was obviously scared by — but then also I feel like there was so much police brutality against people of color. Obviously there’s always been, but at that time specifically, it was like once a week you would hear about someone being gunned down.
Also, Standing Rock was happening — all of these engaging things were happening that really struck a chord with me were happening at the same time. I think it also engaged me a lot because I saw a candidate in Bernie Sanders that represented me and represented my beliefs, so I really got involved politically, helping him and trying to push for someone like him to become a candidate in the democratic party. Hillary Clinton was talking a lot about feminism, and the feminism she represented wasn’t necessarily what I think is feminism and what I think a lot of young women think is feminism. It wasn’t very intersectional. I really wanted to create something that encompassed all these issues, and also encompassed my background in fashion and art. I wanted to use my newfound political engagement and all of the frustration I was feeling in a creative project that would engage people within the fashion, art, and culture industries to also care about politics and educate themselves and learn more.
How did you select the women and femmes you featured?
Some of the women and femmes are friends or friends of friends — a lot of them are in the same social circles. But also it was just women and femmes I would see on Instagram and maybe we’d have mutual friends, but the things they were saying really spoke to how I feel as well. They would inspire me with what they were saying online. I really wanted to give them a platform where they could say what they feel politically without it being watered down.
I felt like a lot of them were being featured in magazines about feminism or about politics, but what the articles were saying wasn’t exactly as poignant or as strong as what they were actually saying on their Instagrams or in real life. So I wanted to give these really strong, intelligent, political, outspoken women a platform where they could speak candidly and wouldn’t be censored.
I found it so inspiring that so many of these girls and femmes were brave enough to speak out. I feel so lucky they were down to speak to me so candidly.
What surprised you about the whole process? Were there unexpected themes that connected some of the interviews?
What surprised me about the book is how long it takes to make a book. I did not know what I was getting into at all. In terms of thematically, I learned so much. It’s hard to pick one or two things because with each person in the book, my eyes were opened to different experiences. I’m from Canada, and there’s a politically different environment there. I think through the process of making this book, I learned about the American experience growing up in America and what you have to deal with.
Something I really learned about while making this book is white privilege, and I always kind of knew what white privilege means, but hearing stories about when you’re not white passing, when you’re a person of color, what your experience is like versus if you’re white or white passing, and it’s just completely different in so many ways. I was so thankful to learn more about that.
One thing I wanted to do with this — maybe it’s naive, but my belief is that if more people — if more white people and more privileged people — were aware and were educated in a palatable way, in a way they can engage in, not just the news blaring something at you, but if it’s like an easy-to-digest way of educating people, I feel like more people would care. I would love to be able to communicate this to more people, to help them understand their privilege, and that not everybody has these privileges.
I completely agree — I also have some faith in young generations who are smarter about understanding these things.
When I’m in spaces or in rooms with kids — with 15-year-old kids — they’re educating me. I think I’m pretty progressive, but I’m like, “You know more than me. That’s amazing!” I have so much faith in our future because I feel like kids have more information, they’re more open. I’m really hopeful.
Making this book was pretty dark in a lot of ways, just because of the subject matter. It’s not easy to digest or easy to throw yourself into 24/7 because we do live in a very oppressive society, and we are in dark times. It can be really discouraging, but something that did keep me going is knowing we do have that generation coming up right now. They’re going to be able to vote.
From what I understand, you conducted some interviews before Trump’s presidency and during. Were there some differences you noticed in those conversations, before and during?
We did maybe three [interviews] before Trump’s presidency, and I feel like the biggest difference was the subject matter in the sense that a lot of conversations before Trump was elected were more focused on the Democratic Party and how we need to change the Democratic Party to be more inclusive and more progressive and stronger. After Trump, things had more urgency and it was talking about what to do and how to fight, like right now.
I feel like a lot of that more nuanced discussion, unfortunately, had to fall by the wayside.
Totally. I don’t know how everybody feels about this; I do think that we need to fight now, but I think it’s kind of sad for the other conversations to fall by the wayside. We do have an election, many elections, coming up this year and in 2020, and I want a strong party that represents me still. I really don’t want a) Trump to win again and b) If a Democrat gets elected, I want it to be somebody who actually is going to make strong changes for oppressed people in this country.
In general, what are themes that connect your work? Are there issues that sort of direct what projects you go for?
Ever since I started directing, styling and shooting, a big, big thing for me has always been representation. It’s changing, which I’m so glad to see. I don’t think it’s changing enough yet, but it’s definitely, since I’ve started working in this industry, taken huge steps to have more representation of people of color. That’s always been a consistent theme in my work, ever since I started when I was 18. And now I’m 27. That’s always such a priority for me.
In terms of what jobs I take, it’s really complex within the fashion industry because it’s such a problematic industry, and I feel like we all kind of need to find a way to make a balance in still being able to pay our bills and feeling OK about the work that we’re taking. I try to work brands I can ethically support, and I’ve been really lucky to be able to do that. Also having conversations on set. A lot of people are like, no I don’t talk about politics at work or issues at work. That’s one thing I won’t compromise. If I’m on set, I love having these conversations and trying to make people more aware of even the day-to-day. If there are more white models on set, bringing that up, and not in an aggressive way, but just being like, “Hey, why are these girls all white? We should have cast women of color.” Just trying to open up people’s perspectives a bit during work.
I feel like, even among people who care about these issues, these conversations can feel uncomfortable, but we should be talking about these things and being open.
It doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I feel like it can actually be something that brings people closer and brings people together. I think it’s just about how you approach it. If it’s in a friendly way, I don’t think it needs to be scary. Even with body image, I try to influence casting directors or producers to cast women or men who are shaped more naturally as opposed to people who are super-skinny. I think casting in the industry is so important.
What would you like people to take away from reading Opposition?
I just hope it inspires people. I hope it, of course, educates people, if there’s something in there they didn’t know already, I really hope it educates them and encourages to look deeper if they find something that interests them. Also, I want to engage people’s empathy because it’s kind of a different way of presenting these sorts of issues. I hope it engages people to care more.
I hope it inspires people to go and make a change, whether it’s making their own book or show or whether it’s having more conversations in their everyday lives. Or if it’s talking to your old, white grandfather and being brave enough to have those conversations with him or your neighbor or whoever. I just hope it trickles down to other communities and inspires change and education.