I. Gender photographed
As femmes, we are accustomed to the ongoing entrapment in the museum of someone else’s imagination. The implication of this isn’t positive, as somehow it’s assumed that this entrapment manifests itself as a desire for attention.
But one way I’ve sought to overcome these quiet attempts to assert my sense of self without approval from others is by quietly training my eye on a subject. The sense of synchronicity that results from this can sometimes feel like meditation, especially when the subject’s performance during a photoshoot is translated into an image that they feel represents themselves as they existed in those moments.
Anyone who has ever needed to perform their gender to pass as acceptable in society knows what it is like to perform as the subject, to exist when their desire is often automatically muted. When I discovered pole dancing and aerial, so many cisgender men felt free to comment on my activity as if it permitted them to ask unsolicited questions — as if I am a silent question for which they already knew all the answers.
Yet when I dance, I use my body to both ask and answer all of these questions. Since taking up photography again during quarantine, I have set out on a quest to reclaim the images of femmes and to frame them the way they tell me they want to be framed.
Paradoxically, I experience the performance of the subject as a form of silence, even when it is set to music — like a long exposure photograph. And the subject is never completely settled.
In Audre Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde writes:
“The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
Similarly, while photography and the rise of racial categorization went hand-in-hand — alongside photographic documentation of migrants and illnesses — I see the potential for its use for bridging stories without sensationalizing. To that end, I have taken up documenting what the femme body’s reclamation might look like.
The photographs in this shoot were taken impromptu in someone’s living room, but one can imagine how many more subjects could be visually positioned to their own liking.
III. On Process
Despite the fact that any photographic image rendered by me is technically mine, I take special pleasure in knowing that I will not take away from the subject’s self-image. And through my specific approach, I will always be in-process with the subject. I’ve learned the importance of making a conscious effort to collaborate with the subjects of my photography.
My first and last unpleasant encounter with a male photographer came when I was in my early twenties. I won’t go into specifics, but I was at their home and unsolicited questions were asked. That was all — that and a kiss. I was naive and had not fully understood the subtext, which I’m quite sure I would have noticed now.
The questions he asked me about parts of my body were uncomfortable and unwelcomed enough. However, somehow it was even more uncomfortable when he messaged me asking if he could give me a gift and I did not respond quickly enough to his liking. Displeased, he quickly informed me that I was ungrateful and that his daughter would appreciate the book of Sylvia Plath’s diaries he’d (apparently) bought for me. It was uncomfortable, but more than that, it prompted me to question the motives of most male photographers.
Out of such experiences came an inadvertent education in image-making that now informs how I view moral action and how I gauge another’s character. I realized the importance of refusing to abuse trust even in its minor forms means not perpetuating the loss of agency of any subject — a wholly imperfect art.
Photography might be the best metric for the quality of collaboration. This is because, aside from the capitalist theater that centers on the dance of supply and demand, there exists another kind of dance — one developed between two artists: one artist writing the other’s body with light and the other occupying the position of the subject.
I want to translate feminine movement into a concise language that then allows me to mimic that language through my own form. To me, dance and photography are the inverse of each other but work together subversively to reclaim the immortality of one person’s image.
IV. On Dance
Dance class: by dancing through the air with strangers, I felt that connection could be built on silence composed of implicit trust and explicit gestures, with an occasional interlude. It quickly became clear who had experience (or simply fluid confidence) while the rest hung back with ambivalence.
While it wasn’t exactly easy to build a social life from my attendance at dance classes, the classes felt like a guiding hand directing me outside my comfort zone. In many ways, I felt like it was a step away from self-annihilation in the male eye and toward utopian intimacy with strangers.
V. Emily Ratajkowski’s return
In contemporary society, femmes are never empowered by the predominating culture to own their own image or, for that matter, even their own form.
I realized that the misrepresentation of the female form is violent.
In model Emily Ratajkowski’s brilliant essay from The Cut, she speaks openly and courageously of her Matryoshka doll of financially abusive situations, one where her own image was purchased from her multiple times without her consent. She then describes how, despite being a world-famous model, without paying $80,000 for an oversized portrait of herself — one her ex maliciously wrenched away from her during their breakup — she would have never been able to reclaim it.
Beneath that instance, or in the innermost Matryoshka doll, there were also numerous photographers who verifiably owned Ratajkowski’s image by virtue of having snapped her portrait. In one case, she was outside her residence holding a bouquet of flowers when she was ambushed by the tabloids (as she was every ordinary morning). She alleged that one photographer who got away with selling her unconsented image had also drugged and assaulted her and then went on to gleefully profit from her image afterward.
The moral takeaway here is that capitalism is built to own the female body and its image. If they can’t have us, they will have our unconsented nudes and photographs snapped in unanticipated moments of unwanted attention.
Club dancers understand this on a level that gender studies professors never will, because they live in a world that forces them to be impeccably aware of how they are situated within a set of power relations. Moreover, they live it because they are determined to make it to a level in society where they won’t need to consider dancing to make enough money after taxes, or they hope that one day they can do so without shame — but is the enjoyment of one’s own image problematic when one consents to it?
Is enjoyment of one’s own image somehow worse than Andrew Cuomo openly admitting to harassing women? Is it somehow worse than a man lying and his word being worth gold, while he pretends to care about inequality and does little except hold a title, exploit his privilege and abuse his power?
VI. Narrowly averted disasters
When I’m in the pole studio, at times I revel in remembrance of my first attempt when, for lack of a euphemism, I wrapped myself non-aesthetically around the pole and then threw myself around on the floor like an angry fish during “floor work.” Put another way, the contortions I’d observed in YouTube videos and my brain did not form a cohesive unit. I flopped hilariously at one point and closed my eyes in shame. I did so as if this would erase the memory everyone in the room might have had of me, only to have it remain there — in their imagination — long after class had ended.
When I went away for several years, I found other studios and communities. I became braver or, perhaps I should say with much more accuracy, more foolish. As someone with little dance training, the fact that I hung upside down from my legs two stories up (one studio had very high ceilings) and thought that was the perfect time to drop for only the second or third time strikes me as a narrowly averted disaster — because that’s what it was.
After some time away from college, I wished to engage in a dance community upon my return. That’s when I began to meet people who took part in a lot of my favorite activities: pole, aerial silks and burlesque dancing with tango thrown into the mix. I found, whether or not I fully interacted with it, the dance community I had been looking for.
VII. Melissa Petro, Andrew Cuomo and the unfathomable humanity of the former stripper
Recently, Andrew Cuomo was plastered all over the news as if his reputation was a subject line worthy of discussion. I think we need to talk about how many people benefited from keeping those working under him quiet. Meanwhile, the press is having a field day, sensationalizing every story without identifying what needs to be done to result in change.
Typical. Cuomo’s voice is preferred; we hear it again and again and again. Ask yourself why we speak of him on his terms, even after all of the hurt he has admitted to having inflicted. In this way, politicians and dancers, strangely, seem to reflect society’s fallacies most directly through the press’s treatment of their actions or inactions.
Further, while the New York Post recently published an Opinion piece excoriating his supporters, around five years ago they also ripped a former erotic-dancer-turned mom and educator named Melissa Petro to pieces for no apparent reason other than boredom. Petro lost everything, and to recover anything professionally, she has since embarked upon a public speaking circuit.
When someone turns to sex work — either because they feel economically forced by living in an America where wages have remained stagnant for decades, or because they enjoy it — why do we punish them while protecting alleged sexual predators in spite of evident patterns of coercion?
Instead of viewing healthy sexuality as revolutionary, why do we continue to lean on a legal system that punishes women for sexual acts while consistently exonerating alleged offenders at any and all costs to those they harm?
VIII. Female images (for use-value) can be a lot like taxidermy
The writer Rebecca Solnit once wrote in an essay on Virginia Woolf that when she worked as an art critic, “(she) used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer.”
While academics, collectors and photographers can function as taxidermists for their subjects — with more interest in the use-value than in the plight of their subjects — not much discussion centers around how pornography, or what Audre Lorde calls that which results in the “abuse of feeling,” similarly treats femmes as subjects for taxidermy.
You see, taxidermy doesn’t speak — it is voiceless, aphonic and mute. Instead, taxidermy serves a display purpose. Nothing is different between the woman frozen in a silent(ced) position for the male imagination and the animal that is savored to be stuffed.
While that may sound dark or exaggerated, what I mean is that functionally, they are the same. The larynx and the captions that result from our capacity for language are (or at least should be) the most important components of any subject.
The body’s ability to voice itself is what opens the body up for its eventual reclamation.
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.