The images say more about the photographer behind the lens than the subject in the frame.
Most people out there who want to take a picture of their vagina take their phone or camera and snap away. The photo might be for their own reference, the digital equivalent of a hand mirror that allows them to get a closer look at what is going on down there, or it might be for someone else, a sexy yet carefully crafted sneak peek at what that person will get it if they come over. In both cases, the pictures show what the vagina looks like. They are meant for an eye who will enjoy view from outside. However, what would that picture look like if the camera were inside the vagina looking out? Would it generate the same feelings in the viewer? Would it have the same meaning?
Visual artist Dani Lessnau decided to find out. She created a performance photography project called extimite that seeks to disrupt the traditional way we think of this art. For her project, she inserted a pinhole camera into her vagina and used it to take pictures of her lovers, who, as a result of her chosen technique, appear as blurry, ghostlike figures in a hazy, black-and-white world. The pictures are not carefully composed or controlled because with every movement Lessnau made with her body (whether breathing or shifting), the camera would move too, affecting the result of the long exposure. This is what makes the photos look so raw and intimate, and that is the idea behind her project.
In order to find out more about the work and the vision behind these images, we interviewed Lessnau for this article. Her answers provide great insight about the key themes she explores in her work. For instance, we asked about what it meant for her as a photographer and a woman to put a camera inside her vagina to take pictures of men. Her response brought up the issue of control, and how photography is traditionally thought of as a very controlled practice that she wanted to alter by letting her body create the images.
As humans we have to consistently contend with, and often be humbled by, the lack of control we have over our bodies. As women, subject to the erratic fluctuations of our menstrual cycle, we are granted monthly lessons in this act of surrendering control and its potential for creation. Wanting to give reverence to this cycle in my work, I surrendered control in many layers of the process. Both the darkness and my breath became my collaborators. I cut and tore film by hand in complete darkness to load the cameras, relinquishing control over the frame; upon insertion, there was no top or bottom. By using my vagina to hold the camera I allowed my breath to play the invisible actor, manipulating the film through its influence over my viscera, destabilizing the camera inside me.
As Lessnau explains in the quote above, the vagina, the menstrual cycle, and the body, in general, remind her of her inability as a human being to control everything around her. In a way, this is also related to relationships and sex because in these two aspects of our life it is harder to control something when there is someone else involved. With this in mind, we asked her how she felt that taking these pictures affected the way she saw her body and sex.
I had been shrinking my presence to fit into what I was ingrained to believe was a more desired shape through my entire life, both physically and energetically. I had no center or sense of my own desires, I became and adapted myself to what I thought people wanted of me.Through the experience of creating this work I began to learn how to fill space, to feel the expanse and strength of my own presence. To be gazed upon without losing my sense of embodiment; desire began to circulate in both directions. We were both simultaneously the desired and the desirer. It felt erotic and unpredictable and intoxicating. I strive to articulate a phantom of this circulation of desire on the film.
This learning process that she experienced as she worked on the project is closely linked to the most exciting and revolutionary aspect of her work: a role reversal. Whereas traditional photography is about a man (subject, reason, light) using a camera to take a picture of a woman’s body (object, emotion, dark), Lessnau’s work brings the camera to the most intimate part of her body and lets it create. As a result, the object becomes subject; the inside looks out. The vagina, which is still surrounded by mystery, taboos, and shame, becomes an agent that looks, creates, and sheds light. Taking this into consideration, Lessnau describes her work as feminist, but that her understanding of this word is “more fluid”:
It has become a weighted word in today’s climate, one with many rigid definitions depending on who you ask. I would offer that we deconstruct it and reconstruct it again and again in response and relation to where it is needed. It is a word that involves creation and it is very hard/limiting to create from a fixed, stuck place.
Moving on from the ideas behind the images, we asked Lessnau about the feelings that she hoped to inspire in the people who saw the images, and she responded that, while she doesn’t expect any specific reaction from people who see her work, she does hope that they “feel” something and identify with “the beauty of vulnerability in an image.” For her, the images aren’t necessarily sexual or suggestive. Instead, what they inspire is a tenderness that comes from holding in her hands an image that comes from deep within her, a small black-and-white square that can even resemble a sonogram.
How do you feel when you look at these images?
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