Meet the Brazilian photographer evoking empathy and empowerment in the digital age

Luisa Dörr opens up.

Last year, TIME magazine shared an unusual behind the scenes shot of the making of one of their covers. In it, Hillary Rodham Clinton stands in front of a hedge wearing a blue pantsuit while Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr takes her portrait. In place of the heavy-duty lighting and camera equipment expected for a portrait of this calibre is Luisa’s iPhone, barely visible in her hands. A reflector lies on the grass beside them. The photo-making process has been stripped down to its essence: subject and photographer. In this same way, Luisa shot 46 female leaders for TIME’s unique Firsts project championing women trailblazers. “In my imagination, subjects like the ones we shot for Firsts were always surrounded by a big entourage of assistants and producers. I never thought they would agree to be in front of a phone,” Luisa says. “It is difficult for me to be inspired by a portrait of someone who seems unreachable. I need proximity and empathy. Using an iPhone was the perfect tool for that.”

Like all of Luisa’s photography, the women were shot in natural light, using reflectors if necessary. “The best part is that as a photographer, you feel extremely light and free. It’s almost as if I can make pictures with my hands,” Luisa says. While technology is at play, it is secondary. For Luisa, photography is how she navigates her way through the world.

Courtesy of Luisa Dörr

Luisa grew up in Lajeado, a small village in South Brazil in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where, she says, beauty is a common trait among women. “I always wanted to be a photographer, and my friends were my first models,” Luisa says. After four years studying graphic design, she went on to study photography at the Lutheran University of Brazil.

Following extensive travel for the TIME shoots, Luisa returned to the unadulterated nature of Itacaré, a small fishing town in the state of Bahia in Brazil, where she moved recently from fast-paced São Paulo. She reflected on the experience later on Instagram with a photo of her and Oprah Winfrey, captioning it: “The best part of this dream assignment was to meet in person all the living icons. And [to] experience first hand how humble and human they are, just like most of us.”

Courtesy of Luisa Dörr

Whether photographing local fishermen or the world’s most powerful women, Luisa captures people with sincerity and a genuine interest in showing who they are. Her photography communicates the human experience. On her Instagram account she shares her iPhone-shot portraits with her 100,000 plus audience, and it was on this platform that TIME’s Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise Kira Pollack came across her work. She told TIME, “The first picture that caught my eye was of a young girl, in a hot pink tank top, staring at the camera. I was instantly drawn down the magical scroll of [Luisa’s] feed. There were countless images of women of all ages against ethereal yet raw landscapes.”

Looking through her portfolio it becomes clear that much of Luisa’s work is concerned with documenting the multifarious lives of women. During the Rio Olympics in 2016 she photographed sex workers who moved to the city to work during the Games. She says, “I knew that this market existed from the World Cup in Germany. I read that hundreds of thousands of prostitutes were sent there to work. So I expected the same would happen in Rio.” Luisa acknowledges projects like these for teaching her something on an existential level, which might later affect her photography and the projects she takes on. A similar project but one whose subject matter is somewhat in contrast is The Brides Veil: photographs of women who belong to the orthodox Brazilian Christian Congregation. Female members of the congregation wear white veils and long skirts when they attend a service. Make-up and nail polish are prohibited, and once a woman has been baptised, it’s considered a sin for her to cut her hair; in the eyes of the apostles this is “an act reserved for prostitutes”. “Wherever you go in the world you find the same pattern: submission by women to artificial, male-created rules,” says Luisa. “Some women are brainwashed, others programmed from childhood, but many are just fine with total submission. And you see it here, in Saudi Arabia or in Mea Shearim.”

Courtesy of Luisa Dörr

As a female photographer, Luisa feels closer and more connected to women subjects. On the female gaze, she says, “Generally speaking, when a woman takes photos of women, it feels like a fair exchange of emotional psychology.” Her project #womentopography documents a diversity of women photographed on her travels around the world. The hashtag began as a way for her to organise these portraits and has become an ongoing series. While these images are quick snapshots of women’s lives, other times Luisa’s photography expands to reveal more of her subjects’ experiences: we meet their family members or are invited into their homes or to the shop around the corner to pick up a loaf of bread. This was the case with Maysa Leite – the girl in the hot pink tank top.

Luisa met Maysa in 2014 when she was on assignment shooting photographs of the preteen contestants of the Young Miss Brazil pageant. Then, Maysa was an 11-year-old hopeful who was in need of a modelling portfolio. Luisa agreed to photograph her for free, and has been documenting her and her family ever since in their home in Brasilândia, one of São Paulo’s most dangerous slums. Maysa went on to win Young Miss São Paulo Black Beauty, a separate division specifically for girls of colour. Luisa’s photographs of Maysa’s journey highlight issues of racism, common in Brazil even though most people there are of mixed ethnicities. “Brazil is an extremely sexist, homophobic, religious, and violent country, but it’s also very liberal. [This creates] the fake sensation that all is just fine,” Luisa says. Maysa and Luisa are now close friends, and Luisa’s Instagram account bears witness to the 14-year-old Maysa’s rise as a promising model.

Courtesy of Luisa Dörr

The project is typical of Luisa’s style of using personal stories to critique the political. “I have a personal tendency to [shoot] social stories, with some critical thinking involved,” she says. “I feel that injustice has to be documented anywhere. But also the media and the public need to be educated on how to consume this information, otherwise they will use it as entertainment and it will not help anyone.” Luisa took portraits on assignment recently in Riosucio, Colombia, for the UN Refugee Agency. In 2016, a historic peace agreement was reached in the country between the state and FARC, following over 50 years of armed conflict, which forced over seven million people from their homes. But with the peace process has come new uncertainties and threats. Luisa’s portraits of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people fighting for peace in the region, coupled with each subject’s personal story in their own words, makes the situation relatable.

While Luisa’s lens is focused on others, on a fundamental level she is using the art of portraiture to find herself: “I use photography to relate to this world, to better understand who I am, and my relation to others. Those places and faces help me to keep a less abstract existence.” As her recent subject Oprah Winfrey says in the video trailer for TIME Firsts: “It’s essential that in life you see yourself reflected in other people’s stories.”

Courtesy of Luisa Dörr

See more of Luisa Dörr’s work online here and in the gallery below.