"I thought, 'there's no way in fucking hell anyone's going to do this with me,'" said Vancouver photographer Jackie Dives.
Being naturally squeamish and five kinds of repressed, I didn't immediately love the idea of watching women menstruate. I was down with Rupi Kaur's protest against Instagram. I dug Petra Collins' psychedelic vag tees. But something about full-frontal free-bleeding seemed a little too "much" for my delicate twenty-something sensibilities.
It's a good thing Vancouver photographer Jackie Dives is a certified doula. She eased me into her collection of period portraits one at a time, reminded me to breathe, and made me feel like the whole experience was totally worth it. I came out the other end convinced everyone should air out their traumatic visions of couch stains and pregnancy tests, like, once a week at least.
VICE: You've made a short film about women's first periods. You've photographed home births. And this latest photo series is about women and their menstrual blood. Tell me about how this all started.
Jackie Dives: I started the period work because I had issues with periods, and it was super cathartic for me. Right up until I started doing this kind of work, I had some shame issues.... My own embarrassing story of when I got my period for the first time. Now I've just become known as the period girl. I literally have friends of mine texting me "Hey look at this period splotch on my bed, it's in the shape of a heart." I am that person now.
How does a text like that make you feel?
I love it. The reality is that even in our 30s, we make messes. There's no woman in the world that doesn't have a pair of underwear with some kind of mark on it. Nobody's figured out how to handle it, it's just something that happens all the time. I don't want to apologize for that anymore. Like why do women slip a tampon up their sleeve when they go to the bathroom at a restaurant? Why is it a secret?
Was there a specific moment that set you down the path to friendly neighbourhood "period girl"?
I was invited to [Unmentionables Film Festival in New York City], and at the festival two things happened: the first was that I was surrounded by women who were not afraid to talk about their period. It was like I found my people. Because that's the stuff I want to talk about.
And the second thing was at the cinema where we were all mingling. There was a photography exhibit and it was women's menstruation-type photography. At first I was like, "Holy shit, I've never seen anything like this before." But then there were a couple things about it that didn't sit right with me. I was trying to figure out what that was, and I found out while talking to the photographer.
I asked her, why are they in black and white? Because it's blood! Blood is red. To put it in black and white is really toning it down. And the other thing was, none of the women's faces were in the photos, and to me that wasn't eliminating the shame aspect. It was like these women were posing for the photos under the condition that their faces weren't shown.
I wanted to do my own interpretation. I wanted to do it the way I think it should be done and that meant colour, and faces. And I thought there's no way in fucking hell anyone's going to do this with me. [Laughs]. But I was wrong, which was nice.
So you meet with women who are on board with your vision. What transpires?
For the most part, I go to someone's house and they usually take off their clothes. They'll take out their diva cup or do whatever they usually do. I'm interested in conveying each woman's feeling or mood about their period in whatever way makes sense to them. It's hard to surprise me. I don't want the photos to be sexy or intense or crazy or whatever. Just like, "This is me and my blood." The point I'm trying to make is that's not gross. It's just OK.
Smell wasn't something we talked about a lot. Smell was present. I was very much aware of their menstrual smell. But on the other hand I've been to births so I've smelled all the smells ... I don't know if you know this but I actually volunteered for a non-profit that would send a photographer in when a woman lost her baby. I would take photos of the dead baby. That's the craziest shit I've ever done.
I can't even handle that. But why?
Well, why not? Let's say you're nine months pregnant, you make it to the hospital and for some reason your baby doesn't make it. You want something to remember them by. The nurses in the hospital know about the company, it's a non-profit, nobody gets paid, it's all volunteer. The nurses would suggest it to the couple.
Maybe you never look at it—maybe you have it in an envelope under your bed—but you know it's there. Sometimes we'd go in and take the pictures and never send them. They'll say, "Come in and take them, but we don't want to see until we're ready." And that could be years.
As an artist and a human, what do you take from an experience like that?
I felt like I was giving someone a huge gift. Because I'm emotionally capable of doing it, I thought it was amazing. Every time I went in to do one of those shoots it would refresh my memory about why I do the work I do. The circumstance was obviously terrible, but it was a way to do something good in that terrible circumstance.
Are bodies a theme in a lot of your photo work?
In a roundabout way, yes. It was never an intention, but obviously something that I'm drawn to. I've thought about it only because I've been asked, and I've come to the conclusion that it's about vulnerability.
You've mentioned your own first period experience being kind of shitty. Can you tell me about it?
I got my period when I was at summer camp, and I knew what it was because I just knew that stuff as a kid.
I'm at summer camp, I get my period and obviously I want to go home. The thing I don't necessarily want you to publish, because my mom will read this article, is she sends my stepdad to pick me up, which is mortifying in itself. Then she looked at me and said, "Aren't you a little young for this?" That made me feel really awful. I was 11, which is actually the average age.
[Editor's note: She's now fine with us publishing that anecdote]
That's heavy, but probably pretty common among kids new to the menstruation thing.
Yeah. Women get their periods and they don't know what's happening to them. There's women out there who have never seen a period before. I mean why would you have seen a period, right? There's no photos out there to look at.
I had a friend who wanted to do the period photos because her dad told her it was dirty when she was young and she needed to heal from that. She wanted to do the photos but couldn't bring herself to do them. But I think for the most part the women who have participated have done it because they feel strong. I don't know if they feel strong because they've overcome something or if periods were a good experience to begin with.
My bottom line on all of it is: this is it. It smells, it looks like this, it is all of these things—deal with it. I don't want to apologize for being smelly or dirty or gross because I'm female, because this is a thing that naturally happens to me.