By Bill Staubi
It is spring time and many of us are emerging from our winter woollies and starting to think about our beach bodies. We will be weight watching, squatting, and planking our way back into shape. But what if you undertook to change your body, and your life, and ended up with a body you were uncomfortable to even look at much less let others see?
Growing up, Angus had more than his fair share of troubles. These eventually led him to isolate himself in the safety of his home. The weight he gained only further isolated him until one day he decided to break free and start to change his life. He moved to Ottawa. He found a community that would accept him. He found a partner that would love him. At 500lbs he decided to lose weight and underwent gastric bypass surgery to save his life.
Losing 300lbs left him with layers of excess skin. The pep in his step made for jiggles in unwanted places. Drapes of excess tummy skin folded over hips, feminizing his silhouette. Everything that should have been easier was getting harder. The pride in a hard won accomplishment was haunted by body dysmorphia, physical discomfort and pain, and a reluctance to see himself in a mirror or picture. What is a soul to do?
You go to the woods and you take off your clothes.
I met Angus because I was having the same gastric bypass surgery he did and he was willing to share his experience. Angus confided he had started making a breakthrough in accepting his body but was anxious to take the next step. I’d known Ruth for several years and was well aware of her photography work, which included photographing older women whose bodies had similar issues to Angus’s. I connected the two and they agreed to work together.
Working from a blurry selfie, Angus managed to get himself to the point where he would agree to have Ottawa photographer Ruth Steinberg take a series of stark and revealing nude photos of him. Ruth had previously done a sensitive series of images of aging women. These showed, not only her capacity to bring out the beauty that lay beneath the wrinkles and folds of flesh, but also her ability to make her subjects comfortable and confident under the lens’s watchful eye. Between them they shed light on the dark places Angus had kept hidden and used that light to produce photos you simply cannot stop looking at.
We see the lumps, the bumps, the folds: all the vulnerable bits. As generous as Angus is with exposing his body, Ruth is as relentless in exploring it. The viewer cannot help but flinch at the thought of being so exposed, so raw. Yet one also sees the bravery and strength, from both the subject and the photographer, required in the making of these images. Indications of masculinity battle with implications of femininity, the ascetic with the excessive, and the sexual with physical – these shots have it all.
They are large, unflinching, imposing, intimidating, and heart-warming in bold black and white. And as you see them you also see the victory, the conquering of mind over body, of spirit over doubt, of determination over fear. The beauty is not just in the body but the rather in the ownership, the acceptance, the taking control of one’s destiny.
Breaking with the conventional artist talk, Ruth and Angus are planning a moderated panel discussion (May 3rd 7pm) where they will be joined by Mike Reynolds whose social media project Everyday Girl Dad explores the everyday performances of masculinity and femininity. The three will share insights from the creation of the photos as well as their own experiences.
Showing at Enriched Bread Artist’s space at 951 Gladstone Avenue the gallery will be open May 3 from 6–9pm; May 4 and 5 from noon to 5pm, May 10 from 6–9pm and May 11 from noon to 5pm. There is no admission fee, there is free onsite parking and EBA is on the #14 bus route. The gallery space is on the second floor and requires mounting stairs. There is no elevator.
An additional discussion group session will be held By MAX Ottawa on Wednesday May 8 at 7:30pm at Venus Envy. Check maxottawa.ca or social media pages for details. MAX Ottawa generously provided a micro-grant that helped make this exhibition possible.