I took off my shorts and lay down on the couch in my underwear. Paul set up his camera, grabbed the remote, took off his shirt and pants, and lay down next to me. The camera clicked, controlled by the remote in his hand. Early afternoon light came in through the blinds, cutting his chest and my back in diagonal lines.
“Let’s get rid of these,” he said, and we did, stripping what remained of our clothing.
We sit naked on the cover of a book. My arm is wrapped around his body, my chest and nipple turn toward the camera. I’m white and Paul — the photographer, my friend — is black. Our bodies and legs intertwine in something like an embrace.
For so many years, I did everything possible to hide the flesh of my body. In middle school, I had nightmares about locker rooms and what happened there. I never showered after PE class; I only pulled off my shorts and pulled on my jeans, my tighty-whities visible for the shortest possible moment in time. I wanted my body to disappear and leave only my mind, the only part of myself that I always liked. I wanted my body to disappear, because it was impossible to control; it could betray my desire by getting hard when I shouldn’t — there in plain view of other boys or men.
I have now been naked in front of more people than I can count. My nudity is usually in the service of something: changing, showering after a run, cleaning my body, preparing for and then receiving pleasure. My body is a practical matter.
But there have been other times where my naked body burned an image into gelatin emulsion and crystalline silver. These weren’t selfies in a quest to find love or sex. My body was the extent of the mission, cataloging my flesh, recording the space it took up, the volume of air it displaced. I was exposed for the purpose of making pleasure — or something like it — in whomever might see not my body but simply an image of it, naked, turned toward the camera, my mouth closed and my eyes smiling.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a Los Angeles–based photographer. Born in Southern California, he spent nearly a decade in New York taking portraits. He’s queer and black, and his photographs—in particular, his large-scale portraits—have been exhibited in solo gallery shows in New York and L.A., at the New Museum. His work hangs in MoMA right now.
I met Paul in 2008 on the gay dating site Adam4Adam. He lived in Brooklyn. At the time, I was a PhD student living on the Upper East Side. “Come over some night,” he said. His profile read: “Hair in all the right places.” He promised me a glass of whiskey neat and that we could watch Hoarders together. I never biked to his apartment; the idea of certain sex loomed too large.
I met flesh of him for the first time at a small party in a park in Brooklyn. Paul lived in Williamsburg (of course he did). He was a member of the New York City art-fag mafia, a group of pretty boys who terrified me in the way all cliques did.
The photos Paul took were mostly portraits: glossy pictures of beautiful men, often naked. His pictures looked like sex and desire. A contemporary art photographer taking photos that emphasized the beautiful seemed to fit oddly into American portraiture, a genre that long took on the odd, grotesque, othered. His portraits were almost exclusively of queer people, and so of outsiders, but they never looked like freaks.
A few months later, Paul posted on Facebook. He was looking for people, anyone with a free hour in the afternoon, to sit for him. Without thinking too much, I biked uptown to the Studio Museum. We hadn’t hung out one-on-one before, and I always had a hard time being comfortable in silence or in conversation with people I barely knew.
I sat in the space looking at Paul and at his camera.
First I took off only my shirt. “Take off as much or as little as you want,” said the other voice in that room, sunlight streaking the floor and making rectangles on the bright-white walls. I pulled down my shorts but left my shoes on. I’d come into the studio unsure of what I would do, of what I’d be capable of. My back against the studio wall, I pulled down my underwear.
Shaking, I sat naked. A camera’s lens clicked open, closed. I didn’t get aroused, by which I mean my dick didn’t get hard, because the rest of my body was on edge — pins of adrenaline pricking at my skin. The pleasure was simply in being seen.
The photographer discloses, and so does the memoirist. A photographer isn’t required to turn the camera on themself. But the self, I believe, is relieved only in the manner of telling, of seeing, or in the choice of what to see and what to tell. Fiction writers tell made-up stories of other people’s lives, but always — if they’re successful — reveal something about the way in which they, the writer, inhabit the world, the geography that they, the writer, knows best.
The memoirist — and I suppose I am one — admits that they are the subject of the material.
So many American photographers went out in search of their freaks or made themselves up as other people. Paul shoots his life and his own body. His portraits are in natural light, during the day; intimate glimpses into his life and the lives of his friends. This time, my body was included. I was inside the club. I was naked and visible, and something like art.
Years later, I was dating Kaliq, whom I’d met in the park the same day I met Paul. Again, Paul posted on Facebook that he needed someone to come over to his house for a shoot. By this time, I’d started taking writing more seriously as a profession. I wrote about my life and the people in it; I wrote about the work I did in a lab studying viruses; I wrote about my family, my growing up, my loves, my sex. Writing all this didn’t just expose me. It also exposed my lovers — and especially Kaliq.
This time, I knew I wanted to get naked. I had asked permission from Kaliq, which he granted but would later resent and use against me. I went over to Paul’s house; we chatted and made drinks. I took off my shirt and chopped mint for a cocktail. His shutter clicked open, closed. We went out to his garden, a concrete plot fenced in with tall wooden pickets so that no light made it through. I got naked, lying on the concrete, folding my clothes and placing them in a neat pile inside his kitchen. My body dug into the ground, dirt and rocks sticking to my skin.
Queer art complicates. In my writing, my attractions for men and women, femininity and masculinity, are never quite explained. My friendships hold longing. I write to determine what I think; the writing process is part of my answer.
In the garden, Paul helped brush the dirt off me before I put my clothes back on. His hand didn’t linger, but because I was naked still and in his house, his hands on my body did feel electric, intimate, almost like a lover.
In 2012, Paul moved from New York to L.A. to go to school. In the years since, his work has morphed into something I love much more. His images were too literal to me; their desire felt almost choreographed. Earnest desire can feel pornographic or, worse, campy, like a joke, when committed to a photograph.
His portraits are now fragmented, bodies hidden behind expensive-looking cloth, individuals reflected in mirrors — one body, two? or three? — pictures of a tripod, of a camera, photographs cut and reassembled, large collages that leave the viewer wondering what is what, and who is whom.
Bodies lose their insides and their outs; bodies become porous, but not without losing their identifiers: Paul’s black body and his camera, his subject’s genders and races (my white skin, for example), our identities stuck in a way that our flesh — or parts of it, the inside of an elbow, the outside of a hand — always give away.
Paul also includes himself more in his collages, often holding a camera reflected in a mirror. He’s claiming the act of image making, putting his own skin in the game. The photographer behind the camera lens becomes a visible witness, like the narrator of personal nonfiction, our fingerprints visible in each sentence that begins with an “I.” And for a black artist, it feels particularly important to claim that this life, this longing, this witness, is his.
Paul’s images invoke a particular geography. An interior. A studio. This geography, and his role in capturing it, make his work into an autobiography, a visual memoir; the story of a life told in images. Desire exists within the frame, bodies touching, pleasure visible and no longer simply implied. Paul’s hand, other hands, on a hard uncut dick — a dick that could be mine except that I know that it isn’t — hanging, even now, on the New Museum wall.
Now, in locker rooms, I like being naked. I let the towel fall, especially when I see someone looking over. Locker rooms are places where I even find sex. I love being naked in sex parties, my full body exposed. Just being visible, being looked at, something I feared for so long, has become its own type of pleasure.
Coming out taught me how to get naked and be seen. I had to cure myself of the worry that I might be turned on by men’s bodies. I had to admit that I wanted to glance at them, and be glanced at, too, and more.
Kaliq taught me how. He took me to his gym and showed me how to have my body exposed in public, and how to know if a stranger wanted to be grabbed — my sweat mixing with the steam in the air, the steam that erased bodies only feet away into a soundless cloud.
Paul taught me how to sit naked, take up space, imagine my image going out into the world to be looked at, to be longed for, to be seen. These men gave me permission, showing me that desire itself is worth praying to, turning into images, making into words.
So many photographers have taken advantage of their position of power over the photographed to extract a pleasure in the absence of any real possibility of consent. Terry Richardson’s transgressions have been well-documented, but now, in light of Weinstein and all the others, we are reexamining how consent and power work against one another, as we must.
The fact that Paul integrates himself into his work is one thing. This, however, doesn’t erase the power he holds as the one controlling the camera and therefore the studio and therefore the work produced. I was in his studio by choice; it wasn’t my job, and I could have left at any time and risked only losing our friendship. My future, my livelihood, wasn’t on the line, and I’m a man, a cis-man, and white; I had and have an agency that many don’t.
Queerness is not an antidote to all the evils of the word. Abuse exists within queer communities. But if we imagine queerness as an imagined possibility, better than the world now, a horizon we will never reach, we can see queerness as striving toward a world without the types of power differentials that drive abuse and erode consent.
All I can say is that my friendship with Paul let me test, push, break my boundaries. I never felt safe, not exactly, but each step was my own choice. I was safe, in Paul’s studio, to push past what had previously been my own boundaries.
Paul and I sit on the cover of my book, naked and in an embrace. I was a collaborator in his work, just as he is a collaborator in mine, and the messiness of how we’ve loved and touched exists in both places, good and bad and for the whole world to see.
Kaliq didn’t like to take pictures with me. He only liked his picture taken by professional photographers. Only a few images of us together remain. He deleted all the pictures of me from his social media, and he blocked me on Facebook, our pictures erased like he wanted our past to be.
After we broke, I wrote it down. I wanted the facts of it to be told. Gay people have been telling our public stories for years, but so few of those stories involved cheating, involved abuse, involved the specter of — and perhaps the longing for — disease.
Paul’s photographs allowed desire and lust and intimacy and fear and revulsion to coexist, too, so I wanted Paul to shoot the cover of my book. I’ve never seen his studio in Los Angeles, but I’ve seen so many of the images made there. I imagined it much larger — aren’t all spaces so much bigger and grander out West? I know his studio is nowhere near the beach, but I imagine it there anyway, the sun setting over the water like it does out West, palm trees visible through the windows.
Paul traveled back to New York, where I still live. I had another boyfriend by then. We lived together, this boyfriend and I.
Paul came over. My apartment — our apartment, mine and Wesley’s — became Paul’s studio. Paul’s studio was any space he shared with a friend, any space intimacy could be given or made. Wesley had to go to work shortly after Paul arrived.
“Let’s get rid of these.”
Paul’s body wrapped around mine. My legs wrapped around his. The light from the window cut a pattern into my back. His dick got hard on my leg, inches from mine. My dick got hard on the couch inches from his.
This was the closest we’d ever been. It was the only time we’d been hard together in the same room. He leaned forward for a kiss. I pulled back. Even though he was miles away at work, Wesley was still in that room, and I knew that would upset him. Kaliq was also in that room, the ghost of him, because I knew this image would soon sit outside the book that told our story — Paul’s body a stand-in for Kaliq, the beloved. So the four of us, me and Paul, Kaliq and Wesley, two naked and holding one another, two watching yet outside of it all, sat there as the camera clicked, controlled by Paul’s hand hidden behind my leg. His studio, my home, my memoir, our book.
Paul rips and cuts his images, rephotographs them with his hands and body. In a world that’s increasingly digitized, Paul’s work is made by hand, cropping with scissors, rotating prints, pasting with glue. He shot my book cover in my apartment, which became his studio, then printed and reshot these images without me in his studio in L.A.
In my writing, even here, I’m ripping my own body too, claiming it to be occupied by all the lovers it has known. They’re in me — and Paul, too — I carry them around, bits and pieces of them in the words I say and how I say them, the way I hold my hand, the way I stand on the balls of my feet when I cook, just like my first boyfriend did. I can be looked at by new lovers, by men in locker rooms, in steam rooms, at sex parties, because of the pleasure they gave to me and the pleasure I gave them in turn.
Paul and I, in our images and words, respectively, are letting ourselves, our most intimate selves, be seen. This is an explicit rebuff of the sanitization of sexuality that occurred through the push for gay rights, but that now — I think — continues because of the fear of a Trump-led right-wing backlash against us. We are allowed to be gay and sexual, messy and spiteful and ugly and slutty and beautiful and mean, this work says, in private, yes, but right here in public, in art and discourse, too.
I have no private life. I’m naked there on the cover of my book. Paul takes pictures. He puts his love and his sex on museum and gallery walls to be looked at. To be purchased.
I put mine here, on this page. Keeping my beloveds out of it feels — to me — like lying at best and impossible at worst. Whether I intend to write about my lovers or not, they see themselves on the page. My loves and lovers have often wanted to run from this mirror they couldn’t help but see themselves in.
This page, my studio, broken into a grid, cut into a collage, covered in black velvet to hide just enough of our bodies in order to show, as much as possible, our relation. And relation contains, indeed is built from, desire. Desire is a razor’s edge from fear, repulsion. I felt both when I first sat naked in front of Paul’s camera. How messy. How queer. First, see me: I sit naked in his studio, my shorts and underwear around my feet. Then commit me to the page. Click, a camera’s mirror pops up and down, and image writes itself into being.