What makes a pose powerful? Five tips for modern-day portraits

Portrait and fashion photographers Wanda Martin and Tarik Carroll discuss the history of gendered beauty ideals and how challenging those standards is helping to break down stereotypes in the modelling world.
A group of men pose in blue jeans and open leopard-print and denim jackets, showing their bare chests.

New York-based photographer Tarik Carroll is the body positivity champion behind The EveryMAN Project, which aims to challenge society's long-held perceptions of masculinity. He was inspired to begin his mission after feeling overwhelmed by the lack of representation in the fashion industry. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1000. © Tarik Carroll

Have you ever considered how the direction 'rest your fingers on your collarbone' is reserved for women? Or how a wide stance and direct gaze is ostensibly seen as strong and masculine? Since the 1970s, stylised portrayals of men and women have been accused of setting impossibly high standards for beauty, health and happiness, as well as defining what femininity and masculinity look like. It's high time for a rethink.

"Society has always had this obsession with perfection, an obsession that conditions most of us to never feel comfortable in our own skin because we are simply not enough," says music and fashion photographer Tarik Carroll, who, with his EveryMAN Project, aims to reform concepts of male beauty. "I like to call The EveryMAN Project a visual conversation about male aesthetics," Tarik continues. "It's a body positivity project showcasing a spectrum of masculinity, talking about what it means to be a man, and really having an honest conversation about it."

Canon Ambassador and portrait and fashion photographer Wanda Martin has also been exploring diversity and challenging gender stereotypes in her work. Since undertaking a post-graduate project, Lovers, that depicted couples of all genders and sexualities in the intimate location of their beds, Wanda has been working with brands and editorial titles including Vogue, Wonderland, i-D and Numéro Russia, capturing portraits that "escape the traditional expectations of beauty". Instead, she focuses on the individualism of her subjects.

"I think a lot of brands recognise that you have a responsibility to show a more diverse idea of beauty," Wanda says. "Maybe some of them are just riding that trend, but at the end of the day, it's okay because this message is still going to reach that wider audience."

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A head and shoulders shot of a topless man with shaved hair facing to the right. He is lit entirely in blue, against a warm orange background.

Things are changing, says Tarik of the fashion industry, but slowly. "In terms of the conversation around body positivity and diversity and inclusion, I think we're just starting to scratch the surface. We've yet to do a deep dive, but I'm looking forward to seeing where this conversation goes," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Tarik Carroll

Rethinking definitions

So what exactly is gender posing? "A lot of it is linked to gender roles," explains Tarik. "The standard female poses with a concave back in editorial, pushing her shoulders backwards… if you're a man, it's hands on the hips, elongating the neck and looking up."

The formulaic images of men that Tarik witnessed in the media is what drove him to focus on a more diverse representation of male beauty. "The women's body positivity movement started way ahead of us," he says. "Women are more open to speaking about their emotions and body insecurities. We've been programmed not to speak about these things – to 'man up' and 'suck it up'. Women have been having these conversations for quite some time, and have had plus-sized divisions for over 10 years. We've only started signing plus-size men to model agencies in the past two to three years."

A close-up of a young woman with blonde hair, blue eyeshadow and elongated eyelashes. Her mouth is open as if she is about to scream.

Hungarian photographer Wanda Martin's fashion and portrait imagery combines the historical with the modern, with influences ranging from the Renaissance through to rock and roll. Her projects to date have included studies of youth cultures, subcultures and 'belonging versus opposing'. She has always been fascinated by the idea of the 'outsider'. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/320 sec, f/3.2 and ISO1000. © Wanda Martin

A man in a loose-fitting, floaty shirt lying on a green settee with a floral pattern and gold trim.

Wanda is currently working on a project that challenges ideals of masculinity, photographing portraits of a diverse group of men in the traditionally female pose of lying down on a sofa. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2500. © Wanda Martin

Wanda agrees there are more boundaries to be broken down with men than women. Her aesthetic is inspired by classical paintings – but with a major twist. "If you look at paintings from the past few centuries, even photographs from earlier this century, the female naked body was always the centre of attention," she explains. "It's always women lying on sofas, naked or half naked, looking out at you, the viewer."

Wanda's latest project turns this concept on its head, creating new representations of masculinity, posing men in their homes, lying on sofas in a show of vulnerability. "I'm working with all kinds of men – drag artists, big buff guys, older men," she says.

In a world where clients are increasingly asking for diverse representation, and imperfection and difference is fast becoming the new ideal, Wanda and Tarik share five tips for creating powerful modern-day portraits.

A young, bare-chested man wearing small hoop earrings stares intently at the camera.

"I'm not the type of photographer that's going to physically put a model into a pose. That's not what I do. It's about a collaboration. It's about us working together," says Tarik. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 67mm, 1/100 sec, f/6.3 and ISO1000. © Tarik Carroll

A woman in a fake tiger-skin fur coat crosses her arms across her chest and laughs. Her eyes are closed, showing devil horns painted across her eyelids and up onto her forehead.

To combat stereotypes, Wanda likes to focus on individualism in her work, whether that's a gap in teeth, skin individualities or body attributes. "When a photographer works with someone, they should definitely focus on what makes that subject different," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO200. © Wanda Martin

1. Educate yourselves

Real-world perceptions and behaviours of both genders are heavily influenced by visual media, and this is where photographers can come into play. "It's important that you educate yourself. Look at different publications, at conversations we're having right now about gender expressions," advises Tarik. "You can see that brands are starting to be more inclusive, there has been a shift – be mindful of the changes and open to critique."

Wanda says that if you understand and recognise a stereotype, it becomes easier to avoid. She adds, "Whenever I work with women, I don't want to show them overly sexualised. I want to show them strong and proud – attitude is definitely a key thing."

2. Focus on individuality

"Get to know who you're shooting," says Tarik. "Ask questions, what their pronouns are if that's a question that you feel you need to ask. By getting to know your subject, you can identify and show their individualism."

Focusing on "what makes the subject different from others" is also what Wanda advises. "If you have a subject with a missing tooth, let's show it. If you have a beautiful, curvy woman, let's embrace and show that. We should definitely focus on these characteristics as photographers and celebrate diversity."

"At men's model agencies 10 years ago, it was all chiselled jaws and six-packs – that was the beauty standard back then," says Tarik. "Working in fashion, I was told 'we're selling a fantasy' – but you have to ask whose fantasy that is, because last time I checked, everyone fantasised about different things. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented."

A portrait of a woman with a large afro filled with sunflowers.

Is fashion photography becoming more inclusive?

With increasing diversity in casting for fashion and beauty shoots, it seems the industry is changing for the better. Two photographers and a plus-size model discuss.

3. Be an observer

"When I ask some subjects to pose for me, I tell them a bit of a story," explains Wanda. "It's like me being a film director, telling my actors how to pose and what sort of role they have to be playing for me. When I work with street casts or with a celebrity, musician or actor, I think my role changes a little and I become more like an observer – to get something from their personality and catch something of their character."

A close-up of a young couple embracing lovingly.

Wanda's project Lovers captures couples in the intimate setting of their bedrooms – painting a more representative picture of what relationships look like. "I always have a chat with my subjects before we start working," says Wanda. "It helps them feel more relaxed." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 65mm, 1/160 sec, f/5 and ISO1250. © Wanda Martin

A black and white image of four men posing in denim clothing. They are laughing and smiling.

"You have to make your models comfortable, no matter what you're doing," says Tarik. "If you're doing portraiture, commercial work, headshots… from my experience of posing, it's the first step." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 32mm, 1/100 sec, f/9 and ISO250. © Tarik Carroll

4. Be real

"I can look at a portrait and tell when it's too posed. You can tell it's not honest," says Tarik. Representation is about being real. "It's a collaboration. It's really capturing the subject in their best light and making them feel good; making them feel comfortable so you can capture those in-between moments. Those moments end up being the shots that get selected because they're natural, they're honest. It doesn't matter how contrived companies try to make these concepts: people want to connect with something that feels real."

5. Make your subject comfortable

It may not be new for 2021, but the advice still stands: to capture an authentic picture of the person in front of you, they need to be relaxed. "I always put my music on really loud," says Wanda. "We have to have fun on set! That's one of the most important things."

Tarik, meanwhile, compiles a playlist curated to the subject's taste. But key, he says, is "providing a good environment for all the subjects on set. That's the foundation for getting a good portrait."

Wanda notes that preconceived notions of masculinity are often deeply ingrained, and not everyone is ready at first to explore more diverse depictions. "When I ask older men to pose for me like this, with gentle hands, for example, it's often much more difficult to convince them. They find it very feminine and just don't feel comfortable."

It's worth investing the time and effort required to draw these subjects out of their shells. "The aim is to make diverse, plural, alternative or non-hegemonic expressions of masculinity visible through my female gaze," Wanda concludes.

Emma-Lily Pendleton

Wanda Martin's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Wanda Martin's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and a Speedlite.


Canon EOS R6

The radical EOS R6 features technology that will have you falling in love with photography all over again. See and shoot subjects in completely new ways and add a new dimension to your visual storytelling. "I especially love the high ISO performance and the face-tracking AF," says Wanda.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Wanda's backup camera is a predecessor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, a versatile and rugged camera capable of beautiful images in any situation. "I've had it for eight years now, and I've shot most of my photographs on it so far, and we've had lots of adventures together," says Wanda. "Today I usually have it in my kitbag as a backup camera, just in case."


Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

An essential lens boasting a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing. "I like working fast, and professional zoom RF lenses give you the versatility and dynamism to go from portrait to full length in a heartbeat," says Wanda.


Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

The latest version of the Speedlite Wanda uses gives you control over your lighting, both on and off the camera. "I used to use it a lot, especially when shooting bands or at night in low light," says Wanda. "I have it in my kitbag just in case – it's better to be prepared for any situation."

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