Taking back female power with nude photography

An artist from Brazil tells how her art project, nude photography, changes the way we look at ourselves and to one another in an act of resistance.

“From my wounds comes the healing power”

A quote of inspiration for Céu, a 29-year-old intersexual photographer and artist from Brazil. She created the ProjectPorElas, a therapeutic project in which she takes pictures of women as natural as it can be – without clothes and in the wild nature of Brazil. As baby, Céu was diagnosed with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (HAC), a genetic disease characterized by disorders in the functioning of the adrenal glands. This triggers the lack of production of adrenal hormones responsible for maintaining the level of sugar in the blood and the conservation of water and salt in the body, among other functions. Another characteristic of HAC is intersexuality. As one year old she underwent a feminizing genioplasty which made her suffer from self-acceptance problems and periods of heavy depression throughout her life.

These experiences inspired her to found ProjectporElas, through which she was able to fight her depression and gain back power over herself by fighting destructive beauty ideals. How? By photographing the body as it is: nude. The project has not only become a way to improve the self-esteem and self-acceptance of the women she is photographing, which she likes to call healing.

It has also become a way to gain power over sexual and female freedom in a country whose recently elected political elite is known for its repression, racism, homophobia, sexism and censorship. The “ProjectPorElas” was created in October 2016 in the city of Recife, in the state of Pernambuco, here in Brazil. Since then, more than 300 women have participated in the project. Céu’s dream is to photograph, heal and inspire women in other countries as well.

L: Céu, your project combines nude photography in a way that does not aim to objectify women’s sexuality and instead to perceive nudity as natural and without prejudices. I would like to know where this idea came from.

C: I’m an intersexual woman who tries to fight for a space of visibility in the world. It has always been difficult for me to accept my body because of my excessive thinness and the unnecessary genital mutilation I have suffered. After a strong depression, which lasted six months, I found in those pictures the reasons to move on. This has been the initial idea, to work with women’s bodies to transform women’s self-esteem. I started with photographic art in 2008, but I’ve been photographing women for 3 years now.

The project is part of this healing process of mine, you know, a cyclic woman who photographs and heals other women. The essence is that, while I’m photographing you, you’re giving me some of your healing and I’m giving you some of mine. So, I believe that Por-Elas is this, a very big project, a project that really embraces all women, trans women, cis women, older women, young women, as we all are.

L: Your project was created three years ago, but you have been a photographer for more than 8 years. In what way did this project differ from your past work, what makes it so unique?

C: I’ve been working with photography for 10 years and in those 10 years I missed working with something that could represent me in some way. And then in 2016, I decided to leave the other areas of the photo mafia and to dedicate myself to female photography, to esthetic photography that shows the body as it has been created by nature. Through the nude photography, I can cure women that struggle with their self-esteem, the photographic projects helps us looking at ourselves in a different way. I believe if we have a portrait that was done by someone else, we look at each other in an easier, kinder way. I define photography as a magical art.

It is the most beautiful record of a unique moment. And a photograph made with love captures exactly all the details, which may have gone unnoticed for so many years. The texts I put are usually quotes from female poets. Many of those poems tell a lot about various situations that women have been gone through and the compartment and understanding we share serves as a force of empowerment. Those texts can also answer questions that women identify with in many moments that are passing, such as about menstruation cycles, sexuality, our body parts and emotional questions.

L: Instagram is your main channel to post pictures and discuss various topics with the captions. Only in Instagram 40.000 users follow your art and read what you have to say, and those numbers have immensely grown the last year. Why do you think is the project growing faster now?

C: I believe the political situation has changed the way we use Instagram and the way we look at art. The project is a way to show resistance against this government that we’re dealing with now. This past year, the censorship has been grown extremely and made it difficult for artists to follow their projects. And I believe that this year that we have been through has been a battle for artists all over, mainly because the persecution of people who work in the nude arts has been growing steadily.

Generally, chasing the female nipple has always been sexualized and the men has not been. So, I think that having a project like this is a great political act of resistance and as the repression increases, the internet’s importance as free space for to express yourself and progressive art grows.

L: In Europe, many women are fighting for equal economic rights, in the United States for the right to decide over their own body, in other countries women fight for respect and independency of men. In South America many criticize the sexist culture. What do you think women fight for or against in Brazil?

C: I believe that this sexist issue is a cultural thing all over the world unfortunately. But I believe that here we have an extensive repression. I think the Brazilian woman suffers an extremely great pressure from machismo. Here the rate of feminicide is very high, as is the rate of prejudice, of racism.  I think that here there is still a lot to evolve but I think that as long as we have a fascist government that is repressing us all the time I believe that it will take us a long time to change this macho culture.

L: How do you think your photography can show resistance to these structures?

C: The project has changed, as I believe, the vision of many people. Not only the ones who engage with the pictures but also the ones who are photographed. I believe it’s an important way to try to change people’s self-esteem, the way we look at each other because it is associated with this issue of self-view. We can reflect on the self-criticism that we do with ourselves and I believe that if you see photographs of women with bodies similar to yours, this can generate a very big internal change.

L: Can you tell a story or an experience that for example was very important, or changed your vision, or something motivational or inspiring?

C: I believe that all the women I have photographed among these three hundred each story changed a little part and inspired me. There is no special, or particular one. I met women who come from abusive relationships, women who have been rejected by their family and the society or that have problems to accept and love themselves. So, each story brings a little bit of healing. After they see these photographs, they are able to heal themselves of the pain that someone has caused. Or that they have put themselves through, many have been criticizing themselves so much over time that they have been hurting themselves.

L: And you are also talking about understanding. What do you mean by that and how does it take place in your photography?

C: I believe that through my photographic perspective, the act of portraying a woman, or let’s say me photographing you, I am not only photographing your outside, I am photographing your inside. A woman that maybe exists there, that surely exists there and that you may never have seen. So, I believe that the healing comes through this transformation. The cure also comes through undressing, which is something that we also find very difficult, to take off our clothes and being naked in front of someone. So, the healing process starts there and is finished when you receive the photos and can see yourself in a different way.

L: So, if I want to be photographed by you, what can I expect?

C: I always say that the rehearsal ends up flowing as they come. There is a lot of woman who arrive insecure of how the rehearsal will go, how it will flow and when it arrives at the end, she sees that it was a very nice experience, very fluid, very quiet and always very natural. Because I receive and photograph according to how each woman’s body works.

So sometimes we get to a place, or we choose a place together and we talk and find a connection. For example, if there is a woman who works with dance, I have to explore her movements in nature. I follow a lot me being on the spot, me being with the person and it flows and arises. It only comes out that way. It’s like looking at this tree here and I say: pick it up because we can do some nice photos. Either you squat or you lie down. And that goes a lot from the place like that. There’s no inspiration or pre-ready pose, you know? It’s a lot of the body and the place. And then we can formalize it very beautifully.

L: You also have collective rehearsals with women, what exactly is it?

C: In the collective rehearsals, I set an agenda for certain cities and I end up meeting several women in the places I pass by and I end up inviting them or some feminist group. In the collective rehearsals there’s a very good energy because usually we talk before, we talk about each one of them and share experiences. When we meet, we have a bonfire to celebrate and represent the sacred feminine. And then we get a very incredible energy among all those women who gather for celebrating their freedom. At that moment we participate and receive the healing power from one to the other.

L: And that is what is your tattoo about, too?

C: Yeah. My tattoo says, “That from my wounds comes the healing power.” That’s right, isn’t it? Every wound of ours, every process of ours, problems, everything we’ve been through has a healing power. So that’s a good process, not while I’m photographing you, you’re giving me some of your healing and I’m giving you some of mine. I think that’s it: the feminine power is there, it’s healing, one that heals another, that sometimes is a word or a conversation, a gesture and the product is the photo. It is about sharing our experiences. In fact, only recently I heard a phrase that describes this feeling very well: “through the wounds that enter light.”  For me, that’s it.

L: Thank you for sharing these wonderful words.