Caroline Tompkins probes the two extremes of sex and fear

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The photographers’ latest book, Bedfellow, ebbs and flows though ecstasy and pain; humour and adversity; relief and dread – echoing the tension she experiences in relation to sex and relationships

Caroline Tompkins refers to the images in her latest photobook Bedfellow as “heaven and hell pictures”. The scenes range from moments of tenderness – nude figures, couples kissing, blissful landscapes – to those charged with a more disturbing energy. Leeches suck blood from a torso; a ladybird crawls between the thorns of a cactus flower; penises – many of them – standing tall or hanging limp. 

“It’s about sex and fear,” explains Tompkins. “I was really interested in that binary… I desire sex, and I desire men, but I’m also tasked with a constant acknowledgement of the fear.” She is referring to the all-to-farmiliar precautions that women take while dating: lengthy background checks before Tinder dates, texting our friends to let them know we’re safe, walking home with keys clutched between our knuckles. “It’s so commonplace, and something we accept so readily, but the implication is that we are either going to, at its worst, be killed, or at its best have a great orgasm.”

© Caroline Tompkins.
© Caroline Tompkins.
© Caroline Tompkins.

Tompkins has been working on Bedfellow consciously since 2018, but the earliest images in the book are from 2015. “A lot of the images are just me making pictures in my life, and realising after that I was working towards something,” she says. Other images are staged, based around memories, feelings, or her own experiences. After college, Tompkins dated an abusive man, and suffered recurring dreams in which she was covered in leeches. She later learned that in the dream world, this was commonly interpreted as a symbol of people or emotions sucking the energy out of you. Tompkins became obsessed with making this into a photo, so contacted all of the listed leach therapists in Brooklyn – “they were like ‘absolutely not”. Eventually, she turned to YouTube and studied videos of how to safely place and remove leeches onto human skin. She bought her predatory worms on, found a willing friend, and made the image [below]. “I kept them as my pets for a few months after. But they were pretty freaky,” she laughs. 

© Caroline Tompkins.

Tompkins’ subjects include friends, ex-boyfriends, former hook-ups, strangers – the punters of a nudist festival she photographed for Vice – and herself. “I included the self portraits to have skin in the game,” she says. Her introduction to Bedfellow begins with an account of her subjection to revenge porn. “I sort of feel nothing about being naked on the internet now,” she says, “I feel a bit nihilistic about it, where I’m like ‘well, it just doesn’t matter’”. 

This nihilism underpins Tompkins’ introduction to the book. Somewhere between prose and poetry, it is based around anecdotes from her own life – from highschool prom, to one-night stands, and spiralling toxic relationships. The stories are astute, revealing dark and sobering truths disguised by jokes: “I’ll never be one of those women that oozes pure sex because I’m too invested in being funny,” she writes. The tone resembles a kind of feminist fatigue, elicited by a dissatisfaction of living as a sexual being in constant battle with the many faces of mysogyny – harassment, double-standards, slut-shaming, etc. “I’m interested in the way in which women kind of make that into a meme now, as a way of dealing with it,” says Tompkins. The photographer keeps a “big archive” TikTok videos, in which a new generation of young women are using humour to vent their frustrations. “They suggest comebacks for catcalls. They show the black eyes their boyfriends gave them. Pleasure and danger in the same fifteen-second clip,” she writes. 

The introduction sets the mood for the pages that follow. The sequence ebbs and flows in intensity – though ecstasy and pain; power and subservience; relief and dread – mimicking the tension that Tompkins experiences in relation to sex and relationships. “Once you start thinking about it, you see it everywhere,” she says. The photographer resists speaking on behalf of all women – “this is just my experience,” she says – but her work does feel universal. Not just to women, but to all sexual beings. After all, sex and death are two of the most powerful, exhilarating and terrifying forces that define the course of our lives. And throughout any tedium or adversity, humour can become our most comforting ally. 

Bedfellow by Caroline Tompkins is published by Palm* Studios. An Exhibition of the work is on show at 10 14 Gallery in Dalston by appointment, until 25 November.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.