To really get inside someone’s mind, you need to get under the sheets. For Polish photographer Aleksandra Karpowicz, this seemed the only logical route to what was really going on in her subjects’ heads. What project could she really sink her teeth into that would be more than standard portraiture? Sex. Obviously.
Karpowicz invited almost 100 people to take the opportunity to reveal their deepest and darkest sexual fantasies, whether it was a persona that they choose to adopt in their sexual lives or one that they aspired to, for her project “Let’s Talk About Sex”.
The starting point was Albert Kinsey research (who many might know from the film Kinsey starring Liam Neeson), which looked at how people behave sexually and classified the data in relation to biological definitions such as gender, age, and sexual orientation, as well as social aspects, such as upbringing, education, religion, or whether you were raised in the city or a village.
Once she had decided on a brief, the next challenge was finding a broad mix of people who would strip down, mentally and physically, for this controversial project. Karpowicz was keen for the work to feature a mix of ages, ethnicities and genders, and unsurprisingly, London proved to be a great city for finding subjects. “I posted the brief on some websites but I also asked lots of random people I saw on the tube, in the street, at parties, in museums, literally anywhere in London! If I saw someone who looked interesting, I gave them my card and told them about the project and many of them got back in touch with me,” she explains.
Prior to coming to their session; models had to answer questions from the brief to create a clear vision in their mind of the sexual character they wanted to portray. “It was an experiment because any role that they chose was some sort of reflection of their subconscious – fear, interest, curiosity, for some reason they’d decided to be this person at the session … But because they are strangers, they can also be themselves, so there’s a play between reality and fantasy.”
Almost none of the subjects were professional models, and only four had met Karpowicz before, so participation in the project was a real leap of faith given the subject matter. “Most of the people felt very awkward in the beginning or were stressed, but I think at the end everyone felt really relaxed and were content with being part of the session. I think it’s my strength that I can make people comfortable, and a lot of people who came didn’t plan to pose topless… but then did in the end!”
The result was 96 photographs (95 models and Karpowicz herself) were assembled into a rectangular format of 12 x 8 portraits, all of which were cropped from the hips up, and shot in black and white, apart from one striking portrait in red. So why was this one different? “From the beginning when I had the vision for the piece, I knew I wanted someone in red but it was just a question of who was going to bring something as part of their props for the shoot. This one guy brought a red outfit and I thought nothing could beat that! So why red? Because red is the only colour that stimulates the human brain in a different way to other colours and has the biggest amount of symbolism depending on the culture, from love or passion to blood, warning, death or pain, so really extreme symbols”, she explains. “Because of all of those reasons, I wanted to have the colour red. When I see how people react to the piece and their interpretation of the red character, it is so interesting because it shows how differently people interpret it depending on their background and who they are.”
The work was shown at the Royal College of Art in October last year and won the Best Portrait Award at the National Open Art Competition, from a selection of 4,000 submissions from across the UK. It then went on to win the Visitors Choice Award, which Karpowicz said she valued even more, since it showed how strongly viewers felt about the work and how interested we secretly are in sex. It was also one of five finalists in the Winter Pride Art Award.
She’s now working on a second edition of the series, to be completed in the coming months. If there’s anything she’s learned from the first edition was that the public had a real appetite to learn more about who these people are, and what their stories were. As a result, Karpowicz is adding an audio installation which will play alongside the two works for her next show. In it she has recreated a number of the stories, but anonymised them sufficiently so viewers wouldn’t be able to match a story to a portrait. “What the models tell me is very private so it’s not going to be exposing anyone, but it will give a sense of the depth of the project so people can hear what I was told,” she explained. Prepare yourself for salacious and painful secrets to come!