Julia SH's photography dissects the nuances between nudity and sexuality.
This article contains adult content.
Growing up, Swedish photographer Julia SH was fascinated by the films of David Cronenberg, not just for their hallucinatory visuals and nihilistic perspectives, but for their depictions of the body. "Most of my favorite artists had a fascination with the human body in all its wonderful weirdness," she tells The Creators Project. While on a VFX shoot, SH met a model whose body, and the way she carried herself, was too fascinating to let go.
"She was amazing to work with, and very confident in the way she looked," SH continues. She approached the model, who remains unnamed, and "deliberately photographed her in poses where her face wasn’t shown to disorient the viewer a bit and attempt to halt them from making an immediate value judgment by comparing her to the way other people look." The result is her new photography series, +, which has the stated goal of "showing the beauty and value of the model’s body apart from any societal judgments about sexual attractiveness by portraying it like a sculpture and a work of art."
This mindset is what allows SH to separate sexual assumptions from her work. "I’m not so much interested in nudity per sé as I am in the textures and geometry that make our individual bodies unique," she says."Clothes are designed to conceal these things and force our bodies into a general “acceptable” shape, so I often prefer to shoot nude models." Pursuing this line of thought is different in the United States than in her homeland—her work is highly suggestive of the divide between European and American attitudes toward sex.
"I remember watching a foreign film with some American acquaintances, and there was a scene where an older guy with a bit of paunch got naked to take a shower, and their reaction was basically, 'ew! gross!'" She recounts. "I think this arises from the idea that we’re supposed to evaluate every naked body we see sexually. If I’d watched that scene with a group of Swedes, I highly doubt anyone would’ve cared or had any real reaction at all."
SH believes this is more than just a difference of opinion, but a problem to be solved. "From a Swedish immigrant’s perspective, in the U.S., it seems like nudity is almost always placed in a sexual context, which I think is incredibly harmful. It creates the idea that if you’re going to be naked, you’d better conform to a certain set of sexual standards, or you deserve to be held to scorn and ridicule."
She explains, "I’d like to see America move toward a more commonplace, pragmatic view of nudity."
She hopes work like her + series can help build that vision for America. If body image issues are primarily a media problem, then SH offers a media solution: "If you look at who we actually date and marry, it’s clear people are perfectly happy with a much wider array of body types than what we’re supposedly meant to prefer, but because in the U.S. we’re really only exposed to a single body type in the media that we’re told is the right one, we end up feeling worthless and miserable. The more we challenge this idea of a single acceptable way to look when naked, the more comfortable we’ll be able to feel in our own bodies."
SH's other works often present unconventional nudes in equally unconventional scenarios. Her Clusters series melds a group of women into something of a surreal sculpture—a narrative to be unpacked rather than an object to be sexualized. Back Attack mutates a man's naked body into a sci-fi creature that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Her one-off photo, Girl, imagines the real woman beneath the frame of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring, panties and all.
To that effect, most of SH's models are not used to being photographed nude, making their captured images more powerful. "I get a kick out of photographing women who may not realize how beautiful they are and then getting a very pleasant surprise." If she can convince these non-nude models to be comfortable with their naked bodies, why not the rest of America?
See more of Julia SH's work on her website.