Culture

Meet the First Woman to Photograph Herself for 'Playboy' in 40 Years

Playboy has always been synonymous with the male gaze. Over the course of its colorful 63-year history, the magazine has hired mostly male photographers and catered mostly to male readers. Even if they're just, uh, buying it for the articles.

Except now that mission statement is changing, albeit slowly. Over the past decade, the publication has begun the process of reinventing itself completely — dropping its "Entertainment for Men" subtitle, hiring more women staffers, and even briefly reconsidering the nude centerfold. For its spring issue, themed around freedom of speech, editors commissioned LENS photographer Yumna Al-Arashi to create a series of strong, sensual self portraits. This is only the second time ever that a woman has published images of herself in Playboy; the first playmate to use her own camera was the pioneering female pornographic photographer Suze Randall, in May 1976.

Al-Arashi's images, republished here, defy conventional definitions of erotica. They're several worlds away from the brash 1970s-style nude spreads that built Hugh Hefner's mansion. PAPER reached out to hear more about how the series came together.

PAPER: What prompted you to take these photos, and how did it feel to be your own model?

Yumna: I've made self-portraits for almost my whole life as a photographer. It's a natural form of expression for me.

PAPER: It's common for women to take sensual selfies and post them for public consumption on social media. Before the internet, that was rarer. Was that something you were thinking about at all?

Yumna: I don't think that statement is entirely correct. Sensuality has existed in imagery for as long as humans have been making art. Women have used painting, photography, and other art forms to convey their own sensuality for ages, and so have men — we just have selfies now. I think the more interesting thing is how our cultures have cultivated sensuality as a tool for valuing women's worth. The more consumable we are sensually, the more social currency we have — this is something I try to question a lot in my work, especially in my self-portraiture. There are times where I want to look and feel sensual, and other times where I want my body to look as real and non-sensual as humanly possible. I played a lot on these notions in my work for Playboy.

PAPER: What were your thoughts on Playboy and other nude magazine photoshoots before creating this series, compared to after?

Yumna: At the heart of it, there are a lot of problems with the world of erotica and pornography, and for a long time there have been destructive representations of the female form in the industry. I have always felt that our erotica industries and sensual representations of women are in desperate need for change across the board: from advertising, media, pornography, and in people's minds!

I used to look through Playboy when I'd find it hiding in my father's closet, and still to this day collect the magazine and keep my favorite issues for display in my home. I always knew that, despite the way in which they represented women, that the staff, writers, and models at Playboy have always been incredibly brilliant, talented, and hard-working people. A great example is one of my favorite articles they have done — which was an interview with Fidel Castro from the August 1985 issue. That interview was historic, and conveyed a truth and angle about him that many mainstream American outlets could never have transmitted.

Today, I'm the first woman to make self-portraits for the magazine since the 1970s, which makes me the second ever. We can't deny that the heart of the publication is truly interested in pushing some buttons here and there, and the reality is that we all need breaths of fresh air.

PAPER: Can you talk us through the narratives of these shots?

Yumna: The theme of this issue was "freedom of speech," and I really wanted to use the symbols of water to be a thread in a story I felt important to me. I made images of myself barely floating in a body of dark water, one of myself being bombarded by a huge splash of water, and my hair freshly wet in another. We need water to survive but also can be completely destroyed by it. We need speech to be free but when can it become a tool for destruction? When is it too much?

When my hair is slick from water, I am covered with the hands of various men — my speech is restricted, but I am hydrated. Our lines of freedom are blurred massively these days. I feel at a huge turning point in my own self growth when I think about censorship of self, due to this world so buzzing with words, speech, hot headlines, click bait, tote bag activism. There are other shots of me embracing myself, taking care of myself, hiding in the dark and hardly finding space to be, to grow. I find myself lying in nature to receive peace and calm, my only space that I truly feel safe and "free."

PAPER: What are your aims as a photographer more broadly?

Yumna: I just want to make the things my heart feel necessary, and in that process I hope others can learn and grow alongside me.

Photos courtesy of IMG

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