Photographer says she shows reality for young Cornish women

Fran Rowse’s photos are a world away from the picture-postcard image of Cornwall served up to tourists.

Instead of beach towel-toting holidaymakers, her vision is more gritty and, she says, realistic.

But there is also a message that runs like a stick of rock through her images, about female identity in the county.

“I come from a fishing and farming family, my brother was swept up into this world of, ‘you’re gonna be a fisherman’, and then I was kind of left in a ‘when are you getting married?’ kind of situation.

“It sounds funny, but it’s so serious, that is the way it is here for so many girls, in rural situations particularly,” she said.

Fran, 25, from Perranporth, is revealing some of the background motivations to her work, captured in a series of photographs titled Maids.

“Growing up in Cornwall, it’s just a very male dominant patriarchal world where women aren’t listened to,” she said.

“Historically, the men went fishing, the women would fix the nets, it’s always like a lesser person.

“Opportunity is slim here.”

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Fran Rowse: Cornish Maids is diversifying

The contrast between the mundane backgrounds in her pictures – of back alleys and discarded mattresses – and the striking prom dresses is key to her message about female identity.

“The dresses are also like dressing up as they could be who they want to be, they should have the opportunities and that’s what lacks here,” she said.

“I wanted to show girls where they really live, away from tourism, away from beaches, away from ice cream shops, because that is a façade that’s not real.

“Cornwall is one of the most poverty stricken places in the whole of northern Europe, let’s talk about that. How do we fix that? We have a huge amount of food banks, let’s talk about that.”

Maids picture
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Feminine energy and laughter has inspired her

She remembers at the age of eight she was at her best friend’s house and her older sister was there with friends in their prom dresses.

“It was like the room was suffocating with feminine energy and laughter,” she said.

“They did not feel vulnerable. They weren’t trying to conform to this idea that women are lesser.

“It made me think if we make these spaces, if we create these times, then it can’t be taken away from us.

So she said it inspired her photography to “be like, let’s dress up. I’m going to take pictures of us”.

“That was literally what it was and then the ball started rolling.

“And I started to figure out all of these layered things of why I was doing it and the politics and all of those things.”

Maids picture
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Her work has led to shows in London and the south west

Her series of photographs, called Maids, has resulted in a book, thriving social media, and shows in London, Bristol and Cornwall’s Newlyn Art Gallery where, unusually for an art show, she incorporated a tattooist and piercing booth.

She said: “All of these things are intriguing for people between the ages of 16 to 25, which is a massive age gap that has been completely missed in museums and art galleries.”

She added another show was being prepared for Newlyn in the new year and it would reflect a change in approach.

“I’m older and I can’t photograph 16 year olds forever so, as I grow, my work grows with me.

“I’m taking a slightly different direction with the outfits.

“It’s the same thing but just, like, maybe a bit more mature.”

There is also a project in hand around the Merry Maidens standing stones, an ancient symbol near St Buryan whose myth lends itself to her work.

“The story goes that these girls were dancing on the sabbath and, as punishment, they were turned to stone,” she said.

“They were put in their place for being bad.”

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Fran is keen to extend the reach of her work

But she is keen to look outside Cornwall for future projects.

“This has kind of come to that point now of thinking about women not having voices worldwide, it’s not just Cornwall, it’s everywhere.

“I just don’t like the feeling of going somewhere and photographing at people, that just doesn’t sit well with me at all.

“So if I can, if I photograph a woman, I like to have a connection, whether that’s rural areas or historical and, frankly, that’s most places because, historically, men have had the upper hand.

“Cornish Maids is growing, it’s a place for conversation, sisterhood, a place for photography, a place for learning.”

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