French-born photographer, Emma Gruner explores femininity and the male gaze with her radically sexualised, porn-influenced self-portraits. The Camberwell alumni’s photographs challenge the cultural mainstreaming of pornography and the consequential acceleration of hyper-sexualised online identities constructed via social networks and amateur platforms. Gruner depicts herself as both subject and object in an array of sexually suggestive scenarios, her image being consequently objectified to satisfy the ‘ideal spectator’- in this case the proposed heterosexual male.
Here we talk to Gruner about the cultural construction of idealised femininity, societal pressures to appear sexually attractive and active and the importance of retaining control.
TRIP: How does your work tackle concepts of female sexuality?
Emma Gruner: My work tackles concepts of female sexuality by showing a single subject continuously depicted in sexual ways. At first the images may not claim more than what is depicted on their surface: the aetheticised and objectified female form. The work develops following our understanding that it is the same subject presented several times, the protagonist being the artist and the conceptual mind behind the images. I guess it stresses the concept that the self is here sexualised and objectified for the camera and second-hand, to an audience.
TRIP: Do you think people are afraid of female sexuality?
Emma Gruner: Are they? No I don’t think they are afraid of it. But I think they do question a female who is sexually confident.
TRIP: You’ve said that women are obsessed with appearing sexually active online. Can you talk about that?
Emma Gruner: Yes, I feel women are obsessed with appearing sexually attractive and active.
The media are completely immersing us in a pool of soft porn, where hypersexualisation is normalised. It defines the cultural construction of idealised femininity, projecting to women the idea that the only identity on offer for them is one where they sexualise themselves to satisfy men. In parallel, social networks and amateur platforms have become central to the presentation of identities by allowing us to take control in the ways we want to represent ourselves. One reoccurring visible outcome within female self-portraiture is that a lot of women have very specific ways to present themselves to the camera and their audience. It seems that they have very much internalised the male gaze and no longer need to be told what to do. They simply act and promote themselves as sexual objects.
TRIP: What role do ‘selfies’ play in your work? How is this representative of how self-portraits are appropriated in aiding the progression of online identities?
Emma Gruner: Digital self-portraits and social media have drastically influenced my work.
The cyberspace, with the help of camera phones on the go, has multiplied ways of seeing and being seen, giving us the ability to build and develop online identities. These new technologies are increasingly part of the everyday, alongside the rise of the amateur and the public display of sexual imagery, impacting on established ideas about presenting the self. It has opened up possibilities for identity-performance, a space where identities are re-evaluated and constructed performatively and where subjectivity is rendered through the camera lens. In other words, selfies are a space for make-believe identities.
I’m interested in the interaction between the subject performing for the camera and making the resulting self-portraits visible to an audience.
TRIP: By being so personally present within the work you become both subject and object. How do you retain control? How important is it to retain control?
Emma Gruner: The foundation of my work is agency; how I have full control of the presentation and promotion of my image. I am performing and directing the action, having chosen to interact with the predictable and accessible visual language of sexual imagery. My camera is asserting control. But I guess once I make the work available, through my website, an exhibition, a publication or else, I lose control over the power of the images. They then evolve on their own, with or without an explanatory context. I believe this is when they become most significant, once facing an audience.
TRIP: When producing work that tackles concepts of sexuality; do you think the photographer’s gender matters?
Emma Gruner: I think we are now very much used to men photographing women for instance, whether it is in a sexual context or not. Most of the biggest names in fashion photography are male; I don’t think we really question what it means for a man to photograph a woman anymore.
In my case, the photographs appear to be directed to a male audience, but a female produces them. Do you think it means something or challenges any ideas?
I guess it stresses the idea of internalised male gaze I mentioned earlier, that I’m objectifying myself, responding to certain expectations from the mainstream heterosexual world that women have become obedient to.
TRIP: What types of reactions has your work received thus far?
Emma Gruner: Some people think I am brave to expose myself in such ways. I don’t think it is any braver than having a full body bikini shot on Facebook. A few of my friends simply ask me ‘why?’ I think they question why am I not exclusively showing ‘nice’ pictures of myself. They might also think it can be demeaning to put my naked self ‘all over’ the Internet. But I feel the intentions behind the work protect me from that. Even though it is about showing myself and revealing intimacy, I think that I'm pointing my finger to an existing phenomenon and using my body to interpret it.
Other than that, I have received pretty positive feedback following my degree show; people seem to be receptive to my imagery.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Sara B. Parker and Katie P. for their continuous support.