If death is the great equalizer then the humble restroom is surely not far behind: a place where no matter how much money you have in your pocket, you're never going to make a toilet flush any faster, your hands wash any quicker, or the reflection in the mirror any more or less appealing than it already is. New York based photographer Maxi Cohen certainly seems to think so, spending a career shooting these most egalitarian of spaces, from a Miami film festival in the 1970s to the racially divided discotheques of Zambia. "I was drawn to the camaraderie that happens in ladies rooms between women that are total strangers," she says of the project that took her halfway round the world and back. "Women often share the most intimate secrets with people they have never met in the ladies room." And, like an ear to a cubicle door, here they are.
When did you first start shooting ladies' rooms? Can you remember what it was about them that caught your attention?
In 1979 I was showing Joe and Maxi, my first documentary film about my relationship with my father at a film festival in Miami. I found the awards dinner really boring and so I went to the ladies room where I found these octogenarians fixing their eyelashes, tightening their corsets. I hung out with them and spent half the evening photographing in that ladies room. That was the start.
How do you choose your locations?
I simply just shoot where I pee. That is, I don't go out of my way to film. They are, in a sense, an autobiographical series following my trail of where I go. Of course, I don't film everywhere. The scene, the women, the architecture, the vibe all play a part in deciding when I pull out my camera.
Where in the world has the series taken you?
I used to call the series "Ladies Rooms Around the World (as far as I have gone)." I've shot in Ladies Rooms from the Australian outback to Zambia, Iguacu to Paris to Tel Aviv. From a samba school in Rio to the Atlantic City Bus Terminal in New Jersey.
What's been the most unusual place you've shot?
I shot in the ladies room at the Black and Blue Ball in NYC, a latex and leather-bound evening for the New York City Fetish Scene. I was very curious about this event so I went and found myself among men and women in full latex, ball and gag, chains and whips. Interestingly enough a lot of the women in the ladies room had extremely mundane jobs but exuberant and outlandish fantasy lives.
And what's the common thread between them all?
Well for one, they are all shot in ladies rooms. The entire series maintains the same style as the first photo taken. A head on, postcard-shot with me implicating myself in the moment of that private ritual.
Are there any particular moments that stand out?
When I was in a ladies room in Livingstone, Zambia I met a woman who told me I could be killed because I was white. She thought I might be a CIA operative. Eventually I learned that the woman had hoped to do a masters degree in the States under president Clinton but since Bush had taken office, she grew to hate Americans and had no contentions about killing white people. Then she revealed that she was a Member of Parliament and I asked her as an educated woman couldn't she discern good white people from bad white people. She simply said, "The Ku Klux Klan didn't discern." I told her she had a good point… anyway the conversation escalated and I ended up asking if she wanted me to send her films of how President Bush stole the election. It took a while to get her address but I did and sent her independently made films on the subject, which I believe she showed in Parliament. I feel as though I did a bit of ambassadorship while in that ladies room.
You often appear in the background, reflected in a mirror. Are the images part self-portraiture in that sense?
I never considered the images to be self-portraits. About 10 years ago, someone asked me if they were, which was a total surprise. I am in the shots because I did not want to separate myself from the people I was shooting. I did not feel comfortable objectifying subjects. I felt more comfortable if I implicated myself in these private moments. However being that the pictures are an oblique portrait of my life, I can completely understand them being considered self portraits.
Have ladies rooms changed over time or do they still offer the same thing?
Well they don't have the vending machines to get tampons anymore. Other than that, they basically have remained the same for the same function.
Is there anywhere in the world you'd still like to shoot?
I would love to shoot in Japan, all of Asia for that matter.
What do ladies' rooms represent to you?
While it fundamentally is simply a place to go to the bathroom, it has been for me, as well as for other women, a place one can escape to, whether to run from someone or figure out the next move, or gather one's thoughts. For some women however, the bathroom is the one safe space, a refuge from violence, a place of solitude in a crowded overbearing, hostile world. And for some, it's a wondrous haven of serendipitous communication between girlfriends or strangers where the unexpected can happen while beauty is enhanced.
Photography Maxi Cohen