Wednesday, January 6, 2010

on self-portraits and shaming

one of the things i set out to do with this blog when i started it was to examine self-portraits and their prevalance in fashion blogs and feminist art that is out there on the internet right now, as well as share some of my favourite people on the internet with you. and i haven't done that yet! so today, you get two for the price of one.

one of my favourite photographers, whose work is almost entirely composed of self-portraits, is katie west. she recently posted some really interesting thoughts on her blog which i really think are worth reading and thinking about, but before i share that with you i wanted to show you some of my favourite of her photographs.


cat lady


fun by myself

i've been following katie's work on the internet since her days on livejournal, maybe all the way back in 2005? yes, i liked her pictures, but i've always liked the way she writes, the way she articulates her ideas, and the way she still seems mysterious even though she's shown you naked pictures of her body in dozens of different positions. the way she writes about love, about sex, about loss all let you know there is a very sharp critical mind inside that pretty head, even if it is a very pretty head and we are trained to think that pretty heads are more often than not empty ones. and the post she wrote that i want to share with you has reminded me of that.

on top of being a great writer, being incredibly sexy and talented, she also has an awesome sense of humour.

you see, the thing is, if you're a young woman who puts naked pictures of herself up on the internet (regardless of their original intention) you will get detractors, critics, haters and my least favourite, shamers. this does not matter if you are conventionally attractive or not, if you fit into categories of acceptable or unacceptable. women's bodies will be criticized (yes, certainly, some more than others, and in more oppressive ways) and that is the way it (it being.. patriarchy? capitalism? both?) works. katie west decided to take this in stride, and titled her first book "low self-esteem" in response to the common idea that if a woman wants to take naked pictures of herself and put them up on the internet, she must have "issues" and have low self-esteem. how many times have women been shamed about their sexuality, about their bodies, and about their desires by being told that they are the ones who have a problem, not the other way around? i can't even count, myself.

brilliant, no?

but enough about what i have to say. the reason i'm telling you about katie is that she's said some really interesting things about how self-portraits and especially how erotic self-portraits done by women are judged, and the responses to her have been really inspiring. from her post entitled "sometimes:"
...sometimes I get discouraged that these things are making me think I have to answer to someone for what I do. I found something a woman wrote about me today that said

the real katie west bent over is not in a position of power. it is one of submission. it invites the internet to fuck her without seeing her face. (this position is fine for lovers who respect each other, but for strangers it suggests worse things. how easy is it to jam her face into the wall rather than a soft pillow? to put a hand over her mouth?)

katie west, you are not a positive role model for women, so please stop pretending to be. put an XXX on your page, sell-out the good old fashioned american way. but don’t for a second make me think that your emaciated body and self indulgent photography is supposed to EMPOWER me. i can pick up any men’s magazine that comes in a black bag and get that same empowerment. just because you take the photograph yourself doesn’t mean you are in control, it means you are perpetuating the lack for free. you are building the cage around you.

It said some other stuff too. I believe the woman who wrote this, deleted it, as when I tried to click back to the source, the page couldn’t be found.

...I believe in what I do. And it is usually a constant struggle to maintain this faith, as often I’m faced with the types of accusations the woman brings up in her post. And I question my motives, and how I go about everything I do, make myself shake with nervousness and worry, but always come to the same realization: I believe in what I do. I believe that what I do is take honest pictures and write honest writings. If someone finds them pornographic, it can’t be helped. No one pressures me to take my clothes off, no one is paying me to do it, no one is telling me they’ll like me better if I do. I do it, because being sexual, being erotic, it’s just part of me. The photo I believe she’s referring to is one taken in a hotel room in Minneapolis, where I captured myself missing a lover, strange that she should mention lovers then, no? And she’s right I do create an act of submission by posting my pictures on the internet; I submit to people who look at them and say, “here, this is it.” And I know people, mostly women, appreciate that because I get emails telling me so. The vast majority of all the emails I get from strangers on the internet are from appreciative women, so how can I not believe in what I do?

you can read the entire post here, and i encourage you to. but this is what i love about the post; west is really speaking to the power of self-portraits as a way of exploring your own identity and that is something i feel a lot of people don't really get. and she addresses that in a sense as well; people are free to take away whatever they want from her photography, and that is part of the power in it. i can impose my own stories into her photographs, just as anyone else is free to. i can fantasize. how much power does the creator of that image have? is it more or less than the power that the viewer has? that is part of the interesting nature of self-portraits and something i really want to learn more about. it started the first time i saw a cindy sherman untitled film still, and my interest has not waned since.

in my experience with self-portraits, i never want people i know to see them. i am embarrassed at the idea of someone thinking any number of reasons as to why i put the self-timer on and take photos of myself. you are letting your guard down by showing them to strangers, to people you know, by having them easily accessible to anyone. personally, i take self-portraits for dozens of reasons, some admittedly more interesting than others: boredom, using the digital camera as a full-length mirror, to see how others might see me, to try to capture a moment, a place, somewhere i have never been and will never be again. this can be physically or emotionally or what may have you. most of these, i never share with anyone.

one last thing about what katie west has to say:
And yeah, my photography is self-indulgent; I take it for myself. I don’t take it to empower anyone else, I take it to empower me. I do it because it makes me happy.
amen, sister. at the end of the day, that's what i love about her photography and about her writing, that's it's so clearly for herself and not for me. that i am lucky that she has chosen to share it with me, and that she could take it away if she wanted to. that's powerful enough in itself, even without her badass posturing, eye for amazing natural light and her straight-up talent. if anonymous people on the internet want to keep writing things about her in an attempt to silence, she will show them otherwise, and i am glad it only reinforces my admiration for her. thank goodness for people like katie west.

edited to add: after having spent a good two hours writing this, i notice that laurie penny has already written a much more articular and well-written piece. her blog is fucking amazing and i am glad to have found it and just read that.


Anonymous said...

I've a big fan of Katie West and probably have been following her on line as you have.

Thanks for such an insightful article and dead on interpretation of her work.


Aya Smith said...

I can only appreciate the boldness of some of these girls! Just amazing!

♥ Aya">

Ligeia said...

I adore Katie. Apart from that she's such a nice girl. I met her through flickr where you can find her complete portfolio :)
I got that book and believe me, it's a must when it comes to selfportraiture.

What can I say that you havent already?
One thing, her cats are amazing hehehe

interesting blog you have, really happy to have come across!

following you


julia aka garconniere said...

eva: i'm glad you like it! thanks for following and commenting.

Maggie said...

Laurie Penny's response (and the back and forth comments) is so interesting, just consumed my last hour. Thanks for the heads-up! And I love your self portrait in the bath you linked to.

rainawebd said...

Its a nice blog and given the best informetion thanks for the given info..


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