Back in August 2012, we put together our second publication which focused on portraiture and featured the work of 8 different photographers alongside 7 exclusive articles and interviews on the same theme. We featured the self portraiture of Jen Davis and to coincide, Lou Miller and Jim Stephenson chatted to her about her work.
Miniclick: We read a really interesting quote of yours that got us thinking about the psychological side of your work. You were talking about a photograph you took on the beach, and you said of that moment: “I wanted to make a picture to see what it felt like”. Was that the starting point; the point where you had to step back and put a barrier there; to see what you were experiencing?
Jen Davis: Yes, I think that was an entry point into the work when I didn’t really have a way of talking: I didn’t have a voice to express what I was feeling emotionally. If pictures of my body were brought up, or talked about, I would completely break down or shut down; I wasn’t even able to handle being accountable for it in a way. But with a camera, I was able to explore these things. For the first time I could start to actually ask these questions of myself within the context of a society where there’s this umbrella of beauty, and what is perceived as the ideal.
There was a feeling that I never was part of that society, so I began a challenging quest of looking at myself. You can look in a mirror and you can trick it almost, so you look a certain way, but I felt that, with the camera, there was no lying; what it recorded and what it saw was the truth to me. In the beginning I was really naïve: I was just standing in front of this machine, letting in light and recording myself in this an innocent way.
MC: Did you intend to approach yourself in a scientific documentary way?
JD: I don’t think that was ever something I thought of – it was just an outlet, a way to start having a voice. I was really surprised by what I saw in that picture on the beach. I was on vacation so I didn’t see it right away, but a week later I had it processed, and I was surprised by how real it felt; how I was able to isolate this moment in time – none of my work prior to that had the same kind of feel to it. Even though it was staged, it was this slice of life, frozen in this one moment that I felt and that I experienced. The intense scrutiny that I was putting myself under was something that I’d never really done before. Being that uncomfortable, being at the beach with friends in bikinis and I had all these layers on; I was just really covered in a sense, so there was tension, there was something really uncomfortable about being in that situation and the camera entered into that.
MC: Did photography come first, or was it the desire to look at yourself in more depth, to analyse yourself that made you turn to the camera?
JD: I think that came with the camera, absolutely, because it was my first way of talking: the camera freed me and empowered me in a way. It allowed me to try and find answers, to try to get access to myself and to other people that I’ve photographed. This machine gives me entitlement, in a way, or a certain power that I wouldn’t ordinarily have. With self-portraits, there’s a person that I’m projecting in the work; a personal private side that I don’t project into the world, that I didn’t even really know existed. With the camera, with these setups, I was exploring myself and realising that this interior self was unfolding.
MC: You described the relationship between you and the camera as a performance. It seems you’re psychologically finding this realness through acting out fantasties and sharing desires. The images are quite raw and emotionally charged, often with a voyeuristic element – was it challenging to be that open?
JD: I feel like there’s a balance between truth and fantasy where, in every photograph that I’ve made over the 12 years, I remember how everything felt: my skin, the person that’s with me, my emotions. Voyeuristically, in a way, I’m observing myself: this third person is me, and there’s no one else that has access to that; there’s no one else in the room unless they’re in the photograph with me.
There was never a direct connection with the viewer; my gaze was always somewhere else until the fantasy work started. There’s one frame where I was looking right at the lens and I had never done that before. I didn’t realise this at the time, and I didn’t realise it straight afterwards. Looking at the image after a year had passed, I realised that I just wanted to see what it would feel like to be held. It was so simple. There was no sexual tension, no chemistry; the man was a prop, almost. His identity was masked. But later, when I looked at it as the viewer would, I realised I wanted to be desired. This was the first time desire ever entered into my work in such a forward way, and that desire became part of the viewer’s experience. The camera became part of this relationship along with the surrogate men: they became part of the story, this exploration of desire and desiring.
MC: Does that confrontational gaze take you by surprise?
JD: Definitely, in every frame. I think the expression and the gaze were filled with this longing, an empathy towards something I didn’t know or didn’t understand, and I was asking for this in return from the viewer.
MC: How is that connection affected when you take portraits of other people?
JD: When I started to photograph other people it felt really good to connect with another person. I wanted to figure out how to explore these relationships, these exchanges under the umbrella of desire. But this is still a kind of performance; I need to entice, to seduce to get the sitter to do what I want. They give their trust to you. It’s really exciting to build that relationship with someone. When I’m shooting them, it’s like the other side of desire: my desire, their desire to be looked at too, I think.
For me, if something’s emotionally painful, there’s this peacef therapeutic process; I’m releasing something in myself, even if it’s something simple like a feeling or a look. With myself there’s a kind of duality: a balance between something that’s really fragile, but also this need to experience my sense of self, a sexual self, these questions of beauty.
As a photographer, I’m using the pallet to make something as beautiful as possible within the frame; using light and colour to have a sensitivity to my place in the world, how I feel I’m perceived, and to look at something that’s not conventionally seen as beautiful. With these simple hints of light, I’m able to seduce the viewer in a way. That’s my vehicle; that’s the only way that I’m able to search for this kind of relationship with myself and others.
MC: It seems there are points where you’re struggling, emotionally, and the camera helps you find resolution, yet there are other points where it’s a distraction. How does your relationship with the camera change at various points?
JD: Over time there has been an important evolution, but now being around the images so much has desensitised me in a way. Back in 2011 I was making prints in the darkroom that were 20 by 24 inches – I was seeing myself 100% magnified. It was uncomfortable because ‘d never had that relationship with myself before. My assistants people were talking technically about me, as the work, and I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I think now, looking back, I didn’t even know my body, it wasn’t something I was ever aware of really, until I started losing weight and feeling different, and photographing that process too. Because I was too uncomfortable to deal with it at that point, I was able to suppress it, to photograph it and learn from it. That experience alone, I think, was the changing point for me. It allowed me to look at it all together and just be ok. I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable for the camera, but not in the world, for myself or with a partner. That outlet was only through photography. I just realised: I want to know what it feels like to live in a smaller body, and live in a world that I don’t know. I’ve done so much in ten years but why have I never tried to really change? Being in the dark room for a month, really looking at myself under a microscope, that made me realise that things had to change, or I wanted to change.
MC: It sound like a cathartic process, how do you feel about showing something so vulnerable?
JD: Discovering my own vulnerability, in a way, is tied to intimacy and desire: those are the three things that I feel are intertwined. Something I think is important about the work, or maybe its best attribute for me, is people being able to accept it: people being able to look at this body, at this person, and empathise with them, to put themselves into the narrative. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about one self: my body, my size – it can cross over to other people who have body image issues. Also, it doesn’t necessarily have to have to be about obesity; people can relate to it because of the implication of someone being vulnerable, or allowing themselves to be.
MC: Do you think you’ll continue to document yourself indefinitely, or do you think there will be a point where you’ll think, “this is finished”?
JD: When there’s an important moment in my life, I’ll document it, but there are also periods where I’m not wanting to look at myself – sometimes I want to experience life, and catch up on the emotional side too.
We still have a handful of copies of Publication#2 left. If you’d like to order or see more, click here.