One of the things that draws me most to photographing naked people is the transformative possibility that the process can have. Most all of us have a complicated relationship with our bodies and our association to being seen can be the place where we store our darkest parts. The qualities within the metaphor of being naked, with nothing to filter how we are perceived by the outside world, is true to the literal experience of being naked. If a collaborator comes to the process with the openness of being seen as truly as they can muster, it can be a personal life-altering experience.
I recently worked with a very special dancer named Ben Needham-Wood on a new piece I made for Smuin Ballet. Smuin is a company full of special dancers, but my connection with him in the studio was unique and I created a role for him where he plays God in two different forms. This moving towards God was forging an unknown path personally, and I felt fortunate to find a partner in Ben that I could trust on an uncertain journey.
After we opened the piece, I asked Ben if he would work on a photo series with me and for Ben, it was important to have a bigger picture reason beyond just the photos, so he agreed to write the following essay that was inspired by his experience:
A Body of Work
A reflective response to the photographic process with Trey McIntyre
“Our bodies tell a story. We learn to sit, stand, and walk, developing our own posture. We think, speak, and mature to realize our cognitive self. And whether it be physical or cerebral, every moment we live is uniquely through our own perspective, constructing a narrative perfectly our own as we discover the world. None of us have lived the same life, no matter how similar our experiences, because even the smallest details can resonate with the most profound influence.
I’m a dancer. I perform over a hundred times a year, putting my physical self in the spotlight for live shows, photographs, and film. My body is admired, criticized, and subject to a million opinions, most of whom I’ve never met. They see my body and project a story which they understand based on fragments of parallels to their own journey, but the truth is no one can conceive all the elements that have come together to make me.
While I am now a professional dancer, empowered by my physical capacity, I spent most of my childhood feeling physically ashamed, broken, and worthless. At five years old I was sexually abused. I couldn’t fully understand what was happening back then. I felt pain, I experienced fear, and I understood it was wrong. But I was only five. The real impact of that trauma didn’t manifest until my abuser was no longer there. In a strange way, the void it left reflected how significant that abuse had been. It felt like my skin was a cage – like a hollow shell – and inside I was this small speck of dust, isolated and adrift through the chasm that should have been my fully formed self. It felt like I had been stripped of all control over my own body, and it left me wondering how I could ever gain control over anything at all. I felt helpless.
Luckily for my story, my mother was an incredible therapist/counselor/care-taker/angel. She helped me to process the abuse constructively, rebuilding my confidence and teaching me to grow stronger through hardships and trauma rather than let them tear me apart. She rebuilt my mind and spirit, but I still struggled facing myself in the mirror. In the mirror I was still that little boy, five years old, broken and powerless. Eventually, I found another outlet that would help to reshape my reflection, empowering me to finally see the strong, capable person that had laid dormant for so long.
Dance was that outlet. I was always incredibly active with soccer, tae kwon do, and gymnastics, but dance somehow reached that lost little speck of dust inside me and transformed it into something more. I finally felt unified – mind, spirit, and body – and that resounding fullness inspired me to believe in myself. Through dance I was able to push my physical capacity beyond my perceived limitations, discovering an ever growing sense of possibility. But the detail that elevated my entire perspective was when I first considered how dance can be our body’s language – our body’s voice. Through dance we can tap into our more primal self, and we can let our bodies express our innermost feelings in their purest form. Through dance I was finally able to recognize my prevailing insecurities and start addressing them one by one. I found confidence, I was whole, and I felt a sense of purpose.
The abuse I suffered as a child will always be a significant part of my life story; there’s no way to change that. It’s even harder recognizing so many people in this world have suffered, or still suffer, through similar circumstances. I was lucky to find the support and outlets I needed to move forward, but what worked for me might not work for someone else. Every battle is different, and consequently our paths through recovery will vary as well. And while part of me wished the abuse had never happened, I know without that experience I would have become someone very different. It was a time in my life that I understood uniquely through my own perspective, and its wake has influenced every moment of my life since.
My hope in sharing my story is to help other victims see that it is possible to overcome abuse; it is possible to regain control of your body and your life. If you have suffered, know that you are never alone and you are not broken. It’s often the ugliest parts of our past that bring forward our most brilliant qualities. We all process and experience life in our own way, and it’s those distinctly individual perspectives that make this world ever the more beautiful. Your body, mind, and spirit are your own. Treasure them, nurture them, and cultivate the person you want to become, no matter what struggles you encounter along the way. You are the only you in the world, and that is beautiful.”
Written by Ben Needham-Wood
May 12, 2017