The female gaze is thriving in visual culture, with female photographers increasingly challenging the male-constructed images that have defined womanhood throughout history. Now, one trailblazing artist is taking the concept even further, using the most private part of her body to capture intimate moments that would otherwise go undocumented.
New York-based artist Dani Lessnau, 32, took a series of photos of her lovers from inside her vagina using tiny handmade pinhole cameras and 4x5 film. The process to produce each photo in the series, called extimité, was "very elementary and imperfect" but effective.
The men she photographed all consented to the project and were happy to hold still while she took the photos. "There is a great deal of history in the stories here and there was a lot of trust involved," Lessnau told us. Their reactions when she asked them to participate were, "as individual as the people themselves," but they were all "incredibly supportive and found it to be liberating."
She was inspired to create the series after realising how much influence the male gaze had exerted over. "I didn’t want to view myself solely through that singular lens," she said. "I wanted to connect with my own individual perspective and sensations and began to explore the notion of what an embodied 'gaze' may feel like, disrupting the directionality we tie to the word itself."
Inserting the device inside her wasn't always seamless and was uncomfortable at times, however. "At times I had to contend with my body to hold still and coax it into receiving the camera. In other moments it felt like a meditation where I was simply witnessing my breath, and still in other moments assuming the position felt intimate and erotic in itself."
By exposing the most intimate physical part of herself and putting these private interactions on show, Lessnau believes she is converting vulnerability into strength. "This entire process has been intuitive for me. There was never an aim nor goal, but more an openness and curiosity to see where it would lead."
"I could never have anticipated how much it would change my relationship to my own body and its erotic presence, as well as deepening my understanding of the value of vulnerability in spaces of relating."
What does Lessnau want her audience to take away from the project? "I hope they feel something. It would be wonderful if the images offered them their own encounter with an uncanny chaotic space or if they identified with the beauty of vulnerability in an image."
While she's reluctant to tell people how they should feel about her images – the reading and reception of an image being an individual experience – Lessnau hopes people feel empowered after learning how she created them.
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