the line between female objectification and liberation on instagram
Millicent Hailes and Nadia Lee Cohen bare all for i-D.
With 2014 voted the year of Instagram, now that it's 2015 we're starting to feel its cultural effects. Today's posts quickly become tomorrow's proverbial fish and chip paper and the need to consume is consuming us. Anyone with a smartphone can become an artist but this art is interspersed with so many holiday pictures and so much cock-teasing titillation that we can barely distinguish one from the other. It really comes down to something Andy Warhol said: "If you're not trying to be real, you don't have to get it right. That's art." And now everybody's faking it to make it. But when the ball's in your court there's nothing to stop you scoring and likewise Instagram provides a platform for art and self-expression which is totally unrivalled.
Knowing someone personally and then experiencing them through the filters of Instagram is both weird and refreshing. This was my experience when I first started following Millicent Hailes. My view of blunt, straight-talking tomboy-esque Millicent became aquainted with the fabulously dark and seductive girl you can see on your screen. Peppered with humour, her pictures are those of a girl who doesn't give a shit, but nevertheless would prefer to be liked. Best friend and collaborator, Nadia Lee Cohen, exhibits herself with similar tone and taste, using wigs and costumes to create an alternative reality where women rule and men rarely feature; there's also lots of tits; censored, or adorned, with hearts or emojis, giving the images a tongue-in-cheek appeal. Lee's professional work is theatrically staged with the trashy-luxe humour of American culture, whereas Hailes works with the playful, overexposed spontaneity of Juergen Teller or Terry Richardson. Despite their distinctive styles, their Instagram accounts look collaborated, merging into a third set.
The eroticism of these images has led to much discussion, not all of it positive. At a time when women are freeing the nipple (#freethenipple) and penises are making a debut on the catwalk it's surprising how nudity and overt sexuality can still hold offence for many people. Not that this has put Lee or Hailes off publicising their pictures; this is their way to connect to their audience and communicate the ideas and intention behind their work. As Hailes points out "I like to see who's behind the camera - I think it's really powerful," and their followers clearly do too. The conviction to 'live' their work is also a fundamental motivation behind their regular posts. "You've got to take a picture of yourself undressed too or who's going to trust you to take theirs? It's just not credible" explains Hailes. The notion of sisterhood is firm in their minds. If getting naked or acting provocatively is good enough for their models then it's good enough for them, it comes down to respecting the people they photograph and respecting the work that they make enough to be in it.
But why expose yourself on a public platform? Well, perhaps because in this narcissistic era where everybody is using social media for recognition, feedback and attention, this is the only real way to reach people. As the age old phrase goes, 'if you can't beat them, join them'. Hailes and Lee have not shied away from doing so; they're using Instagram their way and they've totally owned it. I asked both artists what differentiates their explicit photographs from those of a Page 3 girl, porn star or any girl who sees nudity as a way to get fame, money or validation. Unoffended by the comparison they explained that the intention behind the work, alongside their taste, education and the context within which they present it, is what makes the difference. Lee is familiar with being photographed in varying stages of undress and the experience of being photographed naked is something that comes recommended by her: "I'm not always completely confident, seeing myself in a strong photograph is a good feeling. I want the women I photograph to have that same experience. When there's an image of yourself that looks beautiful, you look at it and you think 'well that's me' even if you don't always feel great."
It's this element of fantasy and wish fulfilment that is the benchmark of Instagram. 'Who am I?' has been replaced by 'How do I appear?', but strangely how you appear slowly begins to tie back in to who you are. To quote Warhol again; "I know a girl who just looks at her face in the medicine cabinet mirror and never looks below her shoulders, and she's four or five hundred pounds but she doesn't see all that, she just sees a beautiful face and therefore she thinks she's a beauty. And therefore, I think she's a beauty, too, because I usually accept people on the basis of their self-images, because their self-images have more to do with the way they think than their objective-images do."
The philosophy of your behaviour shaping who you are is also beautifully outlined by Amy Cuddy in her 2012 TED talk. The theory goes that people who act confident, become confident. Self-worth comes from self-belief, and equally if you look good, you feel good. By presenting themselves in this way to the world, Lee and Hailes are exploring the erotic and bold sides of their nature. This curated view of themselves actually gives them confidence and sex appeal, which permeates their day-to-day lives.
Whether it is interpreted as soft porn or art, their photographs are taken by women, for women, and it is women who are responding to it en masse. If men like it too and are turned on that's cool, but for Hailes and Lee it's really about owning their bodies and their sexuality in a commanding way. "It's important to remain powerful with it - We'd never post a picture that we feel looks weak". There are plenty of people who might argue that these images merely contribute to the objectification of women, however, both girls believe that if it makes them, and the women they are photographing, feel empowered, then it's doing its job: "As long as our intentions are there to empower women and create strong imagery then that's what's important to us. You can't dictate how those images are received." By not taking it too seriously and just worrying about those directly involved, Lee and Hailes have produced a colourful, suggestive, playful and captivating body of work. Whether you're captivated because it turns you on or because they make good art is really no-one's business but your own.
Text Lily Bonesso