"The camera becomes a play object between me, my lovers and my friends," says 23-year-old photographic artist Ellie English.
Ellie's work – explicit scenes depicting pure intimacy, intertwined with mundane and ordinary images of everyday existence; never staged, totally organic – provides some insight into one of the most guarded aspects of our society: sexual norms and values. By documenting herself drifting between lovers, Ellie attempts to scrutinise the connotations that we attach to sex and the value that individuals place on intimate encounters.
I met Ellie in the basement of the north London erotica bookshop where she works to sit down for a chat about her work.
VICE: Your photos range from intimacy to everyday existence to the benign. What does that mixture reflect?
Ellie English: The predominant themes that run throughout my work are non-monogamy, a personal relationship with BDSM and general sexuality that is outside society's dictated norms. For me, it’s incredibly important and powerful to talk about those things in the context of the everyday. It’s important to talk about it with the realisation that the people who live in this way are incredibly normal people. They have very normal lives. By including that very familiar, everyday stuff, I want to attach those up and down emotional journeys that we all go on during our relationships. You see these incredibly intimate moments, but there are also the moments of just being on your own, inside your own head. Reflecting.
What value do you think humans place on intimate encounters?
I think it completely differs for everyone. For me, the first thing that comes into my head is one-night stands. Some people see them as meaningless, right? For a lot of people they may well be, and I’ve definitely had meaningless one-night stands, too. But I've also had casual passing sexual encounters with someone, only once, and there was a bond; we really connected in some way. I’ve had some beautiful interactions with people that have been very short-lived – but they’re still really valuable to me.
What are the main things you’ve learned about human sexuality through shooting this work?
Well, I can only speak about that in terms of myself and the people I have surrounded myself with. I learned to let go of any shame, embrace sexuality, and that there is nothing damaging there. When I was younger I definitely thought: 'What the fuck's wrong with me?' having a desire to be dominated, to be hurt in some way, or to hurt others. Or feeling like you’re in a relationship with someone who you love very much, yet you’re finding other people attractive too. I was thinking: 'Is that really wrong?' I eventually learned to separate myself out from cultural norms of how we should have relationships. I found what’s OK for me.
Has this work changed your pre-conceived notions of human relationships?
I'm not sure if "changed" is the word to use, but it has made me think about relationships in so much more depth. In one of my first projects I did a series of self-portraits which were all about BDSM practices. At that time, I felt the work was incredibly important because it was very real, true and unspoken about. Now, even though I still think that truth is really important, and it still forms part of my work, I've started looking from a psychoanalytical perspective – considering where our sexuality comes from. It stems from childhood experiences and our relationship with our parents. I think it’s important to look into that to understand the way we have relationships as we become adults.
So, over the last year, I've been photographing my father, and more recently recording conversations with him. We've been discussing my childhood experiences, my relationship with him and how I think that's had an impact on the kind of relationships I have now. It's made me so interested in my own psychology and my own sexuality. It is incredible, right? That, as individual humans, we’re all moulded in a very particular way.
Why do you think humans have evolved to often shield their deepest desires?
There's still a lot of shame and embarrassment surrounding sex. I don’t know the history of why our cultures have put that in place. It’s interesting, though, because as humans we are incredibly sexual animals. You can speak one-on-one to people that you are close with and they’ll speak about their fantasies and desires, but when it comes to wider society there is often a shame attached to that.
Do you think society is changing in that respect?
Things are changing a hell of a lot in regard to the rights of trans people and the LGBT communities, for instance. But I still think that for anyone whose sexual interests and practices lay outside the very straight and narrow monogamy or vanilla sex ideals, there is this dictated social norm that they can’t relate to. People have access to the information now, though; if they’re interested they can educate themselves.
See more of Ellie's photos below, and even more of her (NSFW) work on her website.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.