A Photographer Is Changing Perceptions Of Female Motorcyclists

“Take your time. Ride with people who keep you safe. Don't try to look too cool cause you could get hurt." - Lanakila MacNaughton

By Eric Shorey

Mad Max: Fury Road picked up plenty of Oscar nominations last week, but we hear so little about the culture of actual road warriors in our world, especially those who happen to not be men. Although statistics show that women motorcycle ridership is at an all-time high, images of hyper-masculine hog riding ragtag crimesters still dominate most people's perceptions of motorcycle industry and culture. Enter Lanakila MacNaughton: the brains and talent behind the Women's Moto Exhibit, a touring and ever-growing project aimed at telling the stories of the real badass women who ride motorcycles through the medium of photography. From Portland, Lanakila, pictured above, who is 27 years old, began her project as a way to stay sober from drinking after rehab. Now, she’s branching out into producing events and a clothing line for women who bike—and she's helping to change perceptions of the culture along the way.

With dreamy shots of carefree women on the open road, Lanakila’s use of actual female cyclists (as opposed to professional models) is a statement in and of itself. “When I first got into riding I was trying to find visual inspiration online,” MacNaughton tells me over the phone. “A lot of the women I saw were just supermodels, like Victoria's Secret models. They clearly had no idea what they were doing [on a bike]. In my opinion, they just looked really stupid.” Having met many gorgeous women who could ride, Lanakila wondered why the motorcycle industry chose to shoot models rather than actual ladies who could show off both clothes and proper riding. Thus, the WME was born, and its influence is already demonstrable. Lanakila has noticed some changes in the industry: “In the past four years I've seen a shift in companies using real riders. Because of social media, they know where to reach.”


But for Lanakila, the WME is more than just a passion project or aesthetic interest; it's a lifestyle. She bought her first bike after getting sober at the age of 22, and found herself inspired by the community of independent women. “I started drinking really young, probably 14 or 15. I was a full-blown alcoholic by 18. Alcoholism and drug addiction runs in my family. My brother died of a drug overdose when I was 22 and I was on a similar path. I honestly was just so miserable,” she recalls. “From there I went to rehab, I got sober, I thought that my life was over. It really was just the beginning … Living sober is not easy. I have to stay super busy and motivated.”

Lanakila can thank her success in part to being bored after getting sober, which is when she began taking photos of other women riders around Portland. The photos started getting reblogged and she eventually had a show, which sold out. Then came invitations to photograph women riders from around the country, riders whom she looked up to. “They're business owners, they're independent moms, they had style, they had something to say, they had this new kind of sexy,” says Lanakila. “It was women I felt I could identify with. A lot of women in popular culture, I don't feel like I can identify with them.”

The images from Lanakila's project aren't simply beauty shots. She captures her pictures while riding, which comes with its own unique challenges. “Most of the photos that I shoot are shot on a 60-year-old Hasselblad CM medium format camera, manually focusing on the back of a motorcycle while I'm riding,” she says, explaining that she uses one hand to hold on to the driver and one to focus and fire the camera. “I'm also changing the film on a bike,” she continues. “I can only shoot 12 shots and then I take that roll out, put a new roll in, while I'm riding, because you don't want to mess up the moment.”


But like many projects focusing on women, especially women who challenge the status quo, Lanakila’s work has inspired some backlash. In a video on the WME website, Lanakila explicitly states: “It's not like I'm trying to bash men or trying to create ruckus or piss people off. I'm just expressing what I see in a different way and sharing that with people.” When asked if she had been responding to something specific, she elaborated: “It's a male dominated culture. It makes a lot of men uncomfortable that women are now like, 'I don't want to ride on the back of the bike. I want to get my own bike.' I think the lack of control freaks men out.”

Lanakila has also faced backlash from some older women, who don't feel a part of the culture she's representing. "It is a younger generation that I'm photographing. It's about the new wave of women riders. I don't exclude any age in my project but a lot of it is style. I'm shooting a certain style and a certain attitude and a certain story. I've seen comments from older women just bashing us, which is a bummer. We look up to them!” And, of course, there are some people who think the photos are too sexualized. “That really bothers me,” she says, noting that gender roles for women are either “not sexy enough” or “too sexy.” Lanakila notes that it's hard to be socially acceptable. “My stance is: fuck you,” she says. “If I want to be sexualized, I will be sexualized. If I don't, then I won't. It's about showing the style of each woman.”

Despite the haters, the Women's Moto Exhibit has evolved over the years from a collection of photos into a burgeoning clothing line and women’s only motorcycle camping trips, organized by Lanakila herself. “The Dream Roll is a women's only motorcycle camp trip in the Pacific Northwest,” she explains. “It's a weekend of just women and motorcycles. There's no men allowed. It's really special. It's just kind of a different vibe when there are no men around.” As for the clothing line, Lanakila is working with Los Angeles-based designer Lauren Stucky to create a feminine spin on the traditional biker aesthetic. “We're going to come out with five to ten pieces each year. We're coming out with leather pants [with vegan leather substitute options], salvaged denim vests, suede vests, leather tops and bustiers,” she said. “They're nice, handmade in America. Quality over quantity is what we're going for.”

When thinking about her work, Lanakila seems, more than anything, incredibly appreciative and humble, while simultaneously hungry and ambitious. “I've done everything I always wanted to do. I pretty much have had to create a really incredible life for myself in order to live sober … For me it's like, the life I'm living is so full and so wonderful. The life I used to live was so dark and miserable. Why would I ever go back to that?” With that in mind she offered this simple advice to girls who might be following her path: “Take your time. Ride with people who keep you safe. Don't try to look too cool cause you could get hurt.”


Follow The Women's Moto Exhibit and The Dream Roll on Instagram: @womensmotoexhibit and @thedreamroll.

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