Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Reappraising The Night Porter

Photographer: Ray Spence

A conversation with a friend who is very involved in historical research on the Holocaust sent me back to The Night Porter, the controversial 1974 film by Liliana Cavani. My friend had not seen it, but was aware of the criticism levelled at the film when it came out, especially by Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian writer who had survived Auschwitz and allegedly committed suicide in 1987. When the film was released Levi said that it was "based on the idea Cavani has of sex. This has nothing to do with the camps”. No indeed, it has not. My friend thought it eroticised Nazism and believed it to be exploitative. I was not convinced by this.

I saw Cavani's film in 1976. I was way too young back then to really grasp it fully. But even then I understood that the film was not about the camps but about sexuality and an abusive relationship framed by the history of German fascism, which incidentally Cavani had earlier researched when making documentaries for RAI. I do remember being moved by it and finding Charlotte Rampling's and Dick Bogarde's performances most compelling.

So I watched it again after a long gap this morning, while waiting for a delivery - you know the kind of thing you have to be sitting at home waiting for, as no one can ever tell you the exact time when your item will be brought by the courier.

Photographer: Terry Slater

I enjoyed watching it, despite being really perturbed by it. Once again Rampling and Bogarde struck me as superb actors - she was perfectly suited to the role, with her lithe frame the flashback scenes in which she appears as a teenager at the camp are totally believable. And I discovered that there was a lot to be unpacked about this film, which perhaps appeared at the wrong time to be appreciated. Homo-erotic signifiers are scattered throughout the film, where we also see the intimate, though never physical, relationship of the heterosexual male protagonist with Bert, a homosexual Nazi - a reminder of the ambiguity of attitudes to homosexuality in Nazi Germany, where homosexuality was both promoted and suppressed.

Briefly, for those who don't know it, the film is set in Vienna in 1957. A group of former Nazis lives a tranquil, anonymous life, having escaped and having never been tried. Max (Bogarde) is one of them and works as a night porter in a hotel. They have their ritual formal meetings which they call 'trials', which end with a rehabilitation and destruction of all evidence, including the 'filing' of eye witnesses. Max was one of those Nazis who executed given orders but he certainly took pleasure in doing it and had a way of getting his own kicks at the camp - never named. Too small a fish to be hunted down, one of the many Nazis who would easily slip into anonymity, as many indeed have done. But guilty nevertheless. As he is awaiting for his 'trial' Lucia, a Jewish young woman who had been an inmate at the camp where Max used to perform his 'medical experiments', now married to an American conductor, comes to stay at the hotel. She is accompanying her husband on a tour. Lucia and Max immediately recognise each other. They had had an abusive sexual relationship back at the camp, one in which she and Max had also created an unbreakable bond. She was Max's 'little girl', willing to be because she wanted to survive. After some time and an initial resistance the two of them slip back into an intimate, passionate, doomed relationship which echoes that of the past, one in which they both re-enact the violence of the past mixing it with tenderness and genuine, if incomprehensible, affection. Cavani attempts to get inside the head of abuser and abused, rejecting black and white definitions of good and evil. There is a moment in the film which is very significant, where a chained Lucia in Max's apartment tells her interlocutor, who is trying to get her out, that she is there of her own volition. The ending is tragic, as can be expected.

Photographer: DG

What shall we make of this seventies art film? Is it truly to be reviled as suggested by its many critics?

No it is not. I dont even think that Cavani meant in any way to be disrespectful toward Holocaust victims by using the Holocaust as a frame. Cavani's Night Porter (the Italian title "Portiere di Notte" somehow does not translate too well into English as it really means Porter of the Night, the night being a reference to Nazism) is overdue for a reappraisal.

"In The Night Porter" writes Nick Impey, "Lucia is portrayed as liberated by her acceptance of a non-heteronormative sexual identity... Thus, the message of Cavani’s film is that a break from hetero-normative sexual identity can lead to release and equality in sexual couplings".

The message is relayed in a very disturbing way but anything that touches on human sexuality in a such a raw manner, depicting a co-dependent relationship is bound to be disturbing. The film often acts as a mirror.

When you watch yourself in the mirror what do you actually see?

Below is one of the most famous scenes of the film, in which Lucia performs Wenn Ich Mir Was made famous by Marlene Dietrich while at the camp
(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Let's talk about...casual sex

I was browsing my FB page and this article came up as a top story. It is a piece published in the online version of Psychology Today. It is by Stanley Siegel and it is entitled Why I advocate for casual sex. It is in fact a sequel to his previous In defense of casual sex which attracted dozens of comments, not all of them flattering.

"The more I practice psychotherapy" says Siegel "the more I appreciate that healing the mind and spirit is as much art as it is science...Sex is the window into our psyche". He then goes on to say that "when practiced intelligently and generously, sex has the capacity to help heal emotional wounds and rectify unmet childhood needs" and that he has often found that many "truths" about sex, and especially about casual sex, are none other than "entrenched myths". He goes on to list them:

1. Casual sex is devoid of emotion

2. It is reckless

3. The best sex is in committed relationships

4. Casual sex is sexist

5. Casual sex is dangerous because it spreads diseases
I will not repeat here Siegel's arguments in detail except to say that he manages to make a good case in defense of casual sex, countering each one of the above mentioned objections. So casual sex is not devoid of emotion, it is not reckless, it is not sexist, it is not a way to spread diseases - it is unsafe sex that does it, not casual sex, though I have to admit that sometimes the two conflate.

I was very intrigued by the responses to both the articles and I would like to invite you to read the comments - beware, some comments are quite insulting.

I remember some time ago Vena Ramphal's podcast in which she said that to pretend no emotion whatsoever was involved in sex was a fallacy and went on to disabuse us of the notion of a soul mate. I wrote about it in my post The myth of the soulmate. I am mentioning this again because ultimately the idea that there is such a thing as casual sex goes hand in hand with the myth of the soulmate. In other words to have a hierarchy in terms of one's sexual experiences leads to negativity.

Siegel is not saying anything so different from what certain spiritual teachers have also said. Monogamy is after all nothing more than a social construct. It should be a choice rather than an imposition.

Photographer: Charles Fennell

The word casual sex does have negative connotations and personally I would avoid using it, precisely because it is so open to misunderstandings. But the crux of Siegel's arguments resonates with me, to a great extent.

Ultimately I go along with Franklin Veaux's comment: "The fact is, if the people involved are healthy, then casual sex between them can be healthy as well; and if the people involved are unhealthy, then even sex in a committed relationship can be unhealthy. It's not committed vs. casual that makes sex healthy or alienating; it's the folks involved, their integrity, and their choices".

Wise words. Belated Happy Solstice Greetings and Merry Christmas, everyone!

(All photos unless otherwise stated are modelled by Alex B)

Monday, 19 December 2011

No Punk in Aceh? No Punk, period.

Photographer: Richard Plumb
Last week the media reported on an unsettling event in the Indonesian province of Aceh, in Northern Sumatra. Some 6o young punks were arrested by police and forced to shave their hairdos and undergo  rehabilitation. Aceh is ruled by Shari'a law and being punk is, apparently, a criminal act.
I reacted to this feeling quite sick. I am a former punk (NOT punkette, please!).  I no longer sport a red and blue hairstyle, my hair is white and getting close to my hips and I do not wear safety pins anymore - though my favorite jeans are falling apart, they are seriously torn and to me they are the best wardrobe item I possess.
But once a punk always a punk.
I still listen to the music (and the postpunk rock, including grunge, which has really become a connoisseur's thing, as it died in the 90s)
So you can imagine how upsetting it was for me to hear about the ordeal of these young people.
Punk is a global phenomenon and post seventies punk grows in places like Indonesia or Mexico. Punk is not dead, it just cannot die! It encapsulates a rebellious spirit.

Self Portrait
"The global punk rock scene provides a fruitful basis for exploring the multiple circuits of exchange and circulation of goods,people, and messages.  Punk can also offer new ways of thinking about international relations and communication from the lived experiences of people’s daily lives" writes Kevin Dunn from St Andrews University in his brilliant paper "The Punk Politics of Global Communication,or, It’s A Punk Rock Planet After All".
The  Clash, I can never have enough of them!
But let's get back to the issue at hand. Fundamentalist Muslims find punk sinful. But before you start inveighing against strict Muslims, wait a minute. Is this not similar to what the Daily Mail did in 2008 in a liberal western democracy? I mean, punk bashing is met with approval in liberal societies too. By the way Indonesia is not an Islamic country and there is a strong opposition to such acts as those seen in Aceh, the reaction against this in Jakarta has been phenomenal.
"Punks and metallers are seen as The Other. The mainstream populace – however fucked up it may be itself – always has and always will fear The Other. We always get the blame! " says an anonymous columnist writing for Thrash Hits.
I could not agree more.
(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Sunday, 11 December 2011

I feel authoritative,feminine and decisive...

Photographer: Caroline Michael

"I feel authoritative, feminine and decisive; in the mood to clobber Scargill, or take a ride in a tank...The Falklands goggles are yet to be seen on the catwalk" So writes Hermyone Eyre, in the ES Magazine of 9th December. All made up to look like Mrs Margaret Thatcher.
"I am 30, made up to look 50" she goes on. This is an empowering look, but worth recreating "if you are in your twenties, when looking older is still an advantage and pearls and bows come across as ironic. For anyone else it's a look to be followed not to the letter but in spirit. Have I made myself clear?" she ends.
I was reading this on the tube, during rush hours, when we were all packed as sardines - that transportation should be so bad in this country and this city in particular is but another legacy of Mrs T's policies.
I felt like throwing up. Forget about fashion capitalising on the film The Iron Lady which will open on 6th Jan, with Mrs Thatcher interpreted by the glamorous Meryl Streep. This article does not seem to have been written by someone endowed with any brain.

Photographer: Martina O'Shea

I am not happy about glamorising Mrs T. I lived through her time, I was summoned because I could not pay the bloody poll tax (£750 per year was impossible for me to find, I was a student!), I was there in the poll tax riots (which the film glosses over, in fact political commentary is non-existent in this film). I had my PhD viva on the day Mrs T. finally made her departure from number 10, the 26th of November 1990, and I remember coming out of my viva feeling elated because I had passed, to be greeted by a crowd of jubilant students - surely they can't be doing this for me, I remember thinking in bewilderment, I had not heard the news, I had been in a classroom with my examiners. They were celebrating Mrs T's demise of course, it all became clear in a flash. I joined in the big party.

I despise Mrs T's policies and what she stood for, the racism, the provincialism, the wanting to keep women at home to look after young children - nurseries places were drastically cut by her, the stereotypes she would encourage e.g. "single parent families breed criminals".

I remember the cold winter of discontent, the miners' strike, and the devastation and erosion of communities that the Iron Lady brought about.

A piece by Sarah Churchwell in the Guardian compares Marilyn Monroe, also the subject of a new film, My week with Marilyn, and Mrs Thatcher, suggesting similarities between the two "icons". Churchwell's piece barely manages to make sense, it's a bit like watching someone on the trapeze suddenly failing to grab the swing but then doing it, with difficulty, on a second attempt, when she finally states "as parables about powerful women, there are serious objections to both My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady. The latter often seems more interested in Thatcher's dementia than her career, and keeps putting her daughter Carol in the frame to suggest the moral of today's favourite sexist cautionary tale: career women ruin their children's lives. My Week with Marilyn falls back on the cliché that Marilyn's career ruined her own life, that her stardom destroyed her"

Oh well, she has suddenly realised that the comparison is not quite plausible after all and is trying to save face - "the most tortuous comparison I have come across in ages Sarah" says a commentator and another writes "I don't recall Monroe destroying a country's manufacturing industry and forcing millions of people into poverty - but I'm willing to be proven wrong, Sarah"

Who is behind The Iron Lady? Who wants a whole new generation of young Brits and Americans believe that the policies of The Iron Lady and indeed the Iron Lady herself are to be admired, something to aspire to?

Whilst I do think Meryl Streep is a great actress and no doubt she has brought much compassion in her interpretation of Mrs T, who in the film is portrayed as suffering from dementia (we see her life through flashbacks), I just cannot make head or tail of this film. Why now?

"I don't know whether it's a science fiction film or a horror movie. It's certainly not a documentary," said former Derbyshire striking miner John Dunn, when previewing scenes from the movie.

I rest my case.

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Monday, 5 December 2011

You shake your bum too much

Photographer: Martina O'Shea
She is ninety-five but she looks a little younger. She attends the old people day centre where I am contracted to deliver some dance therapy for the next ten weeks - still training, still studying, still having to go and offer free sessions on a regular basis and be assessed on what I do.
Easier said than done. Last year I was with addiction sufferers, mainly drug and alcohol,  and was glad when it ended, they really gave me a hard time. This year I have chosen to work with older clients -  is it because I have an elderly mother and am trying to come to terms with the fact I cannot be with her as often as I would like? A projection, or rather, a transference? Perhaps.  Next I'd like to work with women that have been in abusive relationships but I am not quite ready for it, I am still licking my own wounds. My final training will be with forensic, if I can build up the strength to endure being  in jail for one day a week for eight to ten weeks. The words of the young man I once met at a police station, while waiting to be interviewed, still resonate with me  "once that door is locked behind you, you'd do anything to get out".
So there we were, the lovely ninety-five year old, with a headful of  hair whiter than mine and a couple of younger women, including a very wispy  Russian lady who can dance hundreds of folk dances and is keen to demonstrate them - she did that at the first session and even sang and I struggled to keep up with her.
Photographer: PWPImages
We began the session and She did not want to take part, on account of her swollen ankles and other problems. She said she'd sit and sleep through it, and graciously "allowed" us to use the space. Which we did. We were in the middle of some game, listening to the music of the Andes and going off on an imagined climb when She screamed "STOP. You are doing it all wrong". We stopped, one of us turned the music down and She said: "None of you can dance. You all shake your bum too much" And then She told us how to dance the waltz and began to oversee that we were doing it properly. My job is to hold the space for the group, so this was fine. There were a few grumblings and some heated arguments on steps, and from there the session developed in a totally unforeseen manner. At the end of it all She turned to me and said that I needed to go to dance school again because I had been taught badly. You cant shake your bum like that, she repeated. I left the day centre feeling quite amused.
On the way back home I stopped at a shoe shop to get myself a pair of new high heeled sandals for pole dancing  and a pair of warm, flat boots for everyday use.

Photographer: Martina O'Shea
Shaking one's bum when dancing was regarded, once upon a time, extremely distasteful. And not just in European culture. I still remember the horrified look of my Indian classical dance teacher (I took some classes when travelling through India) when he saw me moving my hips - no, no, you dont ever do that, they only do that in Bollywood! This was accompanied by a grand sneer.
Now that I pole dance I shake my bum quite a bit - we do a bit of shimmying, not belly dancing style, but we do it as we get closer to the pole, then stick the bum out, take a step and do a spin. I love it.
Then when I go for my contemporary dance class the first thing I am told is that I should tuck my bum in, Alex what are you doing, the bum out is bad for your posture, bad for your spine and not at all 'artistic'- your pelvis should be in line with your shoulders and as you contract you push the breath down and as you release it comes up. Or something like that, I always struggle with the breathing technique.
So here I am, trying to reconcile different ways of being with my bum. The good thing is that at least I know when to tuck it in and when to stick it out, when to shake it and when to  keep it still. A small achievement, no doubt, but one nevertheless...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Two in one makes three

No, I am not redefining arithmetic.'Two in one makes three' means I am merging two separate posts which I wrote this weekend for my deviantArt journal into one post here. But of course as I do that, I cant help adding, so that what we have is a third, distinct post.

I had the privilege of shooting with Charles yesterday at Mariann Fercsik studio. She is a young photographer with immense talent who opened the studio with the idea of providing young artists with a space to be creative.

Charles and I used the studio yesterday afternoon. Charles approached me via Art Limited - models if you are not on it get there quick, plenty of classy photographers there!
I love Mariann's work, have a look for yourself.
I particularly love the series taken in Hungary, but this woman oozes talent and can make any place look beautiful and anyone look interesting. She only shoots film and her favourite camera is a Hasselblad. Watch out for her, I am sure we will hear more about her.

The shoot with Charles was great fun. I was cheeky and took along my camera with the idea of using it during breaks. I was not sure how Charles would react, but I need not have worried. He welcomed the idea, was interested in my 'baby' and was incredibly generous, insisting I should use one of his films for my portraits. He had brought along his digital camera, his Mamiya and a large format Walker I absolutely adored. And he used them all.

I used to do this quite a lot even before I took up photography, always was very inquisitive, but now I am the kind of model who bombards the photographer with questions on photographic technique. Not everyone's cup of tea, I freely admit. Some like it, some put up with it, some hate it. Charles liked it. He was amazing, I truly enjoyed the shoot. When we moved on to using my camera - I wanted to do self portraits, which I had never tried with this camera, though I did self portraits twice already at DG's studio, with his digital Canon - I still remember the abrasive comment my effort received "Most photographers are interested in other people but self centred and narcissistic as you are you take up photography to take pictures of yourself" I guess this person would never appreciate Cindy Sherman's work!

I realised, after setting the camera up on a tripod, that I did not have a self timer - why did I think I had it? I was convinced my camera had that facility. Nor did I have a cable release. So I had two options: give up or ask Charles to act as my assistant, stand in for me as I focused, then move over and press the shutter release button - without doing anything to the settings - while I posed. He was wonderful and did it! I have not developed the film yet, I hope to do so tomorrow. My first self portrait shot was funny and I cant wait to see it. I had been modelling until then for Charles as I usually do, with confidence and panache. Then as we switched to my camera, after everything was in place, I said to Charles "Now", meaning he could press the shutter release, and as I said so I went very stiff, a flashback on when my father used to take photos of the family and we were all in our places "being photographed" or when in school the photographer came round and took pictures of the class - I still have those photos, all of us positioned by height, with the taller girls at the back, all looking exactly the same, wide eyed, no smiles, and very, very uncomfortable.


We both laughed at that - I am a model, I am used to the camera, but at that moment I slipped into a different persona altogether.

Then as we packed up after finishing the shoot, Mariann burst in and we lingered on to look at her amazing work. As I got ready to leave, she took a cable release from a bag and gave it to me, a small gift to encourage me to continue to take self portraits. I certainly will continue, narcissistic though it may be. Who knows by the time I am seventy I might be as good and as famous as Cindy.

My second dA journal was about a photographic exhibition I chanced on, which is about to close (30th November). Bill Wyman, better known as a Stones band member, has been taking photographs since the 1960s and is well versed in the art and craft of photography.

The exhibition, his first in London, shows a mixture of early work, with images of fellow Stones and other famous rockers and later work , which focuses on nature, with lots of macro images, beautiful and tender.

You can view the photos online, though the watermark somewhat detracts from them, so if you are not in London, and cant make it to the gallery you can still take a peep.
It seems that many musicians take up photography as a hobby, some with greater success than others. By success here I simply mean that some are better than others at mastering the technique, though in some cases it does bring further success, as in 'further limelight'.
Bryan Ferry for example is currently being celebrated as a photographer, with his stunning images of Kate Moss, who he has declared 'an icon of our times, on a par with Marylin' being exhibited at the Michael Kohn Gallery in LA. Ferry does have a personal history with supermodels. Once upon a time it was Jerry Hall who posed for him - he always did dabble in photography and the visual arts, having done a degree in fine arts before founding Roxy Music. Ferry and Hall were an item for a while but she soon dumped him for Mick Jagger, in a notorious split which angered Brian so much he allegedly refused to return Jerry her things for some two years and never spoke to her again. Some people are better at forgiving than others.
So, everyone is/can be a photographer - including me - but not everyone is a famous photographer, nor is everyone famous and a photographer...

(All photos taken by Charles Fennell and modelled by Alex B)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Impossible people

Photographer: Martina O'Shea

We often hear  about impossible people. A google search will take you to various sites where you will find advice from experts and non-experts about how to deal with 'impossible' people. I even found a site dedicated to body builders with a long rant about deliberate provocation by impossible people and how to deal with it!
I am a bit weary of the label 'impossible' people. To begin with it is all relative. For instance I have been variously described as kind, loving, elegant, beautiful, classy, courteous, intelligent, witty and as the exact opposite, uncourteous, unkind, selfish, shabby, stupid and ignorant - oh yes, I have heard that many times even   from people whom you would  regard as somewhat intellectually challenged - ugly etcetera etcetera. The truth is clearly somewhere in between and I know that it is all, how shall I put it, circumstantial - as in 'dependent on circumstances'. For example some people believe that posing nude is a sign of exhibitionism, others think nothing of it.  To keep it in the modelling world, some photographers (good and bad) will think nude models are "easy" girls, some will not. It all depends on their upbringing and their moral values and these are influenced by many different factors.
But I am digressing. So let's have a look at these 'impossible' people.

One of the things they do is blame. A lot. Here's a simple way to tell, says one site: "if you accept responsibility for your own faults and resolve to improve yourself, it's probably not you. Remember, impossible people 'can do no wrong'"

Impossible people have no flaws! Someone else is always at fault.

Another piece of advice is as follows:

"If you have regular dealings with someone who tries to portray you as the source of all evil, you need to take active steps to maintain a positive self-image. Remind yourself that this person's opinion is not necessarily the truth. Understand that oftentimes, impossible people are particularly "fact-challenged." If the attacks have little basis in raw fact, dismiss them. You can't possibly be as bad as this person would like you to believe you are. Do not defend yourself out loud, however. It will only provoke the impossible person into another tirade.

So who are these impossible people? People who carry a lot of sadness within and desperately need help. Except that if you help them they despise you"

You know what? Let them rot, that's the only solution!

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Monday, 21 November 2011

Who is the victim?

Photographer: Caroline Michael
Someone is very much on my mind, a woman. Let's say I met her at some point during my practice as trainee therapist, I dont want people in this story to be recognised, so I will disguise them thoroughly, creating 'composites'. But the essence of what I am saying is true and the issues I am raising very relevant.
Meet Sheila. She has been , still is,  an occasional street walker. One of her clients is a relatively wealthy businessman  whose hobby is photography.  Sheila adores him. Whereas the others treat her pretty rough, this one  pays for her to pose for him, while she dreams of being a supermodel -  as well as paying for her other services of course, he is definitely after value for money. They have known each other for some years, he is kind to her and gives her gifts of money. She secretly dreams of marrying him, but of course he'd never even consider it.
In her  mid-forties, Sheila looks a lot older than her age. She has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, it's in the family, her brother was addicted to heroin and died a few years ago, she is on crack and anything else that can get her high. She is not able to hold down a regular job and has no qualifications.
Short and  skinny, beautiful is not a word one would use to describe her. She has very short, chunky legs, bad skin and bad teeth and sparse hair that is too blond to be natural.
A poor thing you'd think. Indeed, she might give you that impression and in many ways she is a victim. But then there are things about her that will make you think long and hard about who is a victim of what.
Photographer: Caroline Michael
She has had four children by a different father, of different ethnicities. She was married at some point to a hardworking man but  she could not keep away from drinks and drugs, so he walked out. She was left on her own with three children - he took his - and decided to make good use of them, so she turned the eldest daughter, barely ten at the time, into a child prostitute and  made money out of her. The others were left to their own devices, they would not even go to school.  At night Sheila walked the streets.
It is alleged that she herself sexually abused her children. Whether this is true or not, I can't say. The point is that following several  reports by concerned neighbours and the fact the children were always playing truant, the  children were taken away from her by Social Services and she was not allowed them to see them ever again.
Following a row and police intervention, Sheila was  diagnosed psychotic and sectioned. Her businessman client intervened after some time and got her a place to live. She currently lives off his hand outs as well as social security as also the occasional prostitution.

 Photographer: Steven Beard
 At a day centre which she occasionally attends, she was offered therapy. She was not really interested in it, but went to some sessions perfunctorily. She believes she never did any wrong. When you meet her she is very pleasant, a fun loving, uneducated woman who talks incessantly. But when you realise that this woman did not hesitate to prostitute her own daughter, only a child at the time, you can't help doing a double take.
Maybe she was sexually abused when she was a child, maybe not. I did not have access to her full file, so I never found out.
I dont know what happened to those children, apart from the fact they were taken away. Who knows whether this was the right thing to do. She misses them and no doubt they miss her, despite everything.
Personally I think that women like Sheila should not be allowed to become mothers, they cannot deal with the responsibility. I know this is a very un-PC thing to say, but situations such as this make you wonder.
I brought up my son more or less singlehandedly. All right, I am a professional woman and earn a decent salary and thus I was able to educate him well but things were not always easy and there were times when I had to manage with very little. Today my son is a graduate, has just landed a good job, but more importantly he is a mature and considerate adult. What is the difference between Sheila and me? Her children and mine? Who is the victim in this story? Is there one? Is there someone that should/can be blamed?
I did meet Sheila's pseudo-boyfriend by the way. And you know, somewhat irrationally, all I could feel for him was contempt.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Friday, 18 November 2011

When pets die

Photographer: Neil Huxtable. Own postprocessing
I grew up in the country in a household with pets. My father loved dogs and also loved mynah birds, which he kept in a cage but occasionally would let free in our large kitchen, making sure all doors and windows were shut. He was not too keen on cats but we did have a couple of strays, I was quite fond of them. It did not help that one of the cats, at some point, ate one of the mynah birds! I still remember how angry my father was when it happened. But cats are cats and do what they are meant to do and they cannot help chasing up birds and mice, no more than a tiger can be faulted for being a man eater.
I have always had a weakness for cats, more than for dogs, and always took instantly to them but never had myself any, I found I could not commit to keeping them, never had the space.  I know however how fond one can become of one's pets and how distressing it is when they die.
Today I shall tell you a story, a real one, about a cat that died of cancer...
 When I first moved to London I lived for a short while in a suburb in a cheap flat owned by a middle aged gentleman who lived in the flat below. He had no one else with him, except for his cat, who was seventeen years old. I dont remember the cat's name, it was a very usual cat's name, Bobby or Dennis or some such.
It was not a friendly cat, nor a pretty sight. Deaf and toothless, his hair was coming off in handfuls and he seemed to be covered in dandruff. He had a problem with one of his legs and only used three. He was diabetic and, so the owner told me, senile - he would occasionally growl and scratch things and people, especially his owner, whose hands and arms were visibly marked by the cat's claws.
I tried to make friends with him but he did not seem to care very much, it was the kind of cat that does not trust strangers and was extremely territorial. I did not see much of him, anyway, I was busy coming and going and within a couple of months I found myself more suitable accommodation, closer to the city centre. But I did hear the cat quite a lot, he was rather noisy.

Photographer: DG
I was deeply moved by the way the owner treated this old cat, with a respect and an affection that transcended the boundary between animal and human being. He would hold him, stroke and caress him and tickle him, which the cat apparently loved, and would feed him tid-bits.  The cat was the first thing he would think of when waking up and probably the last thing he saw at night when he went to bed.
I used to pay my rent weekly, in cash,  and I used to go down and knock on his door, usually on a Saturday morning. My landlord would always let me in and offer me a cup of tea. As he made the tea I waited in his shabby living room, very messy and quite dirty, full of books and papers. I did not know what he did for a living and to be honest I did not even care, he seemed to be well spoken and was extremely polite. This was a weekly ritual, I would have been happy to just give him the money and skip the tea - I am Italian, it was only later that I would acquire a taste for tea!  but I went along with it, I was after a receipt, which he always gave me, neatly handwritten. While he made the tea I had a chance to be with the cat. He had his basket by the radiator in the living room, just under the main window.  As he got used to me he allowed me to touch him and I tried to stroke him, I wanted to make friends with him. My landlord  told me that often the cat slept next to him, even though he had his own basket. The bond between them was apparent, it was as if the cat was his child. They even had a similar look, you know what they say about owners and their pets, there was something they shared.
 As I said, I soon moved out and forgot about the gentleman and his cat. Two months after I moved, on a cold November evening, I got a call. It was the gentleman. He asked me politely how I was. I sensed something was not quite right.  I waited for him to speak and he quietly said that his cat had died. Then he did something I did not expect.  He began to cry. My heart really went out to him but all I could do was listen. He told me how the cat had succumbed to cancer, he had taken him to the vet for a check up  but was told the cancer was so advanced there was nothing they could do. And he was offered the option of having the cat put down, which he took. The cat died within minutes of being injected. The poor thing must have been in constant pain and probably this was the reason why he seemed to behave erratically and was occasionally furious. How can animals tell you that they are in pain?
I was reminded of when Dick, my father's favourite dog, was given a heavy dose of Nembutal because he had a terminal illness. My father too was distraught, he did not cry but he was pale and about to be sick.
Photographer: Neil Huxtable. Own postprocessing
So there I was, feeling powerless and unable to say anything that could really make this man feel better. After telling me, he recomposed himself and we ended the call with the mutual promise we'd keep in touch. I never saw him or heard from him again, I never looked for him nor did he look for me.
It's been a very long time ago since this happened.  But somehow every November I briefly remember that cat, I can't help it.  Wherever he is now,  may he rest in peace. Wherever that gentleman is, may he be happy.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Warming up and previsualising

Photographer: Adam Hayter Model: me

The idea of warming up is very familiar to anyone that does anything physical, especially dance. In my pole dancing class for example students are not allowed in if they miss the 15 minutes warm up which usually consists of various exercises to get the muscles to loosen up a bit.  In a dance technique class, whatever the technique,  it is all structured very meticulously. As  your muscles get warmer you are ready to attempt more complex actions. The concept of warming up is what underlies Bikram yoga, which uses the extreme heat in order to increase flexibility and literally warm the muscles.
But the warm up is not just physical, it is also a way of preparing yourself. So it is no surprise that art students also engage in a warm up when starting on a drawing. As a life model I am most familiar with it. "Let's start with a few two minutes poses" the tutors tell me, and to the class/workshop participants, they say that the idea is to warm up the hand, to begin to see, just drawing lines without paying attention to detail. It's a warm up leading to a long pose.
I have often done some warming up at the start of a photographic modelling session too, just a few shots to see how the photographer and I got on and to get used to the camera. With a digital camera that is quite easy to do, you have all those shots you can take and also delete, if you are not happy with them.
Photographer: me
But what do you do if your medium is film?
I dont want to get into the habit of trying everything with a digital camera and then use film when I have decided on composition, lighting etc. After all in pre-digital days people did not do that.
How do you do it then? Mine is a genuine question to which I would welcome some answers.
If working with a new model, I need to get her/him comfortable before I start shooting in earnest.  I also need to see what would work best with them, so my instinct would be to look at them carefully. Those who do not have much modelling experience find it unnerving.  A shoot takes me a long time because I am not snapping away, at present I can only work with very patient models. I also find that sometimes only two or three shots are all I am after.
I took my camera when we celebrated my mother's 90th birthday. I had it on a tripod in a corner and I used only a few frames, but throughout I kept on thinking about what I wanted and how best to get it. Everyone is so used to people taking hundreds of photos, they thought I was quite eccentric.
A friend suggested I should read the following article by Ron Bigelow on Previsualisation. I found it very helpful. I remember a photographer friend telling me that when he had a studio and took photos, in pre-digital days, he would never have a film in the camera when he began the shoot, unbeknownst to the model. He would then say "Oh we have done the first roll" and  proceed to load the film into the camera. This was so that the model would warm up and feel more confident in front of the camera. I am tempted to use the same technique...What do you think?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Internet misogyny and comment moderation

Photographer: Manji
Last week The Guardian and the London Evening Standard wrote about internet misogyny. The number of men that seem to vent their hatred of women online through anonymous comments is quite bewildering, according to such reports.
As a model with an online presence I have experienced online misogyny and virulent comments, anyone in my position surely has.
I have received threats and have been the target of vindictiveness. Whoever said that men forgive and let go, whereas women are more likely to plot revenge and harass, is but another misogynist. Reading about the man who put his ex's real address on Craiglist, saying she fantasised about violent sex, confirmed my suspicions. The woman was raped by a guy who read his post, virtually a call to rape her. And that is not vindictiveness, is it?
 Moore's piece in The Guardian resonated with me , however I tend to disagree with her about the issue of commentators' anonymity. I am not quite sure. In my view anonymity is what allows such people to be so hostile.  Comment moderation is necessary, anonymous comments should be rejected.
I no longer allow anonymous comments here and am glad I do not. In pre-internet days if I received a letter I did not like I would bin it, so I do the same the same now for comments that in my view do not add anything to a discussion and are only meant to be derogatory and/or defamatory or rude or both. I also do not publish anything written anonymously.
I know from personal experience that the police do not regard internet threats as serious. I remember, not too long ago, having to beg the police to make someone remove seriously offensive material about me from his internet site. They did act eventually but their first reaction was to tell me that it was not a criminal matter. I find it quite extraordinary that there should be such reluctance to intervene. Let's hope attitudes will change and that online trolling is dealt with as it should.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

I want to model for you

 Photographer: me Model: Melanie
Ever since I started taking photos and expressed an interest in the male nude (though not exclusively, as you can see from the photos accompanying this post) I have been approached by men who want to be photographed nude.
I have had offers from experienced male models, some of them about my age, some a lot younger - this post is not about them, please dont misunderstand. They are genuine models who have much to give, in terms of their experience and their artistic vision. If I have not yet arranged shoots with them  it is because I am involved in a hundred and one things myself and also I am STILL LEARNING. I would like to do justice to their look and their modelling skills, so I am waiting for a while longer before getting started.

This post is not about them but  about a different kind of model, would-be-model, I should say. First there are photographers out there who after taking pictures of nude women for years would now  like to try what it is like if someone takes nude pictures of them . They think a woman would be better at this, they feel too shy to undress and pose for a male photographer - these are  straight men, rather than gay. I find this quite puzzling, women dont usually have any shyness about revealing their nakedness to other women. What is this terrible angst that seems to grab men taking their clothes off before other men?
Photographer: me 
I totally believe their intention is very genuine, but somehow I feel uncertain about working with them. Here is my own anxiety surfacing. They may be quite out of touch with their bodies, which would make it a little awkward for me, at this stage. I also fear that in seeing me doing something that to them would seem like a mistake in handling the camera they would immediately jump in and try to take over the shoot, with suggestions on aperture and shutter speed, which angle I should position the camera etc. And that would not make me happy at all.  This is why I have for now postponed such shoots, even though I felt tempted to arrange a few. I feel I need to be a little more confident in my own technical knowledge to be able to say politely but firmly "I really would like to try this. It is my photo shoot after all and I want to understand why this works/does not work". If you are reading this you will know who you are. No offense please, pretty please. I just need more time, this is what is holding me back.

Then there are the messages sent by men, approaching maturity,  who have never modelled before and want to try modelling as a kind of therapy, to help them overcome their own inhibitions and their lack of confidence about their own attractiveness. In principle this is fine, but I am the wrong photographer for it.  I am learning my craft, making mistakes, experimenting. In order to make someone who feels awkward about their body look good you need to know how to work very competently with light. You need technical expertise. These would-be models would benefit enormously from working with an experienced photographer, either male or female, to whom they would most likely have to pay a fee - and what's wrong with that? Women who have never modelled but would like to try a shoot to boost their confidence do something along these lines, there are a few photographers out there who specialise in this kind of service, I recently discussed Jane Lancashire's work,  so she is one to try. Maybe there is a gap in the market, enterprising photographers should take note.
But no, they come to me, with the idea of doing  a TF shoot.
I will be extremely blunt. I am not interested in that kind of images and that kind of work for now, not for a TF shoot. I want other images in my portfolio. Later, when I feel I can deliver good images, I might take up this line of work, but not now.So I am politely but firmly declining all such offers.

This has made me realise that many men reach middle age and have lots of hang ups about their bodies and their attractiveness, just like women do.  Whereas women do have a support network offered by other women, men probably do not discuss such matters with other men. Please correct me if I am wrong.

I also find the way I am being approached to be quite interesting. I am a mature model, I modelled when I was younger but really started in earnest in my forties - I am talking about my photographic work. I took up modelling, commercial modelling that is, for extra cash. I then got involved in art nude and loved it and did not do it just for the money, though I certainly don't mind being paid a fee. I have approached many photographers, at one point or another  in order to be photographed by them. Some of these photographers may well be my age but it never occurred to me to say I wanted them to take pictures of me because they were my age! yet this is the first thing that these men write i.e. I am asking you because you are in my same age group, so you would understand.

No, I dont understand. It does not work like that, not for me.  For a start I have no anxiety about my body, I  would not be able to model if I did.

Photographer: Adam Hayter. Models: myself and Cole

Earlier I was talking about my would be models  with my analyst, who is a Lacanian. We were discussing the Phallus and the Semblant, and how by taking up photography I am working with a symbolic appropriation of the Phallus. I certainly like the idea of turning the male gaze over its head, see for instance the exhibition put on by Sita Mae, in the Bay area, called "Man as Object: Reversing the gaze",
Something to take up for further discussion in another post.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The quintessential photographic experience

 Photographer: me
Yesterday I had my first tutorial in developing b/w 120 film. Until now my photography has been with colour film, both 120 and 35 mm. I have access to a Colenta processor, I learnt how to use it and this has helped me to get started. But yesterday I was taught how to develop b/w film.  It was awesome! Thank you Ismar!
 I managed to mess it up a little, though my tutor was with me all the time. We have not done yet the bit when you  use the enlarger and all that, I will be attending a workshop next week if the tutor can fit me in, that will be fun - fingers crossed I will join the group.
I guess that making mistakes is inevitable when you do something for the first time, there is so much to remember, so much to take in. To begin with I am using film that has expired and which I was given as the owner of the camera had no use for it (thanks again Solus, you have added to the quality of my life through that gift) - excellent for practice, but expired film can get a bit faded. Then I had an accident with my 6x6 camera back, it suddenly opened when the film was still in use, oh s***! - the hooks had a problem.  That did not help, though hopefully the problem is now fixed.
Of course I had to go and make a mistake when I loaded the film into the tank, I put the cylinder the wrong way up!  I did manage to develop the film, however,  but some frames turned out to be  unusable.
Self portrait at Martin's studio (with Martin's help)
The whole process was quite an experience. I got a little flustered when I could not load the film into the tank that easily, it just seemed to be getting stuck.  I was of course working in complete darkness and for that bit I was on my own, my tutor waited outside. There is an element of pleasure, the French would say jouissance, in having to rely on touch to feel things getting into place, rather than seeing, but it can be disconcerting at first.
Then my tutor joined me in the processing room  and we used the developer and all the other chemicals and went through the whole routine. It took nearly 60 minutes, my iPhone timed it all.  Next time I will have to do this  entirely on my own, without the tutor, I have had my induction, so I am a bit apprehensive.  But he said that after some time it becomes second nature, so I should keep on shooting and developing.
Film photography these days is a hybrid. You do the shoot, develop the film then you scan the negative and use Photoshop to add the finishing touches. Everyone does it like that.
I will do the workshop to learn how to do dark room work but I will do it just to learn about it, I am most unlikely to take it up as a regular practice - for one thing I do not have my own dark room and do not have an enlarger, though I have to say that after announcing that  photography is a pursuit of mine, I got the most generous offers the moment people found out I used film, rather than digital. My optician has offered me enlargers, again for free, he used to be a keen photographer back in Ireland but gave it up ages ago. He still has the equipment though.

Photographer: Solus
Why use film rather than digital if  you end up scanning and treating your film shots like digital ones?  I can only speak for myself. Digital is fantastic but a little too clinical for my taste. It does not give you the same sensual pleasure in handling it, as film does. All your senses are involved in developing a film, when you download the images from your camera's memory card to the computer the process is entirely visual. Yes, I did insert the cylinder the wrong way when using the tank, that was because I was not used to "seeing" with my fingers. But I loved every moment of it.
I remember watching the film The Photograph (2007) by Indonesian director Nan Achnas and I was mesmerised by those images of a large format camera, which appeared in the film (the film is set in a small Indonesian town with an ageing photographer making a living out of taking people's portraits) .
In a few years time colleges will stop teaching photography students how to use film, it will become a very esoteric practice. Fewer and fewer people handle large format now, it has become prohibitively expensive. It is a shame because film, in my view, offers you the quintessential photographic experience.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The art of giving a reference

Photographer: me
References are needed by people for jobs or  to go on courses or to apply for funding and such like. They are a way to check on someone's character, aptitude, and in general, employability and/or trustworthiness as a collaborator.
When someone is asked to give a reference this can indeed be a tricky thing. There is an etiquette of reference giving and I would also say that giving a reference is an art.
As a model I get references from photographers I have worked with and also give references for and to photographers.  Sites like Purestorm, Net-model and Model Mayhem have a whole section for references. Sometimes these references you read on these sites are perfunctory - hardly anyone gives 'public' bad references, everyone is always amazing, if you read the ones that have been left about me you'd think I am the epitome of class and elegance!  However, some of these 'public' references need to be read carefully - the way they are worded will give you a clue as to whether in fact, amidst all that praise, another reality is lurking. When in doubt, one should contact the person that has given the reference to find out more, in private. This is particularly important for models who need to check whether a photographer is a professional person (in attitude and behaviour) or just a GWC.
Bad references however should also be taken cum grano salis. Disgruntled collaborators have been known to give bad references in private to damage the other party's reputation or just for the sake of being nasty - believe me, there are people who are spiteful by nature and who enjoy saying something nasty.

Photographer: me
I remember I once asked a former tutor of mine to write a letter of reference to an educational trust, as I had applied for a small grant. He readily agreed to write the letter for me when I asked him, and I remember having a long conversation with him at his office explaining what I wanted to do and giving him a copy of my project proposal. He had to write the letter and give it to me, in a sealed envelope, to attach to my application form. Some days later  I went along to collect the letter, after making an appointment to meet him,  and something in the way he gave me the envelope stopped me in my tracks. He was affable and even encouraging, saying things such as "I hope you get this, it is such a lovely idea". But something told me that things were not what they seemed to be.
On my way home I did the 'unthinkable'. I opened the envelope and read the letter. The reference was worded in such a way that it was meant to discourage the  committee from  considering my application any further.
I was really angry. Not because he did not believe in my project and my ability to deliver it, that was his prerogative, but because he had agreed to write a letter to support it, only to go behind my back and write a negative reference altogether. Why, I kept on wondering, why be so sneaky? What was the point? He ought to have declined to write the letter. I promptly tore up the reference and asked someone else to do it and I did a good thing, as I got the funding eventually, though not as much as I had asked for.

And I did another 'unthinkable' thing. I confronted this man. I emailed him saying that I had read the reference and would not forward it, thank you very much for writing it. He was furious, apparently I had broken an important rule, that of confidentiality. He never spoke to me after that incident, it's now been nearly fifteen years - mind you, I also left that college in 2002 and never went back.
As part of my day job I have written a great many references for students and former students. My policy is to decline writing a letter of reference if I dont feel I can say something really good about the person. I have also written references as a model. If, as a model, I am asked about a photographer I am not happy with, I now simply say "I dont feel I can recommend this person, my experience has not been positive" And I leave it at that, no details. I have learnt the hard way that it is better not to say any more.
What's the phrase? If you cannot say anything nice, dont say anything at all.
Silence however can  speak volumes.

(More of my own photographic work can be seen here, as also my modelling work)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A reader's comment

"Aint no such thing" by JonMWells

Following my post on schizophrenia a deviantArt member JonMWells left this moving comment, which I reproduce in its entirety.

"My brother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when he was in his early thirties but I think the very first time he showed signs that something wasn't right was long before that as he was becoming a teenager and it only got worse as time went by. So as you can see this was somewhat late in coming and did little to improve the quality of his life over the years. Psychiatrists would prescribe meds and he'd do one of two things. He would either abuse his meds taking them to get high (keep in mind this was over thirty years ago) or he would throw them out and self medicate with illegal drugs or what he liked to call natural treatments including Marijuana, Peyote, Psilocybin and others. As the years have gone by he's mellowed somewhat but he still smokes his pot every day despite the fact that he has lung and throat cancer and it does nothing to really help him.

He has his good days when he remembers I am his brother and would never do anything to harm him and he may even call his Mother Mom. We may spend time fishing together and talking. One particular piece of my art is based on one of those conversations as fantastic as it was (see above and also here). It is a conversation that I hold dear in my memory and I hope never to forget.

On a bad day he thinks his Mother is someone else and I won't name her here. He thinks I'm out to get him or even kill him. He hides himself away and does terrible things to himself cutting, burning himself, destroying himself in new and more horrible ways each day until his Doctors have to step in. I've lost count of the number of times he's tried to kill himself.

This is my own experience with schizophrenia. I Love my brother and I miss the days when we could spend time together and I wouldn't have to worry about him. As his close family members it is unforgivable that we were never allowed to have anything to do with his treatment so I have no idea the true horror he's lived. I do know that because of his condition he's been stepped on, persecuted, and over the years misdiagnosed. He's been put in jail, blamed for things he couldn't possibly do, and avoided by many of his own family members. His has been a frightening and lonely existence, one that on his good days he'd never wish on another human being and never even on his bad days. His life will soon be over. He gets worse as his health deteriorates so no one can get near him. I think of him every day and I wish him well but I can only hope he'll be put in the hospital so he won't be alone when his time comes and I hope maybe I can see him one more time on, a good day."

There is no need for me to say any more. The story is self explanatory...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

One hundred years of schizophrenia

Photographer: me Model: me
I am in the midst of preparing my presentation on schizophrenia. It's part of my assessment for my course, we are doing a module on psychopathology. I dont know how I ended up choosing schizophrenia as a topic, it was one of those things, choose a psychosis and there I was volunteering for schizophrenia.
Today The Guardian published an article on schizophrenia and opened up a discussion about the illness. It is heart rending to read that attitudes to schizophrenia have not really changed since 1911. Life for people with the illness is still stuck in the middle ages, says the author of the piece, Rachel Whitehead.
Is schizophrenia a biological illness? Are 'schizos' dangerous? Is medication the only cure? Indeed is there a cure for schizophrenia?
Contrary to popular belief psychiatry is not an exact science. So psychiatric evaluations of schizophrenia should be questioned. Central to psychiatry is the notion that the different disorders it investigates are classes of disturbances of the mind and deviations from normality. The pathologies are categorized and symptoms are described in detail (through the DSM, an ongoing project periodically reviewed) and diagnoses are provided on the basis of such classifications.

Psychiatry has been subject to severe critiques by insiders i.e. psychiatrists themselves who are dissatisfied with the current models, as also outsiders. The current dominant model of psychiatry is a biological one, linking up psychiatry with neuroscience, and locating the mind in the brain. Therefore mental illness is viewed as a disease of the brain, something which has a physical cause and which can be cured when the appropriate medication is identified.  Not so simple. The biological nature of schizophrenia has not been proven.
Schizophrenia is  a condition that is profoundly misunderstood and often vilified by the popular press. In general people think of  schizophrenia as inducing a split personality of the Jeckyll and Hyde variety and schizophrenics are viewed as violent murderers. Yet schizophrenia has nothing to do with personality split: there is a split, but that is in the perception of reality. It is equally a fallacy that schizophrenics are violent murderers or that they are developmentally retarded, and with low intelligence. 
Photographer: Steven Beard. Model: me

The term schizophrenia has now been used for exactly a hundred years. An unhappy birthday, says Rachel. Rethink Mental Illness will be launching a campaign on Tuesday asking people to send a clear message to government that people with schizophrenia deserve a better deal in every area of their lives

I was intrigued by the comments left by readers. One of them, Veravera, wrote:

"Schizophrenia is essentially a socially created illness so medication is not the answer. Rather than simply sectioning people and loading them up with medication we need to look at the underlying issues. The problem is that the way we treat mental health issues in this country is based around short term interventions and an obsession with risk. However, with the cuts I can't see things changing. It is not the people that are bonkers rather than that the system is bonkers."


(The photo by Neil Huxtable was taken in a disused mental asylum in Surrey)

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Dancing at full moon

It is the highlight of the month. A gathering of women, from all walks of life, dancing non-stop for two hours at the time of the full moon. The moon is a very important influence on women's psyche and also biology, according to traditional Chinese medicine, and marking the full moon phase with a celebratory dance is a powerful age old ritual, performed in many cultures around the world and now performed in a contemporary urban setting in the west.
It is heartening to see  more and more women taking part in this ritual.
I go to these gatherings on a regular basis and truly love them. I always look forward to them. As the doors open, women of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, pour in. We quickly  take our work clothes off  and change into something comfortable, we warm up and we dance.  We sweat, we bond. No men are around and the energy is totally different. We dance because we want to.  The facilitator of these sessions is a Five Rhythms practitioner and together we weave the evening's magic.
I go to the full moon celebration held in Vauxhall, in South London.  I know the women who go there, I have danced with them many times already. I dont necessarily know their names or what they do when they do not dance. But  having been with them, dancing to our heart's content,  dancing till we feel tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, laughing together and holding hands, I know our embodied relationship is strong. Every time I go, I recognise them and when we dance we continue the conversation we have started, non-verbally. It is absolutely wonderful.
The venue where the dance takes place  is a church which usually hosts dance and music events. I also go there for  ecstatic dance sessions with live music, which are events open to both sexes. I love these sessions too, I love the mix of dance with active meditation. I used to be 'banned' from attending these particular gatherings, I unfortunately had a fall out with one of the drummers and for many months he stopped me from going, not hesitating to use intimidatory tactics (not in tune with the community spirit of the events he played for, but human beings are full of contradictions and some are more enlightened than others). It was a ludicruous situation, yet it caused me much distress.  But he abruptly left over a month ago (never underestimate the power of my curses, I say), so I was free to rejoin  the dancers, which I promptly did, the moment I heard he had gone, wishing strongly he should never come back.

As I said, the energy has a different feel and is  more special, when all the women gather  to be with other women.
Dance is a prominent activity in my life at the moment, more than it's ever been in a long time. I have started my movement based clinical practice again, working this time with adults suffering from chronic mental illness - I am in my second year of my course now. I have also, in my spare time,  joined contemporary technique classes as  I felt the need to practise some structured movement for myself.
The last year has been amazing for me, as it afforded me an opportunity to rediscover the body, my body,  and its power of expression. I have become more aware of the importance of emotion and how this can impact our  state of being. I have learnt about distinguishing between emotional pain and chronic dysfunctional bad feelings, between overcontrolled anger and underregulated rage, more mindful of  every change and shift  in the people around me as also within me.
I  regard myself as fortunate for being able to access this information and find strategies to apply this knowledge in my everyday life. Dance and expression through the body has been  the tool  that has enabled me to tap into the energy of emotion.
Dance is therapeutic. Just reiterating it, in case you did not know.

( Photo by Caroline Michael , modelled by Alex B. )

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The beauty of women

I would like to reprise here a feature I have written for Univers d'Artistes (UdA) about photographer Jane Lancashire, from Tunbridge Wells.
I have admired Jane's photography ever since I first saw her work. I particularly wanted her to be featured in UdA because what she does stretches the concept of fine art nude and takes it to a different level.  We are so used to seeing and hearing about 'fine art nude models' and I am myself one. Jane works with women who do not wish to be models. I have a long interview with her and am publishing it here and for once in my blog I am using photos that are not of me. This post should be read in conjunction with the one in UdA.

"Over the last six years" says Jane "I have found myself regularly becoming an unknown woman's "new best friend" for the day. I'm a photographer, specialising in taking photographs of normal women like myself in the nude. My mission is to help re-balance many women's negative body image, by reminding them of all the other aspects of their body that are pretty spectacular.

How easy it is to forget the good bits we have, and to define ourselves only by the bits that we'd love to change. When the media force-feeds us a barrage of exceptionally slim and beautiful airbrushed people every day, negative body image can become a sad inevitability of life and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep things in perspective. And it doesn't help that we are all used to seeing our bodies from highly unflattering angles, such as when we are trying on clothes in a brightly-lit changing room.
For centuries, artists have celebrated the natural curves of the feminine form of all sizes.  I offer ordinary women the chance to become a piece of art that they can hang on the wall to remind themselves how beautiful they are. I show ladies their bodies from a different perspective by focusing on a shape or angle that they don't normally see. As soon as we sit up, stand or twist round, our bodies create beautiful and often very flattering shapes. Shapes that will show off forgotten legs, stunning curves, elegant feet and hands, shapely backs, long lean necks and so on. My work attempts to show women aspects of their body from unusual angles and positions giving them that much needed reminder of how gorgeous they are.

My ladies come to me for many reasons but the two most common are the "Pick-Me-Ups" and the "Celebrations". The "Pick-Me-Ups" include ladies that have been through messy divorces and other emotional hardships and are really feeling at rock bottom. These ladies often realise that they need to re-build their self esteem before they can move on. After seeing themselves for years in the context of a failing relationship, it is highly therapeutic to leave behind this negative image and see themselves through new eyes. Many other women come to me as they wish to present the photos to a loved one as a surprise wedding, valentine, anniversary, birthday or Christmas gift. Having run out of original ideas, they know that this will really put a smile on their partner's face! I have worked with women aged from 18 to 80 and nearly all of them have said that their partners would never believe they had the courage to strip off in front of the camera! But they do - giving their partner a beautiful and uniquely romantic present that is guaranteed to make him smile.
Ladies also come to treat themselves to mark milestone birthdays (30, 40, 50, 60, etc) or important journeys through life, eg. recovering from breast cancer or operations that may have left permanent scarring and/or significant weight loss. This often seems to bring a exhilarating sense of empowerment, a 'coming-to-terms' and acceptance of who they are.

One lady had lost five stone over three years and needed the new images to help her accept this new shape. She told me it took months to believe and accept this was really her - as the former image of a much larger her was so firmly etched into her mind.
Another client came to see me after putting weight back on! She had initially lost three stone to conform to society's stereotype of the 'perfect' woman, but couldn't reconcile this new slim body with who she felt she was. She put the weight back on and came to celebrate feeling comfortable in her own skin once more - back at healthy size 16.
Being a naturally pear-shaped woman myself, I try to imagine that every client is me, taking only angles I would be happy with seeing myself. I know exactly which bits to hide with strategic swathes of fabric, clever angles or a bit of stretching! Sometimes I re-create famous photos, paintings or even CD covers that my clients bring me - where they become the main subject. Plus I know a fabulous body artist who can give my clients the experience of looking like they're on the front cover of Vanity Fair! All this is enormous fun and again gives everyday women the chance to see themselves as stunning models.
The only things I ever airbrush are bruises and spots, as these are only temporary. I never alter the actual shape of anyone, as that would defeat the whole point - celebrating real-life beauty. I play with light and colour in my designs but the shapes are always genuine.
To date, all of my clients have been truly delighted. I have had many tears and cuddles when women see the results and many have said that it is a life-enhancing experience (as well as a hugely enjoyable day to tell all their friends about). One lady remarked that she holds even herself better and walks taller having seen the photos of herself"

Photogapher: Alex B. Model: Enkopte

I love Jane's work and totally endorse her philosophy. I became a model late in life and that was the result of me feeling more and more confident about myself. But I have always maintained that all women are beautiful and they can be beautiful models. 

The fine art nude as a photographic genre is dominated by male photographers, very often middle aged, projecting their vision of beauty and their fantasies and thus only interested in photographing young women with a particular body type. Male nudes are not so frequent - unless the photographer happens to be gay. I have recently taken up photography and am particularly interested in working with male models, to redress the balance. 
But the work Jane does is fantastic. It truly has the potential of redefining the nude in photography. I admire Jane's nudes as much as I admire nudes posed by conventional models. 
And I  support the women that have taken the plunge and decided to take their clothes off, to show off their beauty. 

(All photos unless otherwise stated are by Jane Lancashire. The women who posed for them wish to remain anonymous)