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Photography Stolenbesos

Stolenbesos: the photographer defining the ‘dissociative pout’ aesthetic

Dreamy, sterile and lifeless, the 23-year-old’s work is defining the look of a new lobotomy-chic generation

Chloe Cherry is all dolled up in a dank, disgusting bedroom. She stands in the centre of the frame, staring dead-eyed into the camera, her expression blank and detached. She cradles a pet rabbit and the cool, harsh flash turns its eyes bright red. Addison Rae, mouth open in a white Holy Trinity bikini, stands against a white wall. Face washed out by the flash, the picture is light and sterile. The post-ironic message of the bikini twists her feminine beauty into blasphemy.

The elusive, confusing, seductive world of post-ironic femininity has washed over Instagram feeds. With its trademarks of a pastel colour palette, a hard flash, a dead gaze and a cutesy atmosphere, the dreamy aesthetic forgoes perfect airbrushing and embraces girls dressing up to look pretty – and a little gross.

Leading this aesthetic and defining the look of a new generation is Maya, AKA Stolenbesos. In the seven months since she entered the field of photography, Maya’s lifeless yet soft visuals have been at the centre of the emerging lobotomy-chic/dissociative pout trend – her shoot with Cherry is generally considered the initial embodiment of the despondent, dissociative pout – and have turned her into a rising internet star.

Often featuring deadpan it-girls – Devon and Sydney Lee Carlson, Bella Hadid, Quenlin Blackwell, Rae and Cherry among them – dawned in ribbons and lace, Maya’s work is shot with cool-toned flash and framed in a pastel-and-black colour palette. It’s dreamy and soft, but it’s delivered with an edge. “I’ve always liked playing with the contrast, like models wearing ribbons and blonde curly wigs while crawling in the dirt – where she looks really clean and cute, but is doing something kind of gross,” Maya says.

Before she started creating her own images, Maya modelled for male photographers, an experience that has deeply informed her work. “I didn’t like the way they made me feel. I didn’t like the way they shot me, and I didn’t recognise myself in the photos they took of me. I never felt beautiful or empowered or soft or anything that felt like me,” she says. Dissatisfied with the male gaze and its skewed, sexualised lens, she picked up a camera herself and now shoots girls she can see herself in, whether it be their despondent, void expression or their delicate, cold depiction.

It’s these expressions that have led the media to coin the trend ‘lobotomy-chic,’ a term Maya is resistant to because of its pessimistic connotations. “I actually hate the idea that lobotomy-chic is nihilistic, because I think my work is optimistic and hopeful!” For her, the popularity of her style signifies a shift in how girls are allowed to exist within the photography world. Instead of being bland and sexy, female models can be autonomous, portraying themselves as they wish to be seen. Dazed spoke to Maya about her work, influences and defining a new wave of feminine aesthetics on social media.

How would you describe your creative process?

Maya: I don’t really think too much about it. I don’t even really prepare for shoots. I’m not the type of person who makes a moldboard, it’s just not really my style. Usually, when I’m shooting someone, it’ll just happen naturally. But my favourite shoots are when I’m with the model at their house, and we’re picking clothes from their closet, and we’re just playing. Because that’s kind of what shooting is – you’re just playing with each other.

How does the female gaze and feminine sexuality fit into your photography?

Maya: When I’m shooting a girl, I’m not thinking of her body. Even if she’s not wearing a lot of clothes, I’m not ever trying to highlight that. I don’t even like to shoot models’ faces a lot of the time. It could be her neck or the ribbons in her hair or the way the dress falls on her back or the back of her head – stuff like that. The goal is never to look sexy or even beautiful. The goal is to have the whole photo feel like something more than that. And if it happens to be sexy, that’s just a symptom of the girl. She just looks good, and she just happens to look sexy, but that’s not what I’m aiming to do. I think that’s what separates my work from a guy’s.

A lot of your photography has been retrospectively described as lobotomy-chic. Is this style of your work led by an artistic choice, or is it just a category you’ve fallen into?

Maya: It’s definitely a choice. At first, I felt snubbed by that title. I was like, ‘What the fuck? That’s it? That’s what my work has been reduced to? Lobotomy-chic?’ But then I read the Wikipedia page about it, I was like, ‘this is actually quite accurate’. These are just my selections, though, and they just happen to be the ones where the models look deadpan. 

Why select photos where the models look deadpan and almost lifeless?

Maya: I just see something in those faces that just feel like my own, and I like that. If a model looks deadpan, then you can project whatever you want onto her. I’m really drawn to that. And I think the deadpan look is just more interesting, because they’re not really trying at all. I hate shooting models who are trying to be something or become someone else. I just want them to be as they are. And I just like the way they look when they aren’t doing anything.

Lobotomy-chic is often characterised as a reflection of our generation’s nihilistic perspective of the world. Do you agree?

Maya: I actually hate the idea that lobotomy-chic is nihilistic because I think my work is optimistic and hopeful! I started shooting because I was tired of these photos being shot of me through the male gaze. And I feel like there's definitely been a trend of girls shooting themselves and their friends in a very similar style to how I shoot. And it’s cool to see girls shooting themselves instead of having these gross men shoot them. They seem pure and feminine and like they’re shooting for the right reasons, and not just so some guy can see a girl get half-naked. It’s really nice to see that. It’s optimistic.

Do you find that you bring a lot of yourself to your photography?

Maya: Yeah, definitely. Especially in my earlier works, the girls do look kind of lifeless, depressed and sullen. And that’s definitely how I felt at the time. I was so lost and confused, and I felt really alone. I always used to have models alone in a setting. I would never even have them interact with other people. I also only really shoot girls, because I can see myself in those models.

How would you describe the Stolenbesos gaze? 

Maya: I think my photography is hyperfeminine. When I think of my photos, I think of softness, ribbons, girls’ hair, the colour blue, night-time, low contrast, hard flash and girls just laying on the floor. I’ve always wanted my photos to feel dreamy, almost like a memory. My goal is to create a whole new world. And I do try to make all my photos feel otherworldly, where they look like they could be taken from a storybook or a screenshot from a movie.

What made you want to shoot through this gaze?

Maya: Before I started shooting photos, I had modelled for male photographers. But I didn’t like the way they made me feel. I didn’t like the way they shot me, and I didn’t recognise myself in the photos they took of me. I never felt beautiful or empowered or soft or anything that felt like me. I was dating this male photographer at the time, and I hated the way he was shooting girls my age. I felt like all he was doing was objectifying them. He’s making these girls look sexy, but they don’t even look good. What are they supposed to do with these photos? Who are these photos even for? And I felt that way about so many photographers I was seeing on my page. It just felt really bleak. So when I started shooting photos, I wanted to shoot girls in the sort of way that I wanted to be shot. I felt like nobody could capture me the way that I wanted.

What about your work do you find beautiful?

Maya: I think beauty is really felt between me and the subject when we’re shooting. I can feel that they feel really good, and I show them the photo, and they’re smiling, and I can tell that they love it. It’s a cool moment between us. So it’s really just something you feel. 

How can we bring more beauty into our world?

Maya: I think that requires a lot of openness from everybody. To experience more beauty, you have to let yourself experience it. Whether it’s through watching new movies, listening to new music, sharing moments with people, or just letting go of envy and competitiveness. Especially in the photography community, I think it takes a willingness to share.