Warning: This post contains nudity and may not be suitable for work environments.
Photographer Anastasia Kuba grew up feeling beautiful. She had light eyes, blond hair and big breasts, attributes conventionally defined as such. From a young age, she was showered with attention. But Kuba still struggled intensely with self-esteem. "My self-worth was connected to my looks," the artist explained to The Huffington Post.
Kuba's self-identification as a beautiful woman shaped many of her life choices growing up. "There was nothing else I thought I had to offer. I was young -- I hadn't really established my identity yet, who I was." To support herself in her early 20s, after moving from Russia to the United States, Kuba worked as a topless dancer. It wasn't a defining moment in Kuba's life, but an affirmation of what she already felt -- that her value was affixed to her appearance.
A lot of contemporary feminist discussion focuses around ideas of empowerment and body positivity, propelling the belief that every woman, or more aptly every human being, is beautiful. Although Kuba doesn't disagree with the sentiment, for her, it misses the mark. "We usually talk about the body positivity movement by saying 'everyone tells us we’re not beautiful enough, but look at us, we are.' I was in a different boat. I was told I was beautiful, but that was kind of it."
Around the age of 25, something in Kuba changed. She shaved her head, stopped wearing makeup, tossed off her high heels -- in her own way, she stopped adhering to the norms of beauty that govern mainstream society. Kuba's photography shifted, as well. Previously Kuba had been focused on boudoir photography, capturing the sexual appeal of bodies. With her new work, Kuba wanted to focus on what it means to exist in a body. No over-arching theme or message. Just truth.
"Bodies tell stories and we are complicated creatures," Kuba said. "I wanted bodies to tell their complicated stories."
Kuba invited willing participants to pose for her work. She received responses from cis women, trans women, cis men, trans men, genderqueer individuals; all of various ages, sizes and backgrounds. Each of Kuba's sessions takes approximately three hours, in Kuba's mind, enough time for their guard to slip, their nerves to settle and their affectations to wear off. The first hour, Kuba only speaks with her subjects, no cameras. "I’m nervous, they’re nervous," she said.
Kuba recalled being shocked when a conventionally beautiful subject would open up about his or her body issues. "The first thing I would want to do is put a band-aid on it and say 'you're beautiful!' I had to learn to keep my mouth shut and just listen." Instead of trying to comfort her subjects, Kuba eventually learned to validate them in their discomfort. Yes, this is awkward, and that's the point.
Through her conversations, Kuba learned that although body positivity is important, it's not the only answer. Beauty is often more complex than physical attributes or empowered self-love. "What the body looks like has nothing to do with what the person feels like in the body," Kuba explained. "Our self-loathing is usually a consequence of trauma, not having control over the body at some point. You can look however you look and feel however you feel and those things are not linked. Someone can look at you and say ‘you’re so beautiful’ but it doesn’t matter. It’s about how safe you feel inside yourself."
After the initial conversation, Kuba's subject undresses, fully and completely. No makeup, no jewelry, no props. All images are captured in natural light. Basically, there is nowhere to hide. Consent is a crucial aspect of Kuba's mission, and she allows her subjects to end the process at any time. She also looks through the photos along with them, deleting any image the subjects aren't comfortable with. To completely relinquish any sense of authority, Kuba allows her subjects to photograph her naked in return, if they so choose.
"I want to capture [them] as they are in the moment, not presenting themselves in a certain way," Kuba added. "When a person starts performing, I call them out on it. I don’t want to focus on empowerment, I just want to photograph what’s in front of me. As raw as possible."
Kuba eventually noticed an unusual outcome of her images -- many of her subjects, in their unclothed state, resembled children. It's not quite what you'd expect from a nude photo, nor something Kuba was expecting, but there it was. "They look so innocent," she explained. "That’s when I realized the project was about the innocence of the body. After you take off all the makeup and all the clothes -- your presentation to the world -- you take all the social cues off and there’s just you."
"By the end of doing the shoot, I developed a much more kind relationship with my body and it’s presence," one subject, Neil, wrote following the shoot. "I felt more able to look in the mirror and not just see something merely sexual, inherently female, and private. Which were things that I’ve been associating with my body since puberty." More recently, her sitters also began reading poems, sans clothing. It started by chance, but Kuba hopes the ritual becomes a consistent element in her photography process.
See Isobel O'Hare read her poem "Dotted Line" below and see more Naked Poems here.
"Anastasia taught me an important aspect of magic for my endless journey. She told me, in fewer words, that to be raw is to become real. That's what the soul is. It is the thing that comes to life the moment you can smile at what you are without pretending. And if we can share that, then we might just finally figure out that we're all the same. And that we don't have to forget ourselves out of shame."
"As a child who was abused by his mother (due to postpartum depression) I've always had issues with body shame. One of my earliest memories is that of being whipped and crying as my mother threatened to push me out of the open door of our house naked.
When puberty struck, my shame grew so acute, I grew to hate my body. And the more I hated my body the more I hated my mother. After all, this thing came from her. All I could do was ignore it. I was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, two faces of the same monster, mutually exclusive. But in my case, the good doctor was better at repressing his monster and the monster fought back the only way it could: by self-destruction. I developed a host of infirmities. I was in a dead-end situation until I met Anastasia who is the most annoyingly positive body 'booster' I've ever met. She's made me feel a lot more comfortable with this slab of flesh my mind drags around and, lately, I've hated my mother less."
"I joined this project because I want to love myself and I know I'm on that general path. To me, self-love entails being comfortable in this bag of skin and bones that I have been decidedly uncomfortable in for the better part of 30 years. What might come from allowing yourself the ultimate vulnerability of having no protection, no makeup, no clothes, just you and documentation? The thought terrified me in such an exciting way, I knew it is something I had to pursue. I'm a sucker for life lessons. So I thought, 'I've done so much work, I really like myself these days. This will be a great and easy way to see myself, then get some beautiful photos after!'.... Not quite."
"Trauma is intimately connected to why I was drawn to Nothing But Light. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I struggle to discern what is and is not safe and kind to my body, carrying shame more than any other emotion when I do acknowledge its existence. Over the years, this body has learned responses to protect itself, but not before hips mistakenly gave access to hands that were not always safe, were told this body was not my own and it was something to be reveled in for others. Trauma fermented in my bones, creeped up and began to lock those hips tighter, squeezed this body tighter, and told me this is the only way to be safe. But I am my body now, I am skin untouched after seven years, and I deserve to be Open. Nothing But Light was a space to be and see my skin. Gently, patiently, and in respect."
“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."
"1) You’re a girl; 2) In order to be loved and survive as a girl, you have to be beautiful; 3) Oops, you’re ugly, well I guess you’d better learn to perform. And so I did, desperately. The desperate performance of pretty girlhood and later sexy womanhood is something I have perfected over 34 years, hating it all the way. A different way than by emulating the standard my body would never live up to. Sometimes, I performed so well that I would forget that I was simultaneously feminine-appearing and failing at feminine-appearance, for a few blessed hours, -- and then someone would take a picture of me and I would be reminded that by the standards of the message I received growing up, I was unloveable. And damned uncomfortable too. This is why, my entire life, the best way to destroy my spirit has always been to take a picture of me expecting 'pretty girl,' and force me to look back at it. No matter where I am, no matter how many loving people have been around me, no matter what I’ve been doing, pictures of me have always made my soul sink. Just the word “selfie” fills me with terror."
"I did this for two reasons: 1. I'll be the first to tell you that I am a Regal Ass Bitch, that I am vain, that I take great pride in the beauty of my black body. To be black and vain is revolutionary.
2. I hope other black girls see themselves reflected in my photos. I want them to know that they are beautiful, too."
"Looking at the pictures afterward, Anastasia was talking about noticing how in every photo shoot there is a moment when the person becomes a young child. We found my young child shots. Then there were somewhere I could see my age and my experiences in my face and the tiredness my heart was trying to run through though I don’t know if anyone else could really tell. It was just as tender and sweet to see. Like looking at my own baby who I was scared of but trying my best to love and care for."
"I knew this wasn't going to be a glamour shoot -- but part of the appeal was the challenge of communicating my femininity when the make-up, the padding, the clothes were all stripped away. But going through the photos all I could think was that my hair looked awful (it had frizzed that morning and I didn't have time to fix it), my skin without foundation looked red and blotchy, I had man-boobs instead of breasts, my belly was all-too-prominent. I looked fat and old and ugly -- and far too male."
"I have always separated myself from my body since childhood for emotional & physical sanity. Sexual, and verbal abuse & rejection due to racism as a child by people, and children I trusted, and by an authority figure. All directed to my body. No interest in my spirit or how it would affect me. I had to go through court room humiliation for it as a young child. Again I found my light, and separation of body and spirit necessary. Each time separating further. I was born with physical anomalies caused from environmental toxins my mother worked around while she picked tomatoes in The San Joaquin Valley, she was pregnant with me at the time. I grew up having surgeries while I was young, to fix my spine and pelvis. Born partial spinal bifada, linked to pesticides. A victim of environment? Contracted hepatitis C during one of my spinal surgeries because I needed a transfusion , which is what ultimately caused the liver cancer."