Ever since she was a kid, Theresia Bråkenhielm (Stockholm, 1977) has had a passion for horses. “Even before I had seen a horse in real life, I had totally been in love with them. Books, films and toys talked about a world more powerful and magic than I ever could believe was true.” She was still a young girl when she started taking riding lessons and learned that “respect is something you earn by physical strength and mental roughness.” The stables constituted a parallel world, which allowed her not only to escape from the tensions of the family life but also to test her own physical and mental limits. Horse riding had become a way for Theresia, the young woman, to express herself as an individual.
Though she had stopped riding since she was 16, she regularly took the stables as a subject matter for her assignments while studying at the Nordens School for Photography in Bålsta. By the end of 2004, it was time for her to start working on her final examination project. Her initial plan to shoot a series of self-portraits was soon to be replaced by portraits of young girls training at the stables. It turned out so well that it attracted the attention of several art institutions in Sweden and gave way to the publication of a substantial catalogue with text by Swedish fiction writer, Moa Matthis, and with design by award winning Art Director Greger Ulf Nilsson. Her photo series of stable girls has proven to challenge traditional representations of the gender and social politics of the sport of horse riding and, more generally, of the relation between women and nature.
Gender difference is stimulated since childhood. During this early period of life, children are disciplined into seeing the world according to the toys they play with. “Boys are given miniature cars that display the same features as real size ones. Girls have to play with completely aberrant toys like Barbies that can’t even stand up and with ponies that have lilac hair and butterflies on their but. What a nonsense!” About the importance of the gender politics of toys into constructing different adult identities, Theresia comments, “when the girls grow old, they probably think they have to look like Barbies in order to get a real size pony!” According to society, women should stay in this realm of private fantasy and do not get involved into active and public life. With her pictures of stable girls, Theresia wants to break with this conception of womanhood. “I really want to show that even girls can be passionate, obsessed and hard ass working! And also that they are doing it because it makes them feel in control and powerful, instead of preparing themselves for motherhood, like many would like to think.” For in fact, she comments, “even though Sweden is said to be very advanced in regards to gender politics, the thought of hard-cut and rough women, and especially girls, is something unthinkable.” This is also noticeable within the Swedish press coverage of sports. “Horse riding is, together with football, the most popular sport in Sweden. It is also a sport in which women predominate. However it is sickening to see how it doesn’t get as much attention in the press as football.”
During the twelve months of work on her end examination project, Theresia took about 20.000 images. She comments on the fact that “my second biggest talent has been to select the images that really represented what I feel about these stable girls.” With this process she would coherently try to avoid any cliché that would indulge into stereotypical representations of women and horses as they relate to female sexuality. “My aim is to show how it really is to deal with half a ton of animal!” She says that “There were two things that really were pushing me from the very start: feelings of happiness and frustration.” These basic emotions were, according to Theresia, characteristic of the quests and challenges bound to sports –beyond gender, sexual or social differences. “I like to compare the stable girls with boxers, with whom they share the same focus and determination when these enter the ring not knowing whether they are going to win or to be beaten up.” Independence as an individual is to be measured according to what one is willing to do or give up in order to pursue one’s own passion. Theresia’s stable girls wouldn’t give up their dream of achieving perfection in the art of riding. With this project she had been able to give life to her own childhood’s memories and to portray the similar aspirations that had blossomed in her youth and had given her strength.
Another prejudice that Theresia wanted to challenge with this project was the one that states that horse riding is elitist and is bound to a division between city and countryside. Theresia explains, “I choose Väsby Riding school because it’s situated within a very middle class area, and the kids cannot be mistaken for being spoiled brats.” Yet this documentary dimension of the project doesn’t feature prominently in the images. Theresia wanted these to have qualities that leave them open to interpretation and therefore would easily crystallize with the viewer’s own world. “My images aren’t so difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t been trying to analyse an image before.” That’s also one of the reasons why she choose to release the pictures in black-and-white. She argues: “I think that it’s easier for people to put themselves into these images. I hope that this quality allows the viewers to relate them to their fantasy in an easier way.” Interestingly enough, it’s reducing the amount of visual information that allows the picture to speak more directly to the viewer. “When the images are in colour or if I show too much in them, I am scared that I will loose the viewer. If I serve everything on a silver plate, people will probably just glance at the pictures for a few seconds and then go away.” Theresia also chose moments in-between, between different states or movements –be them physical or emotional. “You don’t know precisely what has happened or what is going to happen. The positions and situations are undetermined and can be interpreted in different ways.”
As Theresia concludes, “half of my pictures are sweet, telling about the dream inside the girls. The other half is hard-cut, rough and animal like.” Hopefully, somewhere inside our visual memory, we will keep these suggestive images of a different femaleness, that that shows its wilderness for the sake of its own purpose. Leaving behind “Hollywood smiles” and cliché representations, there will come a time when women will be able to live for their own dreams. For the nostalgia we might feel at looking at some of Theresia’s pictures is the one that arises from recognising the possibility of other futures.