Local artist bends gender profiles in photography exhibition

Photograph featured in Sara Swaty Roger’s Gender-Bender exhibition at the Joseph Sister’s Gallery in St. Genevieve

By Leanne Ortbals, Jewish Light Intern

For twenty-something Sara Swaty Roger, attending Central Reform Congregation not only enriched her sense of Jewish community and spirituality but also helped her to find an outlet for artistic expression.

CRC helped connect Roger with Cultural Leadership during her junior year at Kirkwood High School.  Cultural Leadership brings together predominantly Jewish and African-American students in the St. Louis area, teaching them how to become community organizers and leaders of social change.  Roger described the program as “empowering,” saying that it “addresses overcoming obstacles.”

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“We went on a civil rights retreat and I found the photography from the era inspiring,” she explained. “I learned that photography is a powerful tool to raise awareness.

As a result, Roger began pursuing photography in high school, buying her first real digital camera when she was 16. “I took pictures all the time,” she said. “I took all the photo classes offered at school and worked as a year book photographer.  I felt encouraged by my parents and my community.” 

Roger’s passion for photography led her to study at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., where she graduated this year with a bachelor of fine arts degree. She majored in professional photographic illustration and minored in cultural anthropology.

Her studies in anthropology influenced her most recent project at the Joseph Sister’s Gallery in Sainte Genevieve called “Gender-Bender.” The photography show, which Roger says explores identity and embraces the differences in people, opens on Friday and runs until July 21.

“It’s a project that I’ve been working on since March 2010,” she said.  “As a cultural anthropology minor I learned about gender in other cultures and began with trying to photograph gender roles.  I started with what was specific to males and females and photographed a variety of people despite (them being) gay, straight, male or female.” 

The Gender-Bender exhibition is Roger’s first solo show.  In it, she features 15 to 20 subjects in a collection of photographs, juxtaposing contrasting models.

 “They all have an interesting story to tell,” Roger said. “One piece that I love is an effeminate male around my age paired with an older gentleman shaving his chest.  I want to show people that it’s not alien and not weird.” 

She hopes people will “look at gender in a new light and remember that what society and cultures reflect upon as what we should be as a gender is not what we should be held to or abide by.  Why should girls like pink? Why should boys like blue?” 

Roger focused on capturing “the little things you wouldn’t expect” to break down some of the common stereotypes associated with gender. She hopes her work can show that “there are a billion shades of gray” when it comes to gender roles.

At the close of her exhibition, Roger looks forward to working as a freelance photographer in the St. Louis area.

For more information about her show, go to: www.josephsistersgallery.com/artistjune24th2011.htm.