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Alexandra Leese’s Me + Mine
Kuku, China (00:15:11)Photography Alexandra Leese, design Eva Nazarova

Capturing intimate nude portraits of women on webcams across the world

Alexandra Leese’s Me + Mine flips the historical power dynamic of the male gaze on the female nude, giving subjects autonomy over their image, and celebrating women’s bodies in comfortable, happy spaces

In the early weeks of the UK’s first lockdown, Alexandra Leese opened her laptop, switched on its camera – the screen mirroring her nude body – and pressed record. The timestamp blinked as she positioned herself on her bed, looking over her shoulder into her own image, her gaze staring back onto itself. Leese later replayed the footage on her TV, settling on a frame where her feet reach towards the lens, and captured it as a photograph.

This self-portrait is printed on the final page of her latest photobook, Me + Mine. It is a project that initially began as an exploration about Leese’s relationship with her own body, which blossomed into a collaboration with women from all across the world – from close friends to strangers. Between April and October, Leese conducted 43 nude portrait shoots with women over video calls. “It was just me, them, and a laptop or a phone,” she says. “They were essentially in charge of helping me get the right angle and position.” Just as she had with her own portrait, she reviewed each shoot and photographed her favourite frames with either a 35mm Leica or Polaroid camera.

All these women now join her on the pages of Me + Mine, represented by a single photograph opposite an almost blank page which details their name, location, and the frame’s timestamp. The empty space offering respite for these intimate vignettes to stretch out and breathe.

Nude portraits of women have historically been lensed by the male gaze, often considering the sitters as muses rather than co-authors of the image. Me + Mine flips this power dynamic upside-down, with Leese offering the women autonomy over how nude they felt comfortable being, where they wanted to be photographed, and what their final image would be. “As a photographer, the power is usually in our hands. Here, the power is in their hands,” she says. “I think, especially with women’s bodies, it was important for me to make sure that I gave them that.” The women could also pull their image from the project at any time. It never happened, but it was a situation she was prepared for. “I would never dream of publishing something that someone wasn’t happy with,” Leese asserts.

Me + Mine is not solely for her own fulfillment, it’s about the women, for the women. “It was a way for the women involved to be proud, to feel beautiful,” she explains. “To feel like their body was theirs and only theirs to do what they wanted.” It’s this reason why she is donating all of the profits of the self-published photobook to three organisations based in the UK and the US; the Black Trans Femme in the Arts Collective, the Trans Law Center, and the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre.

“The male gaze has taught women to hold themselves in a certain way – a way that is sexy or inviting to men. I wanted to explore beauty as how we are when we’re relaxed and comfortable… not when our backs are arched, our tummies are sucked in, and our lips are pouted” – Alexandra Leese

From the inception of Me + Mine, Leese was set on avoiding the tropes of the nude portrait dictated by the male gaze. As all the shoots were undertaken remotely, she also had the added challenge of “reading the room, without being in the room”. She was conscious of directing the women into poses that felt natural and comfortable, to evoke – as she and Xoài Pham write in the foreword – “the safety we feel when no one is looking”.

“The male gaze has taught women to hold themselves in a certain way – a way that is sexy or inviting to men. It’s very evident in imagery, particularly with nudes,” she says. “I wanted to explore beauty as how we are when we’re relaxed and comfortable, when we feel content and happy and good about ourselves. Not when our backs are arched, our tummies are sucked in, and our lips are pouted.”

When considering the title, Me + Mine, Leese wanted it to act as a declaration that women, and only women, are in control of their bodies. “It seems like such an obvious thing to say”, she observes, “that our bodies are our own. But the sad reality is everything we’re told in society makes us feel otherwise.”

Xoài Pham – who co-wrote the photobook’s introduction with Leese – had originally planned to be photographed in her underwear, but decided to go nude at the last minute. “I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “I’ve never been so exposed in a photo shoot. But I’m committed to expanding the kinds of images that exist of trans women of colour.” In her portrait, she rests on her bed, her expression serene, her body at home. “It’s imperative for us to be visualised beyond sexual consumption,” she adds. “I am empowered by the vast possibilities of how we show up in the world. We are reflections of one another’s humanity, and our differences make us even more beautiful.”

Gia Love sees her involvement in Me + Mine as an opportunity to mark her personal growth. “I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be captured like this a few years ago,” she admits. Love wants others to harness her new found strength as their own. “I hope folks see a free Black trans woman – a woman who will be seen no matter what,” she says. “This is an opportunity for trans and gender non conforming folks to continue being visible.”

Sheerah Ravindren reveals she wanted to be photographed by Leese to help “change and broaden peoples’ views of beauty and femininity”. She sees her portrait as an extension of the work she does on Instagram, where she uplifts her voice and celebrates her body. “My whole existence, which includes my body, empowers me because it’s a wonderful masterpiece made up of melanin, body hair, lumps, bumps, and marks,” she says. “All the things I have worked hard to love and embrace in a world that tells me to do the very opposite.”

“My body empowers me because it’s a wonderful masterpiece made up of melanin, body hair, lumps, bumps, and marks… all the things I have worked hard to love and embrace in a world that tells me to do the very opposite” – Sheerah Ravindren

All 43 shoots, as well as Leese’s own, happened in isolation, some several thousand miles apart. Often, they were conducted across an unforgiving internet connection, or while navigating language barriers. Despite the challenge, Leese cites a deep kinship with the women, many of whom she has never met. “The most memorable moments were the conversations I had with the women, asking why they were doing this and what it meant to them,” she reflects. “They are, by no means, representative of all women out there, but hearing their stories and the way they accept and love themselves, or the battles they’re facing and what they’re trying to overcome, made me feel less alone. I learned that confidence isn’t about having no insecurities – it’s about knowing you have them and accepting them.”

“How we perceive ourselves has, for so long, been dictated by the patriarchy. These women are saying a big fuck you to those standards.”

Me + Mine – designed by Eva Nazarova – is available to pre-order now. It will be released as an edition of 350 copies, self-published by Leese, and printed by Push Print in London. All profits are being donated to the Black Trans Femme in the Arts Collective, the Trans Law Center, and the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre