Jen Davis's self-portraits call into question our preoccupation with thinness and ask what it means to represent the self.
Jen Davis is a photographer based in New York City. She's produced a thought-provoking series of self-portraits exploring her insecurities and desires. And because our culture values thinness as beauty and because being overweight is considered deviant, she also raises larger questions about what it means to represent the self.
GOOD: Tell me about what you were thinking when you did this project?
Jen Davis: I started making the work in 2002, when I was an undergrad at Columbia College in Chicago. I was always working with another person and saying those photographs were self-portraits—without me in them. I called them “ambiguous narratives.” I would photograph them in a diner or in their apartment to talk about loneliness and isolation and something that was ambiguous. I wasn’t able to talk about the issue of myself, my body, and societal standards of beauty.
GOOD: What changed?
Davis: I read some old journals about how and where I fit into society—how that contrasted with who I was. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have a voice. So I decided it was time for me to turn the camera on myself to talk about the issues I had my body and with food and with how society depicted someone of a larger size.
GOOD: Is there a particular idea that you wanted to convey?
Davis: I didn’t want to become the poster child of this. It was just something I had to do to articulate myself. It was a search for intimacy and acceptance. And it wasn’t something I could do with words. Initially, I was not considering an audience. It was more like a solo project that was being seen and critiqued, but, in that sense, it was therapeutic.
GOOD: What goes into setting up a shot? Why, say, choose a hot dog stand in Chicago?
Davis: That hot dog stand was a place we’d go on weekends and after school. It was just about the light and my body and the process of ordering. The woman in the photo just happened to be there, but it’s contrived. With “Seconds,” I wanted to make a photo that had to do with the ritual of the meal. The light dictated the photo. I came home and saw what the light was doing. The camera is just a witness.
GOOD: Are you feeling conflicted about sitting at the table?
Davis: I titled it “Seconds,” you know. The camera is just gazing on the situation. There’s a sense of removal. I think if there were a man sitting with me, it would have been different. Instead, it’s this woman—a roommate at the time—who’s staring at her plate. I think the intention to deal with food, etiquette, and the subject of eating was something that I had to explore through photography.