Recently I had a photo exhibition at Melbourne’s Brunswick Street Gallery which finished this week. Two weeks fly by pretty quickly. This exhibition is a series of portraits of Wellington’s Kink (BDSM) community that I have been working on for over four years. For stylistic purposes, I chose to shoot this subject matter using constructed portraits and to emulate a cinematic lighting style. This project has been quite a labour of love: as well as spending many hours crafting each individual portrait – including multiple interviews with subjects, location scouting, testing lighting set ups, finding props and roping-in random helpers – I also raised the $2500 exhibition costs through a crowd-funding campaign, along with arranging for the printing, and packaging and shipping of the finished works to Melbourne.
When I arrived at the gallery two weeks ago, I was worried that the images would not fit well in the space. I had printed the images double the size I originally planned for (good thing too as they looked great as A2 prints) and I thought they would be a bit squished in the small space. Melbourne is a long jump over the Tasman from Wellington, so there was no way I could visit the exhibition space beforehand to see how the images would fit. However using my well-honed Blue Peter skills and rummaging through the recycling for a couple of cereal boxes, I managed to craft a scale model of the exhibition space, and quickly found the best layout for the images.
The evening I arrived in Melbourne, after having only three hours sleep the previous night, my curating and hanging skills were a little uncoordinated! Only the next morning, once the images were equally spaced and securely fixed to the wall (thanks to
a little a lot of help from one of the gallery elves) was I relieved to see that they actually looked pretty darn good (and not too squished).
Come the afternoon of the big exhibition opening, as I was preparing the finishing touches to the exhibition space, I was starting to get a little nervous about how the subject matter might be received.
And finally, after a quick clean and polish, things were looking rock steady…
It was a huge relief to see people spending time in the space and reading the captions and information sheets that I had provided. It shows people took a real interest in the work and the story that was being told. It was also very uplifting getting feedback from visitors, with one middle-aged lady thanking me for bringing this work to Melbourne and commenting “it was great to learn about a sub-culture that was so far outside of my realm of experience”. The value of this work was further reinforced by positive feedback the gallery curator had been receiving from visitors throughout the duration of the exhibition:
“I hope all is well! I just wanted to pass on that I have had an incredible amount of visitors express a great deal of gratitude for your exhibition. Our visitors have been learning, and feeling inspired. Your work invites a real personal experience and this has been really meaningful! It’s been exciting to receive all of the feedback.”
With the success of this Melbourne exhibition, I’m still hopeful that I can exhibit this work in Wellington as soon as I’m able to find a gallery space that is willing to show this work.
OK. As you might have noticed by now, this is going to be a rather long blog post, so if you’ve read this far, the actual portrait project as it (for the most part) appeared in the gallery, is shown below:
My background in documentary and editorial photography informs my work as a photographer, and fuels my interest in using visual imagery to tell stories. Curious by nature, I often find myself drawn to subjects that sit outside of cultural norms, or that are socially or environmentally topical. As a photographer, I am driven to make a difference in the world in whatever small way I can, and producing visual stories to provide a platform for discussion and engagement is one way in which I can do this. If people see my images and it has a positive impact on them, or provokes a response, or makes them think, then I believe I have succeeded as a photographer.
BDSM is often perceived as a deviant sexual practice, bordering on pornography. This work is an attempt to defy stereotypes, to show the diversity of individuals that make up the Kink community, and the benefits these practices can bring. Ultimately it is an affirmation of the diversity of sexuality and human relationships. The portraits shown below are a collaboration, and have taken many hours to construct. The exhibition of these images was designed to be the endpoint of this project (and this is the first time that they have been shown on the web).
As the Kink/BDSM community is rife with its own language and terminology, I have include a BDSM Glossary and an Introduction which is intended to be read with the image captions, to understand the accompanying story.
BDSM roles: Sub
Into: Sensation play – touch and sensations, scratching, fingernails, biting, temperature play (ice)
Describes herself as: Introvert, perfectionist, writer, feminist.
“Sexuality in contemporary society can be very confronting and repressed. In the kink community, you are naked. This is everything you represent, accept me as I am, warts and all”.
“Normal social boundaries do not exist in the Kink [BDSM] scene. Breaking these social norms in a community that is supportive and accepting is hugely freeing. The idea of giving up control to another is liberating and simultaneously empowering. You need to be a strong-willed individual to hand over control to someone else”.
Collar: the collar is a very important symbol in the Kink community and there are protocols on it’s meaning and display: it can represent the binding of two partners together; the Sub and the Dom; the Slave and the Master; or simply an artifact representing commitment and deep friendship between two partners within the kink community. It is also used indicate that a ‘play scene’ is about to start and that the ‘sub’ is partnered for the evenings play.
BDSM Roles: Sub, dom, switch
Into: Masochism, impact play, bondage, shibari, kidnapping play.
Describes herself as: Positive, open-minded, happy, quirky.
“I love living a double life in an environment that is non-judgemental, safe, and positive, with trustworthy, open and honest people. It’s nice [being part of the Kink scene] to be surrounded by like-minded people”.
“Pain (see good pain) is a gateway to go through to cleanse the mind, you come out almost being reborn. The negative stresses of everyday life are released. You see things from a different perspective. All mental clutter is gone”.
“It’s about forgetting yourself. Forgetting that you have an ego, that you have thoughts or feelings, it’s almost a religious experience”.
Special thanks to SFX artist Sonia Edney for creating the FX work for this image.
BDSM Roles: Sub, sadomasochist;
Into: Monogamy, edgeplay, needle play, sadism, masochism
Describes herself as: Secret geek, dabbler in many kinks but master of none.
A total of 152 sterile, fine-gauge hypodermic needles are inserted through Melancholiq’s skin. Pierced through rather than into the skin, the needles trigger the release of endorphins in response to the pain they create.
Needle play is becoming one of the most popular forms of BDSM play. A form of Edgeplay, needle play can be used as a form of self-expression, imitating tribal rituals for the purpose of spiritual self-discovery, or for sexual pleasure. As part of BDSM practice, needle play can produce an intense natural endorphin high which can last for hours and can induce orgasm in many of the people who experience it.
“The main attraction to [needle play] is the endorphin rush that I get from it. It is painful, but more or less so depending where the needles go in. Areas with more fat hurt less whereas areas where the needle accidentally hits muscle hurt a lot as muscles are particularly sensitive, and can cause intense pain. I try to keep them just under then skin”.
“What I also like is the challenge. I like to see if I can outdo myself from last time”.
Lexa and Damien
BDSM roles: Sub, dom, polyamory
Into: Impact play, bondage, wax play
Describes herself as: Over-thinker, caring, involved, sexy
Describes himself as: Hard working, adventurous, sexual, affectionate
“At a time in my life when work was very demanding and stressful, I found that the play scenes in the kink community were a good way to release the tension from my work life and to help relieve the anxiety which I have recently begun to experience”.
“We began exploring group play and this led to finding FetLife and the local kink community. We began experimenting with flogging, chains, ropes and other types of restraints, plus sensation play such as using wax”.
“The sense of welcome that we felt from the community was great and it was a very safe place to explore and discover what we liked”.
“I am also polyamorous and have another male partner. The polyamorous side of my relationship I have had to learn how to manage with timing, communicating, emotional needs and also considering the impact this has on our son, aged four, with another man being involved in his life”.
“BDSM and being submissive really supports the management of my anxiety. By giving up control to one of my lovers completely and being restrained, I trust them to follow the preset boundaries and I don’t have to worry about being on top of everything. I can give myself up to the play”.
BDSM Roles: Top
Into: Shibari, Flogging, Needle Play
Describes himself as: Kinkster who lives the life when I can
Duncan hangs from four large hooks temporarily pierced into his upper back, known in the trade as a suicide suspension. The hooks are attached to ropes strung through a rig. The fresh piercings bleed a little, but the rush of endorphins the brain produces in response numbs any pain, and under the guidance of fellow practitioners, Duncan is slowly and carefully lifted into the air. After the apprehension and the pain, comes an intense euphoria, a blissful state of being.
Skin suspension, a subset of the growing practice of body modification, has its roots in native traditions and tribal ceremonies – from the ancient Hindu festival Thaipusam, to the Mandan tribe on the banks of the Missouri River – and has been practiced for at least 5000 years.
Was this your first attempt at skin suspension and have you tried anything similar to this before?
“Yes, it was my first skin suspension. I had been suspended in rope before this, which I think is totally a different beast itself”.
What is it that interests or attracts you to perform skin suspension?
“Over the years, I have seen several suspensions around the kink scene in Wellington, my interest has grown over the years from “God that must hurt” to “Why?” to “Why do they look so peaceful and happy while they are suspended?”.
In the image, you look pretty blissed, can you describe your experience of skin suspension, the state of mind you experienced and what the practice/experience means to you?
“The endorphin rush was huge and I was up on a high for at least a couple of days. I think some people would relate this as a spiritual experience . I found it to be an inward experience as your mind is saying your skin is not supposed to be doing this, but you know it will, so it is a bit of mind fuck. Other than that all I remember was relaxing in to the slight discomfort at the time”.
Many of these body modification practices have their roots in ancient tribal cultures and customs, why do you think there’s a revival and growing interest in these experiences in modern day culture?
“I think the revival of these practice is a good thing, whether you are in it for the spiritual side or you do it as a rite of passage, as long as it is done safely with sterile equipment and all the other rigour that makes this a safe experience”.
“Why do I think there is a revival? I think people are lost in the impersonal fast paced world and are searching to find themselves, not a bad way to centre you self, in my opinion”.
BDSM Roles: Sub, dom, switch, transgender
Into: Impact play, flogging, bondage, sensation play
Describes herself as: Exhibitionist, husband, father
Diane has felt the need to be a woman all of her life. As a woman, she becomes a different person. She feels more comfortable and more herself. Living a transgender existence has its emotional challenges as Diane is forced to live a dual life: loving husband and devoted father, while dabbling in her transgender identity when she is away from family and friends.
Diane tried to live a ‘normal’ life, but the expression of her feminine side was too hard to resist. The first few public outings as ‘Diane’ were terrifying but she felt compelled not to hide her true self. Websites like FetLife helped Diane to find a community of people who also felt trapped by their own gender. She soon realised that she was not alone and found the opportunity to meet people in the BDSM scene who were more open-minded and accepting, which enabled Diane to live out her dream of being the hostess of a dinner party, and to indulge in her family fantasies of cooking, cleaning, and shopping for other people.
“I’ve always felt this way, but I always knew that I had to hide it. I’ve known this since I was eight years old and it’s fundamental to my being. I can’t repress this forever”.
“As a woman, there are more clothes to choose from to express yourself. The colours make me feel so happy and alive”. “If you are constantly wearing the wrong clothes, it’s difficult to be yourself”.
“It’s not just dinner. Afterwards somebody gets tied-up or spanked, and everyone else watches. There’s lots of fun and laughter. There are no inhibitions and people are not afraid of their imperfect bodies”.
“What I’m looking for is acceptance, so I expect everybody else to be accepting”.
BDSM Roles: Switch
Into: Dressing up (high-heeled boots, corsets, leather, bondage gear), heavy impact play, sensation play.
Describes herself as: Vivacious, bookworm, bold, fun, alternative, exhibitionist, flamboyant, extrovert.
Whips, corsets and high-heeled PVC boots are some of the things Chrissi loves about being part of the kink scene. “Dressing up is all part of the fun”. Her first experience of BDSM and alternative lifestyles was from attending the ‘Southern Exposure’ conference in Christchurch in 2006.
“Something just clicked. I met all sorts of interesting twisted and kinky folk, and have never felt more open and comfortable with myself”.
After sleeping in bed with a dog lead attached to her ankle and having to ask permission to go to the toilet, Chrissi soon discovered that being submissive is not part of her personality.
“It was an interesting journey. We worked out that I have submissive qualities but I’m not a submissive person.” “The relationship didn’t work out too well. It was definitely a control thing (dominance/submission) for him. I learned a lot about myself though and met a lot of good friends along the way”.
Chrissi is a “switch” so is equally comfortable being tied up and beaten, or doing the tying and the beating. Roles between playing tops and bottoms change depending on play partners and their dynamic.
“It all comes down to the dynamic”.
“It can be very liberating having a group of friends where you don’t need to hold back on conversations and pushing boundaries and exploring limits”.
“Your body is in a super-sensitive state for up to an hour after a play scene, like heavy impact flogging, so the endorphin rush, or subspace as it is known in the trade, puts you in an interesting place”.
“The bruises are like a trophy or memento of the play”.
BDSM roles: Sub, bottom, switch.
Into: Shibari, bondage, sensation play, wax play, polyamory
Describes herself as: Mother, playful, cheeky, energetic.
Often abbreviated as ’poly’ in the kink scene, polyamory is the practice, desire or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship simultaneously, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. With polyamorous relationships, the complexity of human relationships and dealing with the web of emotions can add significant challenges to poly relationships. Rules and boundaries are established for the multiple relationships to co-exist and function fluidly and each person in the relationship commits to values such as openness, acceptance, and honesty. Through the practicing of these values, powerful bonding may occur between the individuals in the poly relationships.
As Bex points out from her own experience, “polyamory requires a strict set of rules if the relationships are to flourish and each partner must establish their reasons and requirements for going into the relationship”. “It can be a balancing act, as strong emotions arise when dealing with human fears and desires. Strong feelings of attachment, jealousy and possessiveness can be confronting when they arise between different partners in poly relationships. However, by establishing rules at the beginning and committing to open and honest communications, can help keep these conflicting emotions in check”.
For Bex, joining the polyamorous community has taught her a lot about human relationships, and about how to overcome a whole swathe of complex emotions through spending long periods with multiple partners.
“I feel very capable of handling most problems life can throw at me because of the emotional maturity poly relationships can bring”. “Living together as a trio does require a big leap of faith. You have to put a lot of trust in each other. However, it can bring many benefits that a traditional, monogamous relationship doesn’t offer”.
Wax and Rope
In the Wellington kink scene, Bex mainly participates in wax play and Shibari. With wax play, the wax is applied by a play partner using burning candles to drip hot, liquid wax on different areas of the body, which produces a tolerable amount of pain. The sensations of the wax tingling the skin vary as the wax is applied more liberally, producing a hypersensitive state known as subspace, as the sensations gradually build upon one another.
Practitioners of modern Shibari rope play create intricate geometric patterns and shapes designed to flow with the body’s natural curves. The rope placements can also create physiological experiences known as “subspace” and “topspace”, an effect similar to runners high.
“Being tied up during rope play can release a flood of feelings of calmness and serenity”. “The restriction caused from being tied-up and made immobile creates an act of surrender, not of helplessness but of surrendering your control. You have to place great trust in the person performing the suspension”.
“Kink is such an open society that it allows people to have such self-experimental journeys of discovery in an accepting environment. It’s very liberating”.
“Being a part of the kink community is the most accepted I have ever felt because I can simply be myself. Everyone is so open-minded”.
BDSM roles: Sub, slave, bottom, sadomasochism, polyamory
Into: Pain and sensation play, sensory deprivation, heavy flogging, beating, whipping, rubber, bondage and breath control.
Describes himself as: veterinary surgeon, conservationist, sane, sexual extremist, queer, pervert.
“The feeling of being trapped, of being totally at the mercy of somebody else” is what partially attracts Andy to the BDSM scene.
“The clothes – such as tight leather, PVC, or a sleep sack (a piece of material used to totally enclose the whole body, and designed for sensory deprivation) – increases anticipation and excitement, the sensation of every touch is magnified”. “My imagination goes wild with excitement, when I’m deprived of my senses”.
An extreme sports enthusiast, Andy gets the mental highs he craves through adventure sports such as rock climbing, paragliding and motorcycling.
“These activities, while exciting, require your full attention. They are fully absorbing and mentally stimulating, and for the same reasons, this is what attracts me to the BDSM scene”.
The same rules apply. Pain turns into pleasure.
“I’m into safe fear. In BDSM, you have to be able to implicitly trust the ‘top’ or master entirely. Play with a master provides a very safe pain (see good pain). This way I can get the sexual excitement I enjoy without any risk”.
“It’s a big trust thing. Completely giving over your control to someone else. Building this kind of trust with a master and being pushed to the limit of pain and pleasure”.
Tom and Jayne
BDSM Roles: Sub, dom, top, bottom
Into: Bondage, sensation play, wax play, flogging, polyamory.
Describes herself as (Jayne): Vanilla but experimenting.
Describes himself as: Partner, father, greeny, programmer, handyman friend.
In the language of BDSM, Tom is a Top, which is primarily about being in control and is someone who “gives” rather than “receives”. Tom likes hurting people who like to be hurt. Tom is polyamorous and has a relationship with his play partner, which is purely consensual, and sensation play – flogging, scratching, whipping, wax play, and chains – is all part of the fun.
For Tom’s life partner Jayne, her journey into the world of Kink has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. Being ‘vanilla’ in BDSM parlance (a term denoting a person who has standard or conventional sexual behaviour), Jayne’s journey into the kink scene has been a baptism by fire.
To open a strong, loving, 16-year relationship to another sexual partner, to share the person who knows your most intimate thoughts and frailties, someone with whom you have entrusted your life, to another, takes great strength and courage. It was an emotional and psychological learning curve for Jayne, as she battled with feelings of jealousy, fear, insecurity, inadequacy, loss and low self-esteem.
To enter into a open, polyamorous relationship requires serious trust and commitment, the negotiation of boundaries within the relationships, and the development of a distinct set of values, such as truth, honesty, trust, respect, and open communication, with which to live by.
During this journey of self-discovery, Tom has been Jayne’s rock during this transition in their relationship: constant, calm and supportive. Their commitment to each other has grown, and together, with open minds and open hearts, they walk the rocky road into the unknown.
Tom and Clare
“I see my role as being Tom’s kink outlet and partner at BDSM events. Tom and Jayne have privately managed their own relationship and in fact have been careful not to involve me in their challenges. We agreed rules at the outset. Over time, we have all negotiated changes to the rules as the situation has evolved. I have also developed a friendship with Jayne where we meet periodically to catch up and discuss any questions or issues that have arisen.”
All three participants in this situation discuss issues and negotiate freely to ensure that everyone’s needs are considered and met, as far as possible. Clare and Jayne also communicate together and meet from time to time for a friendly catch-up. While opening their relationship has at times been challenging for Tom and Jayne, the outcome for all three has been rewarding, and overall the bond between Tom & Jayne has deepened and strengthened. Their commitment to each other has grown, and together, with open minds and open hearts, they greet their future, whatever it may bring.