I love photography. Love seeing ‘people of colour’ captured in strong black and white images. Love fearless form and clarity in pictures. Love perfect composition, and seeing thinking outside of the box, photographically speaking, I mean.
I want to see dark-skinned people pictured using impeccable lighting—all shades, shadows and textures lifted in near 3D tone and quality—just as it was once said could never be achieved with black skin in photography. So when I was offered the chance to download and review an electronic copy of Herb Way’s book, Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, I was terribly excited.
I’ve never met Herb Way. I know little about him or his work, except what can be found on his Facebook profile. I therefore had no concept of what to expect from his first book of photographic images. But as I flipped through its pages, and read the personal statements accompanying each photograph, I was surprised by the number of women who spoke of their bodies in terms of ‘scars.’ They had been scarred by pregnancy, hormones, stress, diet or illness, many said, or they talked of a need for breast-reduction, as opposed to the normal breast-enlargement that figure so prominently in most male fantasies.
I was immediately drawn to these personal stories, and struck by how much the human body is still just a vessel. Here were women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and shades, revealing and revelling in their nudity for all the world to see. Whereas we are normally encouraged to think of naked female forms as purely sexual objects, particularly in this porn-obsessed Internet age, there was something very different going on here.
One woman spoke of how her scarring had been diminished by the still athletic parts of her body—which she liked, worked on and emphasised—whilst masking those areas that troubled her most. Another was unhappy with an extremely thin frame from childhood but masked her pain with a long synthetic wig that seemed to suggest other issues. Having both positive and negative body parts that were still considered part of each woman’s overall beauty was a recurring theme in many of the personal testimonies.
Among the male friends I showed this book, many commented on one or two images in particular. “Why were some of the good-looking model-types covered up,” when they at least should be used to being photographed or looked at, and presumably, more comfortable showing their flesh in public? I didn’t see it quite that way. It left me thinking about how difficult it must be for some models and ordinary women too in our society; constantly having people critiquing your body, your looks, in a way that most men are never subjected to and would never voluntarily undergo. Of course, men self-critique, but if our perception of self were based largely on our external appearance, most men I know, and certainly many of those in positions of power, would have no self-esteem at all.
With the women featured in this book, there was little direct discussion on how their body image may have been influenced by the men in their lives. These personal stories centred instead on structural, social or cultural influences, and the women’s own perceptions of themselves. Many cited the act of being photographed nude for this 144-page volume as part of their ongoing process of healing.
In this sense, Portraits of Eve has very little to do with the male gaze. For in our society where female nudity is most often about male pleasure, male power and the objectification of women, Herb Way’s book is a brave and enlightening departure from the norm. Yet ‘brave’ is perhaps the wrong word, but ’empowered,’ which is so much more useful for millions of ordinary women such as those featured here.
Also of note was how the various women self-identified: African American, Native American, Korean, Trinidadian/Italian, Filipino, Brazilian, and so on. My sincere thanks to Herb Way for an opportunity to appreciate the loving and wonderful work that has gone into the preparation of Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, and especially to the women themselves for making public the intimate and private photographic sessions that he has so tenderly recorded with them. Herb Way and his camera love real women, just like these women have grown to love themselves.
The self-published, 144-page book, Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, containing 120 photographs of semi-nude and nude images of sixty women will be available from September 2010. Production costs are being offset by sales of the e-book version and by advanced sales of the hard copy edition at a special pre-publication price.