Fashion photographer Amelia Allen took off her clothes to document naturism in Britain. As an exhibition of her work opens in Edinburgh, she talks about how the project changed the way she felt about her body
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
My inspiration for the book Naked Britain came from an image taken by Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt from 1968 of a naturist couple in Kent. I first saw his exhibition in New York when I was 16 before studying his work in photography at A level. I often photographed my friends naked and loved that the images where people appeared most vulnerable and raw were the most beautiful and honest. This triggered an interest in a community where people were naked all the time and I researched naturism to see if this existed in the modern day and particularly in Britain where our attitudes to nudity seem slightly dated.
Being a fashion photographer means that I have spent the majority of my career photographing conventionally beautiful and aesthetically pleasing models who are used to display clothes. Everything surrounding this is, of course, to do with body image and having to look a certain way to fit a specific societal construct of what is seen as beautiful. Growing up today, through such a politically dynamic time, where women’s rights are a huge issue, I wanted to create a project that took liberation and freedom of body image into the limelight. I wanted to photograph a community that represented equality in body image, appearance, sexuality and gender.
As the project progressed I was fascinated by the fact that one week I was shooting London fashion week runway shows, and just 20 miles away was an entirely naked community, lounging in their own freedom of self love, liberation and body acceptance.
I felt that as a female British photographer, having grown up here, the attitude towards nudity was that it was distasteful or unsightly unless it is for sexual reasons/pleasure/editorial. There was a double standard. It was OK to see a woman with perfectly round perky breasts on the side of phone box or on Instagram but a mother breast feeding in a café was offensive. I decided to photograph the most British scenarios like the pub, tennis courts, water park, bike rides, discos, festivals, museums and people doing everyday tasks without clothes on. The whole book is un retouched and shows the human body for what it is, stretch marks and all.
How did you find your subjects?
I came across British Naturism the membership organisation and thought it was fascinating that this lifestyle was still very present and thriving in a world filled with social media where people strived for perfection. I worked with a number of naturist clubs throughout Britain and became a member of British Naturism myself. I travelled to a variety of clothing optional events including festivals, protests, theme park events, dinner parties, pubs and clubs and became part of the naturist community working alongside British Naturism to show an honest perception of naturism in the 21st century and the positive impact it has on its followers.
You shot the images without wearing clothes yourself. How did that make you feel about your own body?
I photographed the entire book naked because as a young woman I wanted to be out of my comfort zone and experience the way this lifestyle felt and completely immerse myself in the world of naturism in order to understand the psychology behind it.
I’ve never been naturally slim, petite or delicate and always felt like I didn’t quite fit the cute, skinny, pretty girl box like the rest of my friends and that bothered me. I always strived to look like someone I was never going to be. In naturism it is totally different. I loved that in naturism you could be any shape or size and nobody cared. It was just a honest representation of general human bodies in society and that was refreshing. This made me feel liberated and empowered. There were no clothes to fit into, in fact it was nicer when people’s bodies told a story and weren’t necessarily conventional and perfect.
It changed the whole concept of nudity for me. The only reason another male of my age would see me naked would be if I was in a intimate relationship with him and so that makes the body sexual (when only expressing it/using it that way) but actually if you take the sexuality out of it and do fun activities naked it does make you feel hugely free and liberated and massively empowered. I don’t adore my body and even from photographing naturism I haven’t suddenly decided I am a perfect woman but I have realised there is more to life than obsessing over your appearance and that actually my brain and what I can create with my imagination and mind is a lot more important than what my arse looks like with or without jeans on.
You work a lot in fashion. What was the difference between taking pictures of people not wearing any clothes, as opposed to modelling clothes?
When photographing fashion and advertising it is usually about selling a product and the model is modelling that product to the customer. When you take the clothes out of the equation it is about the subject’s character and their personality and body which seems a lot more interesting and raw to me.
What kind of a reaction have you had to the book and also to the exhibitions of your work? What do you think it tells us about body image?
The responses have been really positive. I wasn’t sure how people would react to the nudity but the press has been wonderful.
A lot of people who are friends and colleagues from the fashion industry have expressed how refreshing it was for them to see these images and told me stories about their relationship with their body/body image in general and that having my images in this book and in the press/public domain helps normalise nudity and also normal people’s figures that aren’t just the models we see in the media. What people have fed back to me is how joyful the subjects are in the book and that you look at their facial expressions rather than their body parts because naturism isn’t about the naked body but about the psychology behind how being naked makes you feel and free from society’s standards and pressures.
What’s next for you?
Following on from the themes in Naked Britain of liberation and equality I have started photographing my next book which will be about women and their roles in modern society in Britain, 100 years since women won the vote.
See Amelia’s work at Gallery Close, 4B Howe Street, Edinburgh EH3 6TD from 3 March-3 April, Wednesday-Saturday, 10am-6pm; books and limited edition prints are available and Naked Britain (£35, published by Kehrer Verlag) can also be ordered via Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles and The Photographer’s Gallery as well as from Amelia’s website, www.ameliaallenphotography.com