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Steph Wilson, Self
Photography Steph Wilson

‘Absurd’ photos that capture the liberating experience of posing nude

Steph Wilson attempts to evade the limitations of the male gaze in her ongoing series, Self

Deluged by self-initiated self-portrait projects during lockdown, London-based photographer Steph Wilson resisted the temptation to join the “endless swathes of forlorn, house-bound photographers gazing out of their apartment windows”. But the idea of embarking on a project using herself as the subject began to feel more alluring as she started to consider ways in which she could subvert this form and embark on a more intensive kind of self-exploration. 

Drawn to the idea of using herself as a subject, she found liberation in the self-objectification of offering herself as a kind of prop to facilitate her own image-making. “There is something incredibly focused, like a sort of meditation, when taking a self-portrait. You are very much in your self but, equally, out of body… you become multiple perspectives – the viewer and the subject. You watch yourself in a way you wouldn’t usually, composing yourself like a bowl of fruit.” 

Self is the ongoing photo project that emerged from Wilson’s interrogation of what it means to inhabit a physical body, with all the complex emotions we have in relation to confronting our own nakedness at its most vulnerable, as well as bodies in their most heroic, formidable postures. In this series of images – which see her swathed in tarpaulin, invoking renaissance goddess potency, and also contorted in a backward roll, with a candle protruding from her rectum – Wilson found something strangely restful about the process of moving beyond the frontier of embarrassment. 

“I weirdly find it quite relaxing being in a situation that should make me feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to describe – and I think it is a product of learning to dissociate after overcoming an acute anxiety disorder for about 12 years – I was describing it to a friend recently when talking about having a PAP smear… something sort of turns off– the embarrassment switch – and it feels really serene.” 

Relinquishing control and transcending mortification, her image strives to evade the male gaze and defy the usual conventions of the female nude. As opposed to the “alluring, demure, elegant, coy, athletic, closed” which have historically defined the traditional nude, she pushed her image-making toward a vision she describes as “absurd and ‘ugly’... the antithesis of elegance“. 

“I think about body shame a lot,” Wilson tells us. “I suppose it’s why my work often contains a lot of nudity, trying to subvert the cause of that shame.” While embracing nakedness in her work, Wilson is aware that her body conforms to the conventions of what society considers an “acceptable female body”. “As the series progressed, I wanted more and more to push back against what is expected of me.”

As a work in progress, her hopes for the future of this series are to push further against “deeply ingrained rules of attractiveness” and to raise questions about the objectives and functions of self-portraiture, while challenging wider perceptions of women’s bodies in art. “I like the idea of the female or femme nude provoking a sense of humour, as opposed to just seriousness, beauty, or sensuality. Bodies, at the end of the day, are really funny things we play with and live with as friends at the best of times. Finding an element of humour, play, or fantasy in our bodies undermines the shame we’re told we must assign to them.”

Take a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of Self.

Follow Steph Wilson on Instagram for future instalments of this and future projects