Caroline Tompkins on the subject of the body

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Caroline Tompkins reflects on the subject of the body in her work — its representation, and how the complex relationship she has with her own body informs it

Caroline Tompkins’ gorgeous bodies are fraught with tension. Beyond the luminous skin, the curves of flesh, an elongated leg, a muscular arm — a darker interrogation of the human form plays out. Tompkins explores the male ideals internalised by women — ideals they may perceive as their own.

“To love men is to fall prey to them. I am trying to make pictures that exist on this line,” explained Tompkins, in an interview with Elephant. By addressing the sexist outlooks and behaviours normalised by society, Tompkins begins to reclaim the female form — her own, and others.

Below, she reflects on the body in an image she felt unable to share until recently and discusses the subject within her work, and beyond it.

I took this image in 2015. I did not show it to anyone until 2019. I thought it was too intense. The picture is unsexy despite the fact that I have objectified myself by cropping out the face. The red light heightens that objectification — it smooths the skin and accentuates the veins, making the body appear statuesque.

© Caroline Tompkins.

Having a body can be very political. That increases exponentially if you are a woman. It has taken me years of therapy and internal work to just not care about my body – not feel good, not feel bad, just to feel nothing. It has been a gift to feel nothing.

You should photograph what consumes you. How women are socialised to think about their bodies keeps me up at night. I am so conscious of the way women talk about their physiques. Those small interactions replay in my head obsessively. It is almost like a secret language, which women use in private spaces. A throwaway comment about what their life will be like when they lose 10 pounds here. An aside comparing themselves to someone else there. It is all so intertwined with capitalism too. Do not even get me started on working out and its relationship to productivity.

My work questions the female relationship to sex. How fear pervades it. Why is it commonplace for a woman to text a friend where she is going to be before a date? Why is it second nature to say, “I wasn’t even wearing anything revealing,” after getting harassed on the street? The work investigates the normalisation of that fear.

We are all afraid of each other in the context of the pandemic. I am in New York and there is no escape. There are only different levels of risk. Every day, the fear becomes a little more normal. I have seen a lot of people use this time to hold a mirror up to the society we have left behind. Perhaps this experience will help men empathise with the subtle, yet ever-present fear that women feel towards them.

© Caroline Tompkins.
© Caroline Tompkins.

There is a scene in American Pie where the hot girl Nadia is almost naked in the main character Jim’s room. She believes she is alone. However, a webcam is secretly filming her for the entire high school to see. She looks down at her body and sighs as though she wishes it was different. It has always stood out to me as revealing of the female psyche. She is conventionally beautiful – tall, thin, huge boobs etc, and yet there is some invisible force convincing her it is not enough.

The turn-on for the men is that they get to see this woman at her most vulnerable. It is a cue to women that even she could be improved on. I first saw this movie when I was around 11. For years, it was something to compare my own body to, as I am sure it was for many women. The older I get, the sadder this moment becomes. It is a reminder that societal expectations spare no one.

© Caroline Tompkins.
© Caroline Tompkins.

Whenever I feel surprised by something on the internet, I screenshot it. I try to figure out why it is uncanny, or shocking, or funny, and how I might recreate it. Images and memes that people post on their Instagram stories inspire me. Unintentional images fascinate me. Some rise to the top of Twitter threads, memes, Reddit pages. Others, I see on housing listings, porn sites, Facebook posts, etc.. It is like a homework assignment to ensure I am not a passive looker.

The best review I can give a movie is “it made me want to take pictures”. Recently, I have been watching a lot of Éric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman films. They are so photographic.

My relationship with my body is a lifelong process. It is like grief. There is not a day when I am all good and over it. Feelings of negativity come and go. I try and wave as they pass by. The pandemic is an opportunity to be kind to ourselves. Whatever that may look like.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.