Miami-based artist Jillian Mayer introduces the nude selfie project she’s presenting in the 2014 Montreal Biennial. In exploring this global phenomenon, Mayer comments on information sharing, privacy, the manipulation of identity, and the body politics of revenge porn. View more of her nude selfies on Jillian’s 400 Nudes website.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Photos courtesy Jillian Mayer
CATHY BYRD: Today’s global access to mobile devices and the Internet has created the opportunity for a new “virtual rite of passage,” the nude selfie. But while young women take charge of how they photograph their bodies, they often lose control when they click send to share them. One Miami-based artist has immersed herself in this phenomenon. For more than a year, Jillian Mayer sifted through thousands of nude self-portraits on Google, Tumblr, and revenge porn sites. She photoshopped hundreds of the images she found, replacing the faces of the nude selfies with her own.
JILLIAN MAYER: I really wanted to find different types of women. I also wanted to find ones that weren’t necessarily ones that looked like they were mass marketed. The reason I’m interested in the selfie as opposed to a nude portrait of a female is because ideally or inherently, if it is a selfie, it was directed and executed by the person in the photo. Then, if it was accessible to me, it’s because that person sent it to someone else. It wasn’t a personal photo that was to remain on their cell phone. It was one that was meant to be shared. Most of the time, in my research, nude selfies were not intended to be mass distributed
CB: There is a certain age group reflected. You chose an age range.
JM: I chose anyone that looked over 18.
CB: You weren’t looking on adult friend sites. You were looking on mainstream Tumblr, Google. Were you looking on hidden sites or sites you have to subscribe to?
JM: No. I was going for public sites, especially revenge porn ones because those are the ones that are uploading pictures of females where they weren’t authorized. I recapture and reclaim the images of these girls.
CB: Scrolling through the images that Jillian shared with me, I realized there’s something really positive here. In their poses, these young women show what they love about their bodies. Therefore they control the male gaze when they snap a photo.
JM: I think it’s great that people document themselves. And, so many of the women in this batch, or the women that were most easy to find, have really beautiful bodies, and they’re all really different. That was exciting to see. I don’t want to use the word “objectify,” but they definitely center themselves as the main event in the photo. They are all taken with acknowledgment, yet after that is when the information kind of gets blurry.
CB: There’s no shortage of nude selfies on the Web. In fact, Jillian had over a million naked bodies to choose from.
JM: In this mass group of photos, it was really interesting to me because you can’t help but feel that some malice occurred. I’m not saying in every photo because there are lots of people and websites for contributors to upload their own selfies. But I have a feeling that a lot of these were somehow leaked or given away without authorization.
CB: In her search, one find was a nude selfie advice column for teens.
JM: These are tips that are made to protect young people and, particularly young girls. One of the top tips was: “Don’t include your face.” I thought, oh, okay, obviously that’s for there to be no identity with this naked body. But, then I thought, how funny is that! This post is giving these tips, and the first tip is to decapitate yourself, to remove your identity. It’s expecting that these pictures will come back in a bad way, in a way that you didn’t intend. It just kind of sent me off into thinking about what could be potential ways to control the information while still being exhibited.
CB: Jillian reflects on global concerns about information sharing and privacy.
JM: The network of information and identity is something that I really tune into with this work. Also, by placing my face upon each image, in a way I universalize the online naked, the nude selfie. Everyone is the same after a while. What I’m really interested in is the disruption of information even on such a minute level as one nude self-portrait.
CB: Is any one of these pictures actually you?
JM: Yes. There are a couple that are me, and then there are a couple that are me with distortions, so a photoshop manipulation of features.
CB: In fact, photoshopping is one way that Jillian envisions safely sharing intimacy online.
JM: If everyone could disrupt photos, is that the future of the online nude? If I wanted to share a photo of myself with someone, would the best and safest way to go about it be creating maybe ten images and where the proportions are distorted or I’ve taken different body parts from different people? It becomes a game of authenticity and identity confusion. I find that really interesting.
CB: Did you have a team with you for your photo shoots, or were you shooting selfies?
JM: I had a team of people helping. It’s really difficult to do a lot of my media projects on my own. I’m often dependent on many talented friends and professionals.
CB: Was your idea that it should look as much as possible like it did originally, or were you trying to make it look slightly off?
JM: They’re supposed to be as good as possible, but most of the time they’re not going to look perfect. Some of them are actually even quite bad, but they’re not supposed to be real. They’re supposed to be an image that was altered.
CB: When she goes public with her project, Jillian understands that she will likely compromise her future.
JM: For me now, my Google image results will be ruined. If someone was looking me up, perhaps, online or my Google image results, and they find a nude, perhaps that could jeopardize me from something. Now there would be a certain impression of me. It’s kind of like a scandal, right, that you have this photo online of your body. We all have a body. Yet, there’s a lot of shame that’s wrapped up into having your naked photos online.
CB: Jillian’s risky work seems just about perfect for the 2014 Montreal Biennial considering the citywide exhibition theme is l’avenir (in English, “what is to come”).
JM: My project is an experiment dealing with very timely and very contemporary issues. It’s a fluid project, and the outcome of it is not 100% trackable. I think that it’s reflective of how the Internet works. When I release this project, once it’s out of my hands, I have no control. We’re now constantly dealing with issues and having to come to conclusions on where we stand with privacy and information sharing. I guess this project fits into that category. I don’t want it to sound like a pessimistic project, but I think it just brings up a lot of these concerns of the future.
CB: Montreal’s contemporary art museum will display hundreds of Jillian’s 3×5 inch nude photo prints. At the museum, you’ll see that the artist has further exposed herself by leaving endless copies of the photo prints for you to take home.
JM: Viewers are allowed to take as many of these photographs with them as they like. For a lot of my projects, especially this one, it’s important to have a physical and a digital existence. To me, it becomes more real and more interesting, especially for the confusion of information, if there are different iterations of a project.
CB: There’s one more dimension in which it will appear, which would be websites, from what I understand. Where would I go to find these images online?
JM: Well, there will be a main site called 400Nudes.com that will host all the images with no information, but they will also be disseminated through various other websites. I’m going to upload them back to revenge porn sites. I’m going to post them on Tumblr in places where I initially found these images from because I think that they should exist in some capacity alongside the originals.
CB: Where do you see this project leading you?
JM: This project will probably mean that I never get a job where it matters if they Google image search me, because a lot of the pictures will start coming up in my Google image feed. That’s how I’ll know if it’s successful! I’m not sure where this project will lead me. I’ve been playing a lot with identity online throughout my artmaking, so I think it’s just another step into whatever I’m trying to figure out.