There are many things Trevor Christensen has in common with the woman in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Standing Female Nude, both bearing ‘belly nipple arse’ in the name of art. There is, however, one crucial difference: Christensen is the artist, not the sitter.
Freelance photographer, Trevor Christensen initially joked about being a “hapless photographer” who assumed that nude portraits consisted of the photographer being the naked one instead of his subjects, thus sowing the seeds for his peculiar interpretation of the nude portrait.
Initially expecting an extremely liberal artist fervently insisting that the organic rawness of the naked form was nothing to shy away from, Christensen’s refreshing confession, stressing that he isn’t “a dude who gets naked a lot”, makes his bizarre experiment all the more fascinating; the sitter not just reacting to his nakedness, but to his vulnerability as well.
Despite challenging traditional notions of subject and photographer, the photographing process is surprisingly a normal. The half an hour portrait sessions become less awkward after the first five minutes. That is, until “[he stands] up and you’d be like, ‘Oh right. He has a penis I can see.” Christensen experiences a similar kind of rude awakening. “I’m concentrating on photography and talking to them, and just trying to take them through the process, and then I’ll walk around and […] I’m gonna be crass, but like my dick hitting my leg and it’s like, ‘Oh shit, what am I doing’.”
Polite, laid-back and gentlemanly, Christensen stresses that all his sitters know what they’re getting into beforehand. “I don’t think it’s very fair to just surprise people like that,” he explains simply. Not all of his friends are so willing to sit for him, though, and Christensen has had close friends who he thinks would have hilarious reactions decline. While believing that the project brings him closer to his subjects, Christensen still keeps very realistic expectations, being mature and understanding as to reasons why his friends might shy away from the idea: “I’m from Utah. Most of my friends are either Mormon or have a pretty conservative background and there are just too many hang-ups to ever get them to be quite okay with that.”
However, ever since his project went viral, there has been an overwhelming number of complete strangers asking to be photographed, which has shocked Christensen. “I don’t even know if I would be willing to do something […] like this, you know?”
Interestingly, eighty percent of people asking to be sitters have been women. Is it flattering? “I don’t know… I don’t what it is…” he answers cautiously, suspicious of any attempts to catch him being the least bit arrogant. “I would like to think [it] must mean I’m hot shit,” he concedes, laughing. Acknowledging that there must be a demographic who are attracted to “long-haired [photojournalists]”, he maintains that, “I don’t think a woman in Illinois is contacting me because she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I want this hot naked guy to walk around and take my picture.’ I don’t think it hurts, but I don’t think that’s the reason why anyone has contacted me.”
What proved surprising about this statistic were the antithetical reactions of the men and women whom he shot. “I think with the men, it’s just sort of like, ‘Oh, there’s a naked guy. Don’t wanna see that. With the women, I think […] when I walk out naked, you can’t fully prepare yourself.” Christensen then elucidates that there is certain camaraderie with his male sitters that no woman has yet been able to be comfortable enough to achieve: “It’s easier just to talk about my penis because like, that’s kind of the thing that we’re both thinking about, we should probably just bridge that.”
Though Christensen was more often than not charmingly scatter-brained when answering questions, when we broached the hypothetical possibility of a female photographer attempting his project, he hit his stride, answering with an intellectual verbosity, once again testament to the great amount of thought and sensitivity to the gender politics surrounding his fun experiment. “So I’m a white, straight, twenty-five year old man and I pretty much think that those are all things that are to my benefit when it comes to doing a project like this […] So if you were pretty much anything other that what I am, I think this project would be much different.” Not once does he get lost in his conviction, constantly reiterating how privileged his circumstance is to be able to embark on this project.
Admitting that he occasionally gets frustrated at people sexualising his photos and trying to read sexual pleasure in his sitters’ reactions, he recognises how much more they would be sexualised if they were by a female photographer. “I bet more people would be willing to pose for her and I bet they would be eighty percent men.”
Although Christensen’s ‘nude’ portraits don’t actually contain nudity, he argues that it actually augments the sexual dimension of the photographs. Justifying this using a metaphor, he says convincingly, “It’s like a scary movie where the thing you create in your head is always much more terrifying than whatever is shown on the screen.
So I think it actually heightens the sexuality a lot […] I have photos that make me a sexual god and I have photos that make me look like a […] just a flaccid, withering infant, depending on what you’re bringing to the table just because the expression looks like either she’s terrified or bemused at best.”
The compelling element of this series, then, is the initial bewilderment at the seemingly pedestrian portraits, learning about what is actually behind the camera and then going back to the same pictures, scouring for any clues that would suggest that the photographer is, in fact, stark naked. This strange take on the otherwise familiar trope of the nude portrait exemplifies the type of art Christensen loves and what he aspires toward as a photojournalist, “[wanting] to show people something that they’ve seen before in a new light”. Divorced from context, “the photos that went viral are not very good photos”. They rely heavily on the supporting concept to make them the compelling images they are.
Christensen may shy away from being called an artist, humbly commenting that “doing anything that can be considered fine art is really outside of [his] understanding”. But managing to produce an incredible series of photographs that tickle, tantalise and thought-provoke has been a substantial aesthetic achievement and he certainly has the mind – and heart – of an artist. “A photo that gives you an answer is fine, but a photo that causes you to ask more questions is always preferable to me.”