Photography: Embracing Your Identity Through Labels Others Gave You
Asshole. Dike. Son. So hot. Cunt. Mess. Slut. Rich thug. Beautiful. Nervous. Pot head. Strong. Champ. Scorpio. Atheist. Fat. Gay. Positive. Hippie. Sexy. Helpful. Meat head. Impulsive. Naïve. Coward. Remarkable. Depressed. Drug addict. Polite. Freak. Wasteful. *
If you were asked to make a list solely composed of words which others have used to label you, which words would you pick? Would you allow a complete stranger to write those very words all over your naked body and let yet another unknown photograph you? That is precisely what Long Island-based photographer Lauren Renner asks of her models for her ongoing project In Others’ Words. Renner is showcasing her photographs during Bushwick Open Studios at Fine & Raw Chocolate. Plus, she’s always looking for more brave volunteers, in case you’re interested.
“The basic idea is to give people a chance to publicly embrace their identity,” Renner said.
The vulnerability of the soft, naked bodies contrasted with the harshness of the labels written on their skin makes Renner’s photographs emotionally striking. Varieties in shapes, shades and sizes of the models against both natural and industrial landscapes instantly captivate spectators. The subjects’ eyes pierce through you, reminding you of your own moments of fragility and insecurity. Or, perhaps for the first time you become aware of the impact your own words can have on others’ perception of themselves.
The concept for the project vaguely struck Renner about four years ago when she envisioned a large group of nude people with words written across their bodies. The idea was also influenced by her own sentiments of not always feeling like she fit into any particular box, combined with the experience of having her first relationship with a woman.
“At the time in college, everyone knew everyone, and I started to notice little interactive things changing based on this one idea of being labeled ‘gay,'” Renner recalled. “It took me aback because that label ‘gay, lesbian’ - so many other things come with it, things I don’t identify with at my core. Why was it suddenly the one thing people attached to me before choosing to label me as anything else?”
The experience made her curious about others’ experiences with labels. Following that thought-provoking period, she began the three-step project in 2010. When she places a model call, the first step is to ask participants to come with a prepared list of between 50 and 100 words they’ve been labeled. “The words can be neutral, positive or negative - whatever has affected them,” Renner said.
The second step is the actual writing process, which happens in a safe space, usually Renner’s studio or house at about 5:30AM. Renner says she gives participants very little direction and allows the models to pair up organically to see who they gravitate to naturally. The pairs exchange lists, take off their clothes and begin writing on each other’s bodies from head to toe. People are allowed to request particular words to be placed in specific places, but only words from a person’s own list goes on their own body.
“In group shoots, something interesting happens during the body writing,” Renner explained. “A silence comes over the room after they meet each other and it gets pretty quiet after they take their clothes off.”
Renner beautifully captured the intimacy of the writing process in black and white stills and colored shots with golden light. You can also read people’s lists from previous shoots on her website to get a more complete idea of an individual’s handwriting and experiences.
“It’s a gift I can never repay - the gift of endowing me with the courage to face my own fear of the labels that have haunted me. And the gift of being supported by friends and strangers who appreciated me for being exactly who I am and not anything more or less than that,” model Gretchen Tucker wrote to Lauren after modeling. “I know I am a braver person for having done it.”
Renner has also photographed a single person at a time, which means she’s the one doing the writing on the model. She said she goes to great lengths to make the models feel secure, and that includes honoring requests that Renner be naked as well during the process.
“I’ve written on several strangers and the relationship we form is interesting. It’s very emotional. They don’t know me, yet they trust me to physically label them with these words that have had an impact on them,” she said.
The final step is transporting the models to a chosen location for the actual photo shoot. Renner has previously shot in Upstate New York and Brooklyn. To take advantage of the light - and to avoid police encounters, again - she photographs early in the morning. Again, she forgoes giving the models any direction and let’s them “do whatever they do to project themselves.”
When asked about the significance of continuing her project, Renner said, “I’m offering people the opportunity to step back and embrace every experience that has made them who they are.”
*The words at the beginning of the article were taken from words written on the bodies from Renner's photographs.
Get Involved: Renner said she’s looking for people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds to participate In Others’ Words. While she keeps the sessions pretty much limitless, she only asks that models be emotionally ready to participate in the project. She’s particularly interested in expanding her work with older individuals, the transgender community and people with disabilities, but all brave souls are encouraged to contact her if they’d like to participate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the work: Renner will be displaying her photographs at Fine & Raw Chocolate, located at 288 Seigel Street, from May 31 to June 2 during Bushwick Open Studios.