With the government financially favouring young mothers, banning same-sex adoptions, and abusing transgender people, it’s clear what Hungary wants women to be: cisgender, heterosexual, quiet and at home, with the possibly of raising a whole lot of children. Very few women in Hungary hold economic, social or political power. But as existing gender roles have become further and further entrenched, many photographers are leading a rebellion — revealing the issues that have real repercussions on women’s lives today.
Hanna Rédling portrays the clumsiness of becoming a woman in her bright pink, pop art-influenced graduate series, Bóbita. “I turned to female topics when I was growing up because I was curious about the experiences of my female friends,” she says, adding that “her journey to self-acceptance started with taking photos of the women.”
Her 2018 series, Color TV, Queen Beds, Exotik dreams, was shot in Hungarian motels, which started to appear across the country after communism fell in 1989. Rédling sought out what she refers to as “places between places” to explore emotional states — the fear of being forgotten and being stuck — as well as anxieties around aging and the thrills of roleplay . “These motels always felt like a place of transition, a temporary place between two endpoints. People don’t stay in motels for more than a few days. However, they have become a home for my new feelings. Sometimes motels felt like a purgatory, but that’s where my healing started too.”
Audition, made in collaboration with the designer Fabian Kis-Juhasz and published as a zine, was a response to the country’s recent anti-trans policies (a bill implemented in May 2020 effectively banned Hungarians from legally changing their gender) and the nationwide protest they sparked. “We felt like it was important to step up.” The series shows the women in cinematic scenarios, exploring femininity and performativity. “We wanted dreamy aesthetics, and to dispel the negative stereotypes many have about trans people today,” says Rédling.
“My body is an important element of my art. I use it to direct a message to other women, to society, the whole world,” says Zsuzsanna Simon. Her six-piece series, Ugly or Beauty? plays with societal hatred for female body hair.
Exhibited in a Hungarian designer store in 2018, the pictures show Zsuzsanna’s body hair decorated with Swarovski crystals, feathers, textiles, and fake eyelashes. In this utopian feminist fantasy, body hair is decorated for every occasion.
“We are in the 21st century, and people are still surprised to see body hair on a woman. It’s time we change that.”
Reimagining body hair as an ornament rather than something to be embarrassed about, her photos — made in collaboration with performance artist Anna Ádám — are injected with humour and irony. “The human body is beautiful. I want to show that body hair should be nurtured like a garden, and can be customised like a car,” she says.
Andi Gáldi Vinkó’s latest series, Sorry I gave birth I disappeared but now I’m back is a candid representation of motherhood, from the initial flood of pregnancy hormones to waves of dirty diapers. Some early photos are diary-like images of her own journey. Others, while also inspired by her pregnancy, were reshot with friends. “I have seen very few realistic depictions of the real vulnerability [of pregnancy],” Vinkó says.“When a woman is shown from the male gaze, it’s often different from the way women actually see themselves.”
The photographer bares it all: the bruised nipples, the swollen tummies, the postpartum incontinence pads, and scars. ”This series is my way of asking: are you living through the same shit?”
For the photographer, who lived “out of a suitcase” as a freelancer, finally settling down in Budapest brought mixed feelings. Sorry I… is, in part, an attempt to connect her work and family life. “I wanted to be present when I became a mother, but at the same time keep up the illusion of freelancing.”
Vinkó believes her generation is challenging the status quo: “We don’t shave if we don’t want to; we are not ashamed to ask for sanitary products in public.” At the same time, the photographer knows that the digital era brings new challenges — including censorship. “Instagram constantly deletes my works,” she says. She’s still unsure whether it’s an issue with the algorithm or with users reporting her posts. “This summer, they deleted a few of my pictures from four or five years ago, which was off, because some of them didn’t even show nipples — only skin or a baby’s bum.”
“I was raised in a traditional family and gender roles are ingrained in me,” says media artist Ágnes Éva Molnár.“However, I have a rebellious side that I express in my pictures.”
This defiance manifests in Pin Up, a two-image series making fun of how society views female bodies through the lens of desirability. She uses props — white inflatable balls — to show how such expectations overshadow and erase women’s personalities.
The photographer was inspired by a trip to Mexico for her series La Santa, where she was shocked by local violence against women, the disappearance of girls, and the failures of the authorities in tackling the issue. The series reimagines the Mexican film hero, El Santo, as a real superhero: in sneakers, a silver mask and a bikini, sweeping the house and doing everyday chores.
Hundred times, on the other hand, visualises the messages that girls are told by society about being a woman, featured as decoration on the skin of her models. Some seem like harmless promises: “I Won’t Be Bad”. Others — “I Will Not Fight Against My Raper” and “I Will Change the Color of my Skin” — reveal the brutal policing of not only bodies but of selfhood, and the impossible standards women must live by.
“Why is it that when we see a picture of a naked woman, it’s inevitably deemed pornographic?” asks Éva Szombat, a photographer best known for her electric blend of art and fashion photography. “I intentionally turn to more controversial topics, to confront the issues that bother me.”
One of those topics is the idea of female pleasure, which is still widely a taboo in Hungary. Hoping to make pleasure a part of everyday conversation, she started her series I Want Orgasms, Not Roses to normalise the idea of women owning sex toys.
In Beyond The Curve, she subverts the expectations which society places on brides-to-be, such as losing weight before their wedding. Talking about the self-portraits included in the series, Szombat says: “it’s a relief to have nothing to hide.”
In Practitioners, now available as a book, she explores what makes people happy. One of the models — celebrity, soap actress and singer Angelika Novák (also known by her stage name Angéla Diva) — is pictured in her home, decorated in objects and symbols associated with the British Royal Family. She created most of the ornaments and costumes displayed in her apartment herself, and Szombat documents her as royalty in her own right.
It was crucial for Bernadett Fejér to shoot her portrait series Women in spaces where her models felt most comfortable — often, at home. For the series, the photographer wanted each model to show her true self. The resulting photos have a diverse visual style, but all are studies of the naked body. “Getting naked every day is a mutual, daily experience,” says Fejér. “This is a link that binds us.”
Other photos are set in nature. Growing up in Transylvania, the photographer has always been drawn to wilderness, and believes in the connection between the female body and Mother Earth. Well-known Hungarian musicians, influencers, and podcasters have all stripped for Fejér’s work.
Fejér hopes to put together a book of her portraits by the end of the year — a format for which she wouldn’t need to censor her work. “Instagram has blocked me multiple times, for showing a nipple in the corner of the photo,” she says. Besides battling with the algorithm, she is equally fed up with people interpreting her art as an invitation for others to send inappropriate pictures to her inbox. Still, Fejér doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Through photographing the naked body, she says, “I’ve learned a lot about myself, the way I communicate with my body”.