Get a picture in your mind of all the people you encounter every day, including all the strangers you interact with. At the coffee shop. On the bus. A new co-worker. At the grocery store. Passing on the sidewalk. At the next table in a restaurant.
Now, imagine that you have no way of knowing their race or ethnic background. You have no clues about their social status, socioeconomic standing, or sexual orientation. There are no signs to clue you into their hobbies, passions, religious affiliation, or political preferences. You can’t tell how old they are or what their preferred gender presentation is. The most you can determine is the general size of their body.
The truth is, we notice a dozen things about a stranger the moment we see them, and given our cultural conditioning, we assign certain values to every person we meet. Odds are that in a split second, you make decisions about how you will or won’t interact with a new person. In that split second, that stranger is also making the same determinations about you. They are also choosing how and if they will interact with you. Even if you present to the world in ways the world expects, this can be unsettling. If you present to the world in ways the world does not easily accept, this can be more than unsettling--it can potentially be anything from awkward to dangerous.
Aaron Ansarov’s Human Spectrum Project gives viewers a chance to experience first impressions in a completely new way. Aaron, a photojournalist and artist, is all too aware of the ways we categorize each other and create division among ourselves. His artistic projects have an over-arching theme of one-ness and unity. With this project he also gives people a space to talk about an often taboo topic: our bodies.
How does he do it? By getting people naked and covering them in paint. Currently on a cross-country tour, Aaron rolls into town with more tempra paint than you can imagine and yards upon yards of plastic sheeting. He gathers his participants together in a large, closed structure (think rental party tent) in a donated back yard where everyone disrobes. And he means everyone--no one is allowed inside the tent with clothes on. “There are no spectators,” Aaron says. As their turn in front of the lens approaches, each participant begins to cover themselves with paint, in as many colors as they want. The artist has final say, and Aaron does pour and mix colors on bodies to get just the right drips and swirls. And yes, the paint goes everywhere. Yes, even there. Then the photography begins.
Aaron works with individuals and groups to pose them in ways that help participants go “where they haven’t been before,” seeking equality in each shot. Each person experiences 2-3 solo poses, then can pose with a friend or partner they brought along. The staged poses play with identity, expectations, relationships, and gender. Whenever possible, Aaron will use poses that hide, or at least de-emphasize, external genitalia and, therefore, assigned sex. The people who have been drawn to this project (he’s had more than 150 participants so far) cover a broad range of identities, but about 70% of the participants have been women. “Women are less shy than men when it comes to full frontal nudity,” Aaron explains.
One of his goals with the Human Spectrum project is to break the idea that “nudity = sex = evil = bad.” Nudity, he says, is really just “a mental state of being vulnerable in front of strangers.” He’s been surprised by how many different types of people have responded to the invitation to take part in his work. He’s seen all age groups and body types and notes that it’s both exciting and depressing that everyone, it turns out, has “the same body issues and judgments of themselves,” regardless of their actual shape or body condition. He says he’s learned a lot about what people judge themselves for, but finds that, in many cases, his participants become comfortable with themselves throughout the process and are changed by the experience for the better.
Aaron (and his tubs of paint) were in DC for a shoot in March and will be back in early June. If you’re intrigued by the idea of both experiencing others and presenting yourself without the expected visual cues, you probably want to clear some time on your schedule for this.
Want to know more about what it feels like to participate in one of his shoots? In part 2 of this blog, some of the participants in his most recent DC visit, including Freed owners Frances and Jessica, will talk about the experience of being part of the Human Spectrum Project.