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Cold Lunch
Photography Roxy Lee

Filth, fun, and fetishism: inside Roxy Lee’s X-rated new photography show

The London photographer’s explicit exhibition – presented on hundreds of keyrings – looks at censorship, sploshing, and obscenity

Roxy Lee has given herself a repetitive strain injury making 500 keyrings for her latest exhibition. The London photographer, known for her vivid and alluring snapshots of queer underground nightlife, BTS fashion and campaign shots, and a wipe-clean biannual zine, is preparing for a solo show, Cold Lunch, at Dalston’s Ridley Road Project Space. “My hand’s aching from punching all the little photos out,” she says.

Regularly snapping the hedonism of LGBTQ+ nights like Adonis and Inferno, Hackney-born Lee has also shot for the likes of Byredo and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, as well as taking portraits for Dazed from Royal Ascot and FKA twigs’ cat-themed birthday party. Sausage and Custard, her Instagram page dedicated to documenting the messy, hyper-diverse East London party scene, is a seductive invitation to her style; an intimate look at people fully in the moment.

Taken on nights out, at friends’ houses or studios, or in Lee’s bedroom, her Cold Lunch collection is  “based on what happens behind closed doors,” she says. “They’re all quite personal spaces.” Another running theme of the show – which means that we’re only allowed to display a limited selection in the gallery above – is its explicitness and depictions of sex work. “(The exhibition is) a complete celebration of everyone in it, “she says. “I get really paranoid of people thinking this sort of work is exploitative, when it’s really not the case.” 

There’s also a collection of feet photos, particularly feet in high heels. “I guess I did that because seeing a dirty club foot in a pair of stilettos and fishnets is way more kinky than (the more explicit images),” she explains. “They all link because they’ve got something to do with sex, or sex that might not be perceived as normal, or doing things with your body are sexualised but actually aren’t,” she says. “Because I’m so exposed to what people get up to – I’m very out-there with it, and I collect porn. So for me these things aren’t out of the norm, but I’m aware that to some people they are, which really makes me laugh. I just think that’s really funny!” 

Below, Dazed talks to Lee about her new exhibition, censorship, sploshing, fetishes, and obscenity.

Starting with the censorship aspect, why was it important to show work that you can’t show online?

Roxy Lee: Loads of my work gets taken down from Instagram. Some of it is sex work, but some isn’t. It’s people being confident with their bodies and themselves. I’ve always been really fascinated with what goes on behind closed doors, so I think it's really great to show that and normalise that. Lesbian kissing often gets taken down from Instagram, weirdly, it never seems to happen with men kissing. Some printers and developers are really funny about it, too. It puts you in a powerless position and makes you feel quite shit, really, it’s like: how have I managed to do the work I really wanna do, and now I can’t because you don't want me to?

How does it differ from your previous photography, like your club shots, for example?

Roxy Lee: It’s all work with people I really like or are in awe of, in some way. It’s similar to club work in that I don’t know what’s going to happen until it’s happened. I guess it seems different from what I normally do because one – I can’t show it anywhere, and two – there’s not that many people that are up for it, or letting that kind of stuff be documented. So it’s not something that I can do all the time.

How do you go about approaching people for this kind of thing?

Roxy Lee: I’m really lucky because I’m in environments a lot where I meet people that I find really amazing. So it dominoes from that, really – it’s very rare that I message someone out of the blue that I’ve never met before. With these, it’s more like they’re my mates or people I’ve seen perform out. There’s pretty much always what I would consider to be quite an intimate connection between me and the people that I’m shooting. I don’t think the work would be as strong for me, personally, if I didn’t have that connection.

“I liked the idea of an artwork being a keepsake or a souvenir, because all of my work is very in-the-moment” – Roxy Lee

What was the thinking behind using keyrings to present the work?

Roxy Lee: I wanted a lot of images, and the show is also about censorship. Keyrings censor themselves, given where the light is in the room, or where they’re hung, because they’re clear perspex they reflect so you can't see, a bit like a TV screen if the light’s shining. I also liked the idea of an artwork being a keepsake or a souvenir, because all of my work is very in-the-moment. I wouldn’t really be able to recreate a photo again – I mean, I could, but it would look so recreated. Also I do just think it’s funny, there’s always a massive element of humour in any work that I do, so I think it’s funny showing it on keyrings. Also, the size of them becomes relevant because you have to peep a lot more.

What will you do with all of them after the exhibition?

Roxy Lee: I haven’t thought that far ahead! I guess I’ll keep some on my keys.

Why is the exhibition titled Cold Lunch?

Roxy Lee: It’s completely coincidental but everything I do seems to be linked to food perversion: like my Instagram @sausageandcustard and my zine Vinegar Sniffs. I like it because it invokes either a sensation of wanting and craving, or disgust, or both. And I found the phrase ‘cold lunch’ a really long time ago and it basically means when you like to be vomited on and then eat it (laughs). Also, there is a lot of food in the show. There’s food being used as props, there’s quite a lot of elements of sploshing in some of the work. I love sploshing, I think it’s amazing to look at. So the food element has always been there, and I like to gross people out quite a lot.

What else do you think will gross people out in this exhibition?

Roxy Lee: There are some close-ups of arseholes that will probably gross some people out and, do you know what, probably the feet more than anything! 

Cold Lunch is showing at Ridley Road Project Space from February 3-5 2022