Alexandra Leese took nude portraits over Zoom
Her NSFW new series travels from Hawaii to China via webcam.
“The project is about ourselves and our relationship with our bodies,” photographer Alexandra Leese says. “It’s about taking back control over how we perceive and love ourselves within a society that constantly tells us how to.”
Like many artists whose work depends on closeness to their subjects (look no further than her work for i-D) Alexandra was forced to grapple with new techniques to create a similar level of intimacy in lockdown. “At the very beginning of the initial lockdown I felt very overwhelmed about the state of the world, and so felt less inspired to create, as my mind wasn’t focused on doing so,” Alexandra says. “A few weeks in, I started to channel the anxiety into a project, and this is how this began.”
“At first it was a little odd, as it was a new experience for everyone, and you have this added barrier between you,” Alexandra says. “It’s also not the smoothest process, having to get the women to move the laptop or phone for me as I directed them; it relied on clear communication and understanding between us. However once we got into it, I found everyone got comfortable fairly quickly, and we focused on creating something special together.”
Yet without this newfound approach, the resulting book, Me + Mine, would never have been possible. Opening borders, the webcam gave Alexandra access to models and muses all over the world. “It was incredible to meet women from so many different cultures and bring it together into one project. I would say that I’m usually drawn to confident women, who seem to know themselves and what they are about through accepting, working on and overcoming their insecurities. I think this requires strength and they tend to give off this energy. It translates into how they hold themselves too.”
Me + Mine — designed by Eva Nazarova — comprises simply of nude portraits, shot on film via recordings of Zoom conversations. The book contains 44 women and one strong message: “This is me, and my body is mine, knowing that empowerment comes from within ourselves, while also finding strength in unity as we go on this journey alongside one another,” Alexandra says. “We have for a long time been taught to perform for the cis male gaze, to perceive and hold our bodies as if someone is looking. The purpose was to create a safe place for those involved, so they could be themselves, feel comfortable, beautiful and content.” The proceeds raised from its sale will go towards three organisations: Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, Black Trans Femme in the Arts Collective and the Trans Law Center.
“It’s been the year of introspection,” Alexandra adds, “which can be a difficult process, but it allowed me to gain a better sense of who I am and therefore what work I want to be creating.”
“This project entered my life around the same time I made the conscious decision to see myself for who I am and not how others perceive me. The perception of who I am has given and taken away a lot of things in my life. Before, I felt it was my duty to be versions of myself that would please others, living this way I was giving my power away. I realised that my body and soul could work together in a way that served me and not as forces always fighting against each other. This project allowed me to show up authentic and real.
I think it is important to embrace vulnerability and that is what I hope to evoke in this picture. At the end of the day we control how we see ourselves and how much of that we want to show to others. That's the beauty of being a multidimensional being. I hope that in the process of me embracing my authentic self I can encourage others to do the same.
Shooting on Zoom was an interesting experience. The connection through the screen felt more intimate than shoots I've done pre-COVID. Usually a photographer has the control when it comes to the picture composition and especially camera placement but since it was over Zoom it required Alex and I to work together so we could both create something we were both comfortable with, and honestly I love how all the photographs came out!”
“I love my photo. It makes me feel vulnerable, but in a way that balances simultaneous softness and strength, which is how I hope I look in it. Taking part in the project was an exercise in practising ownership over my own body. In the past, I’ve had traumatic experiences that took that ownership of my body away from me, and making the choice for myself to be photographed this way was liberating. Alex was the perfect person to experience it with -- when she asked me, it felt like fate.
To me, Me + Mine hopes to reconnect us to our bodies. It reminds us that they are ours, in a capitalist world that benefits from separating our bodies from our selves.”
“Originally, I was helping out Alexandra with casting folks in Brazil and taking part in a few virtual shoots as an interpreter. Being able to assist her and witnessing her creative flow, in these intimate spaces, with this diverse group of beautiful womxn, it was really a special experience! So, when she extended an invitation for me to pose for the project, I knew I'd be taking part in a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only experience this shoot with such an amazing artist, but for my portrait to be a piece of this phenomenal collection of work. Forty years from now, who wouldn't want to look back on a fire ass nude portrait of themselves in their twenties, shot by a poppin’ photographer like Alexandra Leese? Now, I did have to sit on this decision for a while, as I have serious reservations about my body and felt self conscious about posing nude. While contemplating what to do, I thought back on the shoots with the other womxn. One thing that resonated with me was the fact that each of the ladies had expressed body-conscious concerns prior to their shoot, however, during filming, each of them let their guard down after some time. It was like, being in this safe space, there was no judgment, only trust and good vibrations.
First impression of my portrait: ‘damn, I AM A BAD BITCH!’ I see my portrait and I recall the amazing feeling I embodied when I finally cut loose from my insecurities and posed fully nude, since I had originally desired to pose semi-nude. My portrait reminds me of the journey I underwent: from a young girl, a tomboy extremely self-conscious of the way she looked in comparison to more developed girls that received all the attention; to a young woman experiencing her first sexual encounters that were completely geared toward the male counterparts' pleasure and not her own; to the adult woman who now puts herself first and loves herself more each day but still has her doubts.”
“This is, quite simply, an exhale and inhale at the same time. I think back to moments when, in the dark of a room, the body you see in the picture would hide under her desk, naked in a ball, cold and in pain. In those same moments, the little girl inside me would watch on, scared to make a sound and not understanding, but quickly learning that her protective shield, her body, was disposable to those who claimed love. When the morning came, the acting would start: smile.
It took hearing unfiltered stories, learning the definition of gaslighting and a lot of looking in the mirror, for the little girl and her shield to start to fall in love as one. Finally, I am the only person who grants permission, over the perfectly imperfect body I am so proud to call mine.
Please believe that the you that no one sees is welcomed, heard and loved for every jiggle, mark and scar. I hope you see yourself in this series, whether that be in scars, the creases, the hair or the eyes. So when you look in the mirror next, or run your hands over your skin, you exhale any habitual abusive thoughts and inhale trust that you are never alone. Womxn are not to be shamed, we are not play-dough for others to mould, these are our bodies on a continuous journey that makes all our stories, past, present and future worth hearing. And finally, we'll smile when we want to.”
‘Me + Mine’ is available to pre-order at a limited 350-run at here. All profits will be donated to Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, Black Trans Femme in the Arts Collective, and the Trans Law Center.
All images courtesy Alexandra Leese