Photo by Anastasia Kuba. Used with permission.

Erica. Photo by Anastasia Kuba. Nothing But Light series. Used with permission.

Last year, internationally renowned photographer Anastasia Kuba launched “Nothing But Light,” a year-long photo project exploring boundaries, vulnerability, and consent, using a multitude of gender identities, body shapes, racial identities, and abilities.

Related: Nude Photo Series Examines Boundaries, Vulnerability, and Consent

The simple, honest photo series which just completed, was accompanied by stories written by the photo subjects.  Rather than focusing on the photos as I did when covering the debut of the project, the photographer and I have agreed that we should let these deeply authentic, beautifully written narratives shine on their own.

 

Erica
 

“When I heard about this project, I was very impressed with the concept and wanted to be a part of it. I used to be a nude / erotic alternative model and I had always found posing nude for artwork to be an empowering experience. Since that time however, a lot of bad things have happened.  I spent several years on the streets addicted to heroin and other drugs, and was raped and physically assaulted multiple times while homeless.  As a result, I am diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder, and major depression.

It is an everyday struggle to feel safe, and my sexuality in particular has been difficult to reclaim,  I thought this shoot might help me feel more comfortable with my naked body again. Unfortunately, right before I was supposed to leave for my shoot I started to have a panic attack and disassociate.

I felt like I was disappearing and felt completely fractured from my identity. I tried to calm down but was unable to get into the mindset necessary to go through with the shoot. Before having this panic attack I had been having a lot of doubt about my ability to go through with the shoot, but I felt guilty about wasting Anastasia’s time and resources, so I didn’t immediately cancel it.

The night before the shoot was scheduled, I took my clothes off and stood in front of my full length mirror. My heart sank as I peered at my own reflection, now alien to me, and felt intense cognitive dissonance at the changes that have occurred in my appearance over the past few years in contrast to the way I remember my body. As a result of abusing drugs, not taking care of myself or having access to medical care, suffering from malnutrition and simply getting older, my body had undergone a drastic transformation. My skin looked sallow and translucent from lack of exposure to the sun, my large breasts had lost some of their fullness and lift, scars crossed my arms and two dark purple puncture marks marred the skin to either side of my pubic mound displaying the spots where I had repeatedly injected heroin into my femoral vein after my other veins had collapsed. My face looked tired, bitter, and sad. Deep, dark circles lay underneath angry, untrusting eyes. My teeth were twisted, broken, and stained by cigarettes, chipped from a car accident, various fist fights, left that way by my lack of funds for cosmetic dental care.

It was like being punched in the stomach to see the terror and neglect I had visited upon my once beautiful body, as if I had tried my hardest to make my outsides match the way my insides felt. I wondered how I could possibly stand strong in front of a camera, in front of another woman near my age, I asked myself if I had any right to force my aesthetic depravity onto others through art. Even more than my shame at my physical deterioration, I felt dirty and weak, like the word RAPE was somehow visibly scrawled across my skin for all to see. In that moment I felt the terrible weight of my trauma pushing me to the ground. I felt the intense urge to run, to curl up into the fetal position, most of All to hide from view. I tried to talk myself out of it, to tell myself that it’s not as bad as I think it is. I asked my partner for advice and they told me I am beautiful and strong but I could not take their words in, the fear was just too much to take. As I attempted to regulate my breathing, to reign in my runaway anxiety the next morning, just minutes before the shoot, I decided that I could not go through with it.

Though I feel guilty and disappointed in myself for canceling on the project, the experience helped me realize that I still have a ways to go in my recovery, a ways to go before I find my strength and feel at home in my skin again. I need to listen to my instincts and not push myself too hard out of concern for other people because I will only be hurting myself. I think this is a beautiful project, and though I could not fully participate, I still learned something about myself and my own boundaries.”

Related: 7 Ways to Radically Love Yourself in 2016

 

 

Justin by Anastasia Kuba. Nothing But Light Series. Used with permission.

Justin by Anastasia Kuba. Nothing But Light Series. Used with permission.

Justin

Finding Me

“You can take him in the bathroom with you.” “Hurry and help him get dressed.”

“These two statements were directed at a friend of mine at the LAX Airport. I was the “him,” I was in a wheelchair being pushed by her. My friend was a girl who was a year younger than me. We were headed to Japan for our last vacation as undergrads. Sadly, I had become numb to statements like these.

Yet it was in Japan I received the statement that damaged me the most: a woman asked me if my friend and I were dating. I was no longer a “him,” I was me–a man who could be desirable. For once I was seen by a stranger as a viable boyfriend. Throughout our time in Japan, I was treated as a regular, competent adult. In the Tokyo airport returning home, I was referred to as “sir” and always spoken to directly. As soon as we landed back in the US, however, I reverted to a “him” again.“Hurry and get him dressed.” I started to tear up. I wanted to be me, not “him.” I wanted to be someone’s boyfriend, someone that could be desirable.

Japan gave me perspective on how I viewed myself versus how others viewed me. I wanted a girlfriend, to be loved and to be desired. Every time someone couldn’t understand me because of my mild speech impairment, or talked to me indirectly or as if I was less, I would see it as a direct reflection of my “dateability.” I would never blame the other person for the treatment. Over time, I started to view myself as “him.” Soon I viewed myself as undateable or undesirable. I was in a very depressed state after Japan.  I wished the experience hadn’t happened and had not caused me to so readily associate my “dateability” with how I was being treated.

A year after my trip, a friend and I went to a screening of The Sessions, a film about a man with a disability seeing a surrogate partner to lose his virginity. Long before seeing the movie, I had already been looking into how I could “lose my virginity,” though for me, it wasn’t about the sex. It was about wanting the feeling to be desired, I wanted to be touched, to be naked with someone, to be someone’s equal. After being mistreated by the dancers at a strip club and almost being thrown out by the bouncer who assumed my disability was really drunkenness or drugs, I started looking more at non-socialized, illegal avenues like prostitution. Given the illegality and uncertainty of it all, as well as the way I personally viewed sex and love, I had my reservations, but I saw it as the only viable option to see myself as me again.  All I wanted was to be seen as me for who I was: an adult male with sexual desires. The Sessions introduced me to surrogate partner therapy, a legal therapy consisting of a talk therapist, surrogate, and client working together. About a year and a half later, with my own stubborn conviction, I was on a plane by myself on my way to San Francisco to go through a 10 day intensive surrogate partner program. This program was an hour a day with a sex therapist and three hours a day with a certified surrogate partner. The therapy was about self-image, and while sex was a possibility, it was certainly not a guarantee.

Related: How Able-Bodied Folk Can Make Their Disabled Partner Comfortable During Sex

On the first day I met with the therapist and the surrogate together. The therapist left us alone, and we went to get brunch to get to know each other. Before I knew it, she walked me back to my hotel and left and the first day was over. I remember feeling the urge to kiss her without quite knowing why, other than because I knew it was possible to be affectionate towards someone for the first time in my life. We kissed on the third day. Every day we would go on our coffee dates and then return to my hotel where we did exercises to get us comfortable with each other’s bodies and to get me comfortable with my own body. Walking to the coffee shop one day I accidentally bumped her with my walker. I apologized and she replied, “It’s okay. I wanted to be closer to you, anyway.” In that moment, my walker turned from something I had always felt alienated by into something I saw as beneficial for my independence. Some days afterwards, we saw a girl holding hands with a guy in a wheelchair, and I exclaimed how awesome it was to see a couple like that. She said, “What about us, Justin?” “Good point,” I replied. I was smiling ear to ear, realizing I had finally done it: I was someone who was on a date. It was on the seventh day when we had sex. She instructed me on how to put on a condom and handed it to me. Within five seconds of my fumbling, she did it herself, either because she was eager or because she quickly understood that I needed help. Whatever the reason, it showed me that whoever I end up in a relationship with won’t care what I can or can’t do. They will love me for me. With the intensive program over, I came to the realization that I had just had my first relationship with a girl, an experience that no one can take away from me. I was someone who was desired, someone who was dateable. It was the best decision I have ever made. I was me again.”

Isobel by Anastasia Kuba. Nothing But Light Series. Used with permission.

Isobel by Anastasia Kuba. Nothing But Light Series. Used with permission.

Isobel

“When the shoot was over and we started to look at the photos, I commented on the first one, “I like this. It’s a quiet photo.” Anastasia replied, “All of your photos are quiet photos. You’re a quiet person.” Sometimes I forget that I am a quiet person. There is so much noise inside my head most of the time. I have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that is referred to as “Pure O,” or purely obsessive, and I am constantly counting to myself.

Syllables. Beats to music. Anything that can be quantified is processed by the eternal machine that runs silently inside me. This, coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder that fills my brain with so much fear and anger so much of the time, makes for a chaotic body in which to live. I have spent so much of the past year being so angry about and fearful of so many things, and then I got sick and had to slow down in order to better take care of myself.

During this time I have been reminded that this quiet and calm would have been my baseline if certain things hadn’t happened to me, or if I hadn’t been born with this brain. All my life I have felt at war with the person I am. There is a constant tension between who I want to be, who I felt I was meant to be, and who I am, who I can be. The ideal versus the possible. Sitting for Anastasia reminded me that this war is waged entirely in my own head. I make myself more complicated than I need to be. More complicated than I am. Much is said these days of the empowering quality of the selfie, but I find more power in the act of relinquishing control over my image and allowing myself to be seen how others see me. When taking a selfie, I control every little movement my face makes. I set the lighting. I choose the filter. If I find a photo unflattering, I can delete it and forget I ever looked that way.

In Anastasia’s studio, I had no control. We spent two hours before the shoot talking about our personal lives, dating mishaps, and sexual histories. We fell easily into topics during our first meeting that many people do not broach until they have been good friends for quite some time. Because it was so easy to open up with Anastasia, I found myself relaxing in a way that I can only do when I am with my closest friends, or when I am alone. I was allowed to unfurl, and the resulting photos gave me a strange and welcome glimpse into the Isobel that other people see, rather than the one I allow them to see. In some of these photos I have tummy rolls. In some of these photos I have a grin that overtakes my face. In some of these photos I look “exhausted by life,” as Anastasia put it.

In all of these photos there is an appliance strapped to my left thigh that allows me to continue living as a healthy person, but in none of them does this appliance define the shot or me as its subject. In all of these photos, I get a deeper glimpse into my own vulnerability, power, and depth than any mirror reflection or selfie could ever offer. In all of these photos I feel beautifully imperfect and human, inhabiting my own little space in a menagerie of fleshy beings. Nothing too special or too mundane. I like this space. It’s a quiet space.”

If you would like to read more stories and see more images, please visit Anastasia Kuba’s Nothing But Light series here.  The series may officially be completed, but Kuba is always taking new clients.

 

Comments