I use photography to take photographs for me… images that I like. I don’t do it as a primary income source. I’m not particularly motivated by notoriety. I use social media because it connects me with other creative souls. I don’t necessarily do it for recognition, although I do appreciate it when someone connects with my work. I can’t even post much of my favorite work because it contains nudity, which is taboo on most sites.
But I often question why I capture the images I do. I wouldn’t think about it so much except for the reaction my images sometimes provoke. They are demonized by social media as I’m constantly violating “community guidelines,” which I would assume are accepted norms. As well, I get strong reactions to my work, even from friends. My son’s stepfather told me that he stopped following me because I was exploiting women who he felt were much too young to be photographed naked, even though the reality is that they are all adults and are involved in a fully collaborative process.
Even my wife, who is one of my greatest supporters, often questions why women want to sexualize themselves and why I want to support what she sees as unhealthy behavior. Again, it surprises me because I don’t see that I’m sexualizing these women but rather empowering them, giving them agency to express whatever aspect of their being they want to express.
I’m not blind to the “male gaze.” I understand it. And I am not ignorant of the fact that many of my female subjects are putting themselves on display for the male gaze. Some do it unconsciously, but many do it purposely. Many of them are sex workers, erotic models, or women who sell images and videos of themselves online. These women understand the male gaze and capitalize and profit from men’s sexual fantasies. They don’t see their sexuality as a weakness. It’s a strength.
So why do I take the kinds of images I take, that is, mostly naked people? I ask myself that question all the time. I’d like to know what drives me.
To a certain extent, I have a preoccupation with the human body that started when I was young. Mostly because I was taught that my body was abhorrent. I was raised in a Christian cult. In my upbringing, there was a duality of body and soul. The soul was pure, and the body was carnal. We needed to denounce earthly pleasures to gain entrance to paradise when our lives were over. Sex was between a man and a woman to procreate. Anything that would excite sexual desire was evil. We all had to dress modestly, and nakedness was shameful and to be avoided at all costs. This made me feel uncomfortable in my body and fearful of my sexuality.
I grew up in a small town. This was before the Internet. I didn’t have access to information. I was not supposed to associate with people outside of the faith. So, I had no one to talk to. I had no conception of the greater world outside of our little Christian community. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I knew intrinsically what I was feeling was not normal and was not healthy.
I didn’t have anything to orient or move towards. I had no other experience of the world. But I knew I had to leave this community behind. I rebelled. I ended up cutting ties, moving to Toronto and, as odd as it seems, began a career in dance. Dance connected me to my body. It connected me to other people. Dance gave me joy. I didn’t know there were different kinds of dance. I was only familiar with ballet from watching the Nutcraker with my family every Christmas. So, I studied ballet and danced professionally.
Without detailing my mental and emotional struggles, I have to say that it was healing. I came to appreciate and value my body. I slowly overcame my shame by challenging my beliefs and my level of comfort with my naked body. I let myself be vulnerable. I did modeling for the Ontario College of Art. My body was fit and beautiful, and my naked body ended up being part of a national drugstore campaign on the theme of “Celebrating Nature’s Masterwork: The Human Body.”
From my career in dance, I moved into massage therapy. I didn’t think of this as a healing journey at the time, but in hindsight, it’s clear that this was another avenue for me to connect with my body. I was naked a lot, touching and being touched in an intimate way every day for two years of school. The process involved a certain level of anxiety, but at the same time, it was good for me in so many ways.
Through the years, I have put myself in situations that continue to help me grow. I’ve spent time at nudist resorts and even a nudist colony in France with thousands of people in a community that had its own downtown area and communal showers. I’ve explored open relationships. At the age of 60, I’m doing art nude modeling again to help me feel more at peace with my aging body.
I’ve never really shared all of this publicly before, but I’m doing it now simply to express the fact that I have a certain understanding of the relationship people have with their bodies. I understand how our religious and societal beliefs can make us feel shame around our bodies. I understand how it can be uncomfortable or even fearful to assert our sexuality, which is such a big part of how we express ourselves in the world. I understand how our relationship with our bodies can affect our self-concept and mental health.
All of this preamble is basically to say, I shoot naked people because I think it’s important that we celebrate our raw humanity. There is connection in authenticity, which is maybe why we feel so disconnected from others in our modern society. The vulnerability in revealing yourself, your humanness, is a beautiful thing. I see the me in you. I feel connected with you. And in a photograph, the viewer feels connected to you.
As I look back on my work as a whole, that is what I see. And I’m referring to the work that I want to do, not commercial work or collaborations. Yes, I’ll shoot headshots, fashion, cute outfits, editorial, boudoir, and even erotica. But if I have a choice, most of my subjects will tell you that I don’t want crazy nails, I don’t need the big lashes, I don’t want makeup, I don’t want heels, you don’t have to do your hair… and heck, you don’t even have to shave any part of your body. Bring your bush, your hairy pits or legs. I’m fine with that. That’s you!
This self-exploration around vulnerability and authenticity, both as a model and a photographer, has really enriched my life and has made me a more whole person. If you want to explore this idea of vulnerability through photography, I invite you to reach out to me. I’m going to pick up the Vulnerability Project that I started and dropped a couple of years ago. I’d love to be part of your journey. I’ll give you an emotionally safe space to express who you are without all the weirdness.