10 NSFW Self-Portraits Examine The Artist's Relationship With Her Pedophiliac Father

Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
Photographer Rowan Renee struggles with when to tell partners about the sexual abuse Renee experienced as a child — abuse committed by Renee's father.

"Once I told someone on the second date, while drifting to sleep after sex," they write in their essay "Bodies of Wood: A Legacy of Sexual Abuse," which accompanies their new self-portrait series Bodies of Wood. "Like I couldn't resist immediately making them run the gauntlet. 'I know it's intense, can you handle that? If not, you can leave now.'"

Now, with days until the April 7 opening of Renee's solo show for Bodies of Wood at Brooklyn's Peninsula Art Space, Renee is preparing to share their story with the world. Rather than represent events as they happened, the project's photos explore the lingering aftermath of incest and a family legacy of abuse by "depicting things I have felt in the process of working through my memories that I don't really have words to describe," Renee tells Refinery29.

The essay that complements the series offers more literal retellings. "My mother grew from a childhood where she was beaten up every day into an adulthood that was a revolving door of deeply abusive men," Renee writes. "Throughout my childhood, my mother told the story of how her brother beat her up at her mother's behest." Renee's mother's mother had been beaten and molested by her own father, leading Renee to ask, "Is abuse the legacy of all women? Does living this story make me a woman? It's a definition of woman I am reluctant to accept. Yet, I know it has defined my experience within my body."

"In the course of putting together this show, I have asked myself multiple times what I hope to achieve by telling this story publicly," Renee says about Bodies of Wood. "The answer is a complicated one, but what rises to the surface is that I believe the act of speaking is one that implicitly contains a desire, and an energy towards change."

Click through to read our conversation with Renee and to view the photos in Bodies of Wood, then view the artist's Instagram here and the details of their solo show here.
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
How does this series fit in with your other work?
"The common thread [in my work] is that I’ve been exploring different relationships with power and the body and gender. The last piece i did, ‘Z,' was about gender nonconformity, gender ambiguity, and trying to develop a working process with my models that allowed them agency over how they’re represented."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"Often, photography is talked about [in terms of how] the person behind the camera is in a position to oppress the subject. Susan Sontag talks about the history of photography as if photography is always by nature, as part of the medium, an act of violence. In my work, I am trying to question that and question and explore how there could be a mutual agency and a mutual vulnerability."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"[After doing 'Z',] I got closer to thinking about what in my past and in my history that makes me compelled to work with [power dynamics], and it just led me in that direction to readdress my childhood, my relationship with my father, my experience as a — I guess I don’t want to say victim, but I think that there is a way that the experience of being a victim has made me really try to not be a victim as an adult, and a free agent, a person that can have agency and control over my life as an adult."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
What was it like turning the camera on yourself?
"I would say the photographic part of this show was easier for me to do [than photographing other people]. It was more detached and more intuitive. I did very little planning for any of the shots that I took. I was in a residency [at the Varda Artists Residency] on this beautiful boat, the SS Vallejo. I visited a friend in a cabin two hours north of San Francisco and I would go out to the ocean and Golden Gate National Park every other day."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"I was just kind of trying to psychologically put myself in the place where I was trying to just feel it, and it would lead me on a walk in the woods, and then I found the the field with the flags, and I would literally just work with whatever I was wearing, whatever was there. Almost all of the images I took completely unassisted."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"The one of me in the driftwood on the beach, a good friend was there and I just asked him to click the shutter. I was too far away from the camera for the remote release to work."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
How are you feeling about the project now?
"In doing this project, I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear of sharing it. I think — and I say this very clearly in the written piece — that there’s a need to tell. And I think that need is both personal — in order to not live a lie, I feel like by not telling I’m somehow hiding part of myself that’s really fundamental — and also as a political act of bearing witness to this kind of systemic violence that exists and is largely unreported. And I guess my fear is — I’m scared. I believe in all of these things, and yet, it is very frightening to actually make the work public and not know how people are going to react."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
What do you hope people will take away from viewing the series?
“I want people to feel brave. There are different audiences: There’s the audience who has experienced this kind of abuse and there’s an audience that hasn't, and I think it will affect those audiences differently. But I hope that there is a way that it’s affecting for any audience regardless of past history."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"I did the project with color film. There’s a lot of color in it, it’s super bright. The images don’t deal with something that is inherently violent and traumatic in a way that is violent and traumatic, in any of the traditional ways that you imagine that. It’s not gory, it’s not noir or dark. It’s not even completely graphic. It’s not narrative in the way that events actually happened. I think of them as psychological landscapes. They’re not the literal events, but they depict things I have felt in the process of working through my memories that I don't really have words to describe."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rowan Renee.
"I read in a book called Worlds of Hurt by Kalí Tal that incest itself is not the taboo: It is a frighteningly common practice. The taboo is talking about it. And as long as shame and fear of speaking is placed on the victims, the resulting silence allows this system to continue unchallenged. I wanted to do this show to do what I could to challenge the system I was born into, and do what I could to transform it."
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