Interview: Jannica Honey, photographer

The work of photographer Jannica Honey celebrates the raw beauty of imperfect human bodies. Now she's unveiling her most personal show yet

• The work of photographer Jannica Honey celebrates the raw beauty of imperfect human bodies. A selection of her work is below

LATE last year, while flying back to Scotland from a holiday in Tenerife, Jannica Honey was given a glossy in-flight magazine featuring photos of the airline's young female cabin staff in skimpy swimwear.

Thinking it was "really unnecessary", she e-mailed the editor. "If I wanted to see naked chicks, I would just pick up Loaded or Nuts at the airport," she wrote. "Surely there is more to the cabin crew? It is almost 2010, move on."

The editor's response says a lot about the misunderstandings an artist like Honey will frequently encounter. Instead of answering the question, he began by patronising her ("I can churn out a million different reasons why the magazine contains the calendar girls shoot all disagreeing with your point of view – which unfortunately was not expressed very coherently. But my time is limited.")

He then, despite his supposedly limited time, took the trouble to visit Honey's website, read her artist's statement, and critique her work.

"I really like your pictures, though the argument could be made that they are exploitative, and is anyone really interested in seeing images of naked men and women full frontal and scrawny kids smoking?

It might be argued that your particular shots were more shocking than any mere calendar shoot. Though I myself wouldn't say that."

There was "nothing wrong", he continued – a little defensively – with "a bikini-nude calendar of beautiful women". "All the cabin crew on the shoot have gained a huge amount of self-esteem from having the opportunity to be photographed by an award-winning professional photographer in a way that they would never normally experience in their lives... in their words, "not exploitative at all".

The thing is, Honey, a 35-year-old Swedish photographer who has lived in Scotland since 1998, hadn't actually said she thought the pictures were exploitative. Neither had she said she was offended by the nudity – given that her own work regularly features semi-naked women, that would make her a hypocrite, as the editor was attempting to insinuate.

No, her objection was to the fact that the airline took it for granted that this was an appropriate, uncontroversial way to represent its female staff, to all of its passengers. It was not the images in themselves that offended her, but the assumption behind them.

"He told me that these girls were struggling with self-esteem and after the shoot they felt really confident," says Honey. "But until what? The next shoot?" In the world of the airline's photos, she says sadly, "all your blemishes, your lines and wrinkles, everything that's really you, has been retouched so it's a watered-down image – a human that doesn't exist".

For women uncomfortable with their bodies, airbrushing such things out of a photo may well provide a brief boost to self-esteem, she acknowledges, "but it's like a quick fix. If you get confidence from that, then to hold on to it you have to maintain a model career. What I find insulting is the idea that it's not good enough to be cabin crew, you have to be a glamour model as well."

Honey's own photography comes from a very different place. She is, she says, "obsessed with real". "I think when you keep the blemishes in a shot it makes it really beautiful and interesting, because it invites you to meet the real person."

In her new exhibition, for example, there is a photo of a woman's naked torso. It is brightly lit, showing her pale skin, her freckles, a scar on her belly button. It is also, as Honey says, beautiful, "like the landscape of a city".

Real, of course, is not the same as ordinary, and Honey's photos are sexy, funny, sensual and playful. She describes herself as "a feminist, but not very PC"; her business card features a photo of a naked blonde woman staring provocatively at the camera, her red lips invitingly open, against a leopard-skin backdrop; her breasts are being fondled by a toy monkey. It is sexy, but also daft, "stupid and rock'n'roll" as Honey puts it.

The woman is a friend, a burlesque performer. Almost all of her subjects are people she knows. "I don't just meet up with someone, photograph them, and then say goodbye. It's a two-way thing that we do together." If her subjects often end up naked, it says a lot about the intimate nature of Honey's photography, and the trust involved in the transaction.

Honey has always been comfortable with nudity. Aged nine, she "would sit with porn mags and cut out the ladies with scissors and put them in a shoebox". She remembers rifling through the recycling bin outside her mother's flat in Stockholm, looking for porn. She was, perhaps significantly, never made to feel that there was anything shameful about this by the grown-ups around her. She was just a child, after all, exploring the world.

And that world, she can't help noticing, has changed. Still intrigued by pornography, she recently found herself browsing through a retrospective of Playboy centrefolds from the 1970s to the present day. She was particularly struck by the pubic hair.

"The pictures are proper hairy until about 1993, then it becomes a kind of Hitler 'tache, then around 2002 everything goes." She likens pubic hair, theatrically, to "a curtain that unfolds'. With the most recent Playboy pictures, though, "there are no velvet curtains hanging down. Hair is not just seen as unnatural anymore, it's actually seen as repulsive. When you see pictures of people as they actually look, that's shocking now."

Jannica Honey was 23 when she moved from Stockholm to Edinburgh, after studying anthropology and criminology at university. While she'd been interested in photography since the age of 13, she had no plans to pursue it professionally in Scotland.

What she really wanted to do was go clubbing, but realised that becoming a photographer would mean: i) she could get into clubs for free and ii) she would be more likely to stay sober because she had a camera to look after.

"What kind of reason is that?" she laughs. "It's true, though." She began taking photos of friends, and sometimes made new friends by approaching people she was drawn to and asking to take their photo. Since then she has divided her time between fashion shoots, band photography, exhibitions and magazine cover commissions.

Now, though, she is moving back to Sweden, and is marking the occasion with one final Scottish show, STHLM: Go Away To Come Home, which will also be shown in Stockholm.

It is a very personal show for her, a collection of photographs of her closest friends and her family – her father, mother, two brothers, sister and grandmother are all here – juxtaposed with images of Stockholm itself. "I think we all do circles in our life and sometime you have to leave 'home' to find the path back to yourself," she says.

"I came back to something within myself that has always been there but I haven't been able to access that inner room for a very long time."

She is clearly nervous about the show, and filtered 2,000 images down to 40 that she was happy with. She understands very well that the things she finds beautiful about other people are not necessarily the things they find beautiful about themselves, and that taking the portraits she takes is therefore a delicate, intimate transaction.

That is particularly the case here. Taking 'real' images of Edinburgh clubbers and burlesque performers is one thing; doing it with your family is another. Is she exploiting them, she wonders, by capturing them sometimes at their most exposed, their most vulnerable? What is her responsibility to them?

For what it's worth, it's clear to these eyes that Honey's new photographs were taken, and chosen, with the best of intentions – they certainly seem far less exploitative than those airbrushed airline magazine photos. One of her previous exhibitions was called Manniskor, the Swedish word for 'people'. "I love people," she explains simply when asked why. That, to me, is obvious from every photograph she takes.

&#149 STHLM: Go Away To Come Home is at the Zedart Gallery, Cumberland Street, Edinburgh, today until 13 February. To see more of Jannica Honey's work, visit www.jannicahoney.com