The Desexualization of Photography: Why Intent is So Important

Sex sells! That’s a universal truth and not just from our times but from the beginning of times.

Photography has been probably the best medium to make sex so consumable–just think about it. Most of the content we see online and on print has been sexualized in one way or another. I don’t have a problem with this but I think it’s important to draw a line as photographers and artists and choose which side we want to stand at when creating work.

So, let me tell you a bit about my views of sex in art so you know where I’m coming from. I grew up with a very liberal background, maybe too open-minded for Mexico in the 80s and 90s but I thank my parents for that. We always had dinner discussions on what felt right or wrong in popular culture and current affairs and quite often, a sex-related subject would pop up. Now, the main thing I was taught was respect to myself first and the people around me. I was told sex will always be out there, available for us to consume so I was prepared to face the real world. I remember taking trips to Amsterdam and New Orleans, heavily sexualized cities and not being as scandalized for what I saw if it wasn’t for my parent’s education.

During my teenage years,  I started to pay more attention to the sexualization of the content in printed media. It’s natural, but I was cool about it unlike some of my friends who were over-excited to find and steal their fathers’ playboy mags. For some reason, I always felt I was a step ahead sociologically than most of my friends in school.

Now, for the photography, I was introduced to it from an early age going through my grandad’s LIFE magazine collection, years later through my mom’s Vogue magazine collection. I learned to read photographs through portraits of politicians, models and movie-stars. As I grew older, the sexualization of printed content became more evident not only in magazines but in art, music and especially in fashion and ads.

It’s obvious now that fashion has ALWAYS been sexualized, ask any fashion photographer and they’ll tell you there’s more sex in fashion than in any other genre, there’s no question about that! But for me, being a photographer now, and getting paid to produce images for brands and designers, I find it very hard to stay away from the constant sexual innuendoes of the industry.

Not long ago I was flicking through some old LIFE, Vogue magazines in a flea market and I remembered plenty of the photos and features, what I don’t remember was the sexualization in them but compared to these days content, they look very artful and elegant.

So this makes me wonder, how much sex is too much sex in photography and how can I make it that artful?

Portrait & Fashion Photography

On the first draft of this article, I stated that current trends are ruining the art of photography. That’s not entirely true in second thoughts. The question is what type of sex are we producing/consuming and how subtle or vulgar we like it.

Photography, as I mentioned earlier is the most important mean to express an idea so when we use it for a good cause like body positivity, acceptance, encouragement and in a responsible and respectful manner, it can have a much more powerful message than just selling sex. But let’s be honest, body positivity and self-confidence only matter if you are the one doing it, nobody else cares!

With all these thoughts, I try to make my photography less filthy, vulgar and mainstream and more artful, meaningful and elegant. It’s a personal choice and an artistic expression. I like to get involved in projects where there’s encouragement, self-confidence and where the sex is not there in your face.

Portrait & Fashion Photography

For example, we recently shot some lifestyle shots for a restaurant with a couple of models and someone on the production wanted to have some chocolate or ice cream dripping off the model’s chest. None of the shots we produced earlier had that tone so even though we liked the idea, we didn’t want to sexualize a family oriented restaurant so we decided to go with a different idea.

Also, I’ve been asked on several occasions to shoot with models for their Instagram profiles showing a bit too much for my creativity and my question has always been “what’s the message, what’s your story?” I don’t want to shoot boobs and bums just for likes and follows. Others do it, that’s fine.

More from Xavier can be found on his website: Brighton Food Photographer.