This morning I was finally called in to witness the beginning of the offset print run for the 101 Vagina book, after lots of time spent poring over proofs and making adjustments to images etc. Not to mention over two years of working on the project.
Even though there have been so many things I have experienced in the duration of this project that I could not have foreseen, when I first printed the first draft copy on my own printer I realised that my vision was being birthed exactly the way I had initially envisioned it :)
So, it was with great pleasure that I was able to visit the printer and see the first pages come whizzing off the press. And whiz they do! It easily pumps out 100 pages per minute at of A1 size pages. These pages are then folded and cut, but that’s the next chapter.
[This interview first appeared at Get Lusty for Couples. The image below is from Get Lusty, it's not mine.]
There’s a mysterious negative stigma attached to our bodies in America. Violence and drug-use rule the airwaves, but the thought of a penis or breast being shown is revolting. Why are we so ashamed of our bodies? What happened between the time when we all walked around naked with spears? Well, not all of us are ashamed. GetLusty asked Philip Werner some questions about his book, 101 Vagina and his thoughts on how women perceive natural beauty.
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What is the premise of the 101 Vagina coffee table book project and what inspired you to create it?
The main idea is to break the taboo around vaginas and ease all the body image shame in general. I was first inspired after reading the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler as it really highlighted how big an issue this really is. Our entire society is hobbled by these taboos and by this shame around our bodies.
Why do you think portraying pictures of vaginas, or even mentioning them, is still so taboo?
Yes, there is a bizarre juxtaposition where on the one hand sex and bodies are sensationalized and on the other, people feel ashamed and almost afraid of the simple realities of our bodies. Bikini clad women are plastered all around us and yet some people feel uncomfortable with women breast feeding in public. Something has gone wrong somewhere and I honestly don’t know how we ended up in this situation where people are afraid of the simple realities of their bodies. Perhaps vaginas are the ultimate symbol of vulnerability, openness, the feminine; all the things that the ideas of power, protection and control feel threatened by. But honestly I don’t know.
How do you think nude photography and seeing other women nude can help individuals overcome shame and issues with their own bodies?
Well, I think in particular when naked bodies are depicted as they are without Photoshopping, it helps deconstruct these marketing-driven ideals that have been rammed down our throats. If you see someone who is also imperfect, just like you, you feel validated in a way. Somehow it reminds you that, yes, they are OK, and therefore I’m OK.
I was at a nude beach recently and there was a woman who had obviously had a mastectomy. One of her breasts was missing a nipple and both breasts obviously had implants. It took me aback initially, but it was also very reassuring somehow that humans are somehow perfect in their imperfections. She was comfortable, probably having come to terms with it long ago. How unfortunate that we hide our imperfections from each other all the time, no wonder so many people are depressed, trying to live up to some stupid ideals of everlasting happiness and “beauty”.
Like with overly skinny models and Photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities, do you think porn puts forth the wrong image of what vaginas should look like and make women self-conscious about their own nudity? What negative side-effects have you seen related to this issue?
Well, I think this is an interesting issue and there are many sides. “Porn,” comes in so many different variations, and anyone that’s had a bit of a look around will have seen many different looking vaginas. Yes, in mainstream porn most women are shaved, for example, but home made porn seems to be becoming more popular where ordinary people are just the way they are. Again the problem with porn has been that it’s been market driven, rather than community driven. Look at music these days. The big marketing machines are being circumvented by everyone being able to make and upload their own music. It means people are making what they love, rather then just what the big bosses say sells records. I think ultimately the same will happen with porn, people will just make their own and the big end of town will loose it’s grip.
But coming back to your question, yes, certainly anything which presents an unreal image to the world will lead people to believing that they themselves are not normal. In Australia we have the terrible situation that soft core porn mags have to airbrush vaginas into a thin slit. No labia are allowed to show. It’s ludicrous. Women end up believing that they themselves are not normal and seek out plastic surgery. It’s so, so sad that a teenage girl might think her vagina does not look the way it’s “supposed” to look.
Besides an inaccurate representation of “normal,” what other reasons have you seen for women being ashamed of their bodies and their vaginas?
Yes, besides all the women’s magazines, porn, etc? Well, there is also peer pressure isn’t there. So many of the older school feminists blame men for everything, but so often the pressure to conform comes from other girls in school or other women in social circles. Most people want to fit in and be accepted and conform. But this is also where things can change. Often it only takes one person to break out from a group and say, “I’m happy with how I am and I don’t think we need to all look the same” for the whole dynamic to change. And this requires courage.
How does portraying vaginas help pave the way for discussion of “taboo” topics like rape and genital mutilation?
Well, I think to a degree there is an indirect knock on effect. If someone feels more comfortable with their bodies as a result of surrounding themselves with positive messages then they will feel more empowered to talk about things. It may be easy to talk about rape or genital mutilation from an academic perspective, but it takes a lot of courage to talk about your own experience of having been violated.
So, for example, say someone has suffered some sort of abuse, or they have some difficulty with their sexuality but they have never spoken about it. Then at some point they come across a “vagina positive” book and they realize that they perhaps don’t need to be so ashamed. They may, perhaps, open up to someone about their experience and that could trigger a huge healing cycle for them. Or someone has an irregularity that they ought to get checked out at the doctor but they feel embarrassed, etc. Shame prevents us from talking about things. Seeing material which unashamedly addresses that issue will help ease people’s shame.
Remember also that with 101 Vagina, in particular, there is also a message that accompanies every photo. These messages are so diverse, and really it is these stories that give the book it’s depth.
Who are the models for the Vagina 101 project? Was it a big step for some of them to be photographed nude and what were their reactions to their pictures?
It started with friends. However, after a few months I had only taken a few photos and I realized I needed to ramp things up. That’s when I built the website and Facebook page. I invited every woman I knew in Melbourne, and then things spread from there. Before long the word got out and complete strangers came in to participate. I think the project has really struck a chord with a lot of people.
We understand you are self-publishing the book as of now and raising funds for its first print run. After the book is printed, what kind of reception do you foresee?
Oh, if only I had a crystal ball. So far people have been incredibly positive and supportive and I hope that will continue. Obviously I’d love the book to go as far as it can to have as large an impact as possible. I’d love to get on talk shows, radio shows, etc. Oprah? Ellen? I don’t even know who’s doing what really, I don’t have a TV myself, but yes, I’d love it to go big. And the bigger the better since $5 from every book will go towards women’s charities. But I understand the reality that ultimately no one cares about your project as much as you do. Never mind, if I only sell 100 copies so be it. In a way the project has already been successful because it has already touched a lot of people’s lives.
Where can our readers go to learn more and how can they support the project?
Please visit the crowdfunding page to support the project here: http://pozible.com/101vagina.
In addition to the Vagina 101 project, you’re also selling a vagina calendar to raise funds for the One Billion Rising event protesting violence against women. Tell us more about it. How did you get involved, and how does this event’s message relate to Vagina 101’s goal of erasing the taboo surrounding women’s bodies?
Yes, it’s an interesting union and one that some people may find a bit jarring, but I really believe that we need to take an unflinching look at the causes of sexual abuse rather than simply lament and be outraged at it’s occurrence. I strongly believe that sexual repression and sexual aggression/abuse are connected. I just don’t think that anyone who is truly comfortable in their sexuality would ever impose themselves on another person. Rape and abuse are NOT expressions of sexual freedom, but of sexual repression. And sexual repression is closely related to body image shame and taboos.
One Billion Rising is a V-Day event, and V-day was founded by Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues, so it’s already a natural fit. I got involved because I already knew about V-day and One Billion Rising, and when some friends of mine started planing to organize an event in Melbourne I jumped on board. Regarding the calendar, well I figured that the media often like controversial calendars that are raising money for good causes, so this might be a way to raise the funds needed to stage the event in the most visible place in Melbourne. It’s not cheap, we’ve got to come up with $20,000 and are also looking for corporate sponsors. We can be contacted at: email@example.com.
Media Release: 7 December 2012
Dancing our protest against violence towards women and girls
On February 14, 2013 people around the globe will rise up and dance their protest against violence towards women and girls as part of the international ONE BILLION RISING campaign. We are inviting you to join the global campaign.
Spearheaded by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, One Billion Rising has created a platform for women and men around the world to be seen and heard as they protest the reality that 1 in 3 women will suffer violence and exploitation in their lifetime (http://onebillionrising.org).
One Billion Rising Melbourne event page:
One Billion Rising Melbourne Facebook page:
Toni Childs, three-time Grammy nominated recording artist, Emmy Winner, and long time advocate of women’s empowerment says: “I am excited about coming together as a Nation to honor the women of Australia! It is time to heal and evolve and affirm that we as a Nation can create a violence free society! I believe in us, and I believe in the power and the deep wisdom that lives inside each one of us. I believe in the power to heal what has been broken in us, and to stop the ancestral cycles of abuse that we live with. We’re at the point of change… The cycle stops with each and every one of us!”
“Coming out and standing up is a declaration and a resonance that ripples through us, our personal relationships, our society and the world! Valentines Day 2013 is about making the plausible possible… !!”
Dr Lauren Woodman also organises the Seven Sisters Festival, a women-only space for healing and celebration. “One Billion Rising is such a beautiful, empowering concept, we felt inspired by it’s vision and wish to support this global celebratory protest. We would love to shake the ground with Melbourne’s support of this issue by shaking, stomping & dancing ‘No’ to violence against women.”
Another of the organisers is Philip Werner, who instigated the recent peace march in honour of Jill Meagher which surprised the nation with it’s 30,000 strong turnout. “There is a big sense in the community that we need to get active and it needs to be in a positive, hopeful and peaceful way. Lynch mobs calling for capital punishment are not going to solve this problem. Non-violence is the only real antidote to violence. This protest is active, non-violent and positive.”
The event is to be held at Federation Square for maximum visibility, thereby challenging the invisibility of this issue. Federation Square charge $20,000 to provide all the necessary infrastructure and services for the event.
Community and corporate sponsors are being sought to meet these costs. On top of this, a crowdfunding campaign has been set up to reach out to the many thousands who believe in this cause.
Through the crowdfunding page everyone can offer their support, be it with a dollar or a thousand dollars. Organisers are hoping to get to $5000 worth of pledges by 15 December to secure Fed Square and are hoping that social media will spread the word sufficiently to meet the final required goal of $20,000 by mid January.
Crowdfunding campaign page: (Short code: http://goo.gl/1R19S)
One Billion Rising Melbourne organisers:
- Toni Childs (Emmy award winning singer/songwriter)
- Tamar Spatz (Teacher & women’s rights activist)
- Dr Lauren Woodman (Seven Sisters Festival event organiser)
- Dr Caroline Lambert (Women’s human rights advocate)
- Philip Werner (Photographer, peace activist)
Eros Shine Awards. Thursday, 29 November 2012.
I have divided the photos up into three sets, as you can see I have given each set a different treatment. Enjoy :)
First is my shoes, bums and cleavage set (closely related to my grounded series, besides the bums and cleavage shots). I actually really like these photos in black and white, but considering how much people spend on shoes I thought I might get lynched for leaching them of their colourful glory! So here they are in colour, however, I have included them in b&w at the end just in case some of you enjoy the b&w aesthetic also.
Next are a bunch of kinda candid shots, for some reason I find it amusing taking photos of people playing with their sex toys, erm, mobile phones, I mean! Well, not much difference sometimes perhaps ;)
I have no real idea about the who’s who in this industry, so please forgive me if you missed out…
And here is a set of random event photos.
I was tending to steer clear of the photographer mosh pit, so this is a fairly random mix of bits and pieces
Shoes etc in b&w, the way I like it.
(This article also appears at Get Lusty)
A friend of mine, Eva, was complimenting some of my photos in a series of clay covered nudes and since I mostly shoot friends, I remarked that it could be her in those photos. She chuckled, declined and said she had a lot of body image issues. Stunning as she is I was not surprised since this is unfortunately all too common.
To combat one particular body image issue and taboo I have also been working on a coffee table photo book called 101 Vagina, a collection of 101 photos with a message from each of the women. When this arose in conversation I again asked if she might be interested in participating. Again she declined.
But her compliments kept coming and I suggested she might appreciate seeing herself through fresh eyes. In the end it was her boyfriend who emboldened her, saying it might help her get over some of her negative body image. So she got in touch to participate, in both projects no less.
Most people are a little awkward in front of a camera at first, but Eva was almost inconsolable. She was visibly struggling, so I went to give her a hug. I was stunned. Her whole body was shaking, from the inside, as if some massive tectonic plates were shifting in her character, dislodging old and strong patterns of shame. I had never witnessed anyone confront such massive fear, and have the courage to go ahead in spite of it. Massive kudos to her!
As it turned out it didn’t take long for her to relax into the shoot and we got some great images. She could hardly believe that the images were of her, seeing herself through my eyes allowed her to see the beauty in my beholder’s eye, rather than the critic in hers.
The next day Eva wrote to me that she looked at herself in the mirror naked for the first time ever!
More recently she shared this about how it affected her relationship. “It certainly has changed our relationship, firstly I was so amazed and felt so loved when he [boyfriend] told me to go ahead with something that I thought most guys would discourage. When I sent him the pics I was really nervous, and I was so happy to hear that he loved them. I’m much less shy around him now, and find it slightly easier to talk to him about my body.”
My journey with nude photography began many years before I ever took a nude photograph; in my mind. I dreamed of doing it ever since I became sexually aware but there was a huge barrier in the way. That barrier was shame.
My mother was a fairly strong feminist and the message I inadvertently internalised was that male sexual desire is the root cause of all evil in the world, that nudes are degrading and people who take them akin to murderers. And yet I loved the images.
Perhaps fittingly it was a woman who finally invited me into the world of nude photography, and that first experience, and all that followed, have worked to reverse my inhibitions. It was a healing process for me, an affirmation that my appreciation of the female form is not only tolerated, but appreciated. Further to that, it was often a healing experience for the women also.
Any shame we hold around our bodies and sexuality will always impact on the way we share ourselves with others. Shame is a powerful hindrance to happiness and it does not dislodge easily. If it’s easy to talk about it’s not shame you’re dealing with. Shame is the last thing we want to talk about, ever. But it’s the first step to really being honest and connecting with ourselves and others.
8 October 2012: The crowdfunding campaign for my photo book project, 101 Vagina, has received a writeup in LOTL‘s online magazine :)
See the article here: http://www.lotl.com/Web-Articles-2012/101-Vaginas-coffee-table-book-seeks-funding
See the campaign page here: www.pozible.com/101vagina
Click the image below to see it larger so you can read it.