Jen Davis is a Brooklyn based photographer who works primarily with self-portraits. Her work not only addresses the larger umbrella of beauty and body, but in a roundabout way, discusses how photography brings us to conclusions of our own appearance and desires. Jen invited us to her apartment/work space on a rainy, humid morning as she freely filled us in on her photographic work and some of her summer plans.
LISA: So, what do you have planned this summer?
JEN: I’ll be here June and July- I’m going to make some work. I want to do stuff about love, young love. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, yet.
LISA: Is this something you’ve been thinking about for a while or is it more spontaneous?
JEN: I’ve been thinking about it for a while but my thought of it was something completely different. It was about this expectation of love and an expectation of going to seeing someone and the lead up to it; the build up of it. I have some ideas, maybe a long distance kind of love. I thought of showing these moments of expectations of what it will be like when you’re together. I feel like everyone has had their heart broken, and knows what love is, and has their own expectations of love and it’s so universal.
LISA: How did you go about photographing strangers in I ask in Exchange?
JEN: There was something interesting about finding these men to photograph. It started when I was in between my second year of grad school and I didn’t want to be photographing myself anymore. I had to figure out a way of not being in front of the camera, and finding a way to not have to rely on just looking at myself, but finding my own ideas of desires. When I was doing so, I didn’t see the film, I had a bag of film. I’d find these guys and I’d just ask to take pictures of them, and there was something really great and fleeting about it.
I got back to school and developed the film and one of the pictures worked. This specific man had this gaze, as if he was projecting his sexuality onto my camera. If felt like there was a power associated with it –my camera allowed me to get him to let his guard down. It revealed his desire back to me. With self portraits, it’s all a performance. It’s a relationship between the camera, myself, and this other performative side of myself. So, I thought, “Can I do this with these men? Can I get them to give me desire back, based on how I approach them?”
The work was based on attraction- my attraction to these men. I wanted to see if they could give me something back. Photographing strangers is hard. The camera allowed me to go into this world I didn’t know. It allowed me to ask people to participate, and it even gave me attention I never considered before.
LISA: Do you have any particular muses?
JEN: Maybe this idea of an ex-boyfriend is now kind of driving the work. The “questioning of a relationship” is my muse. And the falseness of it- like the web-series guy.
LISA: How did your webcam series come up?
JEN: I was frustrated because I wasn’t making work. I met him at the same time I was in a show in Philadelphia and it was an accumulative show where you send in files over a period of time and each artists had a different type of camera. I had a webcam. I was taking picture of myself in my apartment and I hated them and couldn’t figure out what to do. I met this guy who lives in Canada and we emailed back and forth and he said he recognized me from my work. I asked if I could photograph him with through Skype. and I took some screen grabs. The project came about from making work through a new relationship over this webcam, and this virtual space facilitated the relationship. He agreed to do it. We would Skype every week. Everything for the camera is made up- my projection of what I wanted.
LISA: How did it end?
JEN: Well, after the show ended, I approached him to tell him that I would like to continue the project. He got busy, and the email exchange got less frequent, and when I asked him to continue he said he could not because he started a new relationship.
LISA: You recently had the lap-band surgery. Did this motivate you to make new work?
JEN: It’s really complicated. There was never an objective to the new work. I felt like I was normal. I lived in the world. I looked this way, this is what I knew, so this is who I was. I didn’t know what it was like to be in a different kind of body. I never really knew the larger version of myself.
It wasn’t until I was at this residency when we were digitizing my work to archive and print. I had been making 10 years worth of work at that point. I had scanned things before for the Internet, but when you’re going in and blowing them up that big, and looking at your body, everything changes. They way you see rolls, or a vein, or my chin. I was confronted now with myself and there were people around me talking about my body. Saying things like, “the highlights were blown out on my arm.” Not in a crude way. But there were pictures of me all over my studio and I couldn’t look at myself anymore. At that point I needed to make some changes. I didn’t want to wake up at 40 and be in the same body. Being in a dark room, literally being in a dark room- that changed me.
LISA: How has photography changed the way you see yourself?
JEN: Well, people ask if I see myself differently. And I’m kind of desensitized because I’ve seen myself in both ways. But then I see snapshots of myself and I think, “I was that big?” I was that size?” I always carry around this vision of myself at my largest, and I don’t know if there will every be a way of moving past that because it’s been my life. And even outside of the photo life, I’m now a part of society that I never knew. I can sit on the subway and not take up as much space and I don’t have to think about it any more.
LISA: What has your work taught you?
JEN: I’ve learned from the work that people identify with my photographs regardless of their shape and size. Instead, the work relates to them as an individual who questions their place within society. The work, ultimately is about our discomfort with our Self. I didn’t know how to look at myself objectively. It’s both relevant and irrelevant, but we all have to figure out what others expect of us and deal with those said expectations. We’re so image and power obsessed that it is hard to let your guard down to get to know someone, even yourself.
Be sure to visit Jen’s site and see her work here.