Strong Back, Soft Front

Writer Kate Erwin profiles Rebecca "Bexx" Ferri and Strong Back, Soft Front, a photography series dedicated to strong, brave and courageous Womxn* (*trans & cis, non-binary & 2-Spirit)

"It's hard to be truly vulnerable, open and honest and then sit in front of a camera."

It is hard to not notice Rebecca “Bexx” Ferri. She lights up the room with her presence. Her signature long blonde braids - a hair style she has worn since she was a kid - matches her generally sunny demeanor and big smile. I remember the first time I met Bexx, it was at Elevation Place, a climbing gym in Canmore. Bexx could barely get a climb in because everyone was saying hi to her, clearly she was one of the most loved climbers of the community, and as soon as I saw her climb, I realized she was one of the most talented climbers as well. I was deeply intimidated, but it all melted away when she graciously accepted me into her world. Her empathy and sensitivity is even brighter than her braids and is the source of her powerful radiation.

I have learned over the years of knowing Bexx that climbing isn’t her only talent. Bexx is an organizer and supporter of people. She has helped organize and emcee, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, the Canmore Climbing Festival and has been for the last two  years, a host for The Banff Film Festival, amongst other various groups she is involved with. She is certainly an exemplary member of the Bow Valley community. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when she picked up the camera and started her Strong Back, Soft Front project. 

Strong Back, Soft Front, was inspired by Berne Brown’s talks on the strength of vulnerability, something that Bexx sees in the women in her climbing community. Nurturing her own vulnerability, Bexx picked up the camera (something she had not done much since graduating art school) and looked to capture the complexities of others’ vulnerability. 

I asked Bexx some questions about her exciting, ever evolving project.

Image Courtesy of Rebecca Ferri

Image Courtesy of Rebecca Ferri

KE: Has Brene Brown seen your project?

BF: Oh my gosh, I wish. I don't think she has. I actually have a draft email to send to her. Hopefully she will be interested and we can have a conversation about how much she has positively influenced me - and so many other people in this world. I'd love to sit down and have a coffee with her. 

KE: What was the biggest hurdle starting it? (Pre-covid)

BF: My own self. I was so worried I wasn't going to do a good job representing these amazing womxn. Turns out, the biggest hurdle was actually timing. In true fashion, I procrastinated and l had a month to get 30 images taken, edited, printed. I did the printing myself with the help of a fantastic friend I know from photo school, Marty, I used her professional printer! It all worked-out in the end. It turns out, I work well under immense pressure. 

KE: Were you surprised at anyone’s reaction?

BF: No, not really. It's hard to be truly vulnerable, open and honest and then sit in front of a camera. Most of the womxn felt a little shy at first, but with some great conversation and creating a safe space, we were able to get beautiful images! I hope all the womxn felt comfortable during the photo session and came out of it feeling powerful, beautiful and strong. 

KE: You are still doing the project, right? How has covid changed that and how has the pandemic (time) maybe helped you find a new audience?

BF: Yes! I am still doing this project. I am averaging working with 1-2 womxn a month! I hope it goes on forever...

There was a little bit of a pause because of the Pandemic. Obviously, with no travel and not being allowed to spend time with strangers indoors, I had to pause the photoshoot part of the project. I did give a shout out online to see who was interested in being a part of Strong Back Soft Front, and received an overwhelming amount who wanted to be involved! So, I sent the questionnaires to them, and planned to have the photoshoots in 2021. 

The COVID time-off turned out to be beneficial, it did allow me to find a new audience and get a fresh look on where I would like this project to go! With the help from a few friends, I realized that I was stating this project was for 'women' and I wasn't identifying that it was for all strong, brave and courageous womxn (*trans & cis) non-binary and two-spirit. The project now holds a space for all women-identified.

I want Strong Back, Soft Front to be rich in diverse stories and culture, so that means the project needs to be accessible for everyone, comfortable for everyone, welcoming for everyone. The Bow Valley, with its slow change, is limiting. My community, friends and climbing partners here in Canmore, Alberta are 90% white. I opened up the project to include the cities of Calgary and Edmonton (and surrounding areas), Invermere (BC) and Squamish (BC), which will give space for the project to grow and expand. The last year sure has been a wonderful time for learning and growing!

KE: Who are some of your influences?

BF: Obviously Brene Brown. All my close and wonderful girl-friends. I also am floored by all the inspiring local womxn (and around the world.) I have many artists and photographers who inspire me too. The list could go on and on.

KE: What are some of the ways you see women’s bodies being used in advertising, editorial in the outdoors that still feels stressful?

BF: Oof, this is a heavy subject. How much time do I have? 

Still, to this day, women's bodies are used to sell - anything and everything. It's everywhere, not just in the outdoor world. It's true, it's very stressful. It's even come up within this project. I have thought to myself ‘ I don't want to make this about negative body image’, I find myself wondering if the womxn are thinking the same thing. I think we are far away from this method of selling to be over, unfortunately. I am hoping with more important conversations, having this topic on up-front-and-centre, we can at least help the outdoor industry realize that this method isn't working anymore and there needs to be a drastic change in the way we think about advertising and editorial work. During all of the photoshoots for this project, I had wonderful conversations. Many different topics were covered. Body image was definitely one of them and it's important to keep the conversations going. 

Body image, masculinity vs femininity, eating disorders, inclusion, strength vs beauty, identity, abuse, trauma, loss, depression, honesty, vulnerability, courage, anxiety, braving the wilderness - and more. These are the conversations that this project welcomes. This project has the space to hold these conversations. I hope they continue and we can hold space for each other - no matter what. This will be the change we want to see - being brave, speaking truth, standing up for what you believe in, making a difference and holding a safe space for one another. That's what the project Strong back, Soft front, is all about. 

KE: What are some of the images that you like?

BF: I love my inspiring and beautiful friend Bianca’s image. I smile every time I look at Claire's image. Barb's image gives me strength. Honestly, it's hard to choose, all the portraits represent the women involved and I have a connection to all of them. 

KE: How do you decide which image to pick from a series? 

BF: Oh geez, this is the hardest part. I sift through a lot of images from each photoshoot. I usually narrow it down to five. Focusing on position, composition and of course, which image is best representing the subject. I send a few of my final picks to each womxn, so they can have their say on the image they think best suits them. Every single person in this project is at a different stage in life -  as you mentioned, everyone is going through something - so really it's not my job to make them look a certain way. This project is for them, so their input is obviously very valid and welcomed. 

KE: Other points you want to make or things you want people to know about you!

BF: I am very grateful for the support surrounding this project. It's been a very fun passion-project for me. A huge thanks to you too, Kate, for taking part in Strong Back, Soft Front. You are brave and vulnerable, and I admire you. 

As I have mentioned before, this project is still going strong. If you know of anyone who would be interested in being a part of it, please check out my instagram account @strong.back_soft.front and get in touch! 

Image Courtesy of Rebecca Ferri

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