Jen is a Brooklyn based photographer. For the past eleven years she has been working on a series of self-portraits to explore ideas relating to beauty, identity, and body image.
Read the interview with Jen which is featured in Issue Two. To see the essay of photography you can purchase the magazine here.
When did you first become interested in photography?
My interest in photography began early. One of my fondest memories as a child was going through our family photographs that were stored in a box. I would spend hours ‘editing’ them, cutting areas away, make piles, compartmentalising them into genres. My grandfather also loved photography and would share his travel slides with the family, which always excited me. High school is when I began to take photographs. I was fortunate enough to have a black and white darkroom at the school I attended which I could use after school. I spent a lot of late afternoons there, developing the film I shot and making prints. I loved being in this space: it was cold and isolated.
What provoked you initially to point the camera at yourself?
It’s a rather long story to tell at the moment, but it was when I felt like it was time to photograph myself. The short version is that I was having a hard time communicating what I was trying to say when working with other people in my work. It was frustrating, I remember thinking that I need to embrace myself to try and get a better understanding of what my photographic voice could be.
You have expressed how using other models to address issues of body image in relation to cultural standards served as a part-time substitute for the power of self-portraiture. Could you expand on this?
It was all based on creating a surrogate for myself. I was this person for the time when making photographs of them. It was not so much about body image at this time, rather it was about trying to identify through them, to understand them in order to understand my individual identity in a more coherent way. The women that I photographed had the exact opposite physique, their beauty was apparent when looked upon. Their body and position in the world was, to me, desired by all…
How did you feel the first time you introduced others to the photographs of yourself?
The first photograph I made in this series had others included. At the start, I entered this work with others to use as a comparison to how my body looked versus their bodies. It was an easy way to begin this process of looking at myself. Soon I retreated to just working by myself as the moments I was capturing, were sometimes painful and hard to look at physically. Eventually men became a subject in my work simply to see how
it would look to be in a relationship, how it would look being held. These scenarios opened up room for me to engage in fantasy play, which was such an important thing for me to experience at that time in my life.
And what sort of feedback did you receive?
Positive overall. People were responding to my colour palette and sense of bravery, which they believed to be part of the investigation. I never subscribed to the notion of bravery. I was not trying to represent any movement or have a feminist or political message. I was trying to understand my interior self, my actions and how I felt as an obese woman
at 23 years old.
You often look contemplative, and sometimes even sad, in your images. How much of what you portray to the camera is a performed character and how much is genuine sentiment?
The work is based on performance. The person seen in the photographs is a projection of self, a private self that I do not usually share with the world. Because of this otherness, I give myself permission to look at the insecurities and vulnerabilities that I have always carried concerning my body and my desires.
Since you started taking self-portraits in 2002, how has your image making changed? Does exposing yourself in your photographs feel more natural now, or is it something that still challenges you?
There are always the shoots that do not work because I do not believe the expression on my face, or that feel too forced, or at times too obvious. I need to make these pictures that do not work and make it into the series in order to then learn from what was missing in the failed image. It is all part of my process.
And has your attitude changed towards your own body image, and by extension your sexuality across this period of time?
Indeed it has. I feel that most of the time I am far more confident than I ever was when much larger. It is funny because I did not realise how uncomfortable I was in my older body until the weight began to come off. The irony of it all is that I will never forget the younger, naïve, obese self. I feel that I will always identify partly with her, as I was her for such a long time. In terms of my sexuality, that too has drastically changed. In my older body I was too insecure and afraid to let anyone really in, and too ashamed for anyone to witness my naked frame. Now that I have lost weight I am more confident sexually, understanding my needs.
In a previous body of work you address society’s critical gaze by documenting yourself and others in public spaces. It must be especially tricky to take photographs of yourself in public. Talk us through the process.
It can be. I tend not to shoot publicly. I am so much more interested in interior spaces and the private nature of the home and what can unfold in a domestic environment, especially a banal one. Light and color is what I search for most when I make my work. I consider what is included in the frame as a stage or set.
Your photographs confront issues of insecurity and loneliness. Yet, there seems to be a wider narrative going on to do with exploring sexuality. Was this interpretation something you set out to achieve, or something you began to discover through the photography?
Yes, this was something that I absolutely began to explore as my photography and projects evolved. Photography gave me the license to ask for what I wanted to see through my lens, which authored these kinds of experiences.
You have chosen to collaborate with a range of men in your photographs. How do you choose which models to work with? Is their body shape an important factor?
That depends on the project. In the series I ask in Exchange the men were all chosen based on a type, the specific look of a man that I desired. I never really considered or gave much thought to their body shape. I was more interested in their hair and how they responded to me when I asked them to allow me to photograph them. Mostly I was trying to convey a sense of desire, to look at these men as if they were my partners, photograph them with love and admiration.
How do you feel when you look back at your early self-portraits?
I have to say that I am completely desensitised by the photographs in the Self-Portrait series. I guess because I know them so well and the woman projected into the work. My memories are all tied to these particular moments, which is rather special. I am more shocked when I see an old snapshot of myself from my 20’s. At times I do not recognise the woman in the photographs. It can be shocking.
Visit Jen’s website here.