These images show the in-between moments of porn

Sophie Ebrard’s photos turn porn on its head in a higher brow take on a scene so often viewed as cheap and dirty

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Sophie Ebrard’s “It’s Just Love”
Photography Sophie Ebrard

“With porn shoots you always see tits, fanny... I mean you never see anything like this. You see the big space in the background…and yeah, you can see the top of the girl’s head but you can’t see fuck all. That one, it’s just….that’s the one that stuck in my mind. That’s why I think they’re awesome.”

A long time before French photographer Sophie Ebrard turned her Amsterdam home into an immersive gallery space, before her project of following a porn director around the world had been painstakingly curated into an exhibition, she thought she’d test out her shots on the biggest critics of all: the performers themselves.

And so it was Loulou Petite, with her disarming smile and unstoppable enthusiasm, who gave that review. No airs. No graces. No holds barred. Chattering away in her bright pink hoodie, she was refreshing, astute and wholly unjaded. Because she’d found someone who could see her industry for what it really is, not just how it’s marketed to the masturbating masses.

Ebrard, the woman behind striking campaigns for brands as diverse as Rolex and Adidas, has always stubbornly made time for her personal projects, a series of visual investigations that have taken her around the world and into some eye-opening situations.

So it stands to reason that it was at a swingers party that she met Gazzman: she, charmingly out of her depth but looking for couples to participate in a project, he, the affable Scottish porn director in his element. The two talked cameras, clicked swiftly, and Sophie landed herself an invitation too good to refuse. A few weeks later, she found herself behind the scenes of his next film on a run-down LA lot, becoming unofficial photographer, psychiatrist and lube holder on the way.

“Ebrard’s photographs attempt to show the whole picture. Not just the deliberate inclusion of the cables, cameras and technical trappings of the locations, but the complex mindsets and sheer humanity of the people involved”

“It’s Just Love” was born, with Ebrard following Gazzman on shoots for four years, her aim to uncover the stories behind the wipe-clean kicks that usually come from pornography. The resulting images, all shot on medium-format analogue film, have very little sexual gratification in them at all: this is porn turned on its head in a blaze of long shots, private moments and elegant composition.

We see the starlet painting her neon toenails on a shiny on-set sofa; the poignant ‘Broken Doll’ tattoo on a forearm entangled in a choreographed threesome; the naked stud ironing his shirt, alone. The images are in turns funny and pointed, sad and human. They might be the opposite of the soft-focus cartoonish glamour that convention dictates, but that’s exactly why the actors are proud to be in these shots: they’re a higher brow take on a scene so often viewed as cheap and dirty. A breath of fresh air in an industry tougher than most.

Porn is a world where friendships wither through infighting and your once doting family sweep your career under the carpet despite your fame and fortune. Where you grow up fast and you can’t turn back. Where CVs don’t exist. And the world treats you as either a novelty act or a dirty little secret.

It’s hard for the actors to move on. And it’s incredibly unfair, considering that porn is now more public and accessible than ever, ripe for discussion around the water cooler for the cool. Its superstars, once hidden away, now grace the pages of hipster magazines and win adulation from the fashion pack, yet society keeps them at a safe distance in their pixelated cages: they’re great to watch, as long as they don’t get too close. And as long as your girlfriend doesn’t catch you.

Whilst on set, Ebrard spoke to the performers at length and in detail. She wanted to know the minds behind the fake tans and fake moans. She didn’t want to risk flattening them into another series of images without hearing what they had to say first.

The performers’ personalities lurched from ambitious to cheeky to wry to raw, but the one thing they were was real. A world away from the muscled hunks and walking blow-up dolls of the past, they were acutely aware they didn’t have anything resembling a normal career plan, that they needed an exit strategy and fast. Loulou described the boredom: “I remember a few months ago, I had my own little house, and I’d go and work all day and I’d come home, and I was by myself, so I’d think fuck it, I’ll just go and do webcam, earn some money, and I’d sit on webcam until 2 o’ clock in the morning, and then I’d go to bed, wake up, go to work, come home, webcam, go to bed, wake up….”

Of course, there are exceptions: some actors enter the industry chasing stardom with their eyes wide open. A chosen few – such as Sasha Grey and James Deen – get lucky and successfully balance porn with mainstream acting. But the majority are just stuck, hoping something better might come along. Christine, a spiritual young performer puts it well: “I’m just waiting for life. If something amazes or attracts me in the future, then I’ll just do it. No fixed point. Some dreams, some ideas, but (it has to be) something that I want and can’t live without.”

The injustice of the performers’ exclusion from ‘acceptable’ jobs is exacerbated by the simple fact that as individuals, they’re actually really nice. Ebrard herself turned up in LA bracing herself to meet a bunch of debauched and vulgar crazies, but in truth, her experience couldn’t have been more different. The first thing she thought was “oh, they’re normal” and, as a Frenchwoman with a fine line in innuendo, it turned out she fitted right in.

Charismatic young star Danny D explains why his mother was happy with him doing porn, as long as he didn’t stray into escort work: “With porn, you’re making a product, you’re building something. But with escorting, it’s like that person can afford you. You’re not making anything.” And it’s true. All that pornography does is make something tangible out of an activity that most people do – or wish they were doing – several times a week. 

Having slipped under the baby-oiled skin of the industry and its major players, Ebrard’s photographs attempt to show the whole picture. Not just the deliberate inclusion of the cables, cameras and technical trappings of the locations, but the complex mindsets and sheer humanity of the people involved. By living on set, sharing rooms with the performers, and eating with the crew around the money-shot table (“we have dinner where we fuck,” Gazzman explained), Ebrard doesn’t prey on these people as a freakish fascination: she’s in the project with them and vice versa.

She has embraced them as a family, so much so that her two-year-old son Jules could be seen toddling around the exhibition, gazing up at the images on the walls as the soundtrack rumbled through the freshly painted rooms. But meanwhile, back in that dusty LA lot, a nameless set dresser draped neon pink velvet over a scuffed chaise longue. The starlets positioned themselves carefully into their Danny D sandwich. A director yelled “action”. And life, in this controversial but ultimately normal industry, went on.

“It’s Just Love” was part of the Unseen Photo Fair, running until 27 September, 2015. See more of Ebrard’s work here

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