Known online as Babydilf, Emil Cañita has been sharing photographs of themselves and their lovers for some time now. Guided by their experience as a queer sexual health professional and sex worker, Instagram has acted as a diary of sorts for the young artist — a place where they can share and explore the innermost aspects of the human experience.
Their photographs are richly imbued with layers of personal memories and recollections. Through the lens of the camera, Cañita invites us to bear witness to other stories, other bodies, other souls. It’s an exercise of radical empathy — one that asks us to keep an open mind and an open heart at all times. Their solo show continues at MARS Gallery until March 30th, so we took the opportunity to speak with the artist about sex, gloryholes, health, and more.
Can you remember the first time you showed work in a gallery?
The first time I showed anything was at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia. During Covid-19, they staged a show called Making Art Work. The director at that time, Liz Nowell, was such an advocate for my work. At the time, I had mostly been showing my work on Instagram, but she approached me and was like, “Hey, why don’t you come over to my office? Let’s talk about your art. I'd really love to create a publication with you.” At the time, I was so inexperienced, so I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t even relate to the works as art — I was just showing what I like to create.
Your current show at MARS Gallery is centred around your encounters with men as a sex worker, and your experience of getting a gloryhole installed in your apartment during Covid-19. What inspired you to document these experiences?
I've always seen kink porn as something that other people do on the Internet, but not something that I would ever do. But I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a gloryhole — the anonymity, the facelessness. It’s just so interesting to me as a sexual practice, and it’s been deep in my subconscious for a long time.
If you don’t mind me sharing a bit about my trauma, I was raped from when I was nine to thirteen by a family friend. As an adult, I had mentioned it to my psychologist, but I had never actually unpacked it. Then one day in 2021, I brought it up again to my psychologist, this time with the intention of working through it.
That’s so tough. How did that go?
So, we started this treatment called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement, Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It’s a psychological treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the side effects of doing this treatment is that you have nightmares for a whole week, because it basically unlocks your subconscious. And during the week, I had this really bizarre dream about owning a gloryhole. I just remember waking up from that dream the next day with such a strong desire to own one. I immediately hit up a couple of my friends that were carpenters and we had one built in my apartment that weekend.
The following week I had a session with my psychologist, and I was feeling out-of-control — I felt like I was doing something wrong. But I remember my psychologist telling me that there’s nothing wrong with me and that I shouldn’t feel bad, because for the first time in my life, I was being experimental and playful with sex. Back then, I used to be very anxious whenever I had sex. I think in many ways, the gloryhole has actually been a way for me to heal from my sexual trauma as a child. I’ve discovered through research that kink can be a very effective tool to heal from sexual trauma. That’s kind of the lens that I view these experiences through.
The works you’re showing at MARS Gallery are extraordinarily intimate. As the viewer, you feel so close to each and every subject. Tell me, what’s your understanding of intimacy?
I enjoy having sex, but I don’t enjoy the idea of reducing someone for their body. Even though I have a lot of sex, my way of being able to enjoy it is to actually connect to the people that I’m having sex with. I see it a lot with my subjects — the people who visit me — that even though they come for the sex, they want so much more. They want someone to ask them questions about their lives, and who they are, and what they’re afraid of.
Going back to your question about how I view intimacy: intimacy, for me, is a spiritual connection. It’s about vulnerability. I don’t know if you’ve read Bell Hooks’ All About Love, but she talks about love as a form of investing in each other’s spiritual development; how to love someone is about uplifting them. I try to do that with the people I meet through the gloryhole — if they’re open and willing. 
Something that I find interesting in your work is the way that you explore masculinity and what it means to grow up as a man or a male presenting person in Australia. I think that we do live in a society that is very gendered, with very rigid social and cultural codes. What was your experience growing up in this country?
When I was younger — when I first identified as a gay man — I was just so focused on wanting to ascribe to that community. I remember thinking: “Great, this is my identity now, so let me try and project this identity as much as possible.” And I just remember how uncomfortable that all felt. I tried to be masculine, but I just failed. It was like I was wearing a costume. It wasn't until my late twenties where I realised that there’s so much misogyny that’s attached to this Australian sense of masculinity. There’s such a disgust towards femininity and softness, which you could argue is also homophobic. And I just know that in my heart of hearts, I’ve got quite a soft soul. That was very hard for me to come to terms with.
Yes, it must be tough wanting to be a part of a group and feel rejected.
It wasn’t until I moved down to Melbourne that things changed. What I love about moving is that so much of your understanding about your identity can shift. You can be anyone you want. At the time, I remember thinking about the idea of gender as a spectrum, and I realised that it’s very possible for me to access different energies depending on where I am or what I want. That gave me a lot of freedom to feel more comfortable within my body and to feel more comfortable with femininity.
It was also beautiful to come across a Filipino artist who was working around Filipino culture at that time in Brisbane. He was looking at the etymology of the word ‘bakla’, which basically means ‘gay’ in Filipino. In a contemporary sense, it’s used as a derogatory term. But we looked at the old language and looked at how the language used to be written, and we found that if you translate the actual letters of the old language, Baybayan, it translates more to the idea of masculine energy being in unity with feminine energy. I thought that was so beautiful. It was a moment where I was able to marry my understanding of gender with culture.
It's interesting hearing you talk about freedom, and your experience of finding freedom through sexuality. I’m curious: when do you feel the most free?
When I’m around my queer family. I don’t know if you remember seeing the first Polaroid in the catalogue, but it’s about someone from the community saying that my existence is offensive to trans women. That was very difficult to hear. At the time, I was still trying to figure out my identity, so to suddenly hear that from someone from my community was so stigmatising.
I remember speaking to my psychologist later about this; about how I can’t seem to feel comfortable within myself and my identity, and I remember him saying: “Emil, you do know that your role and your identity always changes, right? It’s ephemeral. You’re an artist, you do peer support, you’re a gloryhole owner, you’re this, you’re that. If you think about it, who you truly are is the person you are when you’re around the people you love.”
It was such a penny drop moment for me. It was such a gift, because it gave me the confidence to be whoever I wanted to be — and to switch roles whenever I wanted. I think that’s the issue with identity politics sometimes. People try to define things in an essentialist way, but in reality, identities are just so fluid — just like everything else in life.
I want to ask you about photography as a medium. Why have you chosen to capture your lovers through the lens of the camera? What is it about photography that draws you in?
As a sociologist, I'm interested in data collection. Photography is one of those data collecting tools that can capture a moment in time. All my works are oversized Polaroids. I use a Polaroid camera to capture my lovers because it’s the horniest camera, you know what I mean? I think it really mirrors what a hook-up is, in that you only get one shot; and that it’s meant to be private; and that it’s meant to be just between you and the other person. It’s also one of those mediums where you can’t easily distort or make a lot of changes or edits on your subjects. I wanted to use something that can get me as close to ‘truth’.
And how do the people you photograph react to you capturing these intimate moments?
It depends. It's taken me three years to do this project because so much of it has been about building trust and sharing my vision and my intentions with these men. It’s been really special to show these men these works, because a lot of them have never been to an art gallery before and they don’t really understand art. For a lot of them, they haven't ever viewed themselves as an artist or even as a person who could somehow be involved in making art.
How do you want people to view this body of work? How do you want them to feel when they leave the exhibition?
I want people to see that we’re a lot more similar than we are different. I think that’s what I've learnt from the men that I've met over the years. You know, so many of the men in the works are straight-identifying. And before doing the gloryhole, I barely talked to straight men. I also wanted to flip the conversation and ask people, “what is straight?” as a sexuality identity. I work in a peer organisation, I work with queer clients. For me, straight men are literally from another world. But when I engaged with them through this work, I learned that they are so similar to a lot of my friends — their anxieties, their fears, their issues in life.
The capacity for us humans to be vulnerable and to give love to people we don’t know is very much possible and accessible. And I think what I like most about this work and this practice is that anyone can do it. You can take a photograph, you can ask your lovers questions, and you can create your own versions of the same art. Talking to your lovers is a work of art.
What does it mean to love someone?
Acceptance, freedom and the capacity to listen. That’s how I view love.
You spoke earlier about how you didn’t always view your works as art. Do you identify as an artist now?
Yeah, I do now — particularly in the last year.
What makes someone an artist?
Well, here's the thing: I think it takes an immense amount of creativity to keep yourself alive. To be alive is a work of art. It’s fascinating, though, because I have friends who are very creative who make art, and when I call them an artist, they say, “Oh, I’m not an artist!”. I see the repulsion, the fear. People are really scared to call themselves artists, but we all have so much creativity within us. It’s in our essence as humans to create.
A designer once told me that you just have to be yourself in this world. People are either going to understand your vision and they’re going to support you, or they’re not. I’m curious: who has influenced you the most in your career?
The reason why I was able to get this work to where it is now is because I let go of my ego. I’ve always put pressure on myself to create something fresh, something unique, something visually different, But then one day I asked myself if any of this is actually important. So much of how I view art is through the marriage of aesthetics and philosophy. Knowledge doesn’t come from a vacuum.
I remember thinking about the people who have mentored me and inspired me. That’s when I thought of William Yang. He’s such a huge influence in how the work looks now. He’s the one who introduced me to sex and photography, and the one who showed me that queer Asian folks can be leaders in this space. Historically, Asian folks haven’t been seen as a part of the LGBTQ communities here in Australia. And yet, ironically, every Mardi Gras photo from the 70s and 80s has been taken by William. I just remember talking to him and telling him that I really wanted to adapt his style into my work, and he showed me his processes and shared with me his method.
When people see my work, I want them to be reminded of who William Yang is. Because then it’s connecting me to the history of queer Asian artists in Australia, and reintroducing a new generation of people to his work. I consider him to be such such a treasure — to the community and beyond. There are only a few people like him in this country.
Community is a powerful thing. It’s easier to spread a message through a community than to try and change one person’s mind.
I take a lot of inspiration from the marriage equality campaign in Australia. So much of what made that campaign successful was the storytelling that came from the community. It wasn’t about data and statistics; it was about the story of someone’s brother or someone’s sister, a family member or someone you cared for. Those are the stories I want to tell with my work.