I undress and fold my clothes aside. It is late April and I am now standing, bare-skinned, in the Templebar studio of photographer Dragana Jurisic. Outside a window, someone with a guitar is playing an English folksong and it’s all slightly surreal as I make my way towards the props – a mask, a battered chair, a piece of muslin cloth. For her latest project, entitled My Own Unknown, Dragana is working with 100 women, who have each volunteered for the role of ‘muse’, to explore what happens when the gaze upon the nude is a female gaze. As a muse-in-waiting, I have followed the project so far, feeling both more and less daunted by the way in which no two photographs are comparable; each woman’s nude pose is uniquely itself and mysterious.
Being looked at, in a safe space, and by a woman with such poetic sensitivity, is a rare experience for most. Often, looking this closely is not permissible. One piece of writing that deals explicitly with the perils of looking is Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Featuring the female-as-spectacle and male-as-spectator, it’s a cautionary tale of voyeurism, exhibition, concealment and desire. It connects the act of looking with consequence. “It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees”, warns Herod, but it is not wise to find a symbol of her, is – arguably – what he means. Of woman, and what might lurk within, we must beware.
As an eighties child, I caught the end of the old world before looking, as we knew it then, was transformed. I’m old enough to feel strange about looking at my house on Google-earth maps, old enough to feel not quite at ease looking inside the internet lives of others, old enough to feel daft looking into my own lens, over and over again, until it delivers the version of me I’m happy for others to see. I grew up in fields, and more than looking, I saw things – creatures, plants, treasures – not for how easily they could be shared, but for how private they could be kept. Also, contrary to how I do my looking today, these same things were found first, and named later.
In the world before looking became so virtually self-obsessed, I was (to some degree) protected from the gaze of others and protected from the gaze of myself. Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I properly saw an image of myself, which came in the form of a standard school photograph when I was about five years old. I had brown eyes, gapped teeth and a soft fluff of baby hair at my temples, and when I looked at that image I burst into tears. For no reason that I can pinpoint, I felt a deep dissatisfaction bordering on shame. Something about me was unacceptable, not good enough, ugly. Worse too than seeing me, was the fact of others gathered around to see also. A print was given to my grandmother, who settled it proudly on top of the TV and now each time I wanted to watch the cartoons I had to face myself. I have no explanation, as to how – at such a tender age – I had already developed such strong ideas about how I should or should not appear in a photograph.
“Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks” announces Herod who believes that he is being punished for gazing on Salome. Herod prefers to face his own masked self, than to risk all in the game of looking with others. But this effort to escape the game of looking is futile. All looking is governed by rules, and the mask that protects us from our own true face blocks us too from ever truly knowing ourselves. In the same way that we can never truly die in our own dreams, we can never see the face that is actually ours. We are destined, by the game, to remain a stranger to our own self.
Not long ago, at an old school-friend’s house, I paused in front of a framed photograph. Something about it seemed familiar. I looked for a while and then realised, all of a sudden, that the face in the picture was the face of me as a teenager. With so few photographs from this time, I’ve carried with me instead the memories of what I think I once looked like, and according to memory my teen self looks like this: dark, not unstylish, quietly self-possessed. Yet, horror of horrors, here I clearly was in a grainy photograph, sporting a skimpy outfit and electric blue eyeliner, pouting with the same mixture of vulnerability and aggression typical to any perfectly angled teen ‘selfie’ today. I don’t look self-possessed: I look coltish and awkward and like a kid playing the part of a grown-up in a 90s TV show.
Even as I strike a pose for Dragana, I am aware of a fundamental contradiction; I want to be naked, to be free, to be perceived as beautiful from the inside out, but deep down I am also afraid of allowing myself to be seen. As I perch on the arm of a chair and look into the lens, I am learning that a person can take off all their clothes and reveal nothing. Equally, a person can take off all their clothes and never be seen. In the artist’s studio, posing nude is to consent to the process of becoming a ghost. Being undressed is the easy bit, but to quote John Berger, “to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not seen for oneself”.
After the shoot, I sit at Dragana’s desk in my dressing gown and we discuss what I see when I look through the photographs. Together we must select just one for inclusion in the project. There is something alarming, at first, about seeing your own body on someone else’s screen. It jars with the expectation of how a body on a screen should appear. It’s a shock of sorts, and humbling. This new self shimmers with a painterly beauty, albeit one that belongs more to the photographer than to me. I look intently at one image in particular and search it for the evidence of my five-year old self. But she is gone, without a trace, disappeared. She is like a path completely covered over by a fresh snow. Slowly, and with expertise, Dragana draws my attention away from the self I have lost and back towards the image, the face, the eye. In that moment, I understand the words of Salome as she speaks to the severed head in the final scene – “the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death”.
Images from “My Own Unknown” are being exhibited at ArtBox in Dublin until 27 June and at FotoFever Paris in November 2015. In 2016, images will be shown at Wexford Arts Centre in January and in Oliver Sears Gallery for PhotoIreland Festival in July. More dates to follow. More information about Dragana’s work and exhibition dates can be found at www.draganajurisic.com
“My Own Unknown” http://www.draganajurisic.com/my-own-unknown/4587594312
Wexford Arts Centre http://www.wexfordartscentre.ie
Oliver Sears Gallery http://www.oliversearsgallery.com
Photo Ireland Festival http://photoireland.org