Provoking, reflective and striking, Bex Day’s new photographic series PETAL is truly something to behold. Challenging the status quo and patriarchal expectations, the collection is intimate yet elusive, with the images being shown as a solo exhibition at Have A Butchers from 14th September to 6th October, with Day also releasing a book of the images on 26th September – pre-order here.
We spoke to Day about the new exhibition, the thought and meaning behind the photographic series, how it compares to her previous work, and what’s next for the creative.
Hi Bex, how is life treating you currently? What does a day in the life look like for you at the moment?
Hello! It’s treating me well thank you! It is variable day to day depending on the jobs I’m on, but usually goes something like this: 7am wake up, meditation, yoga, dog walk, breakfast and then head into the studio. Very busy at the moment prepping for the show and an exciting Christmas campaign I can’t wait to share with you soon.
Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind your latest photographic series, PETAL, and what led you to focus on celebrating the vulva?
As my work focuses predominantly on challenging rigid beauty ideals, it felt like a natural progression to celebrate all types of vulva in my first photography book and solo show. I wanted to redefine how womxn and non-binary people are often misfed information by the patriarchy in mainstream media and porn to believe that their vulvas are warped in some way and ‘not good enough’.
Over the three years I worked on PETAL, I came to understand to what the extent the feelings of shame and insecurity about our bodies came from external influences – i.e. unnatural sources. It was important for me to capture the everyday experiences of those with a vulva as well as the rich history they shared with their bodies and how they felt about it, as well as understanding my own. Connecting with the subjects of the book helped me to grasp just how wide and deep the damaging roots of these narratives affect our daily lives ranging from not fully understanding how our bodies function or even what to call all of the parts. And also helped me to see the beauty, power and strength of the vulva too – something I hope my viewers will feel also.
PETAL also serves as a tribute to my journey of repairing my relationship with my mother. The book is dedicated to her, and during my childhood, she affectionately called me ‘petal’.
PETAL features a diverse range of models. How did you go about selecting your subjects, and what significance do the chosen flowers or petals hold for each individual?
I started with my own vulva, what better way to begin a project and truly see and accept yourself than by photographing your own. I found photographing my vulva easier than looking at it in the mirror as you can see a lot more from certain angles. Then I moved onto my mother’s vulva (the project began in lockdown so I was limited and living at home then), friends (not many friends wanted to cross this boundary with me), then friends of friends, sex groups, porn stars, mothers, life drawing groups etc.
It was important to me that at every stage of the project the subject felt empowered. Which is whythe featured individuals chose the shape, colour, and size of each petal/flower, symbolising their unique perspective/journey with and of their own vulva. Flowers have held significant symbolism in relation to vulvas for centuries. It was important to me that the chosen flower held a personal significance in each subject’s journey and feelings about their vulva in this way too.
One of the central themes to the project revolved around discussions surrounding censorship. Specifically, I aimed to explore how those with vulvas are often taught, starting in childhood, to use euphemistic terms like ‘flower’ or ‘foo foo’ to describe their vaginas. I examined the potential harm this can cause, especially in terms of understanding our bodies and addressing issues like gender-based violence. This censorship can persist into adulthood, leading to diminutive names like ‘pussy,’ ‘cunt,’ and ‘gash’. The use of flowers in this way is meant to be both tongue-in-cheek, while addressing the gravity of misconceiving our own bodies and our power.
In PETAL, you combine intimate photography with personal written accounts from the subjects. How did these narratives enhance the project, and what do you hope viewers will take away from them?
The pieces of writing are as important as the photographs as they almost add a narration to the image that platforms the real-life stories of each subject, how they have come to accept or not accept themselves due to porn and mainstream media, how it has made an impact on their psyche, and their identity…I want this series to discourage the so-called ‘designer vagina’ and focus on celebrating what makes us unique. There is a fine balance between the photography and the passages as each on their own is so intimate, but the uniform nature of the images (grass, vulva, flower) are offset by the intricacies of the text. I wanted to shoot each person in the grass to further the concept of nature and natural progression, how we are born as tiny seeds and bloom into beautiful flowers, through self-acceptance. What I hope PETAL helps to do is empower both the subject and the viewer to grow in their own way.
Your work challenges rigid beauty ideals and societal norms. How do you see PETAL contributing to this ongoing dialogue about body image and self-acceptance?
The PETAL project began because I wanted to analyse what lay underneath the surface that led us to, more often than not, discrediting and shaming our own bodies. PETAL purposefully showcases a wide variety of vulvas, some depicted more discreetly than others. Through these images, I aimed not only to delve deeper into my artistic exploration, specifically addressing issues like body shaming among women, the representation of sexuality in pornography, and the pervasive feelings of inadequacy tied to vulva depictions in mainstream media and adult content. But also give a platform to stories that aren’t heard enough and that encapsulate what it’s like owning a vulva in the 21st century.
It was crucial for me to engage in open and challenging conversations with a diverse group of individuals, including porn performers, mothers, and survivors of sexual assault. This diverse range of participants, spanning various ages, ethnicities, genders, hair types, body sizes, and shapes, not only creates a captivating and vibrant collection but also a collection of images that I hope empowers both the participants and viewer by putting every vulva on the pedestal it deserves.