Long gone are the days of legendary 90s Neoprint photo booths. Even in the tiny, whitewashed, claustrophobic space that they offered, they exuded a boxed sense of privacy when you stepped in, and posed your face off. It is a similar sense of comfortable privacy that you might have felt if you had stepped into a Red Thread photo booth alone, in 2019.
But unlike taking Neoprints, you would not have had to force your best smile. Instead, you were encouraged to take off your clothes, and to embrace the stories that your naked frames reveal, in a public space. The moles, scars and stretch marks, linked perhaps to sources of shame, anxiety, pride, joy: cathartic memory.
The Red Thread series began in 2018, conceived as a public space intervention in Singapore that responded to @rebeldaughters’ call to “fill up the public sphere, physical and virtual, with works of art done by female creatives…” for International Women’s Day. Along Desker Road and Rowell Road in Little India, nude images were posted in an attempt to “shift the gaze in the public space.”
In 2019, Red Thread was supported by The Substation’s SAD Bar Open Call, as part of its programme A Public Square. The captured photographs and stories were displayed at SAD Bar, with all submissions kept anonymous; and the public was invited to share and engage in body stories, in closed-door sessions over two nights.
For its third year, Red Thread is back as part of T:>Works’ Festival of Women N.O.W. to empower individuality and self-image, with a digital iteration called nudes.jpg. The work unfolds in three parts; an installation, exhibition and a sharing. Its creators, ila and Sonia Kwek invite you to be part of the virtual exhibition that showcases a growing archive of bodies and their personal and collective narratives. And in the process “create shared intimacies”, and start conversations framed by the lens of nudity.
“Sharing the secret parts of ourselves anonymously feels like a way we can find our way to each other, to see and connect, without being clouded by pressure and fear,” shares Ms Kwek, adding that it is also about creating moments for people to be with themselves and attentive to what might have been overlooked, “to have space to talk about what is often unspoken about… which is so personal but often so policed in society,” she says.
Adds ila: “I realised through these stories that it is ok to feel certain emotions, and it is not necessarily unhealthy, as how society deems it to be, and nudes.jpg is carving out that space for others to feel that way collectively.”
This isn’t exhibitionism
From a societal standpoint, nude imagery is largely perceived to serve the purpose of eroticism. And in some undesirable instances, they become objects of regret maliciously leaked as revenge porn. But as Ms Kwek and ila point out, the notion that nudity can only be found in highly sexualised contexts, or considered indecent and a societal nuisance, could not be further from the truth.
“In this day and age, ‘taking nudes’ is most commonly associated with taking a naked selfie to send to someone you are intimate with, via some form of digital messaging,” says Ms Kwek, who thinks there is a notion that nudes are “expressly for sending to someone else, for someone else to watch.”
She hopes that nudes.jpg would carve out an alternative space for intimacy, where “you take the nude for yourself to watch yourself.”
Adds ila: “Intimacy is personal, and society does not have much of a hand in how one practises it. By stigmatising, or even criminalising the naked body, society has indirectly made nudity uncomfortable for most of us.”
In fact, for ila and Ms Kwek, the reasons for first taking nudes of themselves had nothing to do with others.
“The experience was peculiar for me as I was framing my body, and looking at the different ways in which I can place myself in front of a camera,” shares ila, who first took nudes of herself to explore ways in which she could look closely at her body.
“Our bodies, naked or fully clothed, are central to how society views and categorises us in terms of gender, race and sexuality. We are all watching and seeing ourselves through the gaze of the other,” she adds.
Thanks to the rise of camera phones, Ms Kwek started taking naked photos of herself because she wanted to be beautiful. “When I was diagnosed with scoliosis, I was crushed with the feeling that I would forever be unbalanced, uneven, ugly,” she explains. “I wanted to change the way I was being seen. At first, I thought it was by others. But then I realised, it’s more for myself, for how I see me.”
In execution, Red Thread joins its contributors in celebrating all there is to acknowledge about one’s body in the now, gaining a sense of fluidity and freedom.
“It is not about confronting anything but to sit with my body and think about other ways of being,” says ila, who has struggled with body dysmorphia since she was a child. But she notes that she has started to see more of herself beyond the flesh, even if it does not mean that her dysmorphia is “cured”.
“It means that I am more conscious of other ways I can experience myself in my body beyond its physicality, and that is why I incorporate my body in my performances,” ila elaborates.
“Our bodies are literally changing all the time, and so can our attitudes and mindsets about our bodies,” Ms Kwek adds. “We are all on our own journeys.”
Empowering a journey for contributors
When looking at the website of nudes.jpg, which features some images from 2019’s Red Thread exhibition, one feels a sense of closeness and softness. And it very much mirrors the tone with which the exhibition treats its subject matter, allowing contributors to feel a sense of comfort with revealing more about themselves.
One note from a Red Thread submission in 2019 reads: “I’ve always hated my too-long neck with its untimely wrinkles… But the striations are kind of kinky and I do love a good choking.”
“The title [nudes.jpg] may suggest that it is only about the naked body or possibly genitalia, which is synonymous to how the body is being shared across the internet,” says ila. “But nudes.jpg invites the public to have full agency in how they want to share themselves and their most intimate parts, and put themselves out there as an act of empowerment.”
Another contributor, who prefers to be known as ‘kewl’, notes that they do not normally take nudes of themselves out of self-protection, “in case someone hacks into my phone.”
Besides, explains kewl: “Our bodies change all the time, and I don’t want to end up putting any particular version of my body up on a pedestal, and pining for it. Not documenting how my nude body looks helps me be more comfortable with how I have no control over how my body will shapeshift.”
Writes an anonymous contributor: “The booth in Red Thread was cosy and I didn’t feel the pressure of taking a good picture with the perfect angle… I didn’t obsess over how the photo looked.”
And in this lack of obsession lies the power to reclaim one’s nakedness.
“I was photographing a body part that I normally wouldn’t even want an intimate partner who sees me nude to focus on, let alone the general public,” shares kewl. “I was deliberately confronting the most vulnerable bits of myself, that I wouldn’t do so unprompted.”
Reframing the process of taking nudes
If you choose to submit a naked photo of yourself, you might enjoy the fact that there is no predefined agenda. You can take the time to revel in the process of getting up close and personal with a part of your body that you perhaps have a love-hate relationship with, whether it is your teeth, fingers, or earlobes, every fleshy part is welcome.
Anon says that what they enjoyed most about taking nudes for Red Thread was that it reframed the process “…as uncomplicated, hasty and really not that serious.”
Says Ms Kwek: “While we want to advocate for change in society, I feel what’s more important is for the individual to see that we can resist in our own small ways, even if larger society is not there with us yet.”
ila feels similarly, saying that while there is no way to change society, “small changes can be made in what is consumed and normalised as the ‘right way to look’. It is not easy because we are constantly bombarded by these normalised ideals, but… these are diversifying.”
But what would societal utopia look like?
Kewl shares a personal anecdote: “The first time my male body publicly wore a dress, most people were naturally surprised to see me in one… But the ‘surprised’ responses that I appreciated the most were the ones who nicely asked, ‘Oh, what prompted the dress wearing?’
“In that vein, my ideal society is one where people approach conversations of body image and self-empowerment with curiosity, rather than preconceived judgement. It’s OK to not know everything… Can we sit with those feelings of discomfort, and use them as a springboard to learn what makes other people tick differently from you?”
Consider photographing yourself and contribute to nudes.jpg, the digital third iteration from the Red Thread series by ila and Sonia Kwek.
To join ila, Ms Kwek and contributors to nudes.jpg in dialogue on 27 July at 7.30pm, register here.