Interview with Katie West

by Charlotte Shane on April 12, 2011 · 4 comments

in Interviews

Katie West is perhaps best known for her “awesome boob photography” but equally respected for her excellent personal writing and internet-showcased quirkiness. She does not identify as a sex worker, but I interviewed her anyway. We talked about the stigma and judgment that chases every woman who embraces her brazen side, whether she’s recognized as an artist or regarded as a porn star. All images here are of and by Katie, taken from her tumblr.

Can you tell me about the first time you posed nude for a picture? (Were you the one taking it? How old were you?)

Hm. I think I was the first person to take a nude picture of myself. I guess I was 18. I assume? I don’t really remember. People have asked me this before so you think I would have a better answer, but I think it happened rather naturally. So it was no big thing when I went from clothed to topless to fully naked.

How long had you already been taking self-portraits?
I’ve been taking self-portraits since I first picked up a camera when I was 16.

Was it a sexual moment for you when you took your first nude shot?
No, I don’t think it was. I think a lot of my nudes seem sexual, but usually it’s not my intention. It just happens. I mean, I guess it was sexual in a way though, because nudity is sexual, for most people? And I was probably trying to be sexy. When I was young. Sexy in a sad way.

I know just what you mean. I took pictures of myself in lingerie and stuff like that when I was 18 or 19. I certainly hope they do not exist anymore.
Heh. I was actually look through a lot of pictures I’d taken about 10 years ago. They were cute. With lollipops, matching bra and undies, and skate shoes on.

How often, if ever, do you stage a photograph and think about it as a way to provoke (sexual) arousal in someone else?
Hm, sometimes? When I have crushes on people, I’ll find myself making more sexual images, knowing they’ll see them. But then other times, I just feel hot and sexy, and show that. And I think it’s a thing more people should see. I mean, a woman being sexual, a woman being sexual who has all this other stuff attached to her: a job, a husband, sci-fi obsessions, kpop fetishes, book-buying problems, etc. Not an empty sexual face/body.

During the non-sexual times, what interests you about images of your own nude body? Because you employ it in a lot of different context. Or so it seems to me, that you’re trying to evoke a variety of moods.
Yeah, well, that’s why I take self-portraits. To express myself because I’m not really artistically inclined in any other way but feel like I have a lot to get out. Or I guess that’s how it started. Now it’s more like a journal, and I’ve been using my photos to capture moments in my life. I’m naked because I don’t really like wearing clothes. And I find, aesthetically clothes can take away from the emotion of my pictures. I also really like awkward nudes. And nudes in public spaces. I don’t think those are sexual, and I think I do them because… Hm, I was gonna write all this shit about pushing the boundaries of public space and personal experience but really, I just think it’s fun. Maybe that’s lame. But that’s a reason why I do most things.

Does posing nude change the way you think about or relate to your body?
Yeah, I think it does. It makes me hyper-aware of my body. Because I’ve seen it in ways most people have never seen their bodies. I’ve seen it twisted and upside down and splayed open and from every angle and it makes me always aware of what my body is doing, even when there’s no camera. Even when I’m riding the subway, or something. But, like, I love my body. But my body is not what it once was. It is fuller and it has flaws and I love it and I love it. And maybe that intense love comes from knowing it so well?

I think the assumption is that women who model (nude or otherwise) or who present themselves in any way for visual consumption are more prone to suffer from low self-esteem or eating disorders and that type of thing…
It is a common accusation. People constantly tell me I have low self-esteem. As if I wasn’t aware of it? Fuck that. But, I mean, a woman who loves her body? CRAZY!!!! And I know, I’m thin and white and cisgendered so it’s easy for me. Or something. Right. No, it’s not, but it’s still happening.

You mean people leave comments or send emails telling you that you have low self-esteem because you get naked for a camera?
Yes.

Do you ever respond? Do they do it in a disingenuous “I’m concerned about you” way, or does it seem more angry?
Both. But often if comes from people who think they know me. Usually young white males if we want to get precise. But I mean, the amount of messages I get that say, damn girl it’s because of you I’m starting to love my body, out numbers the other types of messages like 200:1

Do you have any thoughts about why it is that men seem to be the ones who want to exhibit concern or anger and try to police the way you’re using/enjoying your body even though theoretically, if they’re straight, they probably find you attractive and enjoy your nudity? I’ve seen similar stuff from men who want to tell me to not be an escort, even though they are clearly really into the fact that I’m an escort. I can’t figure it out.

This question is reminding me of Moonstruck, though it’s different. But how Cher’s mom is really wanting to know why her husband chases other women. And Cher’s fiancee tells her maybe it’s because they’re afraid of dying. I mean, that probably doesn’t really apply in this instance, but I just thought of it. […] But maybe they’re afraid of something else. Or maybe it’s the same reason why some women call other women sluts. Maybe men do it because they don’t understand a woman who doesn’t need a man (or anyone else) to tell her she’s beautiful and worthy. And thus making him obsolete.

I don’t know. I don’t tend to keep the kind of people who have those opinions around for long enough to figure it out.

How do you make the distinction between art and porn? Is that even a distinction you find useful?
I’ve kinda always thought, porn is when there is more than one person and the genitals are being quite active. But I mean, this can be done artfully. And there are some images that have none of that but it’s just tacky, and often tacky means more porny. Though not always. I mean more…mass produced porny.

Have you ever been called a pornographer? Or had someone (a coworker or potential employer or whoever) treat you badly because of your images?
I have been told I make porn by some people. Usually just random internet people though. But whatevs. I’ve never had anyone say anything to my face. Though I heard that at my current job one of my coworkers found my website or something and was all, oh noes! this is a problem! But then my boss was like, really? You really think so? And I guess the person was like, no, I guess not. I don’t know. this is all second hand information so I’m not too sure what really went down. It never really reached me.

Your boss sounds great.
She’s my best friend’s mom and has known me since I was 15. 🙂

How much—if at all—does your personal work with photographs interfere with your role as a (college) teacher? I thought of Canada as being more liberal in this department but then I saw this. Was that the only incident, the one with your coworker?
For me, yeah. I think the teaching at the college level is different than at elementary or high school. Most of my students are older than me. But also, I don’t know, it’s not like I posed for a beer calendar with my shirt off or something. I do it because I want to do it. In a real thorough kind of way. Not to make money. Not to be an actress. I don’t know. Would a school board see that difference? Probably not. Which is too bad because I’d love to be a high school teacher.

I think it could happen. I want to be optimistic about that world being possible.
Me too! I’m tempted to try it, just to see. I could probably play it off like, But I’m an ARTISTE!

While I’m bothered by the classism behind it, the idea that there are people who police “well, this type of nudity is okay but this type is bad for the children!”, I think someone has to get a foot in the door.
Yeah. Though that sort of stuff is complicated for me. I have difficulty determining what is appropriate for children to see. Would I want children seeing my work? Maybe if someone taught them sex ed for god’s sake. Which they aren’t actually taught. Or art. So how are kids supposed to know the difference between art and porn? Or, can’t we give them the tools to determine this for themselves?

Diversity’s becoming more and more of a point of discussion, particularly on tumblr, and you sort-of touched on this when you mentioned that you’re white and cisgendered and thin… Do you get a lot of flak for putting the images of yourself out there when lots of people are starting to say they’re sick of images of young, white, thin women?
Yes.

May I ask what form(s) that criticism has taken?
Um, once it was quite harsh, but the person who said it, we kinda reconciled our differences and now seem okay with each other. But that criticism lead to much more concise criticism by people like Laurie Penny. I posted something first on my tumblr, and Laurie replied, and she pointed out a lot of stuff that I hadn’t ever thought of before. But the reason I never thought of it is because no one told me about it. I mean, maybe that sounds naive. And like an excuse, but I had never heard of the word cisgendered before that. I was barely conscious of white privilege. I mean, I sort of knew some things and tried to think critically about things, but, I wasn’t really aware or informed about much. So that whole incident informed me about a lot. But it also didn’t change the way I worked. I do what I do because I want to.

So have you arrived at any conclusions/thoughts about the diversity issue that you’d care to share?
Well, I agree. There is a shit ton of images out there, not just on tumblr but most places in our society of thin, white women, most looking rather vapid and spacey. I’m not into it. I’ve unfollowed people because of their lack of diversity. But I mean, I LIKE diversity, because it reflects my preference in people. I like intelligence. I like personality to come through people in photographs. Do I do my part my posting my body online? Well, what can I do? I am who I am. And like, the most diverse thing about me is I don’t often shave my pubic hair. But who gives a shit? Does that mean I can’t continue to show myself online? No. It doesn’t. It means I continue to do it because I want to. Because, just like everyone else for whom is means more than it might to me, no one can tell me what to do with my body.

Yes. That’s how I feel, as someone who follows your work—I want to support other women claiming their own bodies in whatever way suits them.
Right, though a majority of tumblrs, specifically, posting pictures of women naked, are not women claiming their own bodies. They’re usually uncredited collections of white women. But whatever. It’s also the internet. You can find whatever you seek. And you can stop following whatever you don’t like to see.

It’s like you said about getting emails in which people thank you for making them more at ease with themselves—you are opening the door for some women to feel more comfortable about inhabiting their bodies. I mean, I don’t think all white, thin, young women refusing to pose for pictures would make the world a more welcoming place for larger, older, non-white women to pose either. I think the problem is not that those photos exist, it’s that they’re all that exists.
Oh fuck yes. I agree whole-heartedly.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Molly Peck April 12, 2011 at 8:13 am

Wonderful!

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Amy Goodchild April 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Great interview.
I hope its okay to jump in here…
“Do you have any thoughts about why it is that men seem to be the ones who want to exhibit concern or anger and try to police the way you’re using/enjoying your body even though theoretically, if they’re straight, they probably find you attractive and enjoy your nudity?”
I know there could be any number of reason why men do this, and I’m sure different men have different reasons but I wonder if, for some, it could be that they are confusing respect for women with desexualising women somehow. Perhaps they feel that thinking about women sexually is disrespectful, and they’ve been taught to be nice guys, and respect women… so when they find a woman they respect who is also openly sexual and owns her sexuality, it confuses them?

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