In conversation with Alexandra Hayter

Alexandra Hayter is a student of fine art at the University of Leeds. She is making intimate and subtle portraits of her family and friends in the nude to confront our stereotypes of gender and sexuality in art head-on. She has no time for your bullshit stigmas.

As a general introduction to her work, she says that, ‘My interest has always involved themes of intimacy and the body. My ideas are usually drawn from my immediate surroundings, experiences and emotions. It isn’t unusual in our culture to see constructions of relationships, bodies and intimacy projected in to our everyday, I put forward my own depiction of how I experience these subjects and hopefully how personal it seems is what differs it from others.’

Hayter takes ‘themes of intimacy and the body’ to its extreme in her stark and unafraid portrayals of menstruation in her art. Taking a cue from her own body, Hayter lets the audience into a specific and personal moment her life. Whilst this might open Alexandra up to criticism, it at least starts a conversation around the subject, which is exactly what she’s after. ‘If I am going to be showing images that are read as intimate, sexual or explicit in any way, there is no reason that I should hide menstruation. it is something I experience through my every day, therefore it only makes sense to me that I should capture it how I would anything else.

‘It is in inherently intimate process, but I feel that much like many aspects of the body today, it has been policed to a point of stigmatisation. I am interested in how this has come about, and how within the context of my work it functions to produce a response.’

From documenting her own period, it seemed only a natural step for Hayter to then begin to document and normalise the stigma surrounding discharge. In her Instagram project Discharge Diaries (@dischargediary), she takes pictures of her pants at the end of the day, warts and all. The pictures are beautiful, with sumptuous colours and textures that make the visible discharge secondary within them. At first glance, you hardly notice that these are pictures of dirty pants, which is surely the first step to dispelling the stigma surrounding discharge.

When explaining the rationale behind her project, Hayter cites Instagram as her inspiration: ‘During the summer, a (thankfully) brief trend took off on Instagram. This was the “Clean Panty Challenge”. The challenge was to post a photograph showing that your underwear was clean from any discharge, or bodily fluid at all.

‘A few months later when I first started thinking about menstruation within my art and how it is received culturally, I decided to scan my underwear that day, not  really sure what my intentions were.

‘After I had a small collection of these images, I was thinking of how to display them and started arranging them in a grid format – I remembered the “Clean Panty Challenge” of the previous summer, and realised that Instagram would be the ideal format for the images.

‘Instagram provides the images with a documentary formation, and also requires the literal touch of a finger, which is an interaction I find interesting, if a little amusing.’

When she’s not snapping pics of her own discharge or menstruation, Hayter takes beautifully intimate and touching nude portraits of herself and, surprisingly, her mum. Hayter explains, ‘After I began to explore my relationship to my own body, and then my romantic influences from my relationship, it seemed natural to me to expand this. Who better than the first woman I met, the woman who taught me about my body in the first place? To me, the portraits I take of people in my life hold a value in that the images were taken in an environment made just for me and my subject. Photographing my mum naked really brought out the focus for us that my body literally came from hers. It meant a lot to me to be able to photograph my mother from that angle, but also to be able to put out a nude image that doesn’t quite fit with the norm that we are so used to seeing and associating with female nudes in our everyday field of vision.’

When asked about who inspires her art, Hayter is carefully diplomatic, drawing the line between dropping the classic art school big names and drawing from her own experiences. ‘The first influence that really encouraged me to pursue my art on a personal level,’ she says’, ‘was the more socio-political pieces of the Second Wave Feminism

movement of the 60s and 70s. Artists such as VALIE EXPORT and Cindy Sherman were the first women I saw utilising their bodies, a medium that is always available, in order to produce their pieces. The crossover of personal and political is a dialogue I think about often with my work, and I now feel my influences come as much from artists as they do from my own experiences. Living in such a visually based culture results in influence from many different angles.’

Just as Robert Mapplethorpe did with his nude subjects, Hayter has chosen to work entirely using polaroid photography. In explaining this choice, she says, ‘Analog photography is often credited for not only being about the final image, but the time and process of reaching that image; this is what originally drew me to instant photography as it utilises this process. Polaroid images allow me to spend time with each subject assessing both our reactions to each image as it is produced, and with a limited amount of frames per photoshoot, it really pushed me to involve myself with my subject as much as possible.’

For Alexandra Hayter, intimacy is key: between subjects, between photographer and subject, and between photographer and viewer. She makes it perfectly clear that whether or not this intimacy makes the viewer uncomfortable, that is entirely their problem: why should she restrict herself artistically just to make you comfortable?

Jemima Skala

Art all used with Alexandra Hayter’s permission

Follow her on Instagram at @dischargediary and @alexandra_hayter

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