Talent often surfaces when you aren’t really expecting it.
Last summer, I came across the work of a young Brazilian photographer named Luisa Dörr while I was browsing Instgram. I had never heard of her, but with all great photographs, it’s the image that captivates me, not the name of the photographer. The first picture that caught my eye was of a young girl, in a hot pink tank top, staring at the camera. It was striking—a sincere and poetic portrait.
I was instantly lured down the magical scroll of @luisadorr’s feed. There were countless images of women of all ages against ethereal yet raw landscapes. Natural light, lovely tone, each one a studied composition. The pictures were incredibly consistent. In her bio line she had written “All photos made with the iPhone.” I tracked her down immediately.
Around the same time, in light of Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign, I had been working on the conceptual stages of FIRSTS, an ambitious multimedia project that would showcase women who have broken glass ceilings in every field. They would span decades of experience, from Mo’ne Davis, then 15, who was the first girl to pitch a shut-out in the Little League World Series, to Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become Secretary of State, to Aretha Franklin, the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (nevermind her contribution of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to all womankind…). And Clinton herself, though it would ultimately not be for the “first” most of America had originally imagined.
The work I saw in Luisa’s Instagram feed synched with the vision. I knew from the cohesive feel of her feed—and her interest in women as subjects—that she could thread a portfolio. What I couldn’t know was how well she would use her iPhone in unimaginably small windows of time—sometimes just five minutes to capture cover portraits of some of the most important women in the world. It’s hard to know how even the most experienced talent will wring art from such pressure. Luisa succeeded and exceeded.
Last September, Luisa arrived in New York City with no more than a tiny suitcase and a tinier iPhone. She stayed with her cousin in New Jersey between portrait sessions that began in Michigan and took her through Florida, New York, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Colorado, California, North Carolina , Texas, Connecticut, Washington and Minnesota.
Many of the women Luisa photographed—Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Aretha Franklin, Serena Williams, among others—have been photographed throughout their careers by some of the greatest photographers in the world. And most photo shoots involve a photographer with multiple lighting assistants, production assistants and crews of helpers.
As Luisa told me in our interview, which you can read here, many of them were disarmed by her stripped-down, bare-bones process. The iPhone has become so ubiquitous in our culture, so essential to the way we are communicating, that our subjects, I think, were at first surprised that something so basic was being used for something as singular as a portrait for TIME. But such a universal tool in fact became a refreshing and equalizing force for each session. It enabled the shoots to be much more about the “act” of portrait-making—the gestures, the eyes, what even the most subtle body language can reveal about a person.
As she traversed the country over the past year, this project became a panoply of firsts for Luisa, too: her first assignment for TIME. Her first trip across the United States. Her first cover. (Her first 12, in fact.) And in doing so, Luisa became another example of what we want this project to demonstrate: women doing their very best, and being seen by the world.
Kira Pollack is the Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise at TIME.