I recently attended a talk and slide-show at the Feminist Library in London led and organized by Suraya Sidhu Singh, Editor of Filament Magazine. Anyone who knows anything about Filament Magazine knows it’s one of the few magazines that feature stunning erotic photography of men photographed by women. The event asked the question: when there are so many great women photographers, why are there so few women photographing men erotically? It featured three women photographers who regularly do erotic photography of men; Migle Backovaite, Alex Brew and Victoria Gugenheim. Each woman gave a slide presentation featuring some of her amazing photography and spoke on her experiences of photographing men erotically.Suraya, who has researched the topic extensively also gave a talk on her findings. The discussion after the presentation was lively and thought-provoking.
If I could sum up the evening in a phrase, it would be that the event was a study of what happens to the balance of power between the sexes when women are behind the camera photographing men erotically. This was not a factor I would have considered before, and afterward, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t, since it seemed so obvious.
Naturally whatever I take away from any experience is always filtered through my writer’s brain, and I found myself comparing the experience of a woman photographer photographing men erotically to the experience of a woman writing men erotically. The internal comparison has been helpful to me as a writer, and from the standpoint of a woman who creates erotic art, I find the personal aftermath of the event challenging and exciting.
I took away that one of the big reasons more women photographers don’t photograph men erotically is because of the power dynamics. A man being photographed erotically is by the very fact that he is the subject of the artist, submissive to her view of what she wishes to create. While lots of men are being photographed by women photographers, the dynamic is considerably different when the photography is erotic. I felt, especially from the powerful, sometimes frightening works of Alex Brew, that when a man is being photographed erotically, a negotiation for power takes place by default, a struggle to balance that power so that both the subject and the photographer understand and participate fully in the work being created in the way the photographer envisions it. Of course I’m not a photographer, and much of my feminism is a gut-felt response to growing up in a very male-dominated family and living in a world where the struggle for a balance of power is on-going. No doubt my view would have been slightly different with the benefit of a more academic and historic view of feminism, but the landscape would still be the same.
There are few women photographing men erotically. By contrast, the majority of quality erotica is written by women. There are some brilliant men erotica writers, it’s true, but women have, in essence, defined the modern erotica genre. I think this surley must have been, at least partially, in response to the quality that wasn’t there in porn. Perhaps also in response to the general poor quality of porn, more and more men are now reading erotica written by women. This is just my informal view of the landscape. However as erotica writers, we are the creators of that landscape, at least fictionally, and that shifts the balance of power considerably. One would think that by the very nature of fiction, there would be no negotiating for power with our characters, but that isn’t true. Many writers would agree with me that their characters tell them how they want to be written, and their characters are always right. Indeed, it is the characters themselves that are more willing to take risks artistically than their creators. How much of the real world struggle for balance of power between the sexes effects what we create fictionally, however, is the subject for another blog post.
Many of my woman colleagues find writing erotica one of the most empowering experiences in their life. I would definitely agree with that. While there is a camera separating the photographer from her subject, for good or ill, there is no separation between the writer and the world and the characters she creates. The negotiations are all internal, and the battle, though a quiet, perhaps less obvious one, is always going on.
I was also struck by the fact that there was a relationship, a certain dynamic, between the photographers and their subjects, and that dynamic affected the end result heavily. In addition to the negotiation of the balance of power, trust was a big issue, for both the photographer and the subject. In the erotic photo spreads I’ve seen in Filament Magazine, there is a certain vulnerability achieved by the photographers in their work which is a part of what makes these spreads so erotic. There is an unselfconsciousness that doesn’t come across on the cover of a bodice ripper or in ordinary beefcake of the male stripper sort. That vulnerability and that level of trust is, for me as a viewer and as a writer, the true erotic element in the work. Take it away, and the work becomes generic, distant, two dimensional.
I’ve found the same to be true of my writing. The characters only come to life, only feel like someone I’d want to make love to, even fall in love with, when their guard is down and they are most vulnerable, when I catch them in an intimate moment and I’m either someone who they trust or I’m a voyeur, which is another matter altogether. I can write as a voyeur easily, and I almost always do when I write BDSM, but it’s another level of trust and skill for a photographer to capture that voyeuristic feel, and a stolen peek at an intimate moment will always make the pulse race just a little bit faster.
I found myself admiring the bravery of these photographers because they’re entering a space traditionally reserved for men, and a space not without its danger. It’s a space in which there’s often still the assumption that any woman entering in must be ‘gagging for it,’ or why else would she photograph such things? Women erotica writers hear it all the time; that we must be loose slutty women, that surely we must have tried all the things we write about. The very big difference for us is that we don’t experience that from any of our characters. They’ve come from our imagination at our conjuring, and though they may have ideas of their own, they do not exist outside the world we’ve created, even when we let that world take up way too much of our lives in order to get them on the written page. Another level of trust and vulnerability and sharing of power has to take place in order to create powerful photographic images like those shared by Migle Backovaite, Alex Brew and Victoria Gugenheim, and when it happens, the images are erotic, haunting, and stunning snapshots of male beauty at its loveliest, and quite possibly at its purest.