On a brisk November afternoon, I hopped off the G train in Clinton Hill and made my way to BriAnne Wills’ idyllic brownstone-lined street. She greeted me at the top of her building’s stoop, eyes lined in bright blue pencil, fringe bangs effortlessly styled, wearing a relaxed but on-trend outfit and a welcoming smile to boot. When we entered her light-filled apartment, I found Nooklyn photographer Chris Setter already inside setting up gear for our shoot. No cats were visible — until BriAnne called attention to the sizable lump underneath a throw blanket on the couch.
BriAnne (who was introduced to me by illustrator Cat Willett), is a fashion and beauty photographer and creator of Girls and Their Cats, a photo series showcasing cat-owning women in a positive light. Her point: the frumpy, reclusive, crazy Cat Lady archetype that pervades media and entertainment is a byproduct of our male-dominant society, which fears and isolates women who appear too independent, too strong, too intelligent. Girls and Their Cats is tackling this perception one photo story at a time. We sat down at BriAnne’s breakfast table to discuss this and other creative pursuits, life in Brooklyn, cats, and more.
Lyka Sethi: Tell me a bit about the beginnings of your photography career and where the idea for Girls and Their Cats came from.
BriAnne Wills: I was a photographer from a very young age. My dad is also a photographer and always had cameras around, so I would make my family pose for me and do little fashion shoots when I was in middle school. It’s always been a part of my life, but I hadn’t really pursued it until I moved to New York in 2014 to get into fashion and beauty photography. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any connections — I was starting from scratch. I was the new kid on the block.
LS: But you knew that fashion and beauty was the niche you wanted to focus on.
BW: Yes, because there was a directorial aspect to it and I knew that I enjoyed that since those childhood photo shoot days. I love fashion, and while I don’t care that much about my personal style, I really love the fantasy of it.
I thought a great way to get out there and meet people in New York would be to start a photo series. I could work on my craft, get to know the city a bit better, and meet more people. So I thought ‘why don’t I do a series of nude women in their homes?’ I just thought the female gaze would be refreshing.
With the first nude model, her cat popped into frame and decided to be in the shoot, and I went with it and started taking photos of her and her cat together. That experience made me think about how all of the ‘cat ladies’ I know are really cool and question why there is still this stigma associated with it. That was my lightbulb moment. I did a casting call on Instagram after putting out those first photos, and people wanted to be a part of it, but were asking, ‘do I have to be naked?’
LS: Were you thinking you would try to keep the nude aspect of it, or had the idea shifted away from that already?
BW: No, it was definitely a hard switch. I also thought it’d be a series of 20 people, and then I could move on to another series. But I posted the first 20 photos on Bored Panda, and I got a bunch of followers and more people asking to be a part of it, and I just decided to keep it going. Now it’s almost 2019 and it’s still going strong. I’ve photographed over 270 cat ladies, and it’s the way that I get fashion and beauty work.
LS: Oh, so industry clients find your work through this project?
LS: The goal of countering the cat lady stereotype… does it continue to be a major focus now, four years after you started the project?
BW: For sure. My husband lives in Ukraine, so we essentially have a long distance marriage. I’m here alone with our cats, and I used to get the ‘oh, you have two cats?’ pity response from people a lot. Even recently I was on a set and I was explaining the project to someone, and she was immediately like, ‘oh my god, cat ladies are so crazy’. That was just what she knew or what she’d heard. So the stigma is definitely still there and the project shows that there are so many different types of cat ladies, different types of cats, they all have really special stories, and that’s what ties us all together. It’s not that we all look a certain way or dress a certain way, it’s that we all really love our cats. And we’re not crazy!
LS: Do feminist ideals come into play throughout these conversations?
BW: Definitely. We’re reclaiming something. Cat ladies go back so far, back into the Middle Ages when cats were seen as evil, you know? But I think that was because really smart, independent women had cats. And — sorry, I know there’s a man in here [gesturing to our photographer, Chris, who laughs good-naturedly] but I’m gonna rag on men for a second.
LS: Go ahead!
BW: I think it stems from men not being able to handle the smart and independent woman who makes decisions for herself, so they had to say, ‘oh, she’s definitely crazy because she has a cat’. We’re taking back that image, the cat lady, and we’re reclaiming it.
LS: Have you found that this is something the cat ladies you feature are already thinking about when they come to you? Or is it more that they find your work, and they’re like ‘oh — this is so true. I want to get involved.’
BW: Both. I do get people reaching out to me who were googling why there’s a stigma, maybe because their friends made a comment. And when they find Girls and Their Cats, they can say ‘well hey, look at this project. Look at all these cool cat ladies.’ And then they want to be a part of it. It’s kind of like a cat lady coven.
LS: I love it. Talking about the process of finding people to feature — of course now I’m sure you’re getting a high volume of entries…
BW: Yeah, hundreds.
LS: I noticed in looking at the site that a lot of these women are creatives, entrepreneurs, leaders… what do you look for in candidates to feature?
BW: In the beginning it was strictly creatives because it was a way for me to network within the industry. It’s branched out since then — I’ve photographed economists, lawyers, journalists, a wide variety of people. But the criteria is basically that they are doing something cool with their lives, they’re pursuing their dreams, they have their own unique sense of style, and they’ve adopted or rescued their cats. No fancy purchased cats on my watch.
I’m also interested in space. You might notice that on the website there are a lot of cool looking interiors. It‘s not always the case — sometimes the story and the person outweigh that, but if it works out, the photos turn out beautifully. I’ve been in some apartments, though, where it was like, ‘you knew somebody was coming over, right?’
LS: But you can’t really do or say anything!
BW: No! And it’s fine — you can live how you wanna live. But part of why I show interiors is to showcase how cool cat ladies live. We don’t live in squalor. We don’t have cat pee all over the walls. You can have 10 cats — I haven’t photographed anyone with 10 cats yet — that would be totally cool, as long as you meet the other criteria. No judgement here, as long as you’re not hoarding!
LS: You mentioned that this project has helped you get the fashion and beauty work that you were originally seeking. How is it all fitting together? Has GATC taken over as your number one priority?
BW: It has taken over. [BriAnne’s tabby cat Liza makes an appearance.] Hi Liza! Was that a good nap? Wait, what was the question?
LS: She’s such a distraction! I was asking about your balance between fashion and beauty photography and GATC and how you’ve been able to make it all work.
BW: It’s not been easy, that’s for sure. It’s probably a 50/50 split. I try to shoot no more than one cat lady a week. And there’s the editing, emailing, story editing. It’s not just a quick thing I can do and then move on. But it’s great to do when my other work is slow. There are some months when I don’t have a whole lot going on and I can pick up more on this. So it is kind of balanced, but this has definitely taken up more time than I anticipated. But also in a good way, I mean, getting more clients, new projects. Two years ago, a producer at Teen Vogue saw the series and brought me on to do a beauty editorial for them. That was one of my first big gigs.
LS: Was that the cat eye editorial? I saw that on your site.
BW: Yeah! That was really cool. And then that producer brought me on to do other things when she moved away from Teen Vogue. So it’s been nice, building relationships with people all around. I don’t work too much in either side, but I work enough in both that it’s a full time situation.
LS: That is the key, right? You don’t want to be burning out.
BW: Exactly, I don’t. It’s been a nice balance. There’s Tuck! Hi Tuck! [BriAnne’s black-and-white cat, Tuck, saunters over and we take a pause to coo at him.]
LS: He’s adorable. What are some things you’ve learned over the years about yourself and your craft?
BW: When it comes to interior photography, I’ve gotten really good at bounce flash. It’s the only way I can get by because New York apartments are dark and small, and there isn’t much natural light. Cats are also difficult to photograph. I’ve learned how to try to get them to participate, which is not always easy.
I have more of an entrepreneurial spirit than I thought. I have to do everything on my own. I learned how to set up guidelines so I don’t get random emails with not enough information. If I didn’t have those, I would go crazy. I’ve also learned it’s important to include social media links so I can do research and make sure they’re not serial killers.
LS: Right, you’re literally entering strangers’ homes.
BW: That’s also why I don’t do “boys and their cats”. People always ask me and I’m like um… I’m good.
LS: Unfortunately, that’s the reality.
LS: What have you taken away from the experience of going into so many people’s homes?
BW: I’m very much an introvert. It might not seem that way, but that’s because I’m forced to interact with people every week in these really intimate settings. I’ve definitely figured out how to come out of my shell a little bit. It brings out the extrovert in me.
LS: Can you tell me the story of how you adopted your cats, Tuck and Liza?
They’re from Ukraine. They were both sad little street kittens. I found Liza a month before finding Tuck. She was stuck up in a tree. I could hear her meows from our apartment, which was a couple blocks away actually, so I don’t know how I heard her — I just have that supersonic hearing. I pulled my husband out of bed at one in the morning to climb up the tree and get her. She kept climbing up higher, and then we couldn’t get to her, but lo and behold, this tall man walking his dog walks by. He hoists my husband up and he gets to her, but then the branch breaks and she falls and crashes on the sidewalk. But she was okay!
I found Tuck dying on the street about a month later. He was completely filthy, caked in dirt, his whiskers were all crooked and smooshed against his face, and he was just screaming, like ‘somebody help me, I can’t do anything for myself.’ Everybody’s walking by, ignoring him, so I had to pick him up and take him home with me, and I gave him a bunch of food and water and love and baths.
LS: And they made it all the way to NYC! How old are they now?
BW: About five. When we brought Tuck in, we had to quarantine him because Liza had already been vaccinated and dewormed and deflead and de-ear-mited. We finally got him fixed up and introduced them. She tried to eat him multiple times because he was so tiny and she was like ‘yum, food’.
The revolution started in Ukraine and it got unsafe so I left, but my husband’s a journalist so he stayed with the cats until we got an apartment here. Then he brought them over with their little kitty passports. And now they’re very happy!
LS: That kind of leads into how long you’ve been in New York and where you’re from, all that good stuff.
BW: I just hit my four year mark of being in New York in September. I was born in Portland and moved all over Oregon. I think this is the longest I’ve ever been in one place: I went to college at U of O, lived in Washington for a while, back in Oregon, Ukraine, China, Czech Republic, and then New York. I taught English while I was abroad because I wasn’t sure what I was doing and just wanted an adventure. I’m done now!
LS: And you’ve lived in Clinton Hill since you’ve been in New York?
BW: This is the only apartment I’ve lived in in New York. We had a broker help us find it, and we were just like ‘this is it’. The rent’s not bad and our landlords are friends who own the building. We have game nights, we spend Thanksgiving with them, they watch the cats when we leave town… it’s the perfect situation. The neighbors are all friendly too. I feel lucky — after seeing so many apartments through GATC, I’ve realized how nice my space is.
LS: You had good instinct! It can be lonely in New York. And cramped.
BW: Especially when you’re coming in new and you don’t know anybody. I now know a lot of people, but I can’t handle having a lot of social engagements. It takes a lot out of me. But with Chris, my husband, living in Ukraine still, it does get lonely. The cats definitely help with that.
LS: Can you tell me a little more about the neighborhood and what you love about living here?
BW: It’s technically Clinton Hill, on the border of Bed-Stuy. It has tree-lined streets which I love. I’m from Oregon so it’s important for me to look out and see trees. Lots of good restaurants and vegan options too, like Clementine down the street. I have two grocery store options, I’m right between the G and the C, so it’s centrally located. I don’t go to the city too often unless I have a shoot there.
LS: What were your intentions when it came to decor and designing your apartment?
BW: I like the mid-century modern feel that’s popular right now. The color scheme in here happened because of this [table runner]. It’s from Ukraine, hand woven by babushkas most likely. So that’s why there’s red in here. And since we’re originally from Oregon, my in-laws got us all Pendleton everything. Those throws are Pendleton, we have Pendleton towels, and then my mom got me a Pendleton blanket that’s in the bedroom.
When we moved here we just had backpacks of clothes and things from places we’d traveled to. We didn’t have furniture with us. We had somewhat of a budget, but not enough to buy all new fancy things. Especially when you have cats, you can’t have the nicest couches.
LS: It’s homey and feels like a space you actually spend time in. A lot of New Yorkers’ apartments are just functional and bare. Do you spend a lot of time at home?
BW: Yep, all the time unless I’m at a shoot. I’m at the desk, in the living room, in bed. It has to feel good because of how much time I spend here. It needs to feel like my space.
LS: Seems pretty perfect to me. What are you excited about that’s coming up for Girls and Their Cats?
BW: I hope to cover more cities, but I don’t charge for photos so there isn’t any income from this other than working with sponsors every once in a while. So I don’t have a lot that I can put back into it.
I did start a Patreon, which is a way for fans and supporters to contribute a monthly amount. They get to see BTS photos and they can help me choose photos to post on Instagram (also something I have to think about that I never thought about before!). I’m one person and I can’t photograph everybody, unfortunately, but hopefully I can invest in expanding.