Privacy

Online Nudity, Exposure on the Web: Essay (German version published in the Berlin Tagesspiegel)

daily portrait berlin

.

I spent time in Toronto and New York, I’m a literary translator… but I only translate English to German, and most of my journalistic texts are written in German.

There is one article that English-speaking friends ask me about nearly every day.

So I decided to do a quick and rough translation into English:

My original article was printed in the Berlin Tagesspiegel. “Nackt im Netz. Was es heißt, sich zu entblößen” (Online Version: Nov 5th, 2016)

.

Nude, Online

As a teenager, I panicked when I had to be naked in front of others. Aged 33, I used an art project to confront my fears.

I had my first kiss with 21. I first had sex with 26. I first had good sex with 29; barely four years ago. Now, nude pictures of me are online, on Tumblr and Twitter. I can’t control who sees or spreads them. For many people, that would be a nightmare.

For me, it was a choice.

.

I: The “Daily Portrait” Project

.

I’m in a woman’s room, but don’t know anything about the person who lives here; and I won’t meet her today. By the window, her boyfriend Fatih is taking off his clothes. Fatih has just spent two weeks in Turkey to visit his family. I met him eight minutes ago. We talk in English: While I mount an expensive camera on a tripod, Fatih shows me a large flute from Turkey, an old book, a bow and an arrow… props that he wants to use for his photo session. It takes me about twenty minutes to shoot ten or twelve nude pictures.

Two hours later, the picture that both of us like most is displayed online: a thoughtful man with shaved pubes stands between a potted plant and lots of girlish knickknacks, bright windows in his back. He has raised the bow, aims the arrow to a wall that is barely two feet away. It’s an absurd pose that tells a lot about Fatih’s self-image, the decoration style of his girlfriend and about body images, masculinity and ideas of “authenticity” in Berlin, 2016.

In 2012, Czech photographer Martin Gabriel Pavel photographed friends and strangers in a studio in Prague; one portrait a day, for one year. He only showed their heads and upper bodies. This was the first round of his “Daily Portrait” project. Men displayed their naked chests, women wore bras. In 2013, Pavel took daily polaroids in public places around Prague. Once again, his subjects were mostly young local people. In 2014, for “Daily Portrait 3”, he covertly took quick daily digital snapshots of tired commuters on the Prague subway.

Only now, for “Daily Portrait 4”, taken over an 18-month period in 2015 and 2016, Pavel stopped taking the shots himself. Initially, on a visit to Berlin, he took some portraits of new acquaintances. But quickly, he wondered: Why not give up control? From mid-2015 to early October 2016, Pavel’s digital camera was passed through Berlin, from one stranger to the next.

One day, a stranger showed up at your door and took a photo of you. Afterwards, he or she left the camera with you; and the next day, you we assigned another stranger to visit, take their nude picture and leave the camera with them: a roundabout of Berliners, taking pictures of complete strangers in their homes. Pavel only e-mailed the instructions and the contact data. He maintained the project’s blog, Flickr, Tumblr and Facebook pages and coordinated everyone’s e-mail, but was only present to take the first picture in 2015 and to be the subject of the very last picture in 2016. Some of the participants posed in their underwear. But most of them, as intended by the project, are pictured naked.

I had noticed the project through newspapers and blogs, through the popular Facebook page and because images from the project spread through Tumblr and showed up in many erotica blogs, both straight and queer. In January 2016, I recognized a friend in one of the pictures, and for weeks, I rather pitied her: “Was she mocked? Are people disappointed? What was the worst consequence once people saw that she decided to had her picture taken?”

I wondered how I would deal with glances, reactions, judgements about my body – and judgements because I chose to display myself in such a public project.

In mid-September, my father turned 60. He wanted to celebrate with everyone. He still lives where I grew up, in a village in Southern Germany, populated by less than 2000 people. Some of them already follow my public writing, my blog or my instagram, and think of me as arrogant or narcissistic. To me, it was unthinkable to participate in “Daily Portrait” before my father’s party, and then travel home to confront these people.

In the end, I needed lots of time. I finally took the courage to e-mail Martin Gabriel Pavel, but did not hear back from him for two weeks. I assumed the project had already been completed once 366 pictures appeared online. Then, surprisingly, Martin sent me a very quick e-mail: Was I still up for this? I could become photo subject number 372 and then shoot photo number 373, Fatih.

While I took Fatih’s picture, I asked Fatih when he decided to participate himself. “Only yesterday. I e-mailed Martin at the airport in Turkey.” This is how nearly all the people who make projects like these work seem to function: They’re spontaneous, playful, confident, direct. It took me seven months to decide to have my picture taken. In the finished photo, I’m tense and seem to eye something just out of frame, to my right – as if there was not just a stranger in my room, photographing me. But also a scorpion. Or a snake. Or all the people from my father’s birthday party.

.

II: Exposure = Humiliation?

.

Even before hitting puberty, I was anxious in locker rooms. My heart raced and I was afraid of nervous involuntary boners. What if some deplorable hides or steals my clothes? What if I ridicule myself by being naked? Why do I lack all self-esteem and turn into a wet blanket the moment crowds can observe my body? I knew that once this panic became obvious to others, they would exploit it. So I did everything to appear calm.

I have never been more thin-skinned or vulnerable in front of other people than in these moments after gym or swim class. Even today, my wardrobe serves as an armor, a corset that holds me up. Once nude, I am all nerves. I panic – because I have to try my hardest not to panic.

In my family, nudity is no big taboo. I have no childhood trauma; my parents were pretty great about sex ed. When I was eight or nine, a group of giggling girls ripped off my clothes at a birthday party where I was the only boy – but at the time, I thought of this as a silly, needlessly nasty prank. Nothing sexualized. Some years later, once boys nonchalantly got in and out of their swimming trunks or took a very public nude shower – voluntarily, and seemingly without any fear or discomfort, even after very quick, not that sweat-inducing single-period gym classes – I was envious and bewildered: Why did they have such thick skin? Was it just me who saw undressing as a HUGE thing?

Every since I saw nude people on TV, I thought of nudity as a power game.

On TV shows and movies from the 80s and 90s, nude scenes are often about humiliation and control. One scene from “Police Academy 2” has the sporty, boorish heroes have their revenge on a scrawny, brainy and tense instructor by replacing his shampoo bottle with epoxy. Gleefully observed by all these enemies, the older guy has to stumble through HIS precinct, both hands glued to his ruined hair, defenseless, naked, surrounded by sadists who won’t stop laughing.

Then, there was “Mann-o-Mann”, a dating show where male candidates who weren’t masculine enough were eliminated through spiteful “girls” that pushed everyone into a swimming pool. No one had to undress – but when they emerged, drenched and dripping, I had a hard time understanding why the audience enjoyed their fall. Regularly, TV invited me to laugh at “unmanly” outsiders: often men who were deemed too nerdy or cerebral. Good-looking, “normal” guys stole or ruined these guys’ clothes, and the masses loved the humiliation.

Some of my childhood’s greatest idols – I immediately connected to them: they seemed extremely brave – were the hapless and reserved older dads and teachers invited to “Hanna-Barbera-Party”, a low-rent German “Disney Club”-type of variety show: Every week, one malicious kid, to celebrate their birthday, challenged some (usually male) authority figure to sit in a public “gunge chair”. Host Metty Krings plus a guy dressed as Yogi Bear plus whole classes of sadistic, angry, power-drunk school mates smiled as this “birthday kid” pulled a lever. Now, the dad or teacher had to show his friendliest “All is well. It’s all in good fun!” face… while being drenched in green gunge. Growing up, I knew that many kids saw me as exactly the kind of stiff and tense know-it-all person who deserved that kind of public treatment.

Today, I’m naked, online. Is this my way to search out “slime shower”-like situations voluntarily – and get them over with? Am I giving up control – to prevent the humiliation and loss of control that I have feared since childhood? A loss of control that, in the end, was never forced upon me, anyways?

If celebrities undress – does it diminish them? So often, characters undress. To make things worse, they sometimes HAVE to undress – for an audience of spiteful onlookers. I can hardly bear to watch these moments of submission. To me, it’s an absurdly heroic, dramatic sacrifice. Videos of military hazings, fraternity rituals, bullying make me angry; and when such scenes are staged, I’m perplexed: Voluntarily naked people (often: movie stars) lend their naked bodies to portray involuntarily naked people (often: victims). Should I pity the characters, or admire the actors?

In 1995’s magical realism drama “Powder”, Sean Patrick Flanery, an omnipresent teen idol and pretty-boy of the 1990s, plays a bald, albino-pale outsider with secret mental powers. A pack of jealous and hateful small-town jocks strip him and push him into mud puddles. I couldn’t believe that someone as conventionally pretty as Flanery, star of “Young Indiana Jones”, at the height of his teen idol career decided to shave his head, get covered in white make-up and show his penis in one of the least flattering nude scenes I know.

Similarly, I could not understand what made 20-year-old Drew Barrymore agree to display her nipple to photographer David LaChapelle, or Sharon Stone to show her vagina in “Basic Instinct”: To me, Stone’s half-a-million-dollar salary seemed barely enough to make up for the humiliation.

For five seasons, Guillermo Diaz played a sexy and charismatic drug dealer in “Weeds”. In 2010, he modeled for an indie gay magazine that displays naked amateurs, “Pinups”. He’s traipsing through an apartment and fiddles with a record player in the nude: a typical “gay bear”, his penis rather small. His career and his standing as sex symbol didn’t suffer. Will such public, surprising displays of nudity make celebs smaller? Or can they make them bigger: multi-dimensional, more complex?

.

a1

.

This is only 1/4th of the text. I will continue the translation over the next few days, until the complete article is online. For now, here is a brief summary:

.

When I was a kid, there was a lot of “embarrasment nudity” on TV:

Shows or movies where powerless people were stripped.  

I started to admire these people, especially if they were famous: There is no reason that someone like Sharon Stone or Drew Barrymore had to show their body to a kid like me.

Often, the context of their nudity felt humiliating. Still: These people were brave enough to expose themselves like that, and I admired them for it.

I got older, more confident and independent – but I still thought: “Being nude, publicly, would be the worst thing that could happen to me.”

But gradually, I asked myself: Why is this such a big deal to me? What’s the worst that could happen if someone saw a nude picture of me?

For decades, I’ve admired people who had no hang-ups about nudity. And even though I have *massive* hang-ups about nudity myself and I consider this a huge deal, I finally tried it myself, and it felt like an important step:

In the end, it’s just my body. Being nude felt cathartic, and I’m glad that I did the same “brave” thing that I admired other people for.

.

tagesspiegel stefan mesch

the original, German version of the essay. my photo for the article was taken by Mike Wolff.