Carrie Biegler confesses that she wasn’t feeling especially strong when she started photographing strong women.
It wasn’t one thing; it never is. It was dealing with sexism in her own life, around the time that Donald Trump made comments about women that she then had to try to explain to her 11-year-old daughter, when women were starting to put into words and hashtags and movements the feelings they’d bottled up for years.
“I felt like I was carrying around a lot of pain and frustration,” the teacher from Northern Liberties said. “Like a lot of women, there was this buildup inside, and it was taking up a lot of my energy.”
At an Art Museum exhibit of women’s photography, Biegler, 44, became inspired:
“What if I started asking women, all kinds of women, something that highlighted their strength,” she thought. “What if instead of asking, ‘What has been done to you?’ I instead asked, ‘What have you done?’ — you know, kind of flipping it and bearing witness to their strength, their power.”
Biegler called it “Strength Source Project” and started with people she knew: friends, family, her daughter. She then hit the streets to find women who caught her eye. She’d take their photograph and ask one question:
“What have you done in the past or what is something you do now that has made you feel strong inside?”
She was as eager to hear their answers as some were to give them.
Some of the answers: fighting cancer, coming out, moving on from bad relationships and choices, caring for family, for themselves, embracing their history. Spinning fire — (yes, you read that right, and yes, I want to meet this woman.)
“I asked this question because I had to,” Biegler said. “I needed to hear other women tell me how they draw strength. I wanted to draw strength from them. I wanted us to draw strength from each other.”
One of the first women she found was Kelli Caldwell, 36, who was sitting on a bench near Sister Cities Park, on a break from her job at Municipal Court.
Caldwell, who lives in Mount Airy, recalls loving the idea. She jumped at the chance to tell Biegler about her work with victims of human trafficking. She’d organized a march in 2015 to raise awareness for the cause, and through the Hope Bag Mission, she helps provides basic toiletries and other care items to survivors.
“To know that what I’m doing is making a difference drives me,” Caldwell said. “It builds me up to keep going.”
That’s a sentiment many of the women Biegler has photographed and profiled have echoed, gaining strength from giving to others — even if it’s forgiveness for the unforgivable.
In her profile, Angelique Bouffiou, a 40-year-old Reiki healer and writer from New Jersey, shares her memories of a brutal attack. It is painful and honest and courageous, a raw retelling framed in empowering forgiveness.
“It was not that five men had attacked me,” she wrote. “It was that five men cannot kill me.”
Since starting the project last year, Biegler has photographed more than 80 women, of all ages and backgrounds, which is part of her goal.
She’s been to senior centers and mosques. She’s reached out to people in the LGBTQ community, eager to capture women’s strength in her photos and in their own words that she then posts to her website, Facebook, and Instagram.
“I don’t ignore the other things — there’s no way to ignore the reality around us,” she said. “But this makes me feel like we’re moving forward by reminding ourselves of what’s inside of us, of everything we have already overcome.”
She recently applied for a grant to fund a showing of her photographs, but even if she doesn’t get it, she plans to continue asking women where they draw their strength from for as long as they want to answer.
I don’t think she has to worry about that.
In honor of International Women’s Day, which is Thursday, I posted her question on social media and women didn’t hesitate to share. And like the women in Biegler’s project, their answers were heartwarming and heart-wrenching and funny and furious and wonderful. And a source of strength, which is something we could all use these days.