Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the first woman to be Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK. All photos by Anita Corbin

The Photographer Taking Pictures of Women Who Were First in their Field

Anita Corbin went from taking iconic images of fashion-forward mod girls to photographing a different kind of trailblazer: the women who achieve world firsts.

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Feb 8 2016, 1:55pm

Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the first woman to be Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK. All photos by Anita Corbin

Anita Corbin has been photographing the fairer sex for over 30 years. In the 80s her lens focused on pairs of young women across the UK, from the Blitz club toilets to Crystal Palace McDonald's, in the Visible Girls series. Previously touring as a community art project, the images have since made their way onto every bright young thing's Instagram feed.

Today Corbin's attention is near exclusive to First Women , a project she began eight years ago that sees her shooting women who've realised the title of 'first' in their respective field. "It's a celebration of our time," she explains, "so a hundred years on they'll be able to say this is what women were doing at that time."

Made up of 100 portraits, the project will close in 2018, marking the century anniversary of women's suffrage in the UK. Here Corbin tells us how it happened.

Broadly: How did you come up with the concept?
As I approached my 50th birthday, I had the time to dream, in a way. My kids were reaching their teenage years and finding their own feet; I wanted to create a legacy, a project that would live on after I'd gone. I've always been interested in making images of women that create a positive role model, that reflect what we actually look like and show the individual characters that we are. So this allowed me to cover a huge range of subjects from different walks of life.

Is there any correlation between First Women and Visible Girls?
I did those portraits when I was a young photographer starting out, finding my identity; they are portraits of young women growing into adolescence and defining themselves. Now I'm a post-menopausal woman, it's more about where we've got to, where we are in our lives as women. Obviously it's about women expressing themselves, finding their niche in the world, and again it's about my interaction with her, just as the Visible Girls is about my interaction with two girls. It's about having a relationship with the sitter; it's not a press shot.

Bellatrix, the first woman in the UK to be a world champion beatboxer.

Did you have any specific firsts in mind when you began?
No, my first was actually the first woman who came up when I Googled "first women." She's called Sarah Outen and she was a 23-year-old woman who was just about to achieve a first in the Indian Ocean (she was the first woman to race solo across the Indian Ocean); we were communicating by satellite phone through her comms team. It was such a huge physical achievement, I thought she would be a great start to the project.

How did the firsts react when you approached them?
I'd say 95 percent agreed, which was fantastic. I was nervous when I wrote to my first, very important woman, Baroness Boothroyd [the first woman to be elected Speaker in the House of Commons], but she wrote back immediately and asked me to ring her direct line to arrange the date. Interestingly no women put themselves forward, often their reaction was, "Why me? I'm just doing my job, I'm just getting on with my career and my path." Not a false modesty, but certainly not pushing themselves into the limelight.

Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica.

Can you tell me a bit about the first women?
Everybody's an individual, that's my passion, to capture that individuality and bring out the essence of the woman that's behind the first; it doesn't have to be about the first in the sense that, if she's the first woman to be a conductor in the Royal Festival Hall (for example), I don't have to take her in that setting. Several of my firsts are middle-aged women, basically because it's 40 years since the Equal Opportunities Act, so in that time it's allowed a certain number of women to become firsts. We've got 18 year olds and we've got 102 year olds, so we've got a huge range; there's no age limit either end.

What were their firsts?
Edith Kent (the 102 year old) was the first woman to get equal pay in the Plymouth Dock Yard; she was a welding engineer, she was very petite she could actually climb inside the warheads and weld from inside. The 18 year old was a woman called Jade Jones, a taekwondo champion who at that point was the first woman and first person in Team GB to win a gold at the Youth Olympic Games; now she's also got a gold for taekwondo at the [2012] Olympics. So often the younger firsts will go on to have more and more firsts.

Jade Jones, the first woman to win a Team GB Gold Medal at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games 2010.

I was going to ask.
Once a first always a first, that's the beauty of the project—I can photograph women who became firsts in 1977; it doesn't have to be current. I photographed a woman who was the first woman to ride in the '77 Grand National [the prestigious British horse racing competition] and I photographed her in 2010.

What have been the biggest similarities between the firsts?
Everybody is so different. They're all very focused and they're hardworking individuals. Most of all they're very self-aware and they know, because they're the first, the spotlight's on them. They cannot afford to really do anything that would bring the wrong impression. They know how their actions will affect others. As a woman, you know if you put your wrong foot forward... [As] one of our firsts said, "Then the next post will be to a man because I'm the first woman and if I make a mistake I'll probably be the last."

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And the project's not finished yet.
I think I've got three to five spaces left, so still looking. We've been able to be current, so when there's a first woman announced, I've been able to follow her up; like [Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party leader] Nicola Sturgeon, we did her portrait last year. It's a capsule, in the run up to 100 years of women getting the vote, that's the motivation, to be a celebration of womanhood, to look at what we've achieved in the last 100 years, how women have made their impact on the world, rather than talk about the struggles that they have to get there. It's definitely my mission to get it into the curriculum somehow, to create an educational resource to help teach children how to be inspiring, how to cultivate personality traits that will make them first women.

Baroness Patricia Scotland, the first woman to be appointed Attorney General in the UK.
Clio Gould, the first woman to lead the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.