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Bodies that speak

· ​Artists ·

Women of various ages, provenances and social classes tell their stories and offer themselves to the gaze of the camera lens without being afraid of showing rings under their eyes, stretch marks, scars or too many kilos: normal women photographed in natural poses are the protagonists of the photographic project entitled The Honest Body Project. This project was born in 2015, in a little town of Florida, from an idea of the photographer Natalie McCain.

Women who initially came from the McCain community in Florida told the photographer their stories of joyful or anguishing motherhood, of release from violence suffered, of resistance to illnesses been through, of depression only recently left behind, of mourning, of shame, of the fight against social conventions: this time the physical imperfections shown, the story behind the photos, constitute their strong point, – since they are a unifying and honest factor – hence the title of the project. The bodies of the women photographed, in showing a beauty in its natural state, flee from every “ought to be”, from every standard of beauty imposed by a power for the most part male; they are strong in a life experience that is mirrored in their physicality.

It is precisely from the accounts of the women who contacted her that Natalie McCain started and drew inspiration in order to begin to visualize within herself the photographic portrait she would take: the success of the photo was thus determined by the success or failure of this emotional connection between words and images. McCain harked back to the photography of Brandon Stenton, the author of the very popular blog Humans of New York, for the emotional impact and the intention to recount the authentic life experience of ordinary people through the artistic intuition of associating images and text.

The black and white technique used for the portraits of the Honest Body Project, in addition to black, chosen as the only colour of underwear, composes frescos of a Caravaggo-like kind in which the light sculpts and makes the figure emerge which always and only stands out against a dark background: the spectators’ attention is not focused on the anatomical details, but rather on the emotive energy which the portrayal releases. The bodies, photographed in their “natural imperfection” instead of in a deformed physicality, are presented as true and proper “romances of formation”, testimonies of lives which have often been painful and challenging but are always “inthe process of becoming”, hence combative and trusting.

The Honest Body Project therefore gives a voice to the reaction of women to the tyranny of depersonalization, to uniformity on pain of exclusion, underlining instead as crucial the personal choice, the challenging of conventions, the daily effort to realize in the face of everything and everyone that in their own hearts they consider themselves to be right. As, for example, in the case of the portraits with children at the breast, of women who have decided to extend breastfeeding, challenging a now sadly widespread social embarrassment; or in the case of very young girls who, left pregnant by their partners, have opted not to have an abortion but to struggle to bring up their children on their own; or in the case of mothers out of shape after having had a baby, but nevertheless fulfilled and smiling. Natalie McCain insists on this particular image, in order to contrast the unrealistic and harmful pressure that weighs on women “to return to what they were before”, as if wishing to wipe out with the swipe of a sponge the signs of the radical physical and mental experience that pregnancy is. Lastly, it is up to mothers today to pass on healthy images of the body to the next generation of women and men who are growing up, in order to teach them to show their own truth without fear, to bring them up in this way with respect for otherness.

In this project, divided into various sections each of which concerns a specific theme, the most striking in fact are the photos of mothers, portrayed in white and black, beside their children: women who do not hide from the camera’s lens the scars of caesarean sections, the stretch marks and overweight caused by pregnancy, the exhaustion due to their daily caring. Yet these “normal mothers” appear radiant, even though their stories tell of the suffering they have been through; the “non-glossy” photo shows them full of beauty and energy beside their children while their natural poses, lack of makeup or any particular article of clothing cause the positive energy of a past finally legitimized and no longer censured to explode.

This also applies to the portrait of a woman who is recounting her struggle against cancer and was not afraid to be photographed with her breast disfigured, posing with her children, in the name of those who tell of having fought illness: children who pose with her and look at her serenely and full of life. The same can be said of the portraits of mothers and autistic children, those with Down’s syndrome, with mental retardation or cystic fibrosis: mothers and children who at last emerge from the anonymity in which shame, exhaustion and fear had confined them and show themselves to the lens free to be what they are.

The most touching section of the series The Honest Body Project is certainly that of mothers who have lost a child. Natalie McCain, aware of the importance of sharing it, has photographed their sorrow, usually passed over in silence by the media: indeed, a great many women have found themselves in this experience of mourning and leaving a comment at the end of the photographic series have begun to face the isolation, pain, and the very taboo of talking about death.

The success of this photographic initiative has been so important that last August a publication came out entitled The Honest Body Project: Real Stories and Untouched Portraits of Women & Motherhood, in which, in 234 pages of photos and stories, “real women” have begun to repossess their own bodies and their own experiences without any censorship or retouching.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019