An interview with me from Wysokie Obcasy Nr 12(1128)
Above the cover of the printed magazine, below the interview written by Katarzyna Seiler, translated by me into English. If you read Polish you can scroll down to the scans of original interview in Polish or read it here online
Katarzyna Seiler: How did you come up with the idea for a body-positive boudoir photography of women?
Monika Kozub: I traveled a lot before coming to Berlin. In Amsterdam, I started working as a photographer offering Airbnb Experiences. I decided that I would use my photography skills I gained from the education at Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow to take pictures of people who came on vacation to Amsterdam. After our walk, they received a set of portraits, a souvenir from the trip. When I started doing Airbnb Experiences after I moved to Berlin, most of my clients were women – very excited to be photographed. You could see that they had spiffed up, pardon my language, and looked fantastic. But some of them felt abashed. To encourage them, I started talking to them.
I asked why they decided to have a session. They often said that on one hand they felt that they would like to have some nice photos, but on the other they feared it was a stupid idea, as they weren’t models. They kept repeating: “Maybe if I lost five kilos” or “I have a bad hair day” During these conversations, some of them mentioned that they were considering a boudoir session because they thought it would help them break through.
Unfortunately, if you search for “boudoir session” online, you will see photos in a soft porn style: a lady in a very scanty bikini or underwear, presenting her breasts or buttcheeks into the camera.
KS: Rather “Playboy” than body positivity.
MK: I always think that if you expressed your consent, the photographer agreed as well and you feel good about the style of the photos, then do whatever makes you happy. From my conversations with women and from my own experience, I knew that women have the need to derive strength and joy from their sexuality, yet not on someone else’s, but on their own terms. I found that boudoir photography is a perfect way to challenge the insecurities I knew from my own life. As long as I was wearing clothes that covered my pale skin, imperfections and cellulite, because I generally fit in with the tall, thin, white girl pattern, I felt comfortable with myself. But when I had to take the clothes off, whether in a changing room at school before PE or at a pool, I immediately tensed up. I was scared that everyone would see me taking my push-up bra and it would be obvious that my tits are fake.
I found that in the boudoir setting you can still fake the way your body looks, but it is very limited. You just show your body as it is.
The most important, however, was the issue of opening up and reconciling with one’s sexuality, which so far in culture has been appropriated by male gaze, also dominant in boudoir photography.
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the women to decide on anything that happens throughout the shoot.
KS: And how does it look like?
MK: You only undress up to the moment you still feel comfortable and I don’t push on anything. I do not interfere with how women come to me, the outfits, make-up and hairstyle is up to them.
Often times, typical boudoir sessions are accompanied by a paid makeup artist, hairdresser, and clothing sets that you can use. I understand the desire to transform into Beyoncé for two hours, but that is not in line with the effect I wanted to achieve.
Women come to me looking exactly as they are everyday – naturally, but they define what this natural look means to them. They bring clothes that matter to them.
KS: In one of the first photos on Instagram, you write that you first wanted to test different poses yourself, so as not to offer women anything that would be uncomfortable. You took these photos yourself or asked your boyfriend for help.
MK: Poses that look good in photos are often terribly uncomfortable. First, I made a board on Pinterest, where I saved various photos. I decided to check them out and see how I actually feel in these positions. I looked at a photo and it seemed to me that a model was sitting comfortably, but actually it turned out that to hold the pose from the photo I had to remember to pull in my stomach and straighten another part of my body at the same time, and that was just too much. My boyfriend guided me: “Here you still have to raise your foot a little, move slightly, straighten there”. I realized that if I started talking to any other woman like that, she would completely lose her head.
Someone once said that people can forget what you told them, but they will never forget how you made them feel. This is the most important thing for me in the photo sessions.
I assumed that if a woman felt great, the photos would also be fantastic. The time of the photo shoot is the moment when you can be with your body, stroke it, hug it, look at it and thank it for everything it endures every day.
This is supposed to be a moment when a woman is not for anyone else but herself. She has to feel connected with her erotic body, because her eroticism is in the background on a daily basis.
KS: Did you feel that the project will have a social body-positive aspect and will be inspiring also for others, not only for the woman being photographed?
MK: Initially, I planned the project as a business, because don’t believe in the theory that an artist must be poor. However, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the right way to go forward. Unfortunately, when someone paid me for a session, it often turned out that the model found the photos too intimate and forbade me from sharing them in my portfolio and on social media. I realized how important the story of that one woman I helped with the photo shoot was to me, and that the story doesn’t just end there. That is why I have been building an Instagram account from the very beginning, I want to be where people are with this project.
I have always been deeply rooted in contemporary art, but I did not like the fact that many art initiatives completely ignore the so-called Kowalski and Kowalska [considered to be most common names in Poland – footnote for English speaking reader]. It’s a very hermetic environment, mostly for those who are already interested in modern art. I felt that it did not suit me at all. As a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, I taught modern art classes for high school students who were going to apply for the Academy themselves. Very often they asked accurate questions that made me reconsider the canon of art that was instilled in me when, for example, something is overloaded with theory but doesn’t carry emotions understandable for an average person. Hence my need to implement a socially engaged project where people are already present. For example on Instagram. I didn’t want to take a series of photos that would then be shown in a small gallery to people who are not suprised when they see folds of fat. In modern art, it’s normal to shock, so it doesn’t really shock anyone.
I want to show my photos to people who still think a woman has to look like the ones in a Victoria’s Secret or Playboy ad.
Maybe thanks to that I will help them see that woman’s body can look very differently and there is no single canon of what is beautiful, and on the other hand, that maybe someone who until now believed that feminism equals “women with armpit hair”, they will see my photos and notice that feminists are beautiful women.
KS: I observe a trend, for example on TikTok, that girls have boudoir sessions that are probably more like the sessions you talked about at the beginning, which are then given to the husband or partner as a gift in the form of framed photos or an album. This entire session, underwear and styling are a gift for a man, not a woman. Of course, she also probably enjoys it, but she does it with him in mind and at the end records his reaction when he sees her photos for the first time.
MK: I can only sigh. On one hand, I understand these women because they were brought up just like you and me. We all grew up in a culture where one of the greatest virtues of a woman is how she looks and how others see her. So eventually there will be someone who tells her: You are beautiful to me. Of course assuming that any woman is in a relationship with a person who finds her beautiful, although I also have heard of a situation when a boyfriend admitted he loved her, only to add that he would rate her looks at a maximum of three out of ten points. But even if there is a person in your life who completely accepts what you look like, or even more, is in love and fascinated by your body, we are still convinced that we are beautiful, because someone else who is looking at us, finds us a beautiful person.
Recently I started listening to Caitlin Moran’s More Than a Woman book, which I am a huge fan of. Moran says that for her the subversive moment was realizing that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Anyone can say that something is beautiful.
Moran suggests that we have to go a step further – not only to be the “beauty” someone else decides on, but to be the “beholder”, the one who decides what is beautiful. This reminded me of one of my therapy sessions during the first hard lockdown. I’m dealing every day with the topic of body positivity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when I would like to get the exact same advice from someone else that I often give to others. There was a point when I was starting to feel bad about myself.
I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. I shared that with my therapist and admitted that I didn’t know if it was caused by sweatpants I wore every day or that I wasn’t wearing any makeup for quite a while, but I was convinced that such things shouldn’t have an impact on me. The therapist made me think about the myth of Aphrodite. We have the story depicted in numerous artworks: Aphrodite born out of the sea foam, everyone else looking at her and seeing the most beautiful woman in the world.
My therapist told me that in the original myth when Aphrodite was born, there weren’t any audiences clapping and telling her how beautiful she was. Aphrodite was born in solitary and began to look around and point on the beauty she saw around her. This made her the goddess of beauty.
Her appearance didn’t matter at all. I combined it immediately with what Caitlin Moran wrote: in the moment you stop focusing on begin an object of beauty for someone else’s gaze and judgement, and put yourself in the position of a judge, you flip the perspective. You no longer have to show these photos to your husband to prove to him you are beautiful. You can have these photos taken for your own sake and tell him: “I think I’m beautiful.”
KS: Which stories from your photo shoots you remember the most?
MK: A photo shoot of the woman, who at that point in time, was the oldest woman I have photographed. I was so happy that a woman over 50 is willing to get such photos taken, and more over – she thinks it’s going to be an amazing experience for her.
I knew that I have in front of me a woman ready for a breakthrough in her life, yet she was still a bit shy and closed off. I have my own way to lead the session. The model is not undressing immediately. First we talk. If I see that the woman is closed off and insecure, I try to ask what she loves about her body, what she likes, which body parts she was always happy about – just to go beyond the too well-known scheme of women reciting what they hate about their bodies. Then I ask what kind of music they would like to hear in the background. This way we can evoke specific emotions without talking about them too much. That woman said: “You know what, Madonna released an album recently. If she can be so sexy, open and happy about her body, and I’m almost her age, then why I can’t be like that as well?.” We put on the latino sounding track from Madonna’s last album and suddenly I saw a transformation of a person who focused on others her whole life, giving them priority before her own needs. She told me that even the experience of going to a lingerie store to buy a bra for our photo shoot was a breakthrough for her, and a first step towards change, as she was wearing mainly bras that were comfortable, not sexy. Throught this sensual dance to Madonna’s music I saw how a strong, confident woman emerges. I later talked to her daughter and she admitted she noticed that change as well.
KS: Do you see photos similar to yours in German media? In Poland, unfortunately, even if the media uses the slogan “body positivity”, realistic images of the female body do not follow it.
MK: In Germany, or at least in Berlin, such a thing wouldn’t fly. There is a need to change even among the brands I work with. Unfortunately, it still often comes down to having one plus size person or, as I call it, a curvy model. I don’t like the term plus size, because it means that there is some “size” and the rest of it is “plus”.
I once read an article on authenticity in the world of marketing and fashion. It explained that this industry will never choose to show authenticity. That the revolution must start elsewhere – among people who will not accept that such a limited selection of body types is portrayed in advertising. Advertisers will always aspire to the unattainable. They are selling dreams. It’s not in their best interest to show you something you don’t have to aspire to. Perhaps this is an element that we can only break down by changing our minds and showing in spaces like Instagram or other social media or even a movie industry the whole spectrum of what a body can look like.
KS: Apart from the photo shoots you also have a podcast “Boudoir Talk.”
MK: I’m often labelled as a photographer, and on one hand I’m fine with it, but on the other it’s a simplification. I consider myself an artist, who uses photography to talk about certain issues. But sometimes I user other media as well. Recently I created my own Instagram filter. These filters usually change your appearance, but I made one that doesn’t change the way you look, only adds a flower crown on your head hand drawn by me.
One of the most important aspects of feminism is for me captured in the phrase “pass the mic”. When I’m taking photos, it’s me pressing the shutter and I can’t escape the fact that it’s world seen through my eyes. I decided that to enter a deeper level of telling other people’s stories I need to quite literally pass the mic and give them space to share their story.
When I started doing my podcasts, there were not that many similar ways of talking about body positivity. And the conversations at the beginning of my photo shoots were simply phenomenal. Women frm Brazil, Venezuela, USA, Helsinki or anywhere else in the world – each f them had her own story. Unfortunately what was common for us all is the experience of a very opressive culture, that claims you’re never beautiful enough, and in which your boyfriend feels it’s OK to ask when you’re going to get a boob job as your breasts are too small. I wanted these stories to be heard.
Not all my podcasts are interviews, some of them I recorded on my own. Among them the first one in which I explain the term “boudoir.” It has a very symbolic story. It became popular in the enlightenment period as a term for a special room for the lady of the house. But unfortunately it wasn’t a woman’s equivalent of a gentleman’s office. It was a room where a woman would go and sulk undisturbed, as it’s even part of the word: “bouder” means to sulk or pout in French. Basically men have given women a room where they were supposed to sit in silence when they have their moods. That’s when I decided I’m going to turn it inside out. This boudoir that was meant to silence a woman and become a closed space to pout far from a man, I want to turn into a loudspeaker with which women can talk freely about their issues. Every woman has a place where she can simply shout out what is important for her, what she has learned. That’s the new boudoir and boudoir talk.