Portraits of the People I Met On 'Alternative' Sex Websites
We spoke to British photographer Joshua T Gibbons about his latest project, "Sex Site".
(All photos by Joshua T Gibbons)
British photographer Joshua T Gibbons' latest work, "Sex Site", is a series exploring the shift towards an acceptance of "alternative" sexual lifestyles in Britain, and the part the internet has played. And that part, of course, is huge: until the advent of sites designed to link one rubber fetishist, say, with another, it was difficult for people to properly explore their sexual interests, isolated – as they were – from anyone else who felt the same.
For "Sex Site", Josh contacted people from a number of "alternative" sex websites and social media platforms, then visited them at home, took their portraits and, in some cases, gathered messages they had been sent through these sites. I had a chat with Josh about the project.
VICE: How did you choose who you wanted to feature in the project?
Joshua Gibbons: Initially it had a lot to do with, quite simply, who I could smooth talk into getting involved. I must have been surfing these platforms for six to nine months, building a database, I suppose – although that's a clinical way of putting it. I had to gain the trust of certain individuals and refine who I felt would be of interest to the project. That tended, in my opinion, to lean towards the 18 to 35 age group and those with more interesting backgrounds.
How did you approach the subject with potential participants? What kind of hurdles did you come across?
I was explicit in my intentions from the off. With these particular websites and the content of them, a lot of the people are incredibly guarded, and for a reason. I didn't want to feel like I was duping anyone. I was open about that, and sometimes the response would be mixed. Some people were like, "Great, I really support you doing that and I'd love to get involved," and others would be like, "I don't quite understand what you want to do. You want to come to my home and photograph me? Doing what?" I'd say I just wanted to photograph them doing some ironing, and they were like, "You weirdo! Why would you want to do that! I'll let you come over and photograph my wife taking ten loads on her face, but I'm not letting you photograph me doing something familiar." That was a hurdle at first, convincing people that I wasn't just some sort of weirdo. Although, maybe I am. Giving people the impression you were an interesting and relatively normal and trustworthy person has been 90 percent of the challenge.
Why did you choose to only photograph people with "alternative" sex lives?
I think we've all got what – I hate this term – but I think everyone has a "vanilla" sexual lifestyle. The websites I used for this project catered to "alternative" sexualities, although I don't like that term. They cater to what wider society terms as being alternative. I wasn't so much interested in what these people got up to; I got an impression of that quite early on. What I was more interested in covering was the familiarity of their lives, in that just because you like to go dogging doesn't mean you're any less a person. It's just something you want to do, and you enjoy.
Where are the messages alongside the photographs from?
Some of the messages are ones that I personally received. When I was sourcing these individuals I had set up profiles on these websites, and I was very explicit within my profile description what my purpose and role on the website was. One of the things you'll notice on most people's profiles on these sites is "before messaging me, please read my description", and a lot of people did not read mine. I got a lot of very sexually aggressive messages from men, and also some of those messages were sent to actual participants from other people.
Why did you choose to include the messages?
I wanted to show that, in many ways, there is this group of people exploiting these platforms. Some of these websites are full of what I could call takers, whereas others are much more community driven. Some people I spoke to were artistically driven and really nice people, but there is this underbelly of sexually aggressive behaviour. To be honest, that's predominately felt by women on the websites, and some of the messages they get call so much into question. I felt it was important to not just paint this subculture as this really pretty, really progressive thing. I also wanted to say that, as with everything in life, there's a load of cunts trying to use it.
Do the messages correspond with any of the photos?
The messages themselves don't directly link up to the stories of the individuals I've shot – they're just the slightly more explicit messages they themselves have received from other people on the websites. There were so many more I could have included. There are some in there that are about the process; there are a couple in there to do with my personal communication with people I wanted to photograph, and for whatever reason it didn't happen. I wanted the process of accessing people to be noticeable within the series.
Do you know what you're going to do with the work?
That's very much where I'm at now. I'm not a photographer who wants to go and make pretty coffee table books. I'm much more drawn to the idea of exhibiting it as a series. It's something I would like to take on tour throughout a few major cities in Europe as a British perspective piece. I feel like we're in an interesting period in this country with Brexit and our political situation. The rest of Europe is looking at us with this very suspicious and isolated view, so I would like this project to go out to the wider world. I want to show that we are not strange or isolated, but really I just wanted to show the humanity of this particular British subculture. My vision has always been for a touring exhibition of life-sized prints alongside the messages.