Purple Magazine
— The New York issue #39 S/S 2023

The Girl In The Picture



One day, I looked at my small penis and doughy middle with a feeling that I’d never be taken seriously as a man. Did I become a woman because I felt it would be more “convincing”? I don’t know; it’s not that deep. In the self-portrait accompanying this text, you will see me standing next to a framed image of myself by Cruz Valdez. In it, I’m floating in black and white before a blank space: on my knees, long hair down my back, topless. It was taken in January 2020, printed for a pandemic fundraiser later that summer, and hung up by author Fiona Duncan, whose apartment you see here. During the time of Cruz’s shoot, I’d recently lost weight and got boobs. I was newly “beautiful.” I believed the world would become friendly if I did this. Two years later, I’m standing next to the photo in my underwear. I’m posing with a white wall and the flash on. I feel like an American Apparel ad girl.

Here, I used the Yashica T4 camera. The 35mm point-and- shoot was made famous by the photographer Terry Richardson, notorious for his behavior and sexual point of view. In 2009, I was 17 years old, and Richardson’s American Apparel ads were inescapable. The girls seemed natural, at ease, and sexy. Later, we’d all hear bad stories about his approach, but my desire to look like those girls persists. I imagined the AA girls happily alone in their rooms, never needing to get out of bed or put on real clothes. Richardson’s dominance in fashion photography floated around during a formative time of my life. For better and worse, I metabolized his point of view. So, here I am, taking the camera out of Richardson’s hands and going on without him. Unlike those girls, my solitude is not implied; it is absolute. Here, I’ve chosen the shot I feel most comfortable showing you and cropped away what I do not wish you to see. This may only create the illusion of autonomy.

It might be wrong for men to take photos of women in this style, but I wonder if it’s any better when a woman does it to herself. I’m speaking in very binary terms here; please bear with me. If Susan Sontag is right about the camera being a gun, what’s worse, murder or suicide? In an increasingly surveilled world, is consent possible? Somewhere online, you’ll find an unauthorized video of me jerking off. A viewer recorded and posted one of the many live cam shows I performed during the porn boom of 2020. Shows lasted four to six hours, depending on how long it took to reach the monetary goal. At five days a week, this job often left my skin raw. My porn intake increased, and my appetite became severe. My imagination needed to be fed constant images, so it could expand wide enough for other people’s fantasies.

To get someone off online, you must get into the client’s mind, which runs the risk of them finding a way into yours. I experienced orgasms that weren’t mine, leaving me without the energy to muster my own. My last client paid two months’ rent to role-play a traumatic event of my childhood. Worst of all, the scenario was my idea. I had to hurt myself for a reason to quit. Sexual work eroded my perception, and I deferred to the girl in the picture instead of myself. Everything was in service to the image: my workout routines, what I ate, and how much time and money I spent on becoming her. I was acting out life and forgot how to stop. By the way, nothing I’m saying is a universal truth; hardly anything is. If sex work was decriminalized, we could give sex workers the safety to say no. But destigmatization should not come at the cost of being honest about what this work could cost you. It’s labor; like all, it can leave a mark.

I’m reflecting on what I said earlier. I am not alone in this self-portrait. Before you began reading this essay, I’d already imagined your eyes. The camera holds your future gaze, giving it a certain consciousness. Two years later, feet firmly planted in the present, I’m still trying to make sense of an experience that might not have verbal language. I’ve always found it easier to accept the truth of a photograph rather than life. Cruz’s portrait will always confirm the time in my life when it was taken. There is a sadness to images of the past; we know what they don’t. This will be true of the picture you see here. Here I am: extending my neck, balancing on one foot, and waiting for the light to flash. This may become all I remember of this moment, turning another period of my life into an image.


[Table of contents]

The New York issue #39 S/S 2023

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