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Jessica Ledwich explores reality with a leaning toward what's morbid – or maybe it's reality itself that's morbid. From a fresh perspective, the Australian photographer portrays in the starkest manner possible the absurdity of our everyday reality: when beauty norms become out of control. Distorting the most contentious topics to make them open to the critic, she uses her talent for images to raise up a voice so often silenced. 

Through her series Covetous and Monstrous Femininity, the woman behind the camera anchors a dark reality into images that mock, or rather force the laugh. Soon, maybe, people will become crazy about Chanel coffins – and what else? Jessica Ledwich puts in front of us our (so cruel) relationship with meat, consumption and beauty. Three (hot) topics that need to be challenged and, most importantly, reappropriated by our generation.

I've read that you've worked a bit as fashion photographer. Could you tell me what did you retain from this experience?
In advertising photography you need to be visually succinct to ensure that the idea you are exploring comes across clearly. Fashion is about selling an ideal. You have to understand how people think in order to sell to them. This kind of framework has been really useful in the development of my photographic art. I have often asked myself “How can I use the familiar codes of fashion and advertising to subvert the message?”
Your photos match the definition of art: revealing what’s so obvious that we even forget about. Who will you cite as your main references? I see lots of techniques borrowed from surrealism.
Meret Oppenheim was a strong early reference, as was Hans Bellmer. I also responded to photographer Guy Bourdin’s unique way of blending surrealism with classic fashion images to create photos that hinted at consumption and the role of desire. His photography was quite radical for the time and I love the sense of dark humour in them. He both seduced and shocked viewers. That being said, I do feel that the imagery was a reflection of the wider cultural attitudes of the times, which presented ‘desirable’ women as sexual provocateurs. I must admit I now roll my eyes when advertising presents women the same way. I know sex sells, but haven’t we developed a little more sophistication in the way we think about what makes a woman desirable?
Would you share with me some of your little tricks – for instance: what is the iPod you composed with meat for the series Covetous really made of?
To be honest, I don’t have any tricks up my sleeves. All of the objects in Covetous were physically made and then photographed. While I initially trained in photography, my arts practice includes sculpture and video. To me, part of the process is the creation of the object. How I want the viewers to engage with an image will dictate whether it is exhibited as a sculpture or as a photograph. With Covetous I felt that the medium of photography was very important to the reading of the work. We desire objects because we see them on the hand of a celebrity, pictured on Instagram or in a magazine. I felt it was important to reflect the medium in which these desires are developed and exploited. The iSPAM was exactly that, an iPod crafted out of gelatine and Spam (tin compressed meat).

“Personally, I believe that make up and heels make women feel more confident because they are conforming to a social norm that is deemed acceptable.”
Let's speak about your series Monstrous Feminine. How did you come with the interest to express yourself on such a topic?
I have always been interested in contemporary attitudes and the way they manifest through popular culture. I read Barbara Creed’s Monstrous Feminine and was intrigued by her examination of how women were portrayed in horror films. This started me thinking about the other ways in which women are portrayed in the wider cultural landscape. How they feel they need to conform to a particular cultural ideal in order to be viewed as ‘desirable’.
Lots of journalists described your series as denouncing the 'pressure of society on women'. I'm aware of the underlying social determinants that affect individual actions. Yet it appears also that women are happy, free and more than themselves by wearing heels or makeup, without thinking about being desirable for others than themselves. Don't you think women are too often considered without agency?
Well, appearances can be deceiving. I’m not sure how one can quantify whether makeup and heels make women happy. Personally, I believe that makeup and heels make women feel more confident because they are conforming to a social norm that is deemed acceptable. The makeup gives us flawless skin and the heels slim our legs because both these things are desirable. Yes, we are doing it because we want to feel good about ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with this. But why can we only feel good about ourselves when we look a particular way?
How do you understand the question of feminism and the so-called 'neo-feminism', embodied by pop stars like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj? They often protest against the common idea of sexy and vulgar seen as weak, and beauty as not smart.
Feminism has paved the way for neo-feminism. Without the actions of the feminists from the 1960s and 1970s demanding equality for women we would not be in the position to question what we are doing now. In many cultures women are fighting for the right to get education and control over their reproductive rights, so defending a ‘woman’s right to be sexy’ is a first world privileged problem. It is very easy for beautiful, rich and successful celebrities to defend the right to be ‘sexy’. However, women are so much more than that.

What strikes me in your photos is that women’s body look seems affected by technology – plastic surgery for instance. Technology and progress are often praised for giving new possibilities to humanity. Would you say that technology is instead ‘locking’ women in new norms of beauty instead of freeing them?
Digital technologies are more powerful in shaping our cultural attitudes than plastic surgery. Cosmetic technologies are merely reflecting the market. Social media platforms such as Instagram are the new mediums in which identities are formed. The notion of a ‘selfie’ is a construct in which to present yourself to the world for as many likes as you can get. When you see millions of images of ‘normal’ people looking a certain way or doing certain things, the pressure to conform is immense.
You seem to pinpoint advertising and fashion for spreading a desirable yet unattainable ideal of beauty. I definitely agree with you, but women have been portrayed in paintings, or 'photoshoped' by painters in ads to refer to a certain ideal since the dawn of time. Today, if you take someone as Kim Kardashian – regardless of what she's done to be that famous –, her curves as quite uncommon in the field of fashion magazines. She actually gives a voice to lots of women that doesn't fit the ‘socially acceptable’ skinny white body. In turn, lots of women want to have the same butt, same lips, etc. You still underlie it in your photos: women are complicit. So, after all, isn't the sheep-like instinct of human being to blame for such quirky habits?
I agree that art has reflected cultural norms throughout the ages. However, it should be noted that all of these early painting were done by men and presented an equally narrow view of women. As Siri Hustvedt quotes, “The history of art is full of women lying around naked for erotic consumption by men.” By nature we (humans) like to feel like we are part of something, so yes, to a certain degree, we are complicit. Nevertheless we need to challenge these views rather than just accept them as the status quo. We need to be reflecting a more diverse vision of women in media and advertising, which is not just for ‘erotic consumption’. This diversity needs to be real and genuine and not just in a tokenistic way so women don’t feel the need to conform to such narrow parameters.

Words
Doria Arkoun

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