My journey as a self-portrait photographer and some observations I've made about misogyny, beauty standards and body shaming in photography and beyond:
I’ve been doing photography for ten years now. I started being interested in taking pictures in the end of 2013 and my first photo attempts were the usual obvious choices like family members, animals, nature and other stuff. However my goal was to take photos of models. But if I’m honest, back then I wasn’t quite sure what ‘taking photos of models’ actually stood for. I know now that the most suitable title would be a fashion photographer, however that wasn’t quite what I was looking for as I had no interest in clothes and working with brands. I only knew that ‘taking photos of models’ is the end goal for a photographer because it was the kind of thing that everyone was dreaming of. And so was I.
I had to gain experience somewhere, and therefore I decided to become a model myself. The idea was to observe how the photographers work and communicate with models, so I could later apply it into my own work / approach. To kill two birds with one stone I was looking for paid jobs (believe it or not, a lot of offers on the internet were unpaid) and to no surprise the best paid jobs were nude. I thought, why not. I needed the extra money anyway as my shitty job as a stewardess didn’t pay very well. Besides a handful of creeps who clearly picked up the camera just so they could ogle naked women, I also met an incredible photographer whose work I admired and I wanted to be like him. In his approach he was very respectful. The way he treated me made me feel like there was no difference between the moments when I had clothes on and when I didn’t. As if he ‘didn’t notice’ that I was there fully naked. I appreciated that.
I was inspired by his images and decided to shoot nudes as well. Unfortunately, there were a couple of obstacles for me - I couldn’t find any volunteers and even if I could I would feel uncomfortable to shoot them anyway as I wasn’t used to other people’s nudity. Long story short, I ended up photographing myself, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine years. I did shoot other people occasionally, but photographing my own body became something special and intimate. It is funny because at the beginning of the journey self-portraiture was the last resort, but with enough time it developed into a lifestyle.
I revolved my entire practice around photographing myself naked but I find myself uncomfortable answering people’s question when they ask me what I focus on in photography. My most common answer to this question is ‘fine art’. Depending on the person and the situation I then elaborate on it or not. There is this common misconception that people hold when I tell them what I do. I’ve experienced many times that people thought my work was some sort of Only Fans erotica. Well, it must be because I’m naked, right? Nope and nope again!
Naked doesn't equal sexual, sexy, obscene, vulgar or nasty, etc. Naked by its definition means no clothes on. My perception and understanding of me standing naked in front of my camera developed over years. I understand now that being naked is being comfortable in my own body. Also as a photographer and subject in one person I have full control over representing myself. I make active choices on how my body looks in the photographs and what viewers are able to see. I’m the one who decides whether my naked body is going to be portrayed in an objectifying way or not. And once I figured this out I found photographing myself very empowering because I feel like I own my body.
However it wasn’t always like this. The first few years of my practice I would describe my photographs as appealing to the male gaze. Not all of them were, but surely the vast majority was. And there is absolutely no surprise in it. You get inspired by what you are surrounded by, and the overwhelming amount of nudes online and offline (not just artistic nudes, but also advertisements, movie posters, magazine covers, etc.) are made with the intention to appeal to the male audience. So I would subconsciously consume the same visual language I had learned from these images and unintentionally apply it into my own work. It is easy to get inspired by those images because as photographs they are good. So you may ask ‘what is wrong with them?’
The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by the film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema she explains that in Western media the female characters are often depicted from a masculine heterosexual perspective. In the cinema they are viewed from a limited male perspective and their role is narrowed down to serve the male protagonist’s interests and storyline. (1) The depiction of women in cinema is also usually sexualised and consists of cameras panning up and down women bodies, body close-ups, etc. In the world of photography and other forms of art like painting, there is an abundance of female nudes (and a very small portion of male nudes). The vast majority of those images are created by men (Fig. 1 - Fig. 3).
Fig. 1: Ingres – La Grande Odalisque (1814) Fig. 2: Ingres - The Source (1820 - 1856) Fig. 3: Diego Velázquez – The Rokeby Venus (1647-51) In Ways of Seeing John Berger explains that historically women had been painted by men for men. This hasn’t changed and even nowadays our world is oversaturated by images of women that use the same visual language that is designed to flatter the male audience. (2) To answer the question, what is wrong with them is that they sexualise and objectify women. The images reduce women to body parts and send out a message that the most important thing in women’s lives is their appearance and desirability. „Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.“
(Berger, 1972, p. 47)
When I say to people what I do and explain that it has nothing to do with erotica, they often respond - of course not, it’s art. The problem that I have with this statement is that the word 'art' tries to warrant some sort of classiness to an image with a stripped-off woman. Sadly it doesn’t work. Just because something dresses up as 'art' and tries to appear different from porn/erotica, a lot of times these images share the same body language and serve the same purpose - pleasing the male viewer. People think that when sexualised images of women are in the context of a gallery setting and hung up on a white wall, they must be different from porn because they have the stamp of gallery approval. I’m saying this to make it absolutely clear that if you photograph a pair of tits, add nice lighting to it, make it black and white and call it ‘art’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is much different or more classy than stuff in the Playboy magazine. What would make the difference is the way you portray the subject and the purpose of the photograph.
A lot of photographers don't know what the purpose of their photographs is. They take photos of women for the sake of taking photos of them. Also because it's pretty and everyone is doing it. I know that because I've been there and done that. I presume this was the reason why my goal was to photograph models at the beginning of my photographic journey. Of course I had female models in mind. Let’s focus on the word ‘pretty’. A lot of the time the argument why there are no more male nudes is that the male body is not as photogenic. That is not true. I believe the real reason is that we as a society are just not used to seeing naked men (especially depicted in the same way women are depicted) and therefore we don't appreciate it. It would be 'gay'.
We of course all have seen nude men in art. I believe that when I say ‘male nude’ the first thing that comes to people’s mind is a greek statue of a young man. In Ancient Greece, nudity was celebrated and associated with the perfection of the gods. Masculine nudity was associated with triumph, glory, and moral excellence and was completely desexualized. However, this applies to men only. In contrast, female nudity was a taboo and extremely frowned upon. The female nudity was deemed shameful and degrading. And with the increasing sense of shame came sexualisation. (Or perhaps with the sexualisation came shame?)
As I already mentioned, female nudes are created by men for men. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at a conscious level. The reason why women are portrayed and how they are portrayed have rather become a common sense that no one is questioning. When I search for photography competitions that have a nude category I don’t find it so shocking anymore when I see the amount of sexualised female images there (that were all of course taken in the name of creating ‘art’). Even though the description reads this very category is focusing on depicting the human body (not specifically female), there are very few images of nude men. (Fig. 4 - Fig. 6)
Fig. 4: 35awards, 2020, best photos in nomination Fig. 5: Fine Art Photoawards, winners 2021-2022, amateur nude Fig. 6: 35awards, 2020, best photos in nomination
A side note: Notice the similarity between Figure 2 and the circled photograph in Figure 6. It is obvious the photographer had been inspired by Ingres's work. Whether it was subconcious or a deliberate decision doesn't matter, because the influece by work that we are surrounded by is undeniable.
Sylvia Sleigh was an artist who turned her gaze on the male nude. She painted nude men the way the old masters painted nude women. She was attacking patriarchal (art) history by switching the female nude for male to reveal how sexualised the female nude really was (Fig. 7 - Fig .9). However, in 1975 her work had to be dismantled from a museum for showing explicit male nudity. Her response to that was: ‘I wonder if the judge would object to a female nude? I do not see why male genitals are more sacred than female.’ (3) I don’t see why they are either. Yet, seeing nude men evokes different reactions and feelings than seeing nude women. The discomfort in this case might have something to do with the way she portrayed the male models – in a feminine way. Such portrayal strips the male models off the traditional ‘masculine’ look and makes them appear more vulnerable, more human. Not strong and glorious like the nudity of Greek statues, which everyone accepts and celebrates. These nice and warm images are just not desirable in a society where heterosexual (white) men have the upper hand (which also explains the abundance of sexualised female nudes).
Fig. 7: Sylvia Sleigh, Imperial Nude, 1977 Fig. 8: Sylvia Sleigh,The Turkish Bath, 1973 Fig. 9: Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Golub Reclining, 1971 A side note: The painting Philip Golub Reclining (Fig. 9) was inspired by Velazques's The Rockeby Venus (Fig. 3). I used to call myself a nude photographer, but I became less and less comfortable using the term ‘nude’ to define my work, considering the common depiction of women in nude images. When I want to submit my work to photo contests in the nude category, I feel like the imagery I’m up against is very different from my photographs. Almost like a different category. I began to struggle finding the right category because the nude is not the right fit anymore. You may ask why because I’m fully naked in my photographs.
John Berger elaborated on Kenneth Clark’s statement about the difference between being nude and being naked. ‘To be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.’ (4)
When I realised that my images were like the vast majority of those ‘artistic’ nudes online and offline I decided to steer away from it. I still photograph myself naked because it’s liberating, but I’m no longer an object. In my photographs I am what I want to be. Depicted the way I want to be depicted.
Looking back at the work of the photographer who inspired me to shoot nudes I can clearly see that his images are also appealing to the male gaze. By no means this is to say that his work is shameful and that he’s a bad person. Or that all other photographers who create similar work are bad people (although there are some dickheads who enjoy deliberately sexualising their models: Fig. 10). Absolutely not! It only shows how unquestioned and un-discussed this problem is, that it has rendered invisible and become a common sense even for those with a genuinely good intention to create art. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of women photographers who shoot female models the same gaze-y way as their male colleagues. Well, not even women are immune to the influence of their surroundings and environment. They are shaped by the same stuff as everyone else. Also as I’ve said, I had done it myself.
Fig. 10: A good example of these so-called photographers is this guy who posted his image in a Facebook group for sharing photographic work. The comment says: ‘Thank you for accepting me into this group. Photography has been my hobby for many years. I like giving titles to my photographs, sometimes they work. This photo is called “I’m Jealous Of Number Six”.’ So, in other words, this bloke is saying that he would love to see the model’s crotch. How classy. A common misogynist defence strategy would be - oh, it’s just a joke. Yeah, right. And who exactly did laugh at that? The model? Doubt it. I can’t imagine any woman in the model’s place who wouldn’t be horrified by this comment and would genuinely want to work with this perv again. These ‘jokes’ are not funny because they are not jokes at all, they are just dressed up misogyny and harassment. It dehumanises the model and turns her into a mere piece of meat, an object that solely exists for the pleasure of the male photographer and audience. Fuck that.
When it comes to people’s reactions to my work, there is some shit I have to deal with. One of the few things is that people like to believe that since I’m fully naked in the photographs I have no shame (revolved around nudity) when it comes to day-to-day life. Let me explain this. In my work I dictate when I’m naked and what the viewer is able to see. In everyday life once you are naked it’s not fully under your control what people can see. I like to go to nudist beaches and I’ve done life modelling, but these were my choices. I don’t like the suggestion that I would just let my tits out whenever and wherever because that’s what I do in my photographs. No, if I’m naked I’m doing it on my own terms.
The other issue is that I get comments like “gorgeous body”, “nice tits” or other photographers (guys) ask me if I would like to model for them. Those comments are really uncomfortable and there is no wonder about it because they are not compliments. This is a prime example of sexual harassment (I have discussed the topic of sexual harassment in my previous articles, so check them for more information). Besides the comments, the invitation to be used as a model for someone else's work is degrading because it ignores the fact that I’m a photographer in the first place. It focuses rather on celebrating my look than my capability to create an image. I honestly fucking hate it. You could argue though, that I should expect these types of reactions because I put myself out there and mainly I’m naked in the photographs. This is called victim blaming. I don’t need to sacrifice my hobby or make changes to the style of my work just to avoid unsolicited attention. I’m not responsible for people’s reactions to my body. People are responsible for their own fucking behaviour.
The other thing I find annoying didn’t happen to me personally (yet), but I’ve seen this idea emerging on social media. The idea is that if you are a woman and you photograph yourself naked you must be a narcissist and you are doing it for the ego (or to get ‘compliments’ from guys). This is the same sort of abusive slurs that women get for wearing a crop top and a pair of shorts. I think it comes from the assumption that everything that women do revolves around pleasing men because we are conditioned from an early age that appealing to men is a very important aspect of our lives. Therefore the idea of doing it for our own pleasure, feels so alien that people conclude that in order to celebrate the joy of being in your own body there must be something wrong with you - like a big ego or narcissism. But it’s not. Like I said earlier and also in some of my previous articles, being naked in my work is about the healthy relationship with my body that is not perfect and changes over time.
There are a lot of women photographers who pointed their cameras at themselves while being naked and for none of them the reason was a big ego. It is usually the exploration of self, testing the limits of your own body (because believe it or not, photographing yourself can be physically very hard) and also the connection of the body with your surroundings or nature. Or just simply having fun and documenting your body over time and see how it changes. Good example of these pursuits would be the work of Anne Bridgman, Francesca Woodman, Viki Kollerova (Fig. 11 - Fig. 13), Polly Penrose, Brooke DiDonato and so many more.
Fig. 11: Kollerova, At The Bow Tree, 2020 Fig. 12: Brigman, The Cleft of the Rock, circa 1907 Fig. 13: Woodman, Self-deceit #1, 1978 What goes along the lines of seeing my body as a sex object in my work is people’s suggestion that I wouldn’t be able to do this type of photography if I didn’t have a ‘great figure’. I get often asked if I retouch my body (cellulite, fat rolls, etc.) even though I’m clearly not trying to hide any ‘imperfections’. I’m assuming that when I work with the naked body it is expected of me to show the best version of myself. Welcome to the world of body shaming. I used to be concerned about what my body looked like, but when I realised that my imperfections can be actually used in a very creative way I began to like them and for the first time I truly fell in love with my body. (I talked about this more in depth in my previous articles). You might be thinking that it’s easy to fall in love with my body when there is nothing ‘wrong’ with it. Let me tell you something, there is nothing wrong with any type of body. I understand that my body might be closer to fit into the societal criteria of an ‘attractive body’ because I’m quite slim and I’m young. But it absolutely doesn’t mean that bodies which don’t match these criteria are worse or less worthy. It also doesn’t take into consideration that bodies change and age and those who are slim and young won’t fit into this box forever. So what is my conclusion? The conclusion is that it doesn’t fucking matter what body size or body type you are. Love your body and have fun with it. I remember that one of my uni tutors challenged me by asking how I can speak on body positivity when my body is good (like I somehow can’t understand the topic). She completely missed the point, because if she knew what body positivity is about she wouldn’t have said this. Because it suggests that whilst my body is good, someone else's isn’t. Body shaming again. My answer to that was that all bodies are good. However, I see how some people might think that I’m not able to talk on this topic because of my ‘privileged’ looks. This suggestion ignores that absolutely everyone has some insecurities revolving around their bodies. Men and women, however women are so much more conditioned to worry about their appearance and to spend a lot of money on it (I talked about this more in depth previously). So as a woman I can totally relate to other women who are unhappy with their looks because I have been there, too (yes even with this ‘great figure’ because there’s always something about you that can be ‘better, right?!) When I started with self-portraiture and began to enjoy seeing my body with all the imperfections in the photographs, I realised that I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a toss about cellulite, fat rolls, big thighs, bloated belly, saggy boobs or whatever. I don’t care if people see it as attractive or unattractive because I don’t live my life for other people. This realisation was a massive weight off my chest. To those who suggested that I wouldn't be able to shoot nude self-portraiture if I didn’t have a certain look I would like to say this - I definitely could. Anyone can. Other than having a camera with a self-timer there is a zero requirement for it. Even though society likes to tell you otherwise. In our world of beauty standards, being fat and old (along many other things like non-caucasian, etc.) is the opposite of the stereotypical feminine ideal. Being young and slim forever is the ultimate dream for many women regardless of how intangible it is. But what does it achieve to look relentlessly young? What do you gain from having a perfect figure? Societal approval? Nonsense, if you revolve your life around looking the ‘right way’ you will never be truly happy about yourself, because living your life to gain other people’s approval is not the right motivation. Youth and beauty are fleeting things, they don’t last forever. If you dedicate your life to them, you will be left with nothing when they are gone. Also, even if you do fit certain criteria, there will always be someone to tell you that there are other things you could improve about yourself. You can never win. So why not just fuck beauty standards off and live your life the way you want and look the way that makes you happy? Words like ‘fat’ and ‘old’ are deemed offensive in our culture, especially if you are a woman. I wish they weren’t. I wish they were just descriptive words with no sense of insult in them, because your looks are not an indicator of your worth. I hate those toxic positive phrases like ‘She looks great for her age!” We never say this about men because men look great at any age, right. But women don’t?! This is a prime example of how much this pressure on women to look relentlessly young is embedded in our culture. It suggests that at her age she is less likely to look great. Women fucking can look great at any age, so next time you feel like complimenting a woman, just omit the ‘for her age’ and simply say ‘She looks great!’ Another example of these toxic positive phrases would be this one; "She's got a gorgeous face, she would be so beautiful if she was slimmer." Same thing, just ommit the second part of the sentence. She's got a gorgeous face. Full stop!
I’m surrounded by so many people who are really concerned about their weight. The typical time this topic comes up is after Christmas and before summer. People are going on a crazy diet of 1000 calories a day, weighing themselves on the scales and complaining how high the numbers are. No one wants to be fat. Why is it such a bad thing for women (for men too) to be fat? Obviously because it is the opposite of the stereotypical feminine beauty ideal such as being thin. But why?
I find it ironic that the only time people actually are amazed by fatness, find it cute and actively encourage it is when they see babies and toddlers. I know so many people whose heart melts when they see a chubby toddler with all those gorgeous fat rolls and double chin. But as those kids grow up it is becoming less and less desirable to have fat rolls. You might argue that when they grow up it is in their interest to have a healthy weight. Well, what is a healthy weight then? Let’s flip the question: what is an unhealthy weight? In my opinion that is when your weight causes health issues and limits your life. However I know many people whose life is not limited by their weight, yet they would put themselves into the category ‘unhealthy weight’, just because they don’t look the way society dictates them to look. These people are just different body types, shapes and sizes, but that’s absolutely fine and normal. It’s fine to be fat and chubby because our value is not determined by our bodies (even if you are unhealthy weight you are more than your body!). That’s why all bodies deserve to be respected the same way.
Good example of that would be Finnish photographer Iiu Susiraja whose main subject is herself. I love her approach to self-portraiture, because she is so unapologetic in the way she photographs her own body. Her images are playful, humorous and sarcastic. She doesn’t meet the stereotypical beauty standards (being thin), but that’s what makes her work strong, because she decided not to conform to these bullshit expectations of what a woman should look like (in general and in photographs) and deliberately takes a piss out of it.
Fig. 14: Iiu Susiraja, Fountain, 2021
Fig. 15: Iiu Susiraja, Power Woman, 2011
Fig. 16: Iiu Susiraja, Bagfeet, 2010
Another photographer who doesn’t conform to the beauty standards is Haley Morris-Cafiero. In a very creative way she decided to respond to people who body shamed her on the internet. She impersonated herself into her bullies by making herself look like them in their profile images. She accompanied her photographs with the abusive slurs she received from her bullies. I think it’s a really amazing way to address the issue of body shaming as well as online abuse.
Fig. 17: Haley Morris-Cafiero, The Bully Pulpit Fig. 18: Haley Morris-Cafiero, The Bully Pulpit Fig. 19: Haley Morris-Cafiero, The Bully Pulpit
I love the work of these two artists because their photographs are really clever and very creative. And these are exactly the core values of a photograph. It is not about the appearance of the subject in the image, it is about the story the image can tell. So again, it doesn’t matter what you look like, people of all shapes and sizes can use their own body in photography and create beautiful images, because the beauty doesn’t lie in the subject, but the photo itself.
I will definitely be using myself as a subject for as long as I can, that is until I’m physically not capable of it. I think it will be interesting to see my body changing and getting old, because it is not just a journey of the body, but also a journey of my photographic practice. The body matures, so do I and so does my work. As I said earlier, photographing myself is my lifestyle, and my photographs are a reflection of my personal journey. What will they be able to tell in 10 years, 20 years..?! That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing how I will be capturing myself as I get older because I will be a slightly different person with new stories to tell.
Fig. 20 - Fig. 25: Lucie Nechanicka, 2017 - 2021 References: (1) Laura Mulvey, 1975, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
(2) Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing, Chapter 3
(3) The New York Times, 1975 https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/20/archives/nude-art-in-halls-of-justice-stirs-a-storm-in-bronx.html
(4) Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing, p. 54 Fig. 1 and Fig. 3: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/apr/15/top-10-female-nudes-art Fig. 2: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-spring/UgGazOdHtaBluA?hl=en-GB Fig. 4 and Fig. 6: https://35awards.com/winners2020/nomination/598/ Fig. 5: https://fineartphotoawards.com/winners-gallery/fapa-2021-2022/amateur/nudes Fig. 7 and Fig. 8: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-hayv-kahramans-provocative-new-paintings-express-trauma-healing Fig. 9: https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/baroness-erotica-issue-one-130616
Fig. 10: Facebook Fig. 11: https://thehulettcollection.com/artists/101-viki-kollerova/works/985-viki-kollerova-at-the-bow-tree-2020/ Fig. 12: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/arts/design/anne-brigman-nevada-sierra-steiglitz-okeeffe.html Fig. 13: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/11170/how-photographer-francesca-woodman-came-into-her-own-in-italy Fig. 14: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/iiu-susirajas-self-portraits-are-more-than-a-dare Fig. 15 and Fig. 16: https://museemagazine.com/features/2017/5/3/woman-crush-wednesday-iiu-susiraja
Fig. 17 - Fig. 19: https://www.haleymorriscafiero.com/bullypulpit