Ethics, Art, and Good Business

A conversation with Nadya Lev

Nadya Lev is a photographer, activist, storyteller and world shaper. She is co-founder and publisher of the popular alt-culture magazine, COILHOUSE, which became an international platform for art, politics, activism, and aesthetics. Together with co-editors Meredith Yayanos and Zoetica Ebb, and designer Courtney Riot, Nadya produced six print issues and several thousand blog posts. Though COILHOUSE was put on hiatus in late 2012, the magazine still sends ripples across alt and popular culture, and many thousands eagerly await its reinvention.

Nadya’s photography sits at the border between portrait and high fashion, highly stylized and stylish, with an emphasis on the model as storyteller rather than empty object.

Harlequinade by Nadya Lev on

Nadya is currently the managing director of We met for a quick coffee that lasted for seven hours of incredible conversation about art, culture, the future, and the demanding and sometimes confusing position of being both an activist and a business manager.

(Partial nudity below.) homepage.

KB: What do you do as general manager of

Nadya: My job is to take Zivity to the next level in every way possible: product, community, brand and design-wise.

Zivity is a site that enables fans of sexy photography to support their favorite artists. I call it “sexy photography” because I find distinctions like nude, fetish, erotic, glamour, pinup, etc., to be a little awkward. A lot of our photos don’t fall neatly into any category — they’re gritty, confrontational, inspired by everything from glitch art to Cindy Sherman. One of the things I try to do at Zivity is to craft an experience that challenges expectations of what a sexy photograph can be, and a safe space where models of all body types have room to play.

The first thing I did when I started working at Zivity was hire two incredible people to help the site grow. Getting the right people involved is the most important thing. I brought on Star St. Germain, a gifted designer, performer and illustrator, to be in charge of design and UI. Star and I previously worked together on Coilhouse, and I apprenticed under her to learn modern design/development practices last year. And, after meeting him at the Lost Horizon Night Market, I brought on Dennis Collective to be our lead dev. Dennis is a Radical Faerie, and previously led development at Diaspora — a nonprofit, user-owned, distributed social network. Together with our completely badass social media/community manager Okami, and Zivity’s wonderful founder Cyan, we have a really solid team that works well together.

On a day-to-day basis, I “run the company” — and that can mean something very different every day. Sometimes, the work is very left-brained: poring over spreadsheets, analyzing metrics (or, as Dennis calls it, “statsturbating”), agile development planning meetings. Other times, it’s very creative: making things like the Zivity Artist Guide and brainstorming about new features. Some days, I get to write a little code. Mostly, I’m making sure that everyone around me has the tools they need to get their jobs done, continues to learn and grow, and stays on the same page about our objectives.

Jessica Drue in “Leather and Grain” by Adam Robertson on

KB: We spoke before about the challenges of running a for-profit company that needs to make money (at least to cover running costs) and the sometimes opposite goal of being an activist and feminist who believes wholeheartedly in freedom of expression. Can you give me an example of when those things are at odds and how you resolve them?

Nadya: When I took this job, I definitely agonized over the notion that I might be working on a site that catered to the male gaze, reinforcing the paradigm that women are decorative objects competing for male attention. Instead, it was heartening to discover that Cyan had created a very real groundwork of body positivity and consent culture on the site, and that some of the most prolific artists on Zivity are also bad-ass feminists. Gracie Hagen’s project “Illusions of the Body” is one great example of this. Rather than running away from the opportunity to work on Zivity because I found certain aspects of the site problematic, I embraced the chance to cultivate more of what I liked there.

I’ll give you an example in which business needs and body politics collided head-on. I was moderating a lovely pin-up set when I noticed something that shocked me: the model was covered in dozens of cuts all over her skin. They appeared to be fresh, and self-inflicted.

My initial thought was: “uhh, I don’t know if we can publish these.” First of all, I was concerned about the model’s well-being. Secondly, I worried that Zivity would be accused of glamorizing and sexualizing self-harm. We live in age where a hashtag can bring down a whole company, and out of context, some of the pictures were pretty shocking. I worried that our payment processor would take issue with the set, and wondered how other site members would react to it. In a nutshell, there were a few business reasons not to publish it.

We had an internal discussion about it. Okami brought up a really good point: refusing to publish the set could feed into the cycle of shame that cutters often experience. I didn’t want to be complicit in stigmatizing self-harm. We decided to reach out to the model and, first of all, make sure that she was okay. After talking to her, we learned that these photos were symbolic of her overcoming the urge to cut, and that publishing the set was part of the healing process. Based on this conversation, we decided to publish the photos. It was important for us to respect this model’s recovery/self-expression, even if it had the potential to shock people.

KB: You’re a very talented photographer yourself. Does having the day job to pay the bills help you create more art for art’s sake, or does it get in the way?

Nadya: Thank you! I have so many ideas currently on the back burner. They’re all over the map: I’m interested in tech-fashion, LED art, journalism, large-scale industrial sculpture, and science fiction. Though I have less time for personal work than I’d like, seeing all the incredible art on Zivity keeps me inspired. It has led to me practicing photography on a regular basis for the first time in years. Overall, I find satisfaction in the fact that I’m working on a platform that enables artists around the world to make more art, even if my own time to create is constrained.

KathTea in “Sparklewren” by melzphoto on

KB: Speaking of a platform that helps creators, there’s nothing that helps creators create more than financial backing — money = time, and supplies, and talented help. Zivity was one of the first sites that allowed artists to crowdfund in a way. Tell me about how the financial support system works on Zivity.

Nadya: Artists aren’t paid by Zivity, but by fans on the site. Fans upvote the most interesting sets they discover. A fan can vote on a set as many times as they want. Every vote costs one dollar to cast, and that money goes to the artists. 55 cents of every vote dollar goes to the model, and 30 goes to the photographer. We make almost no money off votes — our cut covers fees. For fans, voting is a way to show their appreciation and empower artists on the site to keep creating, improving and experimenting.

We also let people run photo contests. For example, let’s say I really want to see a sexy Hello Kitty-themed shoot. I can say, “whoever creates the best shoot on this theme gets this $300" or however much money I choose to put up. Then, artists upload sets and I get to choose a winner. In the past two months, my favorite contests created by site members were: Infinite Jest & Most Excellent Fancy (harlequin-themed), Lynch-Like (David Lynch tributes), and Art Reference. The staff run prizes, too. Okami just did a Shower Beer one. Cyan has created some amazing ones: I think Women Struggling to Drink Water was my favorite. I have two right now: Urban Exploration, and a Surveillance State. I should mention that the current system doesn’t allow for everyone who enters to be rewarded for trying, but that’s something I’d love to see one day.

J. L. Cupcakes in “Closet Freak” by Holligraph on

KB: One way that has upset the norm is by giving a larger share of the profits to the models, honoring their place as full participants doing something skilled and difficult. Photography is generally considered to be a photographers art, the subjects (models) often treated as replaceable objects. gives models a platform to show their work, build a fan-base and community, and grow as artists. Models are honored as the talented workers and artists that they are, working in collaboration with photographers to tell stories.

Are people confused by the “voting” = money aspect? Asking for “votes” instead of money seems like a more emotional way to ask for support. Artists get so shamed for wanting to be paid for our work, does couching it in those terms make it easier for people to support and ask for support?

Nadya: I definitely see confusion around the term “voting.” When you participate in an election, voting is free, and you only get to do it once. “Vote for me” does sound more confident than “support me” — to my ear, at least. We’re currently working on new ways for artists to be supported on Zivity, and one of the biggest challenges is coming up with the proper language for people to use. The phenomenon of artists feeling ashamed about asking for money is definitely something we’ve been thinking about a lot. One of Zivity’s goals is to educate everyone — both the artists and the fans — that image production is hard work that should be compensated.

KB: Well it’s certainly starting to change a bit, though I think crowdfunding will always have a bit of a charity whiff to it. It’s a hard thing to shake when people keep using language like “help” and “donate.” I’m guilty of it myself.

Nadya: There’s not a lot of good vocabulary for this sort of thing. It’s funny, because “art patronage” and being a “patron of the arts” both sound super-classy, but “patronize me” doesn’t sound good at all. I wish we had one verb that meant: “support the work of this person, empower them to create, and be part of this exciting thing that they’re doing.” I bet there’s a German word for it. Wunderbarkunstunterstützen? If only there was a catchy, monosyllabic English version. Of all the crowdfunding terms we have, “back this project” seems like the least needy-sounding. Being a backer carries the connotation of being a smart investor who recognizes a project’s worth. But it’s still not a perfect term to describe this emerging movement.

MaryCeleste in “Mary’s Mirror” by deadclownstudios on

KB: What’s next for Zivity? Got any exciting new updates or experiments you can talk about?

Nadya: There are two big tasks at hand. Currently, we’re working on making Zivity more modern, accessible, and user-friendly. Here’s a “before and after” of a page we recently overhauled.

While we’re doing that, we’re also in the early stages of launching something new. I don’t want to jinx it, so I can’t talk it about it too much, but I can tell you that this project touches on many of the things we’ve discussed in this interview: supporting art and connecting people.

KB: And more excitingly, what’s next for Nadya Lev: the artist, the activist, the publisher?

Nadya: It’s an exciting question to ponder. I’m still recovering from a really scary life experience. At the end of 2011, I started going blind from an aggressive type of glaucoma that never affects people my age. Doctors didn’t know what to do with me. There were 12 surgeries, many of which failed, and some that had complications. At its worst, I couldn’t recognize my partner from across the room or read my text messages. I got lost walking to the local grocery store. There were moments when I thought that I’d never be able to make a living — let alone make art — ever again. Thanks to one brilliant doctor and my amazingly supportive community, everything is finally under control. Even though my eyesight is different than it was before, I have completely adapted to it. I can ride my bike in traffic, travel alone in a strange country, devour books.

I’m still getting used to the fact that there are no eye surgeries on the horizon. Just last week, I did a new shoot that picks up where my favorite old photos left off. Previous attempts at making new photos had resulted in sadness and frustration, but I walked away from this shoot with a “nailed it” feeling. That was a huge milestone for me. The shoot was a collaboration with model Wenchi, makeup artist Hannah Concannon, and my best friend and collaborator of almost 10 years, Mildred Von (the designer behind Mother of London). When I saw the photos, I was like, “I can do this and continue growing.”

So, to answer your question (in the most roundabout way), I feel like I just got reborn as an artist. Maybe I’ll stay with photography, and maybe I’ll jump into some new medium. Maybe both. The future is wide open.

Harlequinade. June 2014. Photographer: Nadya Lev. Model: Wenchi. Makeup: Hannah Concannon. Wardrobe: Mother of London. Post-production: Marina Dean Francis. More photos from this set can be found on Zivity.

Find more Nadya Lev:
@nadya on Twitter
and at

Interview by Kim Boekbinder