Incredible Self-Portraits Document A Photographer's Weight-Loss Surgery

A few months ago, a blogger named Brooke Birmingham caused a massive controversy when Shape magazine declined to publish her post-weight-loss bikini photo. The incident sparked a hugely important (and mostly productive) conversation about the way we see weight and beauty — and how hard it is to live in a society that's obsessed with skinny.

For us, the most illuminating part of the controversy was the collective realization that, despite our saturation with weight-loss success stories and shows like The Biggest Loser, many of us don't understand the reality of losing weight — let alone what it's like to struggle with obesity. That reality is explored in depth in photographer Jen Davis' extraordinary self-portrait series. For over 11 years, Davis explored her everyday experiences — her life as an overweight woman, her decision to undergo bariatric surgery in 2011, and her weight-loss journey — and the emotions behind them. Every step of the way, Davis staged meticulously crafted self-portraits, resulting in a brutal, raw, life-affirming, and truly honest look at body image and self-acceptance.

We sat down with Davis, who recently published a beautifully curated selection of her self-portraits in a book (fittingly titled Eleven Years) about her photographic process and motivation, as well as her weight-loss experience. Click through for some of her photos and thoughts. And, be sure to check out Davis' website for more images and an opportunity to buy a signed copy of Eleven Years.

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Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 29. 2008.

What motivated you to start taking self-portraits?
"Before I started making self-portraits I was working with one person and using her as a surrogate for me, because I didn’t know how to talk about the [subjects I was exploring]... [Then] I just kind of took the plunge and I thought, I really need to start doing this [myself] and see who I am... It was a search for this identity that I didn’t know. I was 22 — and kind of naïve in the sense of not knowing my place, feeling like I was identifying with other people [rather] than really understanding myself."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
At 30. 2008.

What was the original concept?
"It was all about loneliness and isolation, looking at this idea of what a relationship is. But, the body was working into it, too. I was talking about the body and looking at the body."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Pressure Point. 2002.

What were you looking for in your self-portraits? Was there a goal in mind?
"The process became this way of entering and exploring my thoughts. The [first] picture was driven from being really uncomfortable, being at the beach, with my friends in bikinis. There was that moment of taking off the tank top and shorts to go into the water and fixating on the five yards I would have to walk before I was covered again... I was super embarrassed... I set up my camera, I didn’t know really what I was doing — I had never made a self-portrait before. I was uncomfortable when I was doing it, because the camera was drawing attention to me, even though I wanted to be hidden. People were looking...I went home and I processed the film, and I was shocked at the way that I was able to capture this slice of life, this really kind of painful moment, and it didn’t feel forced. It didn’t feel staged. It felt really authentic to that moment, and so that was the propelling point to move forward and work."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Pablo and I. 2013.

So, from the beginning, the work reflected your state of mind in each moment captured on film.
"Throughout the whole project, I think there were questions that I was asking myself. A lot of that had a lot to do with the search for a relationship — but I think it’s more about a relationship with myself than a relationship with men. Like, what is it like to be loved? Am I lovable? I had never experienced that level of intimacy. So, I was looking for that, and exploring this idea of beauty...because I could never see myself, or imagine, even, the possibility of someone finding me attractive."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
New Haven bedroom. 2007.

"There were all these different things I was asking myself that drove the pictures — and, then, eating and consuming food in public and feeling judged by it... It was the first time that I was ever addressing my body and my weight. Before, if it was ever brought up, I would break down and get really emotional and leave... I really was able to start to articulate my issues, articulate my body and fears, as well, with the camera. It was like my voice, in a way."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 38. 2010.

Given how difficult it was for you to face your internal issues, how did you get to a point where you were able to explore them in your photos?
"I...had to put up these barriers, these walls, to be able to function... I thought about my body all the time. There was never a point where I wasn’t aware. I didn’t live life… But, making [the photos] allowed me to be able to release my most painful thoughts and emotions...this very private, personal side, it wasn’t what I projected to the world. So, myself in the pictures is the character, or the 'other'... I was able to do it and release it because it’s not who I was [in public]."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Fantasy No. 1. 2004.

Who is with you in this image?
"This is my roommate. There was no sexual tension between us whatsoever... This picture was made in real time, at 4 a.m., when I came home with these big emotions I was feeling. Making this was filling that emptiness, filling that loneliness of not feeling touched, or not knowing what closeness is... I wanted to just have that simple feeling of what it felt like to be held. I realized I can ask for that with photography... In most of the pictures, I’m never looking at the camera — it’s always operating as this third party in the room, observing me and the environment. This was the first time I was looking directly into the lens... I realized later that this was what I wanted so bad: I was looking as if I was asking you to look at me."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 7. 2004.

Tell me about your experience with lap-band surgery and losing weight. How did that affect the project?
"It started with this photograph that I made in 2004. I was interested in it — the quality of the body and the silkiness of the towel, and the ripples and how they mimic the ripples of the skin — but I couldn’t show it or use it because it was too painful for me at that time in my life. But, I was doing a residency at Lightwork in New York, where I scanned everything in preparation for the book... I asked the aides there to help me, and we blew it up to 100% on the screen. [All of a sudden] I was experiencing my body in such a different way, and there was an audience. I was just like, Oh my god... it was just really intense."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 16. 2005.

"I realized that I had changed so much internally, but, externally, my body had never shifted. I’d been overweight my whole life and I started to ask myself questions like, What would it be like to be in a smaller body? Is this possible? Can I do this? In the past, I had lost weight, but it would always come back. I felt like I didn’t want to wake up at 40 and be in this body. I wanted to live my life differently. I felt like I had the will, the conviction to do it... So, I went home and started researching, and I found out about the lap band and bariatric procedures."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 45. 2011.

"When I had the surgery in 2011, I had to go back and re-train myself... Everything shifted: I took ownership for the first time over eating...and the amount that I was eating, and exercise. The weight started to come off really quickly, actually, which was surprising to me... I made pictures of important things that I was noticing along the way. The hotel towel that was almost fitting — you know, it’s a small kind of towel."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 53. 2013.

How has your photographic process changed since you lost the weight?
"Over time, the rigor of this work and the making of the self-portrait kind of went to the side because I was so much more interested in living and experiencing what it was like to be anonymous in the world... Little things, like going shopping and going not to plus-sized sections, or fitting into chairs differently, or riding the subway."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
What was left. 2007.

"The way I used light, and palette, and color, making all these combinations line up and be perfect... I could see beauty in the photographs, and I was trying to make the most beautiful, seductive thing with light and color to kind of draw someone into seeing me as this potential of beauty."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Aldo and I. 2013.

"Then, I was starting to date, too. Before, when I would photograph with men... I would never show their face. I would take their identity away, and I just felt like it was more about a body, more about the gesture, and less about what their identity was. But [after losing weight], it was like the first time I was...looking at their faces and being able to show their identity. It felt more real to me. It was more real."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 50. 2012.

Looking at this project now, now that you have taken a couple steps back, how do you see the experience as a whole?
"I was never trying to be this, like, poster child...I was never trying to be like, 'Fat pride!' That wasn’t my intention. It’s not like I lost the weight and that’s it, everything’s great and golden. Even though the weight’s come off, it’s still questioning these different things, so it’s not like, 'And now it’s over.'"
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY and Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN.
Untitled No. 47. 2012

So, it’s not an ending.
"No. I don’t think it’s an ending. It’s a pause, for sure. I have a lot of pride in the work [and in the fact that people] feel like they can see themselves in the work. That’s something that I never intended... I was never thinking about an 'audience.' These pictures weren’t made for anyone specifically...who knows what I would have been able to do if I was worried about where they’d end up. It’s crazy, you know?"