Interviews & Conversations Women I've Shot

“The Housewives”, Nude Private Commissions:
This is Karen

(Note: “The Housewives” was a term I fondly coined in 2006 after I started getting shoot requests from private, individual women who became my clients. Many of the women who contacted me were married and in their mid 30’s and were doing the shoots as gifts to their husbands. The folder in my archives is still called this and so I’ve stuck to it, in part just for the irony: most of these women are not “housewives” at all, but strong independent and forward thinking women who I have had the honour of documenting.

All are private commissions and the demographic has changed substantially over the years. Some I’m still in contact with, others I’ve totally lost contact with, some have become friends, some may wish not to have their real names used, others don’t mind, some may have their faces obscured for privacy reasons, others have generously shared their experiences of being photographed.)

Karen 001 photographed by Leah Hawker 2009

It was May 2009 when I photographed Karen, she was a friend of a colleague (at the time). She commissioned me to shoot a series of portraits with her. We completed three looks during the couple of hours we worked together. Karen was open, confident and self assured. Her shoot was classic: black and white lace, sensual, backlit facets of her toned body, using mostly props/lingerie from my collection and her own significant signature necklace.

Karen 004 photographed by Leah Hawker 2009

I asked Karen to tell me about the shoot from her perspective:

I recall chatting with you and your mentioning you were doing nude shoots with ‘ordinary’, everyday women challenging the notions of media portrayal of women and celebrating themselves and their femininity. That somehow struck a cord with me.  I was only just a few months into a new relationship, which had me experience so much love, warmth, passion, romance and a sensuality I had not ever known before. It was a relationship that grew out of an unexpected meeting with seemingly unrealistic chances of continuing.
I had meet someone much much younger than me.
After over 5 years of being in a rather dysfunctional relationship where I had never been complimented, and repeatedly told I was unattractive and unloveable, it was euphoric to have a man, a most handsome, intelligent, athletic younger man suddenly admire and appreciate me, emotionally and physically. It was a surge in confidence, a change of self perception that almost made me want to rediscover myself via a lens: an objective look in an artful and tasteful way.
This was not my first time naked in front of the camera: heavily pregnant with my 2nd child, and my relationship truly on the rocks beyond saving, I had been approached by a photographer wanting to do a nude pregnant shoot in a forest, as I was actually blooming with femininity during this time.
But taking up Leah’s invite for a nude photoshoot took some to embrace, shedding all the notions of insecurity as this time seemed different, exciting, naughty, erotic, forbidden, explorative, accepting, a personal discovery, a revelation.

Karen 005 photographed by Leah Hawker 2009

Leah’s mannerism was so easy and down to earth, and it was not a situation of being ordered to play out her vision, but instead was a fun collaborative approach, as she guided the poses yet also allowed me to suggest and co-choreograph positions/body language that I actually had wanted to ‘play out’ especially the B&W silhouetted images. The lingerie series was for fun, to almost play out, with mild vengeance, the inaccessible model we are forever flaunted with by magazines and media images of women.The nude shots were the path of freedom, self acceptance and celebration.
When I finally saw the photos, I was so proud of Leah’s talented way of reading and capturing a woman’s body, yet also somewhat surprised they were actually me! It was a real growth to toss away the invalidating labels that had been relentlessly put upon me for years, and accept the compliments I was getting in my new relationship. To actually accept them graciously and allow myself to see myself as my lover did.
I am proud of those images, not just for the courage it took to take them, but for what they represent to me of that time of my life: a time of huge change, taking the courage to leave a dysfunctional relationship and go solo with two very young children (only 4.5 and 1.5  yrs at the time), a desire to seek out the positive in life, and finding unexpected love and new sensual awareness. And not only that, but that they were taken when I was 43.
That relationship lasted way beyond anyone’s expectation, including mine, and will be forever the greatest love and journey I have experienced to date. It has left me with a valuable insight that each woman has a unique and special shape, a personal aura and energy, that is driven by a self love emanating outwards not inwards. Now years later, I have seen holiday photos of myself and see the fattened and aged legs, the unsightly dimples and rolls there and there, yet I still feel more confident about my self, my feminine appeal and my body than I did when i was 28.

Karen 003 photographed by Leah Hawker 2009

Four years after Karen’s photoshoot I was working on staff at Playboy and the managing team of editors had decided last minute (pre print deadline) to scrap the planned cover in aid of an anti-rape campaign linked to events which were happening in current affairs in South Africa at the time. They were considering going with a black cover. I remembered Karens images and went back through my archives and forwarded them a simple detail shot.


I didn’t manage to get hold of Karen until after it had gone to press. We ended up coincidentally going to our communal friends birthday-do a few days after the magazines print deadline. I then calmly told her the her anonymous bum would be the next cover of Playboy South Africa, print edition.


In the follow up issue, Playboy published a forum page with feedback about their survey and campaign with this blurb on Karen’s story:

The Story Behind Our Cover Bum

Ironically, none of our critics of our last month cover actually asked who the model was, or whether she felt exploited. In fact this woman, Karen-Suzanne Claren, in her mid-forties, mother of two, is thrilled to have her great bum gracing the cover of our March issue!  The image came about when we decided to pull the planned March cover and our official photographer, Leah Hawker, suggested a set of high contrast, discreet and near-total black images as cover option from her archive of private client shoots.  This one of Karen’s derriere we just couldn’t resist as it visually translated our message while still keeping with our statement – No Means No- and black theme.  When Karen did the original photo shoot with Leah, as a series of artistic black & white poses, it was for  completely private reasons to celebrate her femininity, feel strong and sexy again, after coming out of a long dysfunctional relationship that left her with a low self image.  Asked how she feels about being on the cover, she says she is “extremely proud and empowered by this opportunity to be featured on such a famous magazine”  Thank you, Karen!

Karen 002 photographed by Leah Hawker 2009

Karens story continues still and has me smiling…

Ironically while I was overseas some months ago, I had a young colleague from our company and his girlfriend housesit for me. Only five nights before my return, the house was burgled, leaving the poor couple a bit shell shocked facing a ransacked house. They tried to restore some order to the place.  All cupboards’ and drawers’ contents had been strewn across the house, my hoardings laid bare, including my safely tucked away personal collection of photographs from Leah’s photo shoot. My little secret from 5 years ago… the burglars seemingly distracted from their mission, with all photos spread across the table.  Furthermore, it turns out that the photos proved to be perfect surfaces to obtain imprints of the burglars fingers. What started as a private journey and a gift to my special love, had inadvertently now become a small moment of wonder, admiration and mild bemusement to colleagues, police officers, security and a few unknown more.

Karins Breakin

A finger print left as evidence on a nude photograph

 The fact that one of my photos had been chosen from Leah’s portfolio to feature as the cover on the March 2013 issue of Playboy was also a huge surprise, again not for the need of recognition but silent pride that something borne out of a personal exploration of self had outshone all intentions and expectations.  That my derriere, once an immense source of insecurity and self consciousness when younger, was now the image chosen as a tasteful yet iconic female representation on such a coveted magazine.

As Women we judge ourselves far too harshly, and need to shy away from the manipulated media images and learn to appreciate our unique beauty. Having said that I do want to try work away some of those dimples and rolls before my next photoshoot with Leah, and celebrate the aura of awareness that 50 brings…

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