Over the past few months, I have been quietly working away on a personal project with my dear friend Jo. It began when she approached me to take naked photographs of her. The image below is of Jo and in her own words this is why she decided to ask me to take these photos:
“When I was 18 I was raped. I didn’t deal with it because I didn’t know how. But I changed. As the years went by I changed a lot. I didn’t like my body, I didn’t like it being touched and I found sexual attraction made me anxious and sometimes I even thought it was a bit repulsive. When it started to come between me and my boyfriend, I knew something had to change. I used to like my body and in rational moments I knew it was a good one – it was capable and flexible and it did everything I needed it to do. I just couldn’t see it. So I asked Naomi to photograph me naked. Nothing sexy, nothing too posed, nothing to hide. Just me.
I explained why and Naomi immediately agreed. I opened up more throughout the shoot and in doing so realised that I’d come so far already. It was like a surreal therapy session that ended with a huge penny finally dropping. When I got the photos back I saw a beautiful, strong woman and she looked a bit like me. Now, a year later, with one of the photos on my wall, I know that woman is me. I just needed to see it.
Being sexually assaulted has affected my life in more ways than I can put into words. But the body it happened to isn’t my body and it isn’t me. My body is mine and no one can take it away from me again.”
Photographing Jo, speaking to her about her experiences and seeing how she was taking steps to own them and tackle how they made her feel was a really powerful and moving experience. It helped me to recognise how I felt about my own body, the negative feelings I had towards it, the times when those negative thoughts had held me back and all the times I had been cruel to it, starving it, punishing it or denying it pleasure in some way.
I feel quite strongly that the photography we see around us on a daily basis in advertising and (increasingly) pornography has a big responsibility in this. From a young age we are taught as women that to feel happiness in life we must give up our sexuality and force our bodies to look a certain way. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth; ‘Female sexuality is turned inside out from birth, so ‘beauty’ can take its place, keeping women’s eyes lowered to their bodies, glancing up only to check their reflection in the eyes of men.’ And if we are focusing down on our bodies, we are denying ourselves our full capabilities as strong and powerful humans.
Turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly) Jo and I weren’t the only ones who felt this way and as we began to share this discussion with the women around us, the more women we discovered who felt the same sense of disconnect we felt from our bodies - sexually, emotionally and physically. From this I photographed more women, first friends, then new friends and now the project has grown into something bigger.
'Body of Women' is a celebration of all that we are, the journeys we have been on with our bodies and a reclamation of their form and the space they inhabit. It is a collaboration between myself as a photographer and the women as subjects, formed around the stories they tell as we work together to find a new visual language in which to speak about female nudity.
It's an ongoing project and if you would like to take part please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.