February 26, 2014

Project: CamGirls

 Venus without furs.

Take any introductory art history course, and by the end you’ll have a plethora of academic buzz phrases to describe the female body: the back becomes "the curvature of the spine," the stomach becomes "the softly swelling midsection," and the area between a woman’s legs, no matter how sharply or discretely depicted, becomes the enigmatic "Venus Triangle." Take a naked selfie on your webcam or your iPhone, and the academic jargon goes out the window. The world, it seems, has a thousand ways to talk about a classical nude, but only a few choice words for a "camgirl."

The CamGirls Project, a series conceived of and curated by South London-based fashion student and Bunny Collective member Vanessa Omoregie, champions the much-maligned inward gaze of such digital self-portraiture by placing it within the long-standing context of female nudity. The project’s Tumblr contains more than seventy composite photos: in each, a webcam selfie is superimposed on or placed next to an oil painting of a classical nude (think Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Jean-Leon Gerome’s Venus Rising the Star). In most cases, the poses mimic one another; skin tone and body shape do not. The result is an image that directly confronts the way in which the naked female body—and, by extension, female sexuality—is stigmatized today.

Central to the project is its collaborative nature, which lets any Tumblr user contribute a selfie. “I made a couple with just myself, but it fell flat,” said Vanessa. “The project started to pick up when I allowed open submissions. It allows for more than a picture.” It also introduces the element of anonymity: participants, whose faces rarely appear in the composite image, are identified only by their blog URLs (or, if requested, not at all). Such anonymity gives a contributor complete command over the photograph as well as her body, a notion emphasized by the reclamation of the word "camgirl" in the project’s name. “The phrase attracts a negative connotation without anyone questioning what it actually means,” Vanessa said. “It has to do with taking control of your own image; something that for women, is largely controlled by other people. It can be powerful—and also fun—to have control over exactly how you want to be perceived.”

Posting on the blog has gradually tapered off since December, and last week a text post announced that regular submissions are now closed. But the project is far from over: Vanessa is planning some derivative works and hopes to expand past the Tumblr platform. “I would love for the project to exist in ways off from the blog,” she said. “Right now, I’m working on building a site where it can live permanently, and would like to see it as a multimedia exhibition.” Of course, collaboration is still vital to its concept—Vanessa recently put out a call for submissions for an upcoming music video—ensuring that, whatever its course, the CamGirls Project will always be a space where women can be in control.

Check out more of the CamGirl Project here.

Suze Myers, a lactose-intolerant pizza enthusiast. When she grows up she wants to be a graphic designer, but for now she’s too busy being a zine girl at Barnard College in New York. Her main accomplishments in life include writing great tweets and wearing great sweaters.