Having been featured in Aesthetica twice, Julia Fullerton-Batten produces striking and alluring compositions that touch upon femininity and the issues that are tied to it. Bold, bright colours and rich sets provide a playground for fine art photography across a plethora of works. We catch up with the artist to discuss her latest series, The Act.
A: What was it that first interested you to create such a controversial series?
JF-B: Ever since cave-men decorated the walls of their caves the sex act has been blatantly a part of art, primitive or otherwise, and especially fine-art. I don’t regard The Act as particularly controversial, leastways that was not my intention. But having said that I did concentrate on avoiding shooting overly salacious scenes, and the images may be erotic, as I intended, but not pornographic.
Background reasons for having the idea for The Act are twofold. When I first became engaged in fine art photography I photographed a series of projects dealing with the progression of a pre-pubescent teenage girl to adulthood. I followed her through various stages in her life – adjusting to physical and emotional changes and within society, her relationship with the opposite and her own sex as well as to her mother, later still her experiences with unrequited love. My most recent work has dealt with social commentaries on various subject matters relating to society of the past and today. I have in The Act combined these two themes into one. I have progressed the development of our teenager to her sexual maturity and interwoven this with a view of the sex industry in the UK, or more specifically the women engaged in it.
There is possibly nothing more extreme today than the thought of women in the sex industry to stimulate our thought processes on this particular aspect of today’s life. We are surrounded by sex in one form or another – verbal innuendoes, advertising, in the theatre, in films, on TV, online pornography. I decided to consider both these aspects of women’s sexuality in a single project. The Act was born.
It has turned out to be a major project. It entailed photographing the models living their role as sex workers and taking their portraits, as well as interviewing them and recording their “stories” in text and as video. It could well be considered to be a sociological study of a small, but challenging segment of today’s society.
A: Could you talk a little about how you approached your models and how you incorporated them into each of their lavish compositions
JF-B: The Act is about women who use their bodies and their sexuality to earn a living, and how they feel about it. I was quite unfamiliar with the sex industry before I started work on the project and had to do quite a lot of research on it. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about finding models who worked in the industry and eventually hired two casting directors to help me. We looked for a wide variety of women engaged in different “professions” as I felt that their “stories” would vary and would say a lot more.
I met with and photographed a wide variety of prospective models. We sat and chatted and I learned a lot about them, their background, how they got involved in the business and how they feel about what they are doing. I was surprised to find how educated and articulate they all are. They are happy and proud of what they do. In the past, as I had never met or talked to a sex worker, I thought of them somewhat from a different world. After having met and talked with them I have to admit that I find them very down to earth, lovely people, and I’m more open-minded and accepting towards them than before. It was really interesting to discover how each woman perceived herself.
In the end result, I chose fifteen women who impressed me as having something “different” about them in respect of their personality and their physical presence. At first I thought I’d photograph them in their place of work, but then felt that scenario had to be something more special. As I talked to my models I became more conscious that they spent most of their life and certainly the time when they were doing their jobs acting and performing, as if on the stage of life. For them everything is a performance. I wanted to show that and hit on the idea of creating sets individual to each of them, making them more beautiful in their own way. This was the first time I had sets built specifically for photographing people. I asked a set builder to construct sets to my design and I choose the colour palletes, wallpaper and flooring for each of the models. I even asked him to add a touch of authenticity by leaving imperfections and nails exposed in the walls.
A: How do you think your photographs respond to social issues which are relevant in contemporary society? Do you think it’s important for artists to confront controversy and respond to it?
JF-B: I take on social issues that strike a chord with me and that I think will also make fine-art. Some may be relevant to today’s society, others more historical. Blind and Unadorned, now The Act are relevant to today’s society, whereas In Service and Feral Children relate more to actual social matters in the past, but can be relevant to today inasmuch as past events can teach us about today’s problems. We only need to think of sex slavery and child abuse for these latter two projects to seem in some aspects relevant also today. Historically many artists have confronted controversy and painted or photographed their best work in response to it. Picasso’s Guernica being an example that has always impressed me, both the work itself and his reaction to a particular cause for painting it.
A: How did you approach aspects like colour, lighting and tone when reflecting the lives of these women?
JF-B: My images capture a moment of time in an act or a life of these women, who, for most of us, live on the borderline of society in a somewhat shadowy parody of everyday life. I had set the entire shoot up to be staged, somewhat theatrical. I decided to use bright, but subdued colours, cinematic lighting and chiaroscuro effects to enhance the impressions of the women acting their personal lives on the stage of life.
A: How do you consider boundaries to be drawn between, fine art, documentary photography and, in this case, pornography?
JF-B: Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to photograph the women, as it was difficult to avoid making images that showed the women acting out their profession, without making them sexually explicit. Of the fifteen images I think that there are only two images which are more explicit than the others and may, in some people’s eyes be borderline. However, I would still class them as being erotic and not pornographic.
A: How do you think that this series differs from your others, for example your fashion photography which featured on the cover of Aesthetica for Issue 55?
JF-B: The image that appeared on the front of Aesthetica, Issue 55 was from my A Testament to Love project, which dealt with unrequited love and was a part of a girl’s/woman’s life experiences. As I explained in answer to your earlier question, The Act is in some respects related to my earlier series. The series is a life choice made by these fifteen women, and countless others; it deals too with the advancement from the non-sexual aspects of a pre-pubescent girl growing up and becoming an adult suffering ‘lost love’ pains to the more intimate sexual aspect of an adult woman’s life, albeit in a pretty extreme illustration of it.
A: What are your future plans for further series?
JF-B: Having only just completed The Act in all its various forms it is too early to be specific about the next project of this kind. I am currently working on a long-term project relating to past and present-day aspects of life and the history surrounding the River Thames, but that is continuously evolving and may or may not be a series of a similar nature to my other fine-art work. Time will tell.
1. Eliza de Lite, Burlesque Dancer. The Act (2016). Courtesy of the artist.