Thousands of young couples from every corner of the planet are setting up businesses, simply and quickly, from the comfort of their own bedrooms. Usually unemployed, affected by the hopeless crisis of our days, these young people are unafraid of exposing their intimacy for few hundred bucks a week. In short, these enterprising pairs offer sex performances online for a paying audience. Their virtual, on-demand peepshows can be found on several websites. For free, you can watch them waiting, “ready to have sex for you”—they will remain on camera until the moment you decide to pay for action.
The project, Tediousphilia was made in collaboration with the art diector Ramon Pez. It was based on my photographic series which documents the boredom and tedium suffered by vernacular webcam sex-performer couples. Since the original images were made, the project has taken many forms.
The video above is just one of several shapes this project has taken since its inception. Others include a book, a projection, a wall of TVs, a museum exhibition…In the words of Abril, the platform (of diffusion) should depend on the story, not the other way around. Indeed, throughout her work, Abril maintains a strong commitment to variety and open-mindedness, avoiding the temptation of falling into a dependable (read: predictable) style.
As LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker discovered over a long-ranging discussion at the Hamburg Triennale of Photography, Abril has strong, original thoughts on just about everything…
LC: Let’s begin at the beginning—how did this project start?
LA: I was online all the time, searching for Thinspiration (these images are from 2011 and 2014). One day, I was with a friend who is gay and he took me to some amazing gay websites. He told me about “the cams,” and so we checked out the gay cams. Immediately, I found people doing nothing. This amused me. Remember, we’re in 2011: these were not just pop-up ads but real, live videos. Now they’re harder to find, but four years ago—that’s a long time for the internet.
LC: So your project…it’s a website?
LA: No, I’m not creating a website and I’m not focusing on just one website. The name of the genre is “Cams” [called, alternatively, “Live Sex Cams” or “Free Live Porn Chat”]. As I found, there are so many different kinds of cams: single ladies or couples or gay or, of course, much weirder things that you can find if you like. I became interested specifically in “Couple Cams”—when a couple has sex for money. I was interested because of the interactional relationships going on—between the couple, between the couple and the viewer(s) and so on.
LC: The more you describe it, the more I see the project’s photographic qualities. After all, what is photography but relationships? Did you talk to any of your subjects?
LA: No. They know I’m there, but you have to pay to chat with them. There’s a preview time during which they’ll try to talk to you, but I didn’t have that access.
In “normal” circumstances, I would have talked to them and explained my work—but then it would have been like every other project. The biggest part of this work was the fact that they’re sharing their privacy with me— without my having to ask. This speaks to the Facebook generation. The kind of people who don’t give a shit whether you look at them eating, sleeping, scratching. In fact, they’re happy to share that stuff with the world.
Indeed, they’re always there, just waiting. I’m not judging but I think it says a lot about our generation. To think: the amount of time that they waste is incredible. At the same time, now there are fewer opportunities to get a job, so this is their job. If you’re good at attracting viewers, you can make money. You don’t have to be particularly beautiful, even. After all, people like such different things.
It’s funny, as I worked, I began to find it much more normal to see them having sex than just eating or sleeping. Being paid to have sex on camera is somewhat normal, but everyday tasks? Very shocking. When I saw them sip from a Coke, there was no barrier between me and them.
Really, it’s like walking down the street and unexpectedly seeing people in their bathroom. But it’s not as if I’m going inside someone’s house. This content is just out there. All the time. Again, it’s like the street. There are no permits for access. You don’t need to register a name or even an email. Anyone could watch these people, at any time. There is no more intimacy. We’re sharing everything.
LC: That means that not a single person who’s in this project knows they’re in it? There’s been no contact?
LA: No. It’s like taking a photo of someone at the beach—no one knows that they’re in an image. You think Martin Parr contacted every person he ever photographed?
LC: Let’s talk about the form(s) that this project has taken. It’s been a book, a projection…
LA: Some artists, as they’re making a series, they imagine white walls. That is because they are already envisioning what their work will look like in a museum or gallery. On the other hand, when I’m making a project, I imagine a book. I’m not a very spatial person, but you learn about books by reading books. And I’m a huge reader.
But this case was an exception. I never imagined it as a book…the credit for that idea goes to the creative director, Ramon Pez. We started working together and we made a dummy book to enter for an award—and we ended up getting short-listed!
At the beginning, we thought the book was a manual. Inside, you would find a little manual about how to become a performer. Which is why it suddenly made sense to me to produce it as a book. By looking through the work, you are “supposed” to learn how to be the best.
Once I started putting in my images, though, the manual became ironic. As you spend time with the book, you see how each of the performers is doing the opposite of what the manual suggests.
Beyond the book, the project has taken many more forms. When I showed this work at the Musée de l’Élysée, I created a wall of TVs where I showed the series in video form. Even more perfect, a projection happened on the back side of an old porn cinema (le Cinema Moderne). Not the usual place for a photography exhibition but given my subject matter, I was glad for the excuse to show my work there! The smell of bleach, the feeling of walking into a completely dark room with a naughty vibe to it (even though my project has no actual sexual content)…it really added another dimension to the experience.
Of course, a video is a completely different way of seeing than a book. In the end, the most interesting projects for me are multi-platform or “transmedia.” If I have an exhibition, I don’t want to just take the picture in the book and put it on the wall. Each time I have the chance to show the project, I see it as an opportunity to re-imagine my work and re-tell the story in a whole new way. With each new opportunity, I think I get a little closer to what could be the best transmedia exhibition for these images in particular.
That being said, while I’m interested in finding the best platform for each project—that totally depends on the content itself. I’m not obsessed with any single platform on its own—neither exhibitions nor books nor projections. I am obsessed with the content and the story. The interest is in finding the best way to convey it.
LC: Absolutely! Your work is so varied. Looking at your past few series, it would be easy to think that each one was made by a different artist entirely.
LA: I take that as a compliment! In general, photographers try to do the opposite—they create their view of things and establish a particular tone so people can look at their work and know it’s them. The fact that they have a signature is seen as a good thing. Personally, I don’t think it’s a very effective way to approach different topics. If you always use the same “signature” style, you end up putting too much of yourself there, while covering up the subject itself.
In discussing photography, people often talk about objectivity—but in the most iconic images, the photographer is all over the work. Personally, I’m more interested in having some continuity in the topics I choose rather than the way I approach them.
Now, it’s difficult because people like continuity. People like to see and confirm what they know, and they expect a certain thing from you. Sometimes you try to do something different, but they like the things you did before. I try not to stress about this because in the end, if you explain the story well, it’s going to be fine.
LC: Still, I think you’re right about the satisfying nature of continuity and confirmation. I used to love 19th century painting. I’d be so proud when I could walk into a museum and, in a moment, say, “Ah, that’s a Delacroix!” I wonder if photographers used to want that “Delacroix stamp,” so that people could identify strongly with their work.
LA: Yes, but today is a different generation. Now, everyone can make a great picture. Really, my dad can take a perfect picture. It’s not that difficult to achieve, technically. Which is why I don’t think people are very surprised by photography any more. They’re taking pictures all the time, so a beautiful picture, in itself, won’t do much to move them.
LC: In other words, because everyone can take a nice picture now, you leave the “pretty” pictures for others to do? The photographer’s role has become more provocative?
LA: It depends. If you’re only interested in beauty, you will still take those photos. But I’m not interested in beauty anymore. Beauty can be useful to get people to focus on strange things—but for me, beauty is not the goal of photography.
LC: So is there any reason to call yourself a photographer?
LA: I do. But, it’s funny…labels…I’m a former journalist, so for a long time I would say I was a journalist. And then I worked for five years as a photo editor, and I do books, so I’m a book editor. They call me a multi-platform storyteller, but here, I had to say I’m an artist, otherwise people would not buy my prints.
No, I’m joking. Perhaps it’s because I was always afraid of the word “artist.” In Spain, the word has a lot of prejudices. The term “artist” has a stigma. It’s better now than it was before, but I think it’s an old and long-running prejudice.
I suppose “photographer” is okay, but I think I’m something else besides just a photographer. I’m not saying that photography isn’t good enough, but just for me it doesn’t fit. I guess I’m a visual artist, but not even visual…maybe just artist, after all. Since I use music and text, it’s not only visual.
In the end, being an artist gives you the freedom to do whatever you want—and maybe I’m still struggling with that.
LC: What do you think is the great challenge for photography now?
LA: I think it’s making a living. We have resources, we have access…we have all the things that the other generations didn’t have…but the market is much more dispersed, which makes it harder to make a living from photography.
I suppose the struggle has always been money. But now the problem is that if you have money, you don’t have time. If you have time, you don’t have money. Things move much faster now.
Before, you were an editorial photographer and you made money in newspapers and magazines. You were a fashion photographer and you made money doing shoots. Now, the photographers like me, we’re like pies: we do a little bit of newspapers, a little bit of fashion, a little bit of commercial, a little bit of books, a little bit of talks, a little bit of teaching…and this means a lot of time.
If I could do just one project, and throw all of my energy at this one project, it would be so much better than doing 15 things at once. These days, photographers have to be clever and learn how to do everything at once: build an audience, be our own agents, curators and designers. I don’t think that’s good. I don’t build bridges or buildings because that would be dangerous. We should try and learn different aspects of the work because it’s interesting and fun—but one person can’t be the best at everything. We need specialists as well.
But I suppose another way to think is that it’s like evolution. You can read quotes from people in the 19th century who felt like they were inundated with images. And you read those same quotes today. I said that things are moving faster now but people felt the same during the Industrial Revolution! Just a few years ago, we had our first megapixel cameras. Now my hard drive is two terabytes. In the end, we’ll adapt. We always do.
—Laia Abril, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
You can find out even more about this project and Abril’s work in general on her agency’s website, INSTITUTE.