Challenging the cis-normative male gaze

The works of Berlin-based photographer Colette Pomerleau explore concepts of identity and belonging, injected with a curiosity for the seemingly banal surroundings of modern suburbia. Born and raised in Las Vegas, the artist moved to the German capital two years ago and has continued “obsessively dissecting the mundane” in works that spark tales of a fascination with peculiar moments.

“I started collecting film cameras before getting into photography because of how much they stood out as these beautiful machines,” Pomerleau tells WOM. “So much of what I experienced growing up in Las Vegas was new, homogenous, safe. Actually using these cameras I collected were different than that. Film photography has never been safe or predictable for me, and I like that.”

The artist creates studies of urban scenes and the diverse people who inhabit them, inspired by “a certain kind of ambiguity allowed through telling these stories” and everyday scenes from abandoned buildings to a recent encounter with a “funeral pre-planner whom I met in a rundown swap meet.”

In collaboration with member of neo-folk band King Dude and agender model Marlow Rae, Pomerleau has created a photo editorial that contrasts fluidity and motion with brutalist architecture and rigid structures. Seattle-based artist Rae tells WOM that the project was of particular interest in terms of setting. Sharing Pomerleau’s interest both in the urban landscape – “I really love buildings; I feel like ‘place’ could be a sixth sense” – and Berlin itself – “I like eating doner boxes on the curb. It feels just a little transgressive” – Rae was visiting the city on tour with their band when the opportunity arose to work with the photographer. “She chose the location, and then we just walked all over the city early on a Sunday morning when no one was out. It wasn’t a side of Berlin I had seen before.”

Alongside the shoot, Pomerleau and Rae sit in conversation about creative influences, the phenomenon of the “bland sexy photo” and the problem with sex appeal.

Pomerleau: Can you tell me a little about all of the creative projects you’re involved in right now? Perhaps a few that you’re excited to begin in the near future as well? 

Rae: Right now I’m playing in King Dude and a fun proggy band called Lullaby League that’s just starting to release demos, even though we’ve been working together for years. Modelling and some get to be released writing projects are what fill the rest of my creative bandwidth at the moment. 

As far as modelling goes, what aesthetic are you drawn to? 

When it comes to the aesthetics of my modelling work I’m at once super picky and super resigned to the expectations of the industry. I try to focus on more artistic work where I can be inspired by the aesthetics of film or modern dance, but I am acutely aware that I won’t be able to achieve anything in this industry unless I take bland sexy photos, which I honestly don’t consider art. I think sex appeal is a cheap trick most of the time. It doesn’t make me feel anything. But I’ve adopted that lexicon of poses because I have to use them to get by. 

Do you find yourself playing characters in this role? 

I have a bunch of characters I can step into when I shoot fashion or fine art projects – some are from my own writing, some are from other pieces of fiction that have resonated with me. I like the roleplay of going, “how would this person pose? How would they react to being seen on camera?”

Which expectations of the industry do you absolutely refuse to give in to in order to be hired for jobs?

I hate the expectation that a model needs to cater to a (typically male) photographer’s ego to be a worthwhile hire. I’m very perfunctory about shooting; I do my job with a minimum of excess. Emotional labour isn’t a billable service, so I don’t provide it. I’m a visual medium, not a therapist. I’m not sorry if I ruin the fantasy. To some extent every model is a realisation of some fantasy, but that particular fantasy isn’t in my job description most of the time. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find people to collaborate with and have only found these ‘bland sexy photos’ of women. I think I’ll always be surprised and disgusted that this is the norm. This is how many people want to see female bodies. How do you imagine you’ll play a part in this shift of perception?

I know that hating on sex appeal makes me come off as a sex-negative person. But sex appeal in itself isn’t a problem. It’s sex appeal that only caters to a male, cis-normative white gaze that annoys the hell out of me. So to every model who doesn’t fit the mould, every disabled, POC, trans, fat model out there who is representing a kind of personhood that our day-to-day media hardly lets us see because it’s “ugly” or is relegated to fetishising niche content, I appreciate you all so, so much. That’s part of why I keep doing this. Because eventually, if I keep sticking my queer, trans body in enough people’s faces, it will become the norm to see people like me and respect people like me. 

What were your original intentions with modelling? 

Originally I wasn’t in it for much more than gender affirmation. At the time I started modelling, I had recently gotten out of a couple of relationships where, implicitly or not, I was being penalised for my failure to conform to my partners’ ideas of what a woman should be. I didn’t have the language for gender nonconforming identities yet; I knew something was fundamentally different about me, but I didn’t know what. I thought forcing myself to behave in this exaggerated femme way would prove that I could be a girl. Instead it proved that I’m not one. Whoops. 

How do you imagine sex appeal to progress if it does in a way to become more inclusive?

I want to see the staggering array of human diversity without it being fetishized or sold as a novelty. I want to look at affirming, experimental erotica and be able to say “I have never seen a person who looks like this before!” I want the marketing of sex to reflect the world as it exists, and the countless different experiences that exist. 

See more of Colette Pomerleau’s works here and on Instagram. See more of Marlow Rae’s work here and find them on Instagram.