Ira Lupu captures the Ukrainian cam girls navigating ‘the virtual gaze’

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Lupu’s ethereal images straddle fantasy and reality, capturing the liminality of an increasingly online world

When Ira Lupu began photographing Ukranian webcam models – “my girls,” as she calls them – she hoped to confront the fetishisation of Eastern European women by presenting the lives of sex workers working there in full. Her project On Dreams and Screens does this and more. The NYC-based Ukrainian photographer captures seven “cam girls” living online, offline and in the liminal space between. Her images glow with fluorescent lights, blue skies, and pixelated screens, portraying the models as they work and in their moments of contemplation. We see post-Soviet landscapes, the models preparing for the camera, and sometimes posing in snow fields.

from the series On Dreams and Screens © Ira Lupu.

As Covid-19 swept across the globe, digitising our work, love, and intimacy, Lupu’s images took on an added significance. Just like the cam girls, our online and offline selves became fused together and pulled apart. Lupu witnessed this tension first-hand: “The girls would invite me to their [online] stream and I would see their constructed persona or web persona. This exact moment was almost transitional.” To be online is to be nowhere and everywhere at once. 

While many of the models love their work, ‘camming’ can also take a psychological toll. “All of them, except for maybe one, started having problems with being online too much,” Lupu explains. “Mostly, you just look at yourself. Psychologically, it’s really intense. It brings out a lot of your traumas, issues with relationships, with men or with your own body.” 

Though the images are unstaged, the models automatically posed when Lupu moved to take their photograph. “They have an almost physical reaction to the camera, they are not even conscious of it,” she explained. “I felt this was an important part of the project; the self-representation and staging.” 

from the series On Dreams and Screens © Ira Lupu.
from the series On Dreams and Screens © Ira Lupu.

The women are very involved in the project, says Lupu. They track where the photos appear, lament which ones aren’t included, and share in print proceeds. Meanwhile, On Dreams and Screens is expanding. Lupu has started to supplement her photographs with quotes, videos, and audio clips. Lupu is also developing a multimedia microsite for its next iteration. “I think it’s quite organic to bring the project back to the original world where it was conceived,” she said. The project will be featured in several exhibitions this summer, including the Copenhagen Photo Festival (02-13 June) and Belfast Photo Festival (03-30 June).

Lupu doesn’t try to make a statement about the camming industry as a whole. Rather, the work is about the models’ individual experience of navigating what she calls “the virtual gaze.” As she explains, “They’re experiencing a split between an electronic doppelgänger of sorts and the real them.” But On Dreams and Screens is not only about the distance and tension between our online and offline identity. It is about proximity and community. As one of the women told Lupu, “Believe me, webcam modelling is much more about human bonding than it is about pure sex.” 

On Dreams and Screens will be exhibited at Odesa Photo Days (21-23 May), Copenhagen Photo Festival (02-13 June), and Rotterdam Photo this summer (30 June – 04 July).

from the series On Dreams and Screens © Ira Lupu.
Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.