The Nudes Project (#theNvdesProject)
Having worked for a number of years on #facetoface exhibitions that were primarily focused on sitters involved in all aspects of popular culture, I felt it was time to explore an alternative subject matter for the next show. I wanted to work with subject matter that would be current, relevant and to be of such scope that it could be explored in great depth and also open for informed discussion.
It’s hardly a new concept for photographers to shoot varied depictions of the female form; each and every one of us has seen all manner of nude shots over the years. Some photographs are incredibly nuanced because of how beautifully shot and tastefully presented they are, and others – despite their best intentions – may not be so warmly received, due to the final delivery. So, when I proposed to my closest friends and colleagues that shooting nudes was the direction I wanted to work towards for the next ‘moving portraits’ exhibition, it was genuinely quite remarkable to see such just how impassioned people already felt about it.
I was constructively challenged as to “why” I wanted to do this, “how’s it gonna be different” to other nude-photography projects in the public domain? Was I planning to go to extremes with the nudes? Do I want a highly-stylised aesthetic? Most importantly, “who” was going to sit for this, and “what” do they expect?
There were (and still are) countless, external points of view and unlimited questions to consider, least of all my own. Amongst other thoughts, I have to ask myself questions such as, “How am I going to make this stand out?” “Are the foundations of the concept solid enough to support the aesthetic considerations of the project, and the wishes of those who have taken part?”, “Where am I going to show this that complements the entire ethos of the project?” and so on.
As a photographer, there’s an unequivocal need to strike a balance between creating a bold, striking, visual impact and the natural sensitivity to the sitter’s personal identity in any undertaking. I learnt a hell of a lot during the early stages of the project and it only took a few sittings before it dawned on me, just how fine the balance really is between it being both sensitive and visually striking and the intended result “working” or “not working” for this project.
When I did try out the more ‘eye-catching’ lighting, the honest truth is that it felt like the ‘extreme’ lighting was out of place; it was totally incongruous to what the final result should actually be. The sitters lost their personality and the moving portraits felt quite cold in their overall ambience. By adjusting the lighting to what you see, it became apparent very quickly that it was preferred by the sitters due to its inherent warmth. By being less directional and distinct, it made it feel more personal on so many levels.
There is an old saying …. “if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one”
Its relevance in this instance suggests for anyone to not follow their own instincts and photographic knowledge, then invariably, the results will lean towards being tepid and middle of the road. Obviously, I don’t want this, nor would I want to produce anything mediocre, for all those who has given their precious time to this venture. The purpose of the show is to create a new visual narrative representing the confidence and evocative beauty of the sitters, through my eyes. I understand there will be someone somewhere for whom, this just doesn’t work. There are always going to be those elements out there, who are predisposed to agitation, and (sadly) I have to be prepared for that in the current climate.
I would however, like to clarify my working, and post-production process for this project.
There are parameters I have set for all sitters to adhere to, but even so, I still believe these remain very informal and wide-ranging. By unlocking a simple casting process, I want to show how it was, and still is, open for all those who are intrigued, and fall into the vague groupings below.
Anyone participating must consider:
Be over 21 years of age.
There is no upper age limit.
All body shapes.
All skin tones.
All body *stories/narratives.
There will be no retouching of the skin.
*If there is a scar, a burn, a bruise, a mark, a lump, a bump, a hair out of place, or anything else, it stays in the moving portrait. It will not be removed. It is a body positive project, and self-confidence is at the very heart of what I’m trying to capture. By removing any aspect of the sitter, it is in my opinion, subtracting from their personal identity.
There is however, ‘grading’ allowed on the video portraits. You may well ask “What is grading?” In its simplest terms, below is the definition according to Wikipedia:
"Colour grading is the process of improving the appearance of an image for presentation in different environments on different devices. Various attributes of an image such as contrast, colour, saturation, detail, black level, and white point may be enhanced whether for motion pictures, videos, or still images”
It is standard industry practice in photography/TV and film to get the ‘final look’. It can provide drama in the image/video through post production techniques involving curves/levels/hues/brightness/contrast/ and exposure amongst other elements, to control the colours and final look of the image. For example, on a very basic level, you could lower the midtones to create a darker feel whilst retaining highlights and shadows, or you could raise the midtones to create an aesthetic that has less contrast and a lighter overall ambience.
What it is not, and I repeat not, is retouching. It does not remove/alter/cover/hide/copy blemishes or fix the texture of the skin to give it a publicly perceived ‘photoshop’ feel. It does not fix hair, it does not make people thinner, it does not add extra varnish to chipped nails or whatever people think it may do. What has been shot, is still there and remains visible to the viewer.
On my website (pre-exhibition), the sitter’s videos are both blurred and pixelated. You may be thinking that this course of action surely defeats the entire point of the project? If the sitters have the courage to pose in the nude, then I should have the mettle to show them as they are? In principle, yes, this is what you would naturally expect. However, the reason being, I have made many mistakes in the build up to previous exhibitions (always the best way to learn). I’ve either not put any of the show’s content online before it opens, or I have put too much content online and held nothing back for anyone visiting. In hindsight, neither was the correct way.
I’ve given this area a lot of thought as the online clips can never replicate the initial impact of seeing these large-scale projections in person. This time around, because the subject matter is more delicate, I consider the most effective option - pre-exhibition - is to use shorter edits for a web and social media presence, with the addition of a self-imposed ‘censorship’. When the exhibition finally opens, the portraits will be shown in their entirety and uncensored.
Now, on the subject of ‘social’ media, you may have noticed that at the top of this page, there are two titles. One ‘The Nudes Project’ and two, #theNvdesProject. The latter is the one I intend to use for social media. Due to Instagram’s archaic and almost Victorian attitude to nudity in the modern climate, the word ‘nude’ cannot be mentioned anywhere on a post, without it immediately getting shadow banned, and seen by precisely no-one.
I’m also aware that with the dawn of such channels, we now have a very vocal army of ‘photographic experts’ and ‘models’ ready to pounce and profess their mis-guided thoughts; all because they’ve had an iPhone for 5 minutes and a beauty app that cost £2.99. These prominent ‘voices’ are somewhat bizarrely taken semi-seriously, making a mockery of the actual industry, because they’ve spent £however-much on buying followers and likes. I suppose one of the end products of this, is a direct response to the banality and painful mediocrity of such ‘esteemed’ ‘online commentators’
This project is a representation of femininity, it is about hard work, it is about artistic conviction, it is about collaboration, it is about consideration, it is about empathy, it is about a future vision, it is about taking risks, it is about empowerment, it is about deep thought and the need to create, it is about confidence and inner beauty. It is about the human condition.
I cannot thank all the sitters enough for their participation in this project. Below are some thoughts and beautiful insights, put into words, more intricately and personally, than I could ever hope too.
Recently, my wonderful friend, Tom Oxley, began to share pieces from a personal project he’s been working on from his ‘moving portrait’ series. He said:
“The premise of the project is to capture the sitters as they really are. If there is a hair out of place, it stays, if there is a scar, it stays, if there are lumps, bumps, bruises and any other perfectly normal body aesthetics, then it all stays in frame. What you see is what was shot. There will be no retouching of any skin.”
The moment I heard this; I knew I had to do it.
Not because my body is in the best shape of my life, there was no prep for this shoot, no strict diet regime. In fact, it was the worst possible timing, as I felt bloated and achy and hormonal acne was raging.
But this wasn’t and isn’t about approval. This isn’t about sensuality or exhibitionism. (And for the record, I am of the belief that not all nudity is pornographic or erotic.) This was because I have been utterly shame-ridden about my body for years. Through therapy and other healing modalities, I’ve been unravelling that shame; confronting and dismantling the beliefs that I couldn’t ever measure up or that my “imperfections” made me unlovable.
The story I made up was: “if I was beautiful/thinner/more this/less that, they would have stayed or he wouldn’t have cheated or I’d be where I wanted to be.”
So, I chose to take part in this project centred around the power and confidence of a woman just as she is. This was my defiant act of self-love and radical acceptance. A way of naming my shame and draining it of its power.
Every curve, every line, every mark, dimple, scar, every place my skin was stretched to accommodate gain and loss and trauma and new life and healing, every part... I accept and I honor. Every part is worthy and utterly deserving of love and belonging. Because despite these stories we invent, the truth is:
Nothing and no one can add to or diminish your worth or your beauty.
Nothing. [And so it is.]
I wasn’t sure I could take my clothes off in front of anyone with the way I felt about my post baby body, let alone someone I’d worked with, putting clothes on someone else. It’s all a bit meta, but the results of Tom’s moving nudes and my ‘Body of Work’ project are more than the sum of their parts. It was a pivotal moment for me both personally and professionally, collaborating is something that can either go wrong or really right and I hope that we’ll be seeing these acutely well-timed body studies of women celebrating themselves, rather than being objectified as the history that we put into classical paintings. They are well worth their weight.
I found myself descending further into an Instagram rabbit hole during the early hours of a March 2019 night. Aimlessly swiping through pictures. The frustration of not being able to sleep due to my pregnancy getting that little bit too uncomfortable. I think I must have been around the 6 months mark, so still a while until my due date.
I saw an image of Keith Flint of the Prodigy, as news had just broken of his untimely death. The picture seemed to capture some degree of vulnerability and the image evoked a lot of feelings. I immediately found out the author of the work, it was one of Tom’s shots, so I spent some time scanning his page.
Then, staring out from his grid was a black woman looking directly back at me. It was obvious this woman had a story to tell, her bald head was smoothed with scars, her eyes held your gaze as if they were following you. I quickly noticed that she was indeed moving; it was a video and she was naked, not a stitch of clothing. I needed to know more.
An email was dropped at 4am that morning, I wasn’t expecting a speedy reply. However; within the next 12 hours we met (over FaceTime) and arranged for the shoot to take place at his home. I wanted to strike whilst I had the energy and before I had any time to think too deeply on what I was about to do.
Toms had me standing at his front door 24 hours later! It’s not every day you arrange to go to a stranger’s house to have your photo taken and to be filmed stark naked. I didn’t pay it a second thought as I was so wanting to be a part of ‘The Nvdes Project’. His team (Emily-Rose Yiaxis and Fiona Alexander) were on hand to make me feel comfortable, to provide support as the nerves threatened to show.
Off came the robe (slightly prematurely) whilst Tom organised the set he created in his house. I felt completely energised and baby was fluttering moo around. I was then given my cue; it was my time to whip off the robe (for the second time). I’d never done anything like it before.
Despite being completely naked in front of strangers, bump on show, I also felt at complete ease with myself. It was me …. accepting my journey into motherhood. I felt the power and the confidence was captured in the video, at one of the most vulnerable times in my life. My strength and confidence in my changing body whilst my baby continued to grow, is now a profound and permanent moment in time.
Today’s society hasn’t quite caught up with the fact that black mothers are underrepresented in how Motherhood in portrayed. We are often over looked and our bodies, our experiences are often considered undervalued to our white counterparts. As a reminder I’m here making small steps in seeing a greater inclusion of black bodies and more acceptance of plus size pregnant bodies.
There is something about the nature of a moving portrait which is markedly vulnerable. There is nowhere to hide, no editing to conceal; you are truly naked. I was not new to posing nude for portraits but I was apprehensive about work that was focused specifically with showing my body in motion.
Like most women I have had a complicated relationship with my body over the years. How could we not when we are incessantly poked and prodded into various shapes and narratives from a young age into the entirety of our lives? The celebration of bodies in this project is so very welcomed and imperative. In my portrait I feel strong, moreover unapologetic in my divinity. I’ve seen some of the portraits of the other women involved in this project and they are exquisite in all their magnificence. We are truly exquisite in all our magnificence.