Identity

The Photographer Fighting Against 'Body Positivity'

Tired of photographing subjects who are supposed to feel sexualized or empowered by nudity, Anastasia Kuba wants to capture the ambivalence, anxiety, and discomfort we feel about our bodies instead.

by Suzannah Weiss
Feb 17 2016, 7:10pm

All photos by Anastasia Kuba

The photographer Anastasia Kuba is an expert on nudity: Her portfolio includes the work she's done as a boudoir photographer since 2008 as well as the very popular portraits she shot for Woman Enough's viral "Bare" campaign, which promoted body positivity through nude photos of women of all shapes and sizes. But after awhile, Kuba got tired of photographing people who were supposed to be sexualized or empowered by their nudity; she wanted to see more of the ambivalence, anxiety, and discomfort with which most people approach their naked bodies. Her new, ongoing project, Nothing but Light, was created with this in mind: In a culture that equates women's nudity with liberation, her subjects' nakedness instead makes them vulnerable. And she captures people of all genders.

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As a former exotic dancer, Kuba is keenly aware of boundaries. Among several provisions to establish consent among participants—like "Only images that are approved by both the artist and the subject are published or displayed"—Nothing but Light has a couple of unique features. First, participants submit statements to go along with their portraits. The prompt is open-ended; one woman submitted poetry about getting her IUD removed, another wrote about why "to be black and vain is revolutionary," and one man recounted his relationship with a sex surrogate.

Second, to present the people she photographs as subjects rather than objects, Kuba allows them to photograph her naked as well. She also carefully negotiates every step of the process with them, including the photos' presence on her website; they can be taken down at any moment if the subjects so choose. We spoke with Kuba about the motivations behind her project, where body-positive initiatives fall short, and how consent can transform human interactions.

Anastasia photographed by her subject Hanna Quevado

BROADLY: How did you get the idea for Nothing but Light?
Anastasia Kuba: I was doing a lot of boudoir photography first and was slowly losing interest in that. [I was] moving toward something that is more authentic and also shows all aspects of a person—not just their sexuality, because being naked is so much more than that.

Why was it important for you to photograph nudes that weren't sexual?
A very specific photograph changed everything for me. I was 23, and I was staying in a hostel. I already had a pretty extensive portfolio of sexy young girls—fellow dancers—and there was this lady staying in the hostel with me. She was older, and she told me that if I was looking for older subjects, I could photograph her as well. We did this photo session on the Venice beach, and then this picture came out. I invited my friend, so there are two [people].

The difference between the photo and everything I had done before was so striking because the emotion was really real. I've wanted that ever since. It took me years to develop a method to create the space for the person I'm working with not to perform sexuality for me or to perform gender for me, but just to let me see them. People always want to perform in front of the camera.

When people come [to my studio], if there are jewelry pieces that are very important to them, I say, "You can keep them, but things for being pretty I'm asking you to take off." I ask people not to wear makeup.

A lot of people who are burlesque performers or sex workers, or who worked as models for many years, didn't have any problems being naked at all, but they had a lot of problems leaving off the glitter. The thing is not that they're naked—the thing is that they're not wearing anything. There are no layers on top of them

Some people consider clothing and makeup a way to express themselves, but it sounds like your project treats them as a way to hide.
It's a very interesting question. If you go on the website and you find this woman Joie, she's a trans woman, and when she came in, she had a very hard time with this. The nudity part and the revealing of the body were easy for her, but just to be there with no makeup and no accessories of femininity was very difficult for her.

When I work with a person, I work with them for three hours. Nobody can perform for three hours. I have stamina, and I will wear them out, and that's pretty much how I work. Every time I work with somebody, they say, "What do you want me to look like? How do you want me to be?" And I say, "Sit where you are and do whatever you want." I'm refusing to tell them what to do.

There is nothing to hide behind, so a person is folding and folding and folding, and I think that's why, almost every time, the person ends up looking like a child. They look like they are toddlers. I've been using the hashtag #TheBodyIsInnocent because when you strip it down, there's a little kid in every single human, and that is something I saw afterwards. That was not my initial idea. Whatever my initial idea was, my discovery was a child. I was like, "Everybody's just a baby."

It seems like consent was important every step along the way, which I found interesting because we rarely talk about consent in non-sexual contexts. Why did you choose to do it that way?
When I tell other photographers [about my process], they react like, "That is crazy. You cannot do that. You're just wasting your resources." Because I'm expending my resources and my money to do this, and when I photograph someone who then changes their mind, that's time that I didn't photograph someone else. People say, "No, don't use this." What people don't like is often the best picture in my eyes; they're vulnerable in [those pictures], and that's why they don't like them.

But I feel like that's the only way [this project would be] possible. If you always had that door open behind you and you knew you could walk away at any moment, would that change the way you were in the photo session?

Probably.
That's the whole reason for consent. I want you to engage on a completely different level. I don't want you to just come in and let me do things to you, and you sort your feelings out by yourself. When you give a person nothing to rebel against, they're forced to go deeper and deeper.

All the people whose photos are on the website right now woke up today and made the decision, again, to keep them up. And people are mean to [the subjects] sometimes—especially women who have weight on them. Nobody gets as much anger as women who are larger, and it's mostly [from] other women. When a person is exposing themselves and there are going to be mean trolls, I don't want to feel like I've harmed somebody. I want to be absolutely certain that the person has thought about this and that they have the agency to stop.

Because it's a consent project, a lot of people who came opened up about their sexual trauma and previous rapes and childhood sexual abuse. This is not something that I would want to take from someone. I only want it to be given to me at will. It's just crazy intimate. It is a body-positive project, but [in body positivity] there is this idea that people are going to be powerful and talk about power and embracing their bodies, but that's just one aspect of vulnerability.

Where have you seen that version of body positivity?
In 2014, I was a photographer for an international campaign called "Bare." It went viral. It was a body-positive campaign, and I left the project because I wasn't feeling aligned with it anymore.

People were coming in, and they'd been told to feel empowered. So I'm telling them how to feel, and I'm also photographing them being empowered, but what if that's not how they feel afterward? What if they're looking at the photos and, like Joie, feel terrified? Why do you have to be nude to be powerful?

I wanted to include all these other feelings. I wanted to include the anxiety. I wanted to include the grief. I didn't want to photograph a performance of power. I wanted to photograph everything, and I wanted to talk about it.

What do you think is the difference between a photograph that empowers someone and one that objectifies them?
The main thing for me was that the person consented—not before, not after, not one time, not unconditionally, but just continuously and openly, so the person had complete agency in this process. The other thing was, I had to have a face in [the photo]. I had to look them in the eye, because if there is no face, then that's just a body, and that's just anybody.

But I think only a subject can decide whether that's empowering for them. That's the difference between the porn actress who is empowered and the porn actress who is objectified by porn: how she feels about it. This is why the consent is open. I'm asking [the subjects] because they're the only ones who can tell me if their experience is empowering or if it's shitty.