v-portrait, 5″x5″ watercolor on cotton, 2018.
The women who made v-portraits with me ranged in age from 19-60. They may, or may not, have been comfortable with their bodies, or familiar with their vaginas. There were no requirements in order to pose, other than to be over 18. I don’t know what their sexual orientation was, or whether they’d ever given birth, or had sexual intercourse—unless it came up in conversation, and if it did, I didn’t make a note of it.
I didn’t survey them on the way in, or ask them to review anything on the way out. I hoped they would feel comfortable. I didn’t think about much else. I prepared the space for the shoot, blacked out the windows with lawn garbage bags and set up the really-bright lights.
Most of the women and I met for the first time when they arrived at my door to make a v-portrait.
I never stopped being amazed by this.
Women were showing up and talking with me, making v-portraits, and responding to questionnaires about our vagina experiences. We were having the conversation.
All kinds of conversations you wouldn’t typically have with someone you hardly knew, or have at all, unfolded during the photo-sessions.
I didn’t record any of it. There were no questions that I needed to ask. I wasn’t studying anything. I just held the space, and we shot vagina portraits. It was breath-taking.
In my living room, I had a wall of close-up documentary-style photographs of vaginas, framed in 8"x10" document frames.
The everyday vagina in plain view.
It's not that I expect violence in every crowd, it's a habit of vigilance and guarding against that you build up over time. A little extra weight that you carry with you everywhere. You get used to it.
When I look at the vagina portraits, I see landscape. Human landscape. We are each a world.
I figured early on that it was a matter of gender, or religion, that kept the conversation just this side of hostile all that time, but I averted my eyes. I've seen that expression of disdain before, and I just didn't want to deal. I told myself it was temporary and not worth confronting.
For years, my apartment was vagina central. At about 30 v-portraits, I began exhibiting. I previewed vagina vérité® on its own, and as part of group shows. The exhibitions and events explored a range of themes relating to women’s bodies and how we feel about them and what that means for our quality of life.
Facing down rejection and exclusion from your field because you're a woman is something we do for each other. Until it's done. The progress we've made can disappear in a second...
Deciding to make a book of vagina portraits was one thing. It wasn’t until I went out and bought my first digital SLR (2.5 megapixels! which was a big deal in 2000) and some lights (that I still don’t understand) that I was, in fact, all in.
That took a month of vacillating between worrying about whether this was what I should be doing with my life, and whether I was actually capable of doing this thing, which so needed to be done, before I was ready. ish.
Actually making personal images like these was something else entirely. For one thing, there is no good way to ask a woman if you can make a portrait of her vagina.
This was a sensitive subject, and (it can’t be said often enough) a different set of experiences for each woman. The way I saw it, asking a woman to pose for a v-portrait came out like a dare. Are you cool enough to do this? The opposite of my intention with this work, which was to create a comfortable space where we could see ourselves for ourselves. Where we could see, and talk, and think for ourselves. This space didn’t exist. I’d have to create a forum for the conversation first. I took a step back and got to work on the website. If this was something women wanted to see, then the v-portraits would follow.
The original vaginaverite.com helped to create the space for vagina conversations. Along with my talking about it, endlessly. I didn’t ask anyone to pose. Bit by bit, we began making vagina portraits.