The fashion photographer and former ANTM judge shares why the fight for equal rights is so important to him this Mother s Day

By Diana Pearl
Updated May 09, 2015 03:50 PM
Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

It may have the feminine prefix, but as Emma Watson has told us, feminism isn’t just about women.

Watson’s memorable U.N. speech, calling for both sexes to fight for gender equality, launched the HeForShe movement, which encourages men to take action, too. Following her speech, lots of famous men, including Harry Styles, Russell Crowe and Tom Hiddleston, expressed their support for Watson and HeForShe’s cause.

Nigel Barker, fashion photographer, is one of these men. In honor of Mother’s Day, the former America’s Next Top Model judge took over the HeForShe Instagram to share photos of the women whose influence has had a lasting impact on him – and who helped shape him into an advocate for equality.

Throughout his life, Barker has been surrounded by strong women. His mother, a Sri Lankan model, is the type of woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer, he tells PEOPLE.

During the heyday of her career, there were relatively few models of Indian or Sri Lankan descent working in the field, Barker recalls. Seeing his mother fight discrimination in the industry – and help people to realize the beauty in other cultures – had a profound effect on him. “She never let it get the best of her,” he says.

But perhaps most of all, Barker’s mom showed him that it’s possible for a woman to be a strong player in her career and simultaneously be very nurturing and motherly, despite old-fashioned stereotypes that the two are mutually exclusive (something Barker says is almost never the case).

“You don’t have to stereotype and say you’ll be one thing or another,” he says. “She set me up to have a very even-keeled idea of what a woman is.”

The presence of powerful women in Barker’s life extends far beyond his immediate family: Working in the fashion industry, he’s always rubbing elbows with influential females, from top designers to entrepreneurial models. Fashion, which can be slammed for perpetuating unrealistic images of women, has actually produced an endless stream of awe-inspiring women, Barker says.

His book, Models of Influence, focuses on that idea. Take for instance Elle Macpherson, who runs a multimillion-dollar intimates company, or Lauren Hutton, whose groundbreaking Revlon contract changed the way models were paid.

“People often think of these supermodels as just beautiful faces,” he says. “They don’t realize that simultaneously, they’re making a difference for women’s rights. Things are being done in the fashion industry, and there’s a lot of powerful women who are doing it.”

The message of gender equality is one he’s always believed, but the importance hit him even harder after his daughter was born. The thought that Jasmine wouldn’t be privy to the same opportunities as his son Jack solely because of her sex didn’t sit well with him.

Barker believes that when it comes to gender equality, action is essential. And he’s been involved in the fight for a while now. Besides HeForShe, in the past, Barker’s been aligned with Girl Up, a program sponsored by the United Nations. In fact, he was the first-ever man to join the organization.

In the end, he says that the movement isn’t about women rights – it’s about human rights.

“I want other men to make a stand,” he says. “We’re all unique, but we all deserve the same opportunities.”