The Instagram punks reclaiming the female body from the male gaze – one steamily surreal selfie at a time.
Taken from the 10th Birthday Issue of Wonderland.
Nadia Lee Cohen and Millicent Hailes met at college at the age of 15 and started taking photographs of each other. For Hailes, it was a way to realise the characters in her head and to guise herself as someone different, whilst for Cohen it was a reaction to the mundanity of everyday life. “Nadia Lee and I used to photograph each other in strange outfits, in weird places,” recalls Hailes. “It progressed from there to what it is now. We’re still wearing strange outfits in weird places, just 10 years on.”
These days their strange outfits range from leopard print triangle bikinis twinned with cowboy hats and logo t-shirts worn with soda-can headwear, to American flag print leotards and straight-up, full-frontal nudity. “I remember us having some sort of epiphany, flicking through someone’s holiday photos that looked as though they were downloaded from Photobucket and saying to each other, ‘these are so fucking boring’,” recalls Cohen. “As a response we took photos in any spare time we had; bearing in mind we had no idea what we were doing with a camera. We ended up with some horrendous images that probably rivalled those holiday photos. All that stuff is on a hard drive somewhere that I want buried with me when I die. We’ve got a bit better since then.”
Their work is provocative, energetic and empowering, served with a side of humour, often with a darker undercurrent. Think titillating nudity censored with emojis, fake blood dripping from bare breasts and erotic poses. “Myself and Millicent have always been quite weird in each other’s company, spurring each other on to always take things to a darker place,” says Cohen. “This could be a curse, but I see it as a blessing.” Both artists cite cinema as their main inspiration. “Specific movies that set the tone for the darker stuff I like now – Pink Flamingos, Kids, Gummo, Scorpio Rising, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, there are too many to list,” says Cohen, who’s also drawn to photographers like William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr and Nan Goldin who “create a strong narrative element from what should be a mundane image”. Meanwhile, Hailes loves the work of Larry Clark, Diane Arbus, and Helmut Newton (“for how he saw women”.)
When it comes to Instagram, both Cohen and Hailes have an account to get entirely lost in. Creating a sense of acid-trip alt-reality with their heightened aesthetic and hyper-sexualised imagery, the image-sharing app has become an extension of their work. “It’s allowed me to use myself as the subject perhaps more regularly than if it didn’t exist,” says Cohen. “A psychic porn star from Vegas summed it up once with, ‘Nadia Lee you’re a very sexual person but it’s all inside your head’. Life is too short to fade away in a drab outfit with an Instagram full of your dog or photographs of what you’ve inhaled that day. I’d much rather make people feel uneasy or offended than make them feel nothing at all or indifferent towards me or my work; at least then they’re feeling something… isn’t that what art is all about?” For Hailes, it helps people understand her work and the thought process behind it. “I feel really strongly that I live my work,” she says. “It’s really important to be the woman that I want to photograph too, so I don’t separate myself from my work that way.”
Of course, female nudity is commonly wrongly associated with the word “objectification”, one of the reasons that Cohen started her series 100 Naked Women. “Post-feminism is associated with women taking control of their own self-image rather than being objectified by men,” says Cohen. “This is something I strive to do with my images of myself as well as my work, often by injecting a touch of irony and humour to promote non-sexual images that carry a narrative.” Adds Hailes: “I’ve found my work on porn sites or porn tumblrs, they’ve been taken out of their original context and placed into another by somebody else. I guess my work and imagery means something different to different people, but I guess that if my images make me, and the women I’m photographing feel empowered and strong, then they’re doing their job. You can’t dictate how images will be received, you just have to shoot with the correct intentions. It’s always better to get a reaction than no reaction at all.”
Photographer: Millicent Hailes
Words: Brooke McCord