Photographer Hester Scheurwater’s unflinching self-portraits raise much-needed questions about sex, the self and how social media controls us
Our ‘self’ is one of the most fascinating things that we have the privilege of exploring, and, arguably, the camera is the best tool in order to do so. While the #selfie might be an in-recent-years social media phenomenon, women have been pioneering the self-portrait for decades. Dutch artist Hester Scheurwater uses the medium of the image to challenge the role of the woman as mere sex object, through the use of props like mirrors – which she uses to juxtapose her inner monologue with her outer appearance.
“I have always felt the urge to stage the self, or myself,” she says. “By staging myself as a sex object, not in a way as seen by others but in a self-directed and a self-chosen pose, I shoot back at the way women are shown as sex objects in a fake way. I want to use a rawness and realness in the images by using my own body and ‘kinks’. Like Sacha Grey liked to say, ‘In our society, we use sex to sell everything’. Everything! We use it to sell sneakers, and microwave meals. It’s okay to show your tits, but it’s not okay to talk about what your ‘kinks’ are when you’re a woman.’ I try, almost obsessively, to comply with this image through self-portraiture. These fantasy images are reminiscent of desires, fears, temptation, seduction, violence and sex – self-images as sex objects, devoid of any commercial frills; knowing full well that I can never compete or live up to the image.”
Inspired by artists like Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Egon Schiele, Scheurwater explains, “From my early years I have always had a special interest and curiosity in work of artists using sexually loaded themes or artists working with self-portrait, but also by the pornographic poses and commercial images that surround us.”
On the question of what differentiates porn from art, she muses, “It’s a difficult question because everything can be art and as soon as a conceptual artist says porn is art, it is art. For me, the difference is that porn is made for sexual stimulation, and, from a commercial point of view, while art and in particular my art, is not. I am aware that the poses in my work have a strong connection to porn poses.”
“Facebook is all about looking and being looked at. You are given access to the lives of others and, in turn, you are encouraged to share details of your own private life. But it is also very much about what is permitted and what is not” – Hester Scheurwater
Using Facebook as a key platform, in 2009 she began to upload daily self-portraits of herself as ‘a sex object’, raising issues and concerns with the infiltration of social media in our lives. “It was an ongoing art project in the digital public space – the word selfie did not yet exist,” she reveals. “Facebook is all about looking and being looked at. You are given access to the lives of others and, in turn, you are encouraged to share details of your own private life. But it is also very much about what is permitted and what is not. You have to comply to standards of behaviour in order to remain part of the community. People present themselves in a way that’s socially acceptable – they stage themselves. In this sense, it gives the illusion of truth and openness while it involves a great deal of coercion and performance. And this was the very reason that I chose Facebook, I was publicising a set of overtly exhibitionistic self-portraits on a platform that was all about voyeurism and exhibitionism as forms of social control. By doing so, I was testing the boundaries of the new medium and its users. I wanted to explore the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic nature of the social media. Besides, I was interested in the issue of online social control. I find it very comparable to traditional forms of social control.”
Ultimately, through her work, Scheurwater wants to showcase the extent of a woman’s power, alongside herself as a woman of such power. “The questions of who is looking and how a woman has to present herself in order to be seen as one, has been a recurring issue in my work. In the self-portrait series, I was trying in an almost compulsive way to question the contemporary codes of femininity as we a see them in all sorts of advertisements. These codes define women as fake sex objects and link a woman’s identity with a male point of view of sexuality. I try to appropriate these clichés of the ‘sensual, seductive’ woman and flip them on their head. I take them in, chew them, and spit them out again. In that sense I hope my work can make people aware of the gender related issues about sexuality. Sex is the woman’s domain, we have to gain it back. I have difficulties with art criticism that deals with art made today using criteria and ways of looking from the past. Women artists working nowadays seem to keep on being judged on the basis of ideas that were popular in the 1970s, but that are now obsolete. It puts women in the role of the victims. The emphasis shouldn’t be put on women’s oppression but rather on their strength.”