Art show goes beyond the fairytale to find the real princesses of Yorkshire

Writers Block - just one of the pictures to feature in Maria Spadafora's exhibition.
Writers Block - just one of the pictures to feature in Maria Spadafora's exhibition.

The stereotypical, not to say sexist and outmoded, claim that ‘every girl wants to be a princess’ is being spectacularly subverted by a new exhibition in Leeds.

Morley-based photographer Maria Spadafora’s show The Real Princesses of Yorkshire offers a different, gritty take on the fairytale princess, a figure of popular culture that is still (unfathomably) held up as inspirational and aspirational.

It has been a source of irritation for Spadafora for years she says and it all came to a head when her brother and his partner were expecting a baby. “They had been told after the first scan that they were expecting a girl and we had nine months of ‘I can’t wait to meet my little princess’. It really irked me – not their excitement, but the fact that we were inflicting that gender stereotype on to an unborn child.”

It sowed the seeds for The Real Princesses of Yorkshire which is Maria’s first funded project as an artist – with support from the Arts Council and Leeds Inspired – having taken up photography a few years ago in her forties. “I’m very much on a steep learning curve,” she laughs. Initially she says she had thought of photographing ‘princesses’ in everyday situations and settings. “But then it evolved into a celebration of real women and people. I wanted to try and turn something I feel really quite cynical about into something positive.”

Maria’s ‘day job’ is at Bradford-based theatre company Freedom Studios where she manages the education and participation programme. “I come across a lot of actors and writers through my work and so after securing funding it’s been a whirlwind of inviting people to be part of it – the response has been brilliant – organising shoots and locations and hiring costumes. All of the pictures are either in Leeds or Bradford and most of the people in them are from Leeds or Bradford.”

Maria’s princesses include Emmerdale scriptwriter Caroline Mitchell, playwrights Aisha Khan and Zodwa Nyoni and poet Kirsty Taylor in a group shot wittily entitled The Writers’ Block, taken on Shakespeare Avenue. Others who have taken part are actors from Bradford-based leading learning-disabled theatre company Mind the Gap and drag artist Martin Carter aka Maria Millionaire.

Significantly, none of the participants are smiling in the photographs. This is entirely deliberate. “Women spend their whole lives being told to smile,” says Maria. “And of course smiling is something you instantly feel you must do when having your picture taken. But why should women feel they have to smile to please others? I wanted to play around with that a little bit.” While the project wittily explodes the whole ‘princess myth’ it also asks some serious questions about stereotyping of all kinds. “The idea is to embrace the fun side of it while at the same time being critical of the lack of diversity or agency,” says Maria. “I wanted to show that princesses can be of different ethnicities, all shapes and sizes and disabilities, but I hope that at the very least some of the pictures will make people smile.”

There is no suggestion that any of the princesses in Maria’s pictures are expecting prince charming to come along and provide them with a happy ending. These are strong women who are in charge of their own destiny. “Yes,” says Maria wryly. “Nobody is waiting to be saved.”

At Arts@Trinity, Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane, Leeds, until September 22.