The premise is brilliant in its simplicity.
Round up some of Ottawa’s queer women and ask them to be photographed in whatever way makes them feel good about themselves.
The project, titled Just You Wait, was the brainchild of artist and performer Excedera St Louis and commercial photographer Becca Wallace — and the result is an exhibition on display at Venus Envy.
“We had no idea what we were going to do with the images when we started this project,” explains Wallace. “For me, it was a great opportunity to work on my portfolio and to build such a large body of work. It was also great to meet with so many queer women. Before the shoot I didn’t know any of them and when you are photographing someone like that, you really get to know them on a personal level.”
“I knew the pictures would be amazing, so I figured we could definitely do something with them. Even having a collection of them is amazing,” adds St Louis.
Like the premise for the project, the images gain their strength from their simplicity. The main body of work in the exhibition consists of 12 large colour portraits, each of which depicts a woman poised confidently in front of a white backdrop. The women are extraordinary, each one conveying a personal narrative in their portrait. Although the selection of women photographed are but a small glimpse of the plurality of queer women in Ottawa, it’s refreshing to be reminded of that diversity.
But, regardless of how distinctive these women are, there is one adjective that can be used to describe each and every one of them: sexy.
“It was a safe space for people to play up their sexuality, but it wasn’t mandatory — although Excedera was certainly very good at getting ladies to take their clothes off!” says Wallace, with a chuckle.
In Just You Wait, what it means to be sexy is as diverse as the women being photographed. Some women are poised in heels and lace, and others are in high tops and t-shirts. For these queer women, sexy is more about inner strength, confidence and personality rather than fitting into norms and stereotypes. Shocking revelation, I know.
“If I were going to ‘type’ the people that we photographed, I would say we had confident, shy, feminine, not-as-feminine, funny, awkward and out-right cocky,” says St Louis. “That made it fun — the personality types more than the looks. I also think that people who are confident took the best pictures.”
One of the most empowering aspects of this project is that the women in Just You Wait were the ones running the show, setting their own standards for what is sexy.
“We had a little bag of props, but a lot people came with their outfits and their ideas of what they wanted to do. The ones that were the best were actors in a way. They could put on a show for us,” reflects Wallace.
“Indeed, the models are part artist, part subject,” says St Louis.
The idea for the project started in 2007, when St Louis introduced herself to Wallace after seeing images from a photo shoot Wallace had done with a mutual friend. St Louis was so impressed that she hired her to do a similar photo shoot of herself.
“It made me feel good about myself,” St Louis explains. “I don’t actually look in the mirror that much. I look at my hair when I do my hair, I look at my teeth when I brush my teeth, but [I] rarely look at the whole image of me. Becca knows what looks good and shows the model their best side. Turns out, I’m kind of cute.”
When asked why they decided to document other women, Excedera explains: “I wanted to give other women a chance to feel how I felt. A few said they were glowing for days. Others felt really challenged by being the centre of attention and were surprised about how cute they looked,” says St Louis.
Certainly Just You Wait comes from a growing surge of creative projects, by and for women, that are designed for us to feel good about ourselves, our bodies and our sexuality. There is the Ottawa-based burlesque troupe Sexual Overtones, Vancouver’s Good Dyke Porn, and the Lickety Split zine from Montreal — not to mention the marvelous Fat Femme Mafia from Toronto.
Women are moving beyond just accepting their bodies and are instead asserting a sense of pride by redefining what it is to be sexy and queer.