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Anita Rao
Taking a moment to make it a moment. That's how one of my closest friends described the process of getting me gussied up recently for a big event, and taking a series of portraits of me as part of that process. She's the one in our friend group who always has her camera handy to capture big and small moments, but most especially to find ways to help us see our own beauty. She gifted one friend an intimate nude shoot in the woods for her birthday. And another, a gorgeous, sensual prenatal shoot stylized with a flower throne and all.

I have been the subject of her lens more times than I can count. And every time that she sends the photos back to me, I get the opportunity to see myself through an eye that's searching for what's striking — whether that be unbridled joy or palpable confidence. While my own eyes have been socialized to search for imperfections, these artful photos taken as an act of love, show me back to myself as beautiful. This is Embodied, I'm Anita Rao.

What makes a particular photograph intimate, or a certain image erotic, is in many ways in the eye of the beholder. But photographers who shoot intimate portraits of themselves and others are constantly re-examining and redefining intimacy and beauty for themselves, their subjects and the viewers.

Shoog McDaniel
For me, intimacy is really defined by things that involve the heart, things that open the heart, things that help us reach towards ourselves and towards others in ways that are not necessarily, you know, every day. It's something a step beyond what people imagine to be just a regular photograph.

Anita Rao
Meet Shoog McDaniel, a queer, fat photographer and artist based in Florida. Shoog has used photography to document the world around them since they were a teenager. But their foray into intimate photography happened later in their career, when a photo shoot took an unexpected turn.

Shoog McDaniel
I was photographing a friend and they — they just disrobed. We were in a forest, and they said, "Okay, I want some nude photos now," and I was very taken aback. I'd never done it before, and I took the photos. And as I did, I just realized how incredible the experience was for not only them, but for me and for the connection that we were building.

Anita Rao
So much of what takes place during a photo shoot is about building that connection between the photographer and subject — and between the subject and their own body. And then, there's the allure that draws the viewer into the scene. For artist and community organizer, LaQuann Dawson, this allure of the human body was what sparked his interest in photography in the first place.

LaQuann Dawson
Growing up, just observing people on TV, or in music, or entertainment, or whatever media I was digesting, one of the strongest things for me was like: Wow, this is so sexy. And so, from an early age, I kind of always, just wanted to grow up and be sexy and be able to — and be allowed to be sexy. So that pretty much was a goal early on. Kind of, just, seeing how people just seemed so confident. I guess in, like, even just the anime shows or the cartoons I would watch or — or, like, even watching the Power Rangers, like, what small, like, not even so overtly sexy confidence, kind of, alluring appeal. Folks are having and remembering those things. As I got older, like, this is what I was drawn to, and this is kind of something that I would like to embody as I'm growing into myself.

Anita Rao
Once you picked up your camera, how did you begin to see what is sexy and erotic differently?

LaQuann Dawson
I guess, growing up as a, quote unquote, "straight boy," as a man, I you know, wanted, like a big chest and big arms and six pack and, you know, that whole thing. But I've always been very, kind of, a lot more petite than that. And so as I got older, and as I was picking up my camera and seeing like: Okay, well this is what I actually have to offer in front of the camera. And so, I started, kind of, looking at parts of my body and parts of my entity and my face and my movement and my posing and my dress and stuff and seeing like, okay, these are the things that I find attractive about myself, and that are alluring and that are exciting. And so, I'm like: Okay, so you know there's a waist. There's, like, a look in the eye. There's, like, a certain arch in the back. My butt is getting, like, a little heavier. And so, those are the things that I, you know, had to work with, as opposed to things I didn't have.

Anita Rao
Looking at photos of yourself is just so different from seeing your reflection in the mirror. This was never more salient to me than when I first tried to switch from glasses to contacts in the 10th grade. I remember seeing a photo of my naked face for the first time and realizing that there is one side of my nose that has a much more hooked-like shape than the other side. I was not into it. And from then on, [I] would often try to stand on the left side of whomever I was taking a photo with, so as to show off the side of my nose I much preferred. These ways that we start to hide and minimize the parts of ourselves in front of a camera become so ingrained that it's hard to undo them. That knowledge has informed a lot of Shoog's approach to their intimate photography. Shoog always shoots outside, because nature doesn't judge. They also coach their models to touch and interact with the parts of their body that they've long been socialized to hide — especially their bellies.

Shoog McDaniel
A lot of times people come to me because of the photography they've seen me post, which is a lot of fat, nude photography for the past seven or eight years. And when they come to me, they're very nervous. A lot of people have never had a nude photoshoot — have never had photoshoots at all. And they're coming to me looking for help with that. They want to feel free. I feel like they want to feel beautiful. They want to understand how to love themselves in this kind of context, in a way where they can look at their body and look at their movements and feel rich with joy. And so, a lot of times, the beginning of our photoshoots is all, just, chatting. Getting to know each other, asking questions about people's comfortability levels, just, kind of, mapping out what the shoot will look like. And oftentimes, that means starting with all clothes — completely fully clothed. A lot of times people feel more comfortable in fully, you know, fully clothed, and then we slowly move to less and less clothes — to their comfortability level, of course. But I'll just make a suggestion, I'll be like, "Okay, we have a little bit of time left. If anyone feels like doing a couple nude shots, now's the time." And most often than not, people will want to, because it's very powerful to be witnessed in your fully nude body, I think. I'll be like, "Oh, I love your stretch marks right here. I love the way they're sweeping across your belly." You know, it's really surprising to people to hear that. And it often, like, sets people at ease, because they know what I'm looking at is something I'm looking at as art. I'm not looking at a body as something that needs to, you know, be changed. I'm looking at what you have right now, and how incredible it is as an art piece. It really is an intimate thing to embrace something that so many people are disgusted by and are trying so hard to avoid. Fatness is, you know, in our society, a lot of times, the worst thing that you can be. And so, to take fat bodies, and to have these human beings — who are in my eyes totally beautiful — embrace and touch upon the part of themselves that is often talked about as the worst thing they could be, is very powerful. And you can tell through the photographs and the experience too. There's often tears. There's often joy. There's a lot of emotions that come out of that interaction between a person and their body.

Anita Rao
Much of LaQuann and Shoog's work as photographers involves capturing moments of intimacy experienced by their subjects. But along the way, both have also found empowerment through turning the camera onto themselves. Shoog is newer to self portraiture, while LaQuann has been taking his own portrait since he was a kid. As an adult, he finds himself returning to it mostly during periods of transition.

LaQuann Dawson
It really is, kind of, me sitting down and having a moment with myself — similarly to how someone would write in a journal. Kind of, what comes out of their pen is, kind of, what comes out of their pen in that — in that writing session. And that's how I ended up feeling. And what I learn comes later when I'm, I guess, rereading, or when I'm going over the footage. And even — it happens weeks or months later where I'm like, so that's kind of very, very reflective of where I was in that moment, on that day or in that era of my life.

Sometimes some of my work is a bit darker. While still being erotic, it is a little bit emotional, or seemingly, you know, kind of, sad, or sometimes it'll be very, very colorful in a moment, or, kind of, expressing emotion, just, similarly to, like, a journal. So it's different every time what I — what I get back from it — as far as my gender expression goes, as far as, like, my mood goes, as far as what I'm trying to communicate to myself, or as far as, like, what kind have issues I'm, kind of, having within.

Shoog McDaniel
I had never photographed myself until I started doing fat nudes, because I don't think I was ready. I don't think I was ready to witness myself in that way. But I literally was healed from a lot of internalized fatphobia through taking photos of other fat people and seeing the undeniable beauty there. I started photographing myself probably about seven years ago, and I take photos of different sections of my body. And I can see different worlds there. Like, different rolls of my fat can create different shapes, and I — I really do love doing, like, some detailed shots, and to try to like, just kind of, disengage from myself as a full human, but actually just, like, the art that is my body.

Courtney
Hi, my name is Courtney. I'm from Raleigh, and I have done a boudoir photoshoot. I actually did it this summer with Samantha Everett photography — her first "Free the FUPA" party. So it was a group photoshoot with several thick, curvy, fat women like myself, together. They were — all happened to be women of color this time. And it's the first time I've ever done anything like this. The look on my face in the last shot that she took says it all. There was, just, this beautiful sense of, just, peace on my face. And when I finally got to see that picture, it changed me. It changed me fundamentally. The experience did, but really just getting those pictures back and seeing myself as a 35-year-old woman — after two kids, my stretch marks, my cellulite, my rolls, my sagging breasts from breastfeeding — in such an incredibly gorgeous presentation. That, you know, there was no hiding. It's not like anything was airbrushed away. That's really how I look. And I knew instantly — I felt so beautiful. I looked so beautiful. And it really has fundamentally changed the way that I step out into the world. Even if I'm very covered up, I feel beautiful so much more often than not.

Anita Rao
You just heard from Embodied listener, Courtney. Whether you're posing for the camera — or capturing the moment from behind the lens — participating in intimate photography can certainly be erotic, and a way of exploring the movements, gestures and scenes that you personally find sexy. LaQuann says that because of his existing work and reputation, most folks that find him are ready for the experience and want to feel sexy and confident. But at the same time, sexiness isn't the only, or even the primary, goal for him when he's going into an intimate shoot.

LaQuann Dawson
Something that I've worked really hard on in my career taking photos, and especially erotic imagery, is, kind of, trying to let people take a step back and not just seeing it as, like, just sex. Because a lot of the times, with client shoots, with editorial shoots, and with self shoots is, I'm not taking the photo to feel sexy or to give a sexy image per se, but I am trying to express myself. And a lot of times, that expression is disappointment, or sadness or loneliness. And I'm trying to say that, like, I feel lonely and, like, yes I'm cuddled in this corner naked, or with a hat on. But I'm not trying to elicit, you know, like someone to masturbate to the image or something like that. I'm, kind of, trying to go somewhere a lot deeper than that. And I think what I've been pleasantly surprised at is, the reception these days is that of understanding that, and not — and not just seeing this as, like, something that is just sexy, but they're receiving it as art and as storytelling. So that's been, kind of, exciting that that intention has been received.

Anita Rao
You have mentioned a number of times that you're photographing folks in your community, and you really take pride in creating art with other Black, queer folks. What role do you see intimate portraiture, in particular, as having in telling the story of the community that you're a part of?

LaQuann Dawson
Yeah, um, well, definitely. Sex is such a big part of the community in so many different ways — in sexiness and in the erotic in general. Even just as far as it goes for our reputation, because people think that is such a big thing. So I think it is important to — to celebrate it, because it is. It is a part of it, and not in just a small-minded way that some folks, kind of, stereotype us as having. As far as being, like, sexual deviance, but there is such an excitement, and such a thing to be proud of about not being ashamed of being sexy, or being erotic, or having erotic stories, or experiences or having sex. And it has been fun to be able to play with that and, kind of, take that back in a very intentional, very exciting, very fluid, very fun way that is separate, just, from as simple as some folks might think it might be.

Anita Rao
Intimate photography makes space for folks to define what sex, eroticism and intimacy mean to them. But on social media, the rules tend to be a bit more cut and dried. Instagram, for example, is a platform a lot of photographers use to showcase their work to potential clients. But its rules make things tricky for intimate photographers. Instagram explicitly bans female nipples, sexual acts, genitals and close ups of nude butts.

LaQuann Dawson
As much as Instagram is helpful in booking jobs, and for visibility and things like that, I've had to step away from Instagram as, like, my sole outlet of expression or of sharing my work. What is the most important is being able to create different platforms and be able to create different spaces. Even if that is just for a day, like at an event, or a gallery show, or in a book that, you know, that we have 300 copies of and it sells out, and then it, just like, exists there forever. Those kinds of things are really important to me to be able to build — things that are actually for us and by us. So that that restriction and that filtering and that lack of safety is, kind of, diminished in those spaces, because, you know, I get to make the rules — or we get to make the rules — and it's inherently safe because of that.

Anita Rao
Finding spaces where it's possible to create your own rules is also important to Shoog. The part of Florida where they live and work doesn't often celebrate the lived experiences of queer fat folks.

Shoog McDaniel
There's a lot of hostility here. Just recently, the Pride Center in the town near me got its windows all busted out and — and raided by — it seems like a hate group. And so, there's a lot of fear here. And a lot of times, people that are marginalized don't want to be out in nature, because nature is often seemingly guarded by rednecks and people who are, you know, white supremacists. And things like this is what people think about. And so, I like to offer my protection and my confidence to those people. And I — I lead a bunch of people out to places that maybe they would never go before. But I'm very familiar with them, and I feel very confident in who I am and my ability to talk to these folks and — and to create a safe haven in and among these communities that maybe are, you know, hostile towards queer folks. Like I really pride myself on being able to find little pockets of joy in the woods, and be able to, you know, hold space for people to experience things that they deeply deserve.

Anita Rao
If y'all are at this point in the pod and haven't stopped to check out the Instagram accounts of the people we're talking to, I highly encourage you to do so. You can find their handles in this episode's show notes. Their work is just so good. But while glancing at those images may take you only a few minutes, the time and intention it takes behind the scenes to create them? Let's just say the difference is exponential.

Detavius Niblack
I love the process of boudoir photography and intimate photography. I think it's definitely something that you have to approach very gently and carefully. It's a lot of listening and a lot of paying attention. Making sure that you are very adamant to never cross a boundary, and ensuring that the subjects are all very comfortable and just having fun as well. You know, you don't want to be too, too careful to where you forget that, you know, it's supposed to be a very fun and soft environment, you know, something that they can also be entertained in as well. It's a lot of listening, a lot of like, you know: What do you like? What do you not like? What are the things about yourself that you want to — to emphasize more? What are the things that you wish were more exposed? What are the things that you would rather hide from? You know, just things like that and whatnot. And then, you get that opportunity to present it to them. And, you know, they kind of present it to themselves — where it's like, this is you, you know, this is — this is how you look. And, you know, sometimes they're like, "Oh my gosh, like you know, I look just as great as I thought." And then, other times they're like, "I could not even imagine, like, this is me. You know, like, this is amazing, this is beautiful."

Anita Rao
That was photographer, Detavius Niblack. Getting to that point of vulnerability on camera takes effort from both the photographer and the model. Trista Marie McGovern has experience as both.

Trista McGovern
I am sometimes confrontational. So I was like, I'm just going to really, just, put it in your face. And that's why my ass is global.

Anita Rao
Trista is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, speaker and model. As a disabled model herself, Trista is invested in making disabled bodies more visible in the world of intimate photography. One of their projects, a book called "Where Shame Dies," combines photography and writing with the goal of showcasing and validating disabled folks' sexuality.

Trista McGovern
I wanted it to be beautiful, but also like, suggestive without it being too much. It was more about the idea of an able-bodied person looking like there's a sexual relationship with someone who is visibly disabled. And it paired that with the writing, so that people could, like, get the full message — even though the message was the tip of the iceberg. But I didn't expect it to be so received. It kind of blew up, and over time, I ended up doing three essays — different photoshoots. And I have other photoshoots of — related to disability and sexuality, just by being a sexual disabled person, or modeling with other people in similar ways that are separate from my writing too.

Anita Rao
You mentioned the co-modeling. And that is a big, big part of your work, kind of, you in relationship to someone else. And one of the things that really sticks out to me looking through your photos is, there's often this focus on embrace, and, you know, how people are holding each other, and where they're holding each other. I'm curious if you can talk a bit about that. And as a model, what you're going for in those photos, and what that experience feels like.

Trista McGovern
Yeah, I guess it depends on which photoshoot it is, because sometimes, there's a different purpose behind it. Like for each of my essays, the first one was just introducing the idea in a visual way — and with a whole essay — that disabled people are sexual. And then another one is like, they're also queer and kinky sometimes. It just helps, kind of, shift narratives to continue to expose people to intimacy with disabled people. So there are endless ways that we could be doing intimate modeling together, and I've just tried different things each time.

Anita Rao
Like Shoog and LaQuann, Trista thinks a lot about whose gaze is being catered to in her photos. Questions like: Who are these photos ultimately for? And how might they make other disabled folks feel seen?

Trista McGovern
I'm thinking about everybody to, kind of, challenge able-bodied people's view of disabled people and sexuality, because it kind of needs to be shoved in their face — even though it's, like, a very simple concept that humans are also human and have human experiences. And then, it's just a benefit that other disabled people felt seen. I knew it would be shocking for some people, because it's just not talked about or there's so many assumptions. And that was the initial goal, but now it's more giving that exposure, so that it becomes more normalized. And that can be anybody's gaze.

Anita Rao
While growing up, Trista had what she describes as a debilitating awareness of how others were perceiving her. Modeling has been one part of their deeper vulnerability work. But with vulnerability comes — you guessed it — boundaries. It's something that each of our photographers negotiates with clients before and during their shoots. For models with visible disabilities, the line between being part of a shoot and feeling fully seen in a shoot, can sometimes be a tricky one to navigate. In the lead up to recording this conversation, we heard from one of our former guests D'Arcee Charington Neal. D'Arcee left us a voice memo about an intimate photography experience that claimed to be inclusive, but wasn't. For context for his note, D'Arcee uses a wheelchair.

D’Arcee Charington Neal
So I was recently asked to participate in someone's OnlyFans in relation to a business that they were trying to start that was supposed to be more inclusive. We did the shoot — did the session — I had a lot of fun. But it was funny because even before the session was over, they went back through their phone. And as we were looking over the footage, they were just like, "Yeah, I don't like your body here in this shot, or this shot, or this shot." And so, they basically were like, "You know, what, how about, we just, we're just going to edit you from the waist up. Because this angle just works better for our audiences." And it was very — I've never been in that situation before. You know, it was like, what do you say? The way it felt to me was like, when you want disability, but you don't know what disability really looks like. I don't feel bad because I did it. I feel bad because it made me feel like I was tricked.

Anita Rao
That was one of our former guests, D'Arcee Charington Neal. So I don't know if you've ever had any experience like D'Arcee's, but I'd love to hear you react to that clip.

Trista McGovern
Yeah, that sounds like it's not actually inclusive. It's tokenizing. And kind of, using someone's identity to, like, check that box on whatever content they're making. Luckily, with my photoshoots that I've done modeling for, when it comes to disability and sexuality, I'm kind of steering the boat. I decide what it looks like, I'm trading with photographers. I usually just have this one main photographer, Emma Wondra, because I know that they know what I like to see. I know I'm gonna get work that represents me, and I feel comfortable with them. And they are very good with consent and boundaries. And — and I get to decide what gets to be posted, since it's all about my body. And for someone to bring in another person, and then comment on their body when they want to use their body for their content is, just kind of, unethical.

Anita Rao
I mean, you — you now have this full portfolio of different shots that you've done. And obviously, you know, you have the eye of a photographer, so you know, you know, what is beautiful and what is artistic. And in looking at your own photos, what you like to see and what you want to see. Could you describe, maybe, your favorite shot that you've modeled in? And this is radio, so I'm gonna ask you to describe it as much as you can for people who can't see a photo. And what it brings up for you about your relationship with your body and your relationship with intimacy.

Trista McGovern
The couple that come to mind are for my second shoot. We did, kind of like, the nicer sweet ones, and then we did more of the, like, kinky, sultry kind. And there's this one photo where I'm kind of standing over her, or like, she's sitting on a chair, and I'm holding her face, and we're about to kiss. And I just like the warm tones, and my leg is up, like kind of, over her knees. And it just shows, like, a really intimate moment in, like, it's not clinical looking whatsoever. You can tell that there's warmth there, that, like, there's a little bit of passion. I just, like, really think that that shows a side of disability and sexuality that people may not ever think of unless they see it — depending on the person. And then, there's another one, that I just love it because it's so wholesome. But, my third shoot with Maxwell is actually me hugging them from behind when we're sitting on the ground, and we're just both laughing. And like, that shows a different kind of intimacy that I think is really important to show. Like, both of those are also very representative of my own life. They just resonate with me a lot, and I think they're very accurate depictions.

Anita Rao
You can see those photos that Trista is talking about on her website and on their Instagram page. The links to both are in our show notes. When looking through Trista's writing and photography myself, I found a quote alongside some intimate portraits that really stuck out to me. Trista writes, "I've seen both persons with disabilities, and or visible differences, as either objects to examine or as tokens for inspiration. But never just as humans within the umbrella of sexuality." This tension is one Trista's even been examining in her own work, and it drives some of her thinking about her future with intimate photography.

Trista McGovern
I think I'm going to continue doing some photoshoots every now and then to give more exposure still, but right now, I'm in a part of my life that I feel like I've done a lot of things for other people. And I'm trying to evaluate, at what point am I tokenizing myself? And I think I'm going to continue unpacking what ableism looks like in my personal life, and as a whole and continue conversations. And that might look like workshops. Or that might look like — different types of writing and different types of photoshoots. But usually it kind of unfolds itself, like I said, depending on what my next discomfort is that I want to tackle.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and Audrey Smith. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Madison Speyer is our intern, and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music. If you enjoyed this show, share about it on social media and tag us. It really helps new folks find our show, and it means so much.

[Music]

Anita Rao
I feel like you're, kind of, like a global — a global sensation in, like, German magazines and all of this.

Trista McGovern
Yeah, my ass is global.

Anita Rao
[Laughing] I mean, that's, like, an Instagram bio if I've ever heard one.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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