A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


She Wrote
Thursday, December 07, 2006

Posing For Alex

When I learned of the opportunity to pose nude for a joint photo/writing project with Alex, the first thing that came to mind were black-and-white images of beautiful women a former boyfriend had taken. A talented photographer outside his day job, he chose nude women as his preferred subject matter. His shots, some of which hung on his living-room walls, were erotic not pornographic, tasteful not tacky.They also made me crumple.

Instead of seeing pieces of art, I saw women far more appealing–far more lovely and gorgeous and smooth and delicate–than I would ever be. He never compared me to the women who modelled for him, but I did. “I’ll never look like that,” I thought. I turned those images into direct comments on my own body. I would obsess on my small-ish breasts and a less-than-smooth butt. I allowed his photos to make me feel inferior, inadequate, sometimes ugly. Once or twice the photos reduced me to tears.
So the prospect of putting myself in front of another photographer’s camera, unclothed, was daunting. If I was so aware of my self-perceived flaws in front of the mirror, surely they would be the first thing I’d notice in stark black-and-white prints. In revealing my imperfect body to this artist–also male–I would be unveiling not only my physical imperfections but also my emotional vulnerability. Alex left the choice up to me. He never tried to persuade me to do something I didn’t want to do. It helped that he is a professional with a solid track record–he’s photographed Evelyn Hart and has had his work in publications like Readers’ Digest. I knew I could trust him–and ultimately, that trust made our time together work.

I knew he had no ulterior motives or inappropriate goals. I knew he wasn’t some dirty old man looking for an excuse to see some flesh, or worse, to try and get me in bed. He wasn’t out to create soft porn. I wouldn’t have said Yes if I felt the least bit wary of his intentions, and I’d never put myself in a similar position, so to speak, with someone who I felt lacked professionalism, skill, and integrity. The project depended as much on his technical ability as his interpersonal skills. And given his breadth of experience, I knew he would find a way to make me feel as comfortable as possible. We had a purpose, and we had to work as a team.
So as much as the session was a challenge, it was also an opportunity. It was a chance for me to face my fears. And it was a chance for me to say to someone–and to myself–this is the real me. It was a very real test to see if I could put my insecurities to rest.

As a rookie “model”, I didn’t know exactly what to expect or how to prepare. I had envisioned Alex’s studio as a small, semi-swank joint given its Robson Street address instead of the sparse grey room with a faux brick fireplace in a creaky old building. Two of his portraits hung on one wall. Perhaps the room’s unpretentious ambiance helped create a relaxed mood. It also helped that we chatted about that day’s peace march and weather before determining, together, where to start. We picked a theme: a dancer portrayed in “undancerly” poses. We flipped through a book of Edgar Dégas paintings to generate ideas but not to pick a pose to re-create. We began with me in my favourite pair of jeans. It wasn’t so bad to stand in front of a single light and a camera without a shirt on– if I was going to spend an afternoon in the buff I might as well lose any sense of discomfort or embarrassment from the top. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel any apprehension. That said, the situation never felt horribly awkward. Alex was encouraging when it came to coming up with specific poses without being condescending or overbearing. We seemed to have a mutually respectful rapport that included rational, intelligent dialogue.

Once we’d decided on a pose, Alex would set up the shot and take a Polaroid before using “real” film to make sure the image was one we were both happy with. Having a good idea of what the final product would look like was incredibly helpful; I didn’t have to worry that the results would be horrible. And Alex had assured me that if he couldn’t make a pose look good, we wouldn’t do it.

My voice of insecurity whispered a bit louder when it came time to strip to the raw. We joked a bit about this being the “embarrassing” part. For about half a minute I did feel embarrassed about standing fully naked in front of Alex. Still, his easy, professional manner put me at ease. And I think he was probably more embarrassed to learn that I’m an advocate of Brazilian waxing–than I was to show him my bare bum.

I had long wondered whether such a situation would be erotic for either the artist or the subject. I can’t speak for Alex, but for me, although the experience can be a sensuous one in fantasy, it wasn’t in real life. Maybe I was too consumed with trying to do a good job. However, for a few brief instances, like when I was lying on a silk sheet, I felt like the one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
There were niggly things about the session, like me being too hot then too cold. We didn’t play any music because it was more of a distraction than anything. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was fatigue. We spent nearly five hours together. I didn’t think about the experience actually involving some “work” on my part. But posing took concentration and patience and creativity and openness; about three-quarters of the way through I started to run out of steam. I imagine that Alex felt the same way.

In retrospect, I wish I had been more bold or inventive with poses, but at the time my level of confidence would only go so far. The fact that I was able to pull it off–no pun intended–was an enormous accomplishment.
I took six Polaroid images with me after we were done. In two, the first thing I notice are what I perceive as flaws. In four, I think I look pretty good. Some day I might even think I look hot.

I’m grateful I had a chance to work with a photographer I respect and whose work I admire. In that regard, the session was an honour. I’m also thankful I’ll have lasting images of me at this stage of my life. When I’m 90 and wishing I could still dance, I’ll have these reminders of the way my body used to be, the way I used to look. I’m sure then I’ll think how ridiculous it was for me to feel anything but radiant.

Like any experience, fine details fade away. But what lingers after this session with Alex are two qualities that seep into other areas of life: how important trust is in a personal relationship, and how crucial self-love is to begin with.


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