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“Self”, 2010Photography by Benjamin Fredrickson

Self portraiture, sex work and finding real beauty

A series of strikingly honest Polaroids capture a photographer’s interactions as a HIV+, queer male sex worker in America’s Midwest

For many years Benjamin Fredrickson has been documenting his life with photographs, but these are different to your general journal snaps or iPhone camera roll. As a former sex worker, Fredrickson has been capturing the interactions he has with sexual partners in his working and private life, as well as his community of gay men in the Midwest and New York. “I'm intrigued by the diversity in the nude male form and exploring intimacy and sexuality with an honest eye, without judgment,” the photographer says. Whilst the images can be brutally genuine, they are hauntingly unique and lay out the beauty in seeking out reality.

Fredrickson himself is an active participant in many of his images, becoming vulnerable in turn with his subjects – from having sex in a dungeon or perched on a corduroy sofa on the naked lap of a “john”. Exploring human instincts like sexuality, lust, danger and desire, the Polaroids offer honest depictions of his, and other men’s, sexual lives.

Ahead of his exhibition at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, we chat with Benjamin about exploring his sexuality, living with HIV and coming away from being an introvert.

Could you talk us through your photos, and tell us a little bit about some of the subjects in them?

Benjamin Fredrickson: The photographs are a unique collection of Polaroids documenting my years as a sex worker in the Midwest, my sex life and queer communities in both the Midwest and New York. The subjects primarily are of my clients, friends, lovers, strangers from the Internet and myself.

In "Self-portrait with Mike, 2009" I am sitting on a ‘john‘s’ lap. It was taken after I had tested positive for HIV and was looking to meet other positive guys. I met him on manhunt and he did not match his pictures when I showed up, which was great because I had all of my camera gear with me. He was high on meth when I got to his place so I agreed to only photograph him. With the photograph I wanted to explore the generational gap between us, and the choices we were making as sexually active HIV positive men. 

What made you initially pick up a camera start taking photos? 

Benjamin Fredrickson: For this project I was curious in exploring my sexuality and my queer community at that time in Minneapolis. So I began photographing my friends and guys that I would meet online for sex. As the project progressed and I got into sex work I wanted to document this unique time in my life.

“Sex work and living with HIV might not be the societal ‘norm’, but they are definitely relatable subjects for many people. I hope to capture the beauty of reality in my photographs” – Benjamin Fredrickson

A lot of your photos focus on the nude male form and sexuality, how would you describe them and what do you hope to capture in your images?

Benjamin Fredrickson: I'm intrigued by the diversity in the nude male form and exploring intimacy and sexuality with an honest eye, without judgment. I would describe the photographs as sexy ephemera. I hope to capture a shared experience that is relatable to a broader audience in terms of the emotions and dialogue that they create. Sex work and living with HIV might not be the societal "norm", but they are definitely relatable subjects for many people. I hope to capture the beauty of reality in my photographs.

You say you focus on subcultural taboos in your portraiture, why do you think these need to be explored? 

Benjamin Fredrickson: We can learn and grow from exploring subcultural taboos just the same as any other topic. I feel that they should be explored until they are no longer subcultural taboos. Breaking down stigmas and provoking dialogue through art is important to me. Being an HIV positive former sex worker makes you experience the world differently than being an HIV negative grocery store clerk, which I was at one time. We learn and grow when we challenge ourselves by confronting difficult topics instead of avoiding them.

How do you organise the shoots?

Benjamin Fredrickson: I am usually introduced to someone through a social media app. In Minneapolis I would usually travel to the subject’s home as that’s where they are usually most comfortable, which makes for a great shot. I love the challenge of space, especially now living in New York where space is so limited – bedrooms seem to have made the best studios so far for my personal work. It's a workout, but worth it because I always meet amazing people who inspire me to keep making photographs.

You are in a few of your photos, what are your objectives when you put yourself in front of the camera?

Benjamin Fredrickson: I've been shooting self-portraits consistently since picking up a camera for the first time as a teenager. The inclusion of self portraiture in the project makes sense to me as I view this collection as a visual diary. I've had a fascination in "seeing" what I looked like in these intimate moments shared with others. My objectives in choosing to include myself alone and with others in the work made sense because the photographs are of my personal journey and experiences. It’s not out of vanity – it's about pushing my personal limits, taking risks and exploring ideas. I was much more introverted before this project began.  

Benjamin Fredrickson’s exhibition is being shown alongside fellow photographer Scot Sothern at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York and will run from 8 January – 28 February 2015