Reclaiming the body in Alexandra Leese’s nude portraits of women worldwide

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Leese’s grainy portraits, made over Zoom during the global lockdown, coopt a genre conventionally serving the male gaze

As women, it feels radical to recognise our bodies belong to no one other than ourselves: not men, not advertising, not fashion; not family, not partners, not friends. External influences endeavour to force us into specific shapes and sizes; adhering to unhealthy standards that render us unhappy, and ultimately, the same. Alexandra Leese’s zine Me + Mine, available via Antenne Books beginning today, is a subversion of that convention. It acknowledges the complexities of women’s relationships to their physical selves. That ultimate empowerment emerges from self-love. But, that the journey to this is often challenging and ongoing. 

Me + Mine’s sentiment is about our relationship with our bodies, taking back control over how we perceive and love ourselves, in a society that is constantly telling us how to,” explains Leese of the zine. “It’s about recognising everybody is different, and so not to compare to one another, but also being able to find unity in knowing we share an understanding of what it means to be a woman that crosses cultures.” Me + Mine is a simple but powerful publication. It is composed of a foreword, written by Leese and one of the book’s subjects Xoài Pham, and a series of nudes of women worldwide. These were shot remotely, often over Zoom, and then rephotographed with a 35mm Leica or Polaroid camera.

Andrea, Ghana. 00:23:10 63 © Alexandra Leese.

The project, which Leese began in April, a few weeks into the global lockdown, coopts a genre conventionally serving the male gaze. In Me + Mine, the nude becomes a space in which the subjects may connect with themselves. “I began by photographing myself first,” explains Leese. “I was alone with my body and thoughts much more than usual and I was interested in exploring the relationship I had with it.”

As opposed to posing or performing for an audience, the woman photographed should feel beautiful and safe, even if just for a moment, and, in doing so, inspire others to feel the same. “It’s about accepting that a system is in place that puts the male gaze’s concept of beauty above our own, and so I hope we can continue to address and question this,” continues Leese. All of the profits from Me + Mine, which is self-published, will be donated to the Black Trans Femme in the Arts Collective, the Trans Law Center, and the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre; organisations that several of the subjects are involved with. Below, several of the women reflect on their experiences. 

Eniye Kagbala, an artist who tells stories through song, sound, and the moving image, for healing and feeling. And a mother, wife, and entrepreneur from St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Eniye, St Vincent and the Grenadines. 00:32:26 © Alexandra Leese.

[Participating in the project] was empowering. I felt connected to a group of women who were all seeking different things from the experience; a collective shift of personal perspectives about self and body.  It was an escape in the midst of so much uncertainty worldwide. But, also speaking to Alex, who was having a completely different experience from me, really opened my eyes. Alex has an impeccable eye and the emotion to understand how to make who she’s photographing feel comfortable. She gave me gentle but grounding confidence. You trust her because you feel like she has your best interest at heart and that you are working with a master of their craft. This allowed me to open up a bit, feel vulnerable and in that, I was empowered. I’ve never been shot nude so after initial insecurity, I felt a freedom. I enjoyed the process. [It made me feel] fabulous.

Nylo Beeharry Mian, a Mauritian and Pakistani writer born and raised in North London.

Nylo, United Kingdom. 00:44:46 © Alexandra Leese.

My feelings and emotions surrounding my body throughout lockdown have fluctuated since it commenced in March. I felt pleased with myself for jogging a little longer than usual, taking a whole day dedicated to ‘self-care’, or pulling out my yoga mat for a quick at-home workout. I felt that I was implementing beneficial routines for my mind and body. However, having so much time on my hands led me to gawk and gaze at what I felt needed to be improved. During this time I worked with the caring and talented Alexandra Leese who made me feel comfortable and gave me the introspect to be a little kinder to my body and myself. She left with me with pictures that I can look to, remembering a time I’ll never forget and a journey with myself that is ongoing.

Yumi, a Japanese British artist based between London and Hokkaido.

Yumi, United Kingdom. 00:08:57 © Alexandra Leese.

I’ve always felt great artistic chemistry with Alex, we share a lot of similar thoughts on anatomy and the metaphysical connection we have with our own, as women. We are both of Asian diaspora and with that comes a lot of unspoken understanding. To some people, this may seem like an unrelated topic but its absolutely not, it’s everything. There is a silent but vivid sense of trust that is needed to allow yourself to communicate to someone with your naked body, and that’s something I’m grateful to be able to share with my friend. Our previous project, where I posed nude, was in reference to another time of stillness in my life, where I was also confronting mortality, grief and a sense of rebirth. These conversations of course returned to us in retrospect of the greater experience of solitude and self-reflection that has come over us [globally] in response to the pandemic. It has been deeply meaningful to me.

We face many unique challenges with our bodies as women. But above all,  I am deeply grateful for this physical vessel that is mine and the one that birthed me. I come from a culture where communal bathing (onsen) is a frequent and therapeutic ritual. I grew up seeing all types of female bodies of all ages. In hindsight, I honestly feel it’s what blessed me with the truth. The sense of understanding I have with my body, which to me is vivid in my nudes with Alex, is of pure surrender. For me, my body is ‘she’. She is a part of me that I own and simultaneously have all and little control over, since she works painfully hard, knows all and more about me and sometimes does unexplainable things. I can only give her my trust and affection. But, with that, I can love to see her grow, perform in all her glory and have moments like these.

Caley, an artist who works with young Refugees and Migrants for NGOs, based in London.

Caley, United Kingdom. 00:31:26 © Alexandra Leese.

I enjoyed doing a creative collaborative project because at the time we were in a strict lockdown and I was living alone. It has been relentless and very lonely and has had a very negative impact on my mental health. So connecting with Alex and making a beautiful image together was exciting and met some of my needs. I was at a point I was starting to model through virtual shoots, and it was an interesting manifestation of the Covid-19 lockdown that I would be photographed through my devices. I felt safe with Alex, and the concept behind the project aligns with my values.

I am at a point in my life that self-expression through nudity is something I am exploring in self-portraits and portraying others in my paintings. The opportunity came at the right time. My body has been a battleground; I have abused it, hated it, and it has been abused and violated. It is also a battleground in the sense that the world has extremely polarised, oppressive, and obsessive views on what I should be allowed to do with my own body, as a woman. I feel tentative about this nude image going into the world, however, I feel this is my right as an adult woman to show my body as I please. It feels daring and liberating.

Alexandra, United Kingdom. 00:15:13 91 © Alexandra Leese.

Me+Mine is available via Antenne Books here

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently 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.