This blog has been in my drafts left unfinished for going on a month now. It’s been stalled not just for writing reasons, but for fear of opening up about the project that it was intended to be an insight on. A close friend once told me to never justify myself to anyone. I don’t feel a need to justify my images, but occasionally I find speaking about them is just as important as the actual creating of them. Maybe because I know I’m not alone in the things that I’m going to write about, do I feel the courage to do so.
Much of my recent work has been shot with an intent and a meaning in mind. My Monsters project for example, is about going back to childhood haunts to revisit ghosts and put them to bed. Many things I have shot don’t have a predetermined narrative, even projects like that; but the personal meaning will and I have found that sometimes explaining exactly what that meaning is, isn’t needed. That for me, the photograph is meaning enough and the process of shooting it has had the cathartic release that I so desperately needed. With Monsters I have been surprised at the positive effect it has had on me, even though I went into it with positive intentions. It can be very shocking to find out that places don’t have the same hold on you that you believed they did. And that you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. Perhaps it’s the experience of beginning that project which has broken down some other fears which essentially have been instilled from the same events touched upon in those images.
When I returned to shooting self-portraits around this time last year, I quickly found that I wasn’t just consciously attempting to address my body dysmorphia issues about my face but also subconsciously, my sexuality. Being a nude model already opens you up to sexual connotations because a lot of people cannot differentiate between sex and nudity, more so if you dare to shoot anything that falls into the erotic genre. So images with a sexual theme weren’t new to me. In my days as a working model I had every ridiculous and offensive thing you can think of thrown at me by photographers before, after and during the shoot. Immature comments, through to more serious things where I actually felt like I was in danger. This is why speaking to fellow models and supporting them is very important. No photograph is worth putting yourself through physical and emotional harm for.
None of the people I modelled for knew that I chose to begin shooting erotica, because I wanted to feel comfortable with showing a sexual side of myself. A side that has been stifled or controlled by everyone but myself. I was incredibly picky about who I chose to shoot those types of images with, both for safety reasons and the quality of the work I would be hoping to achieve. I quickly learned that I could feel comfortable with the right photographer, but that it very much was just as false as the sexual being I had hidden behind in my personal life. Even if my reason for doing it meant something more to me than just modelling, it wasn’t easy to get that across in an image. I fell very quickly into a routine of pulling a ‘sex face’ and the rest didn’t really matter. I grew very much bored and disheartened by it. In hindsight, it was probably too much to ask of someone else to help me express something so personal, and I do still love and appreciate many of the images that I created with those photographers.
Unfortunately during this time, someone told me just how bad that they believed those images made me look. ‘Slutty’… ‘easy’… Yes, someone actually said those words to me. Having a person tell me how people see me and even to go so far as to shame me for things I wanted to do with my own body, was very psychologically damaging. It made me feel like this was another part of myself that I didn’t have any control over. The very part of me that I had wanted to reclaim. I’d never had control over it because I’d been made to feel afraid of expressing it without suffering the consequences. People’s perceptions of who I am haven’t been the worst of those consequences.
Everything I did as a child I felt came across as sexual to other people, because of the resulting abuse that I suffered. In my head I thought this impression I was giving, was what had made me be chosen as a victim. And so I did everything I could possibly think of to counteract this, by not wearing skirts or dresses, and making sure I was never in a situation where it would be expected of me to want that kind of attention. I avoided boys and doing things that my friends were doing like going to parties and the like. I was even scared of my own Dad for years, which on one occasion he noticed and commented on. It still really upsets me when I think of having made him feel I was in any way scared of him, when at the time it was really just any adult figure in my life that I lost trust in. My Dad is and has always been the one person in my life who I love and look up to more than anything.
I never had boyfriends, and only started having sexual encounters in my early twenties. Even though I was consensually exploring sex for the first time, I was still not really fully involved in it. I’ve always sort of played a part that was controlled by the other person. Most of my sexual partners didn’t notice – or care – but there were instances when they did and would encourage me to say what I wanted and to not be so passive. It was always easier to avoid trying to address my own wants and desires when it came to sex. Even when I was being urged to do so from a sympathetic partner. Not so sympathetic partners told me that some of the things I wanted weren’t normal or were ‘sick’ coming from someone who had been raped in the past. Deep down I knew that this wasn’t true, but it didn’t stop me from then suppressing that side of myself even further.
My qualms about my sexuality still remain now that I’m in my thirties, albeit in smaller parts. I was celibate for almost two years because I felt that every sexual relationship I’d been in was in some way destructive to my life. I liked the calm I experienced about a year into my celibacy and I was scared of ruining it. My attempt to reclaim who I am as a sexual person, I have since realised is in fact more of an awakening and a discovery. I’ve never really known what that side of myself truly is because I’ve never explored it fearlessly.
For a while I have toyed with the idea of shooting myself in a sexual context authentically, rather than pretending. It’s not something I would ever do as a model with a photographer shooting me but I knew that I could do it through self-portraits. My partner had asked on several occasions to watch me shoot, so one evening I shot some Polaroids of myself where I was essentially teasing him from across the room. I was curious about whether I would look different to how I did in my model images. I found that there was less ‘sex face’ and surprisingly a little less inhibition in terms of posing. With a photographer, even one that you feel comfortable with, you are aware of what looks and doesn’t look flattering or of showing too much. I instead was less focused on that and more focused on having fun. I don’t think that I look very much different in the resulting images but I know that I felt different. There wasn’t any worrying about my behaviour being misinterpreted by the person taking the photograph because that person was me.
I guess that this is pretty much how ‘Dear John’ came about. I’d grown curious about how I look during sex since it’s not something you can really see from the other person’s point of view. I’ve always wondered what it is they see and how I really look. I’d asked questions sometimes but the answers could never really describe what is a visual experience as well as a physical one. Of course, pretty much everyone these days has at least taken photos or videos on their phone before – even me – but I wanted to shoot this as a real project. Not just something purely to look at afterwards to masturbate over. It wasn’t about arousal but instead discovering new things about myself. Having explicit images of myself published online I am fine with, but I wasn’t so sure my partner would be so willing to have images of himself possibly published on the internet. Surprisingly he has been very open to it, with the understanding that his face isn’t shown and he gets to veto anything that he completely detests.
My perception of how I behave and how I look I’d already decided upon before we took any photographs. I expected the passive person and not someone who was in control. My suggestion was that we just set up the camera and take a photograph when we saw something that we wanted to capture. Self-portraits are really difficult as it is, having another person there was doubly difficult. I didn’t want it to look too posed and I didn’t want to place myself in any way because that would make what was happening false. This project wasn’t just about capturing moments though, I was also trying to say goodbye to a previous self that I had grown very tired of keeping up with. It was also a goodbye to the judgements that other partners had made based on my life experiences and how they think I should behave sexually due to those experiences. An attempt, for the first time, to be true to who I am and the desires that I have and to acknowledge that my sexuality hasn’t just disappeared because of what other people did to it in the past.
What I found most interesting when looking through the Polaroids from our first ‘shoot’ attempt was how different my body looked compared to how it does in my modelling images. I’m not sure how to explain it properly, perhaps it’s just that I’m not posing how I would as a model. Maybe it’s that I look more relaxed and my body looks much softer. Usually I’m so angular and harsh. I also look in control, which is something I never relate to being in sexual situations. I deliberately avoid being in control.
Of course, I was a little scared of sharing the images because of the sexual element and the consequences it could have for me. People will make assumptions and judgements regardless and fill in the blanks themselves when it comes to images. As I no longer work as a model I didn’t fear those or my safety should I model for a photographer again. What I was scared of was that people wouldn’t know what shooting those had meant to me. The meaning was so very important. There are lots of my images that mean something to both I and the model, which is why it can be hard when someone copies one. An idea isn’t original but how you interpret it is. My idea to shoot myself with my partner is in no way original, I don’t think even the intention behind it is. Many of the self-portrait artists I follow have body issues and use their work to explore them. Using art to explore your sexuality is also very common. What is also very common, is the shaming of women who choose to do it. I’d been made to feel ashamed about it, but I didn’t feel at all ashamed of these images and neither did my partner.
A month or so later we had another attempt, and I decided to focus more on the parts that I enjoy seeing since men are often so poorly portrayed in erotica. There’s a misconception, particularly in the internet modelling world, that men’s bodies aren’t as attractive as women’s. Something that I wholly disagree with and something that I’d like to try in some way to do justice. When I set up the camera this time on a tripod, I felt like it was stunting the intention that I’d had so we just took them by hand. I’d had lots of ideas in mind before this second attempt which went out of the window because I felt like I couldn’t achieve them on that particular day. However, the results (after going back to them a few times) I found to be almost what I had been hoping for. It’s a new project, and so very much unfinished, but regardless you set yourself goals and you hope to achieve them eventually.
The rest of the images that we’ve created so far can be viewed here – www.elegia.co/analogue-soul/dear-john/
I am still very much working on this project but moreover, the original curiosities that fueled it which I’ve realised are more important really, than the photographs could ever portray.