Creating Awareness of Geek Girls: Interview with Terra Clarke Olsen, Creator of The Unicorn Files
by AJ Dent, GeekGirlCon staff copy writer
In the famous movie The Last Unicorn, the protagonist goes on a quest to discover whether or not there are other unicorns in the world. Though a multitude of her fellow magical creatures do exist, she is made to believe she is the only one left, causing her great loneliness and concern.
Much like the unicorn in the film, it can often feel difficult for female geeks to find and meet others like them. There are countless strong, self-identified geek girls and women, as well as communities that support them, but naysayers can make it seem otherwise sometimes.
To combat the myth that female geeks don’t exist, writer Terra Clarke Olsen created The Unicorn Files. Through this project, she and photographer Nate Watters speak with and take pictures of geek girls and women. Each interview and image allows participants to represent themselves and their geekdoms exactly how they’d like — through their own words, with pictures of their various collections, clothing, dwellings, and anything else that makes them feel empowered in their geekiness.
We chatted with Terra to get the inside scoop on The Unicorn Files, so even more people will be aware of it (and can get involved!) and the fact that yes, females geeks do exist!
GeekGirlCon: What are you favorite geeky fandoms, and how do you participate in or express your passion for them?
Terra Clarke Olsen: In a traditional sense, my favorite geeky fandoms would include Tolkien, Marvel, Sci-Fi, and gaming. I always enjoy meeting fellow nerds who share a passion for the same things as myself—it creates an instant bond, regardless of other beliefs of interests. If someone points out that they like my Middle Earth leggings, I’m going to assume that they have good taste, haha. But honestly, I mostly like to geek out with my family. Growing up, many of my friends didn’t like the same things as me, so I’ve always been content getting nerdy with my family (all nerds). From making board games a priority to encouraging the collecting of silver and golden age comics, my family has been a big influence on my personal brand of geekdom. Nowadays, I express my passion for geeky interests in a more…elaborate way. Being an “adult” means you get to do things your own way, a privilege I practice frequently (e.g. I bought an arcade game that now resides in my dining room.)
Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when the first inkling for this project sparked?
There wasn’t so much of a spark as much as kindling that slowly grew. Over a year ago, when the whole “fake girl” debacle was getting really heated, I was reading a lot of women’s opinions on the subject matter. All great pieces, but words can only do so much. I thought it would be great to have a way to show, in a very personal way, how women are very much a strong and important aspect to the geek community. I kept throwing this idea out there (usually in frustration, after reading another instance of male geeks denying lady geeks exist), when my husband finally was like, “you just need to make this project happen!” So I contacted my good friend and talented photographer, Nate Watters, to see if he would be interested in creating this project with me. He was into it, so here we are!
What is the mission of The Unicorn Files?
The Unicorn Files aims to show that female geeks exist, one geek at a time. We strive to capture the diverse body of female geeks by featuring individual geeky women, giving women in the community a chance to tell their story.
Who was your very first interview/photography session with, and what did you learn from that experience?
Our first model was my dear friend Meg Humphrey. I’d mentioned the idea to her and she loved it, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to photograph her and share her story (which is a beautiful one, I might add). Honestly we had it easy with Meg since our rapport is so great, and she has such a wonderful and bubbly personality. What I did learn was that even the most outgoing people can be shy in front of the camera. Meg definitely had her shy moments, but as she became more comfortable with a camera in her face and me fiddling with her clothes, she loosened up and let her personality shine through. I’ve learned that my job/challenge to is ensure that each woman is comfortable with us and the process to ensure that we capture the real them. If we do that, then I feel like we have done them and the project justice.
Do you find that some people are nervous or shy at first upon getting involved with the project, especially the photography aspect of it? If so, how do you work with them to make them feel comfortable and confident?
Yes! A lot of women are shy in front of the camera (some women have refused to volunteer that I’ve reached out to because they don’t want their photo taken, while others have written in saying that they hate having their photo taken but they love the project so they want to make that jump). That is one reason we photograph women in their homes, we want to ensure that they are in an environment that is comfortable and safe – I think this helps a lot. In addition, we spend extra time letting women loosen up to get use to having a giant camera in their face….that and I often jump around and make faces like an idiot, hahaha. I can’t help making faces though, I’m very animated by nature. We also show them pictures as we go so they can see how wonderful they look! I think once they see that they look beautiful and that we’re really there to capture them, they become more comfortable.
Have you faced any challenges with the project so far? If so, what have they been like, and what have you learned from them?
Yes! Time and money. We got a lot of volunteers who wanted to be photographed who are not in the Northwest. At first I thought it might be possible to take a few trips to capture these women, but as time went on, it became more apparent that this wasn’t going to be possible (not yet, at least). Nate is a full time photographer with a busy schedule, and I have a full-time job (in addition to volunteer and freelance work), so we really have to be creative when scheduling these shoots.
In addition, it has been hard to find a diverse body of geeky women to volunteer to be photographed—this has been more challenging than I would have imagined, to be honest. Because the northwest is fairly white, many of the volunteers have been white women. Obviously their voices and opinions matter, but it wouldn’t do the project or the community justice to just give these women a voice. So I have been trying to reach out to more people to see if they know anyone who is not white in the area that would be interested in volunteering to be photographed. Another challenge has been finding older women to volunteer. Again, I want to make sure the project stays true to its mission, and I can’t achieve this by only showing 20 year olds (not that 20 year olds don’t matter!). At the same time, I want people to volunteer organically whenever possible. I love getting emails from women I don’t know or have any connection with saying they want to volunteer — that is the best! Hopefully with more exposure and more people learning about the project, more women will feel comfortable volunteering.
What kind of feedback have you received from viewers of the project? How about from those who have modeled and been interviewed for the project?
So far, the photographs we’ve taken have not been available to the public. We liked the images so much that we’ve decided to launch a Kickstarter later this year so we can self publish the collection into a book (look for it mid-September!). However, we’ve received really great responses regarding our tumblr, where we post images that women send in to us, along with their bio (which I create from a questionnaire I have them fill out) and a quote. I’ve heard from models and the women who have submitted their photos online that they are excited about the project and love learning about other geeky women.
Has your vision for this project changed at all since you started it?
My vision remains the same — give other women in the community a voice. But now, I am more determined to find a way to continue the project so we can photograph people all over the US and world! I realize that this may be a bit ambitious, but I don’t think the true mission of The Unicorn Files will be completely fulfilled until women from all over have a chance to be photographed in a meaningful way.
What do you hope people will take away from The Unicorn Files overall — both its readers and its models?
When reading The Unicorn Files, I hope that people realize that geeky women are NOT unicorns. We exist and are a big part of the community (and care deeply about it, I might add). Our voices matter.
Thanks so much for chatting with us here at GeekGirlCon, Terra, and for the fantastic work you’re doing for female geeks everywhere!
Want to learn more? Terra is appearing on a panel about the project at GeekGirlCon ‘14! Purchase your passes today to get in on the fun!
A long-time geek and feminist, Terra works for a mobile indiegaming company and writes for Seattle Weekly. She is the founder of Have You Nerd, a lady geek blog, and The Unicorn Files, a feminist project that highlights fellow geeky ladies. She loves helping people share their stories and giving others a voice. She has a BA from UCLA, and a MA in Medieval Studies from University of Toronto. Terra lives in Seattle with her husband, Randall, and two cats, Han and Chewie. Find her @terrasum.