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Baron by Petra Collins and Sarah Sitkin
Photography Petra Collins

Petra Collins disfigures her body in a new series of self-portraits

The photographer and artist Sarah Sitkin discuss how they drew on simulacra theory and the fragmentation of reality for a collaborative new shoot for Baron magazine

It’s hard not to smile while watching “Boutique,” a 1998 Canadian TV commercial about a sort of dystopian makeover shop. Out of curiosity, two girls enter the boutique and go through various modifications, from makeup to plastic surgery, and the “Personality Changing Room,” all the while a woman insistently addresses them through a screen: “Why be you, when you can be me?” In the end, the girls walk out unchanged and refuse to “let someone else decide who (they) should be.”

“It's so campy and so drama,” exclaims photographer Petra Collins, who chose the sinister shopkeeper’s line as the title of her new photobook, except that she translated it to Hungarian, her first language, and that the photobook in question is definitely not cheerful or laughter-inducing. The sixth instalment of erotic paperback mag Baron, Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is? is even more unsettling than the 90s ad, and doesn’t have a similarly happy, empowering ending. In real life, Collins seems to be saying, the effort of processing difficult situations is more of a perpetual work in progress. 

To experiment with bizarre self-portraiture, the photographer, who is from Toronto but now lives in New York, collaborated with Sarah Sitkin, a Los Angeles-based artist that creates hyper-realistic sculptures of the human form. They had previously worked together for A Love Story, a short horror film that sees Selena Gomez suck on an eyeball and play with a mask-life prosthetic face in a bathtub. Here, Collins flipped the camera lens onto herself and Sitkin created moulds of her body, a process the photographer sees as “weirdly therapeutic”. Below, we caught up with them to learn more.

How did this project come together? Petra, did you know you wanted to work with Sarah straight away, and vice versa?

Petra Collins: I don’t remember the sequence of events but when I saw what Sarah was doing with the bodysuits and how they weren’t just imitations of bodies, they really had this sort of interior life in them, I became even more obsessed. (Sarah) brought the bodysuits and I got to see that the inside of them had fabric in them that I guess represents each person. On one of the male ones, was it eyes where the balls are?

Sarah Sitkin: Yeah.

Petra Collins: That was so cool and important to me because it was something that Sarah said, some people who were transitioning could try on and feel what it’s like to have a different body or different genitalia.

How did Sarah’s work fit with what you wanted to do?

Petra Collins: It’s kind of a long process... But a funny thing I think that triggered it was that Sarah started talking to me about the theory of simulacra and simulation which is something that I had not thought of in years. Yeah, I’m sitting in the couch on the studio and you were like, ‘I’m just thinking about this.’ Sarah, I forgot how you brought it up but it really got me! I then bought that book and got back into the theory. 

Sarah Sitkin: I didn’t really have a full understanding, it was just like something I had been reading about that day or the day before. So I was trying to communicate it and I feel like I made such an ass out of myself trying to explain the theory. But it’s so funny to hear your perspective on it!

Petra Collins: It’s such an abstract theory and so dense to read French philosophy. But I had never put two and two together that that story could be applied to real life. It completed my thought process with the project that we were doing: I knew how we were doing it, why we were doing it.

Sarah Sitkin: If you’re not familiar with the theory, it’s essentially: when things become copies of copies of copies, the original is lost and the original has no influence on the copy. So, in a lot of ways, we are living in that world. That theory is informing culture now where everything is copies of copies of copies and we’ve definitely lost the originals of things. I think as a person trying to navigate through culture and art and trying to get to the origins of things is kind of impossible at this point.

“We live in a world that – I am not saying it’s negative – but has created a lot of confusion, where, we are preaching empowerment, we are preaching diversity, but the images that are coming up on people’s personal social media are so removed from the reality they claim is reality” – Petra Collins

How did that theory connect with this project?

Petra Collins: I’d been shooting other people for 12 years now. I spent my whole life observing others, trying to understand the world around that. And trying to understand how they place their body in the world. And also, I grew up with a lot of heavy body dysmorphia and zero knowledge about what I looked like and just such disconnect from my actual physical body. I guess what I have seen Instagram turn into... in the way that we present ourselves and I’d think I wouldn’t necessarily be affected by it. But then I realised that I was and that I should maybe take a pause from taking images of other people, explore myself and figure out who I was physically, because I was feeling removed. It’s tricky because we live in a world that – I am not saying it’s negative – but has created a lot of confusion, where, we are preaching empowerment, we are preaching diversity, but the images that are coming up on people’s personal social media are so removed from the reality they claim is reality. I mean I’m down with everyone living in their own reality... What I think is dangerous is seeing it as real in this dimension. So when people are air-brushed or face tuning… I think it’s dangerous when we are saying it’s not happening or it’s not real. It feels like the early 2000s again! A lot of us grew up in that age where it was Paris Hilton, the Pussycat Dolls... Air-brush was really popular in magazines. And fast-forward to now and you’re seeing the same thing but it’s done to oneself. 

Sarah Sitkin: I think reality is becoming more and more subjective. It’s really hard to navigate sometimes in a world where everyone has their own version of reality.

Has all of this made you think about your responsibility as someone who creates images or even question previous work you’ve done?

Petra Collins: That’s constant. I’m constantly looking back into why I did something. I started up at a young age, I can now see the intent behind each image and how I felt about the world. It’s interesting to identify that... A lot of images I’m like ‘why did I do this?’ and I maybe don’t agree with it, but I think it’s all in my narrative of growth.

To me, this new book departs quite radically from work you’ve done before. Do you also feel that way?

Petra Collins: For me, it’s the subject matter that’s different but I think the way I’m shooting all of it is more or less the same. But again because I was able to shoot myself I was able to add my narrative to it. In shooting myself I was able to just fully go ham. It’s such a crazy experience to be able to shoot your body separate from yourself. I don’t love being the subject of my pictures but also the camera is a big part of my process and I don’t like being disconnected from it. So it was great being able to shoot myself and be behind the camera at the same time. It’s crazy to see yourself outside of yourself. 

Could you walk me through the process of making those replicas of your body?

Sarah Sitkin: I literally moulded her body. It’s very physically demanding, to take a mould of someone. It gets heavy and it gets hot as all the material gets piled on top of you. Sometimes people gag when you’re doing moulds of their mouths. But I don’t think Petra did! I think she did drool a lot! And then I just made direct reproductions of her body in silicone. What’s funny to me is that Petra wanted to make one of everything. Like, one mask, one body part, one of each hand... But in the process of making stuff, there is a lot of test pieces that have to be made so that I can test how it’s going to look and a lot of times it gets messed up. So she had all the pieces that were finalised but what she really wanted was all the scraps. She had a box of all the messed up scraps that didn’t have eyebrows or eye lashes... Almost more times than not she used the test scraps to do the shooting. In the book, there is a range of simulacra: crude versions and more refined versions. There are versions where it’s a mask and there are versions where you can’t tell that it’s a mask. I love the idea that there were multiple personas.

I’m a perfectionist and I normally would have been mortified if someone had used the scraps. It’s so embarrassing to me that they aren’t perfect. But in this book, it worked so good! To me, the book feels like it’s about facade and about persons and having to use identity to navigate a particular situation.

Petra, why did you use the test scraps?

Petra Collins: Honestly once I opened that can of worms it did not stop. It was so fascinating for me to see my body go through different phases and different layers, textures... I just wanted to use all of them. The way I see myself is not that one complete version so it was super exciting to be able to use those pieces that were incomplete.

Sarah Sitkin: The picture of all the masks floating in the water, I love that one so much! It makes me feel like it’s the perfect illustration of when I’m remembering all the incarnations of myself that I had over the years, especially when I was a young person trying to figure out who I was and messing with different ideas. In that murky place, the way that they are floating in the water feels like the way I think about all the people that I have been in my life. And the picture of you wearing a mask to your wedding day! That is so good Petra!

Petra Collins: That’s my sister wearing it! Which is even more insidious. She was very important in this process too because she is the person that I grew up with and both of us had constantly communicated about what we physically looked like. When you grow up, having someone that is close to your age that can confirm what has happened or what reality is. I feel like she’s the person who knows me the most. She’s worn my mask a lot!

We had this moment when we were shooting that... We were parked in the middle of the street and there were all these families walking back from school and she was so embarrassed, hiding her face! You’re literally wearing another face, no one is going to know it’s you. She was mortified, hiding her mask-face. I was like ‘It’s not your face!’

“It’s really hard to navigate sometimes in a world where everyone has their own version of reality” – Sarah Sitkin

I’ve read that you shot the pictures in different locations from childhood. Can you tell me about that?

Petra Collins: It’s where I shot much of my work. We just came to my school with a box of body parts! I went to an art high school and I originally was going for dance but this was a place where I spent so much time looking at myself. In dance, you spend your day in front of the mirror. Naturally, that was the place that I needed to take it back to. I had to give up dance when I was 15, I had this surgery on my knee and was told by my doctors my bone structure couldn’t physically handle dance. It was devastating. When you grow up using your body as your artistic tool and you’re unable to use it. Balancing that with also going through puberty, figuring out how I place myself with sex and sexuality. It’s a bizarre thing. That’s where a lot of things, mentally, happened with my body. It was also the place I learned about the camera. I started shooting after I stopped dancing. It’s a place that I love aesthetically too! Visually it means a lot to me but also it’s a place where so much happened.

The images are scary but also weirdly arousing. What’s going on?

Petra Collins: For me, those two things are the same. I have a love for horror and then I also... Sexuality at such a young age something that I am super aware of and constantly trying to work through. Naturally, it’s always been a part of my work. I really wanted to create something that I would really want to see. What are my deepest fears, the things that turn me on the most and what do I want? And I just did it! I don’t even know how to explain it! It’s that scary, erotic thing... That’s also pretty!?

The book’s title Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is? is in Hungarian. Can you explain?

Petra Collins: It’s actually a direct quote from a campaign that I grew up with in Canada. So it was this commercial that came on TV that was of these two young girls. It’s so campy and so drama but it’s also very truthful and that was pretty topical. It’s not necessarily a critique on culture or talking about anything. It’s more of a visual experience that anyone can take anywhere. That’s why I decided to put it in Hungarian so if you really wanted to know you could translate it. You have this title that is removed from its reality. That is that!

Baron is available now