Editor’s Note: there are visuals containing nudity in this article.
Like most people during lockdown, we’ve been more aware of spending time with ourselves and our bodies. Fox Al Rajim knows exactly what I’m talking about and I caught up with them to chat all things bodies, disabled, queer, fat, drag and capturing it all from the safety of their bed.
U: Can you start by giving us a little intro into who you are?
My name is Fox Al Rajim. I guess I’ve many things all at once, and I am the classic poster child of queer ADHD in that, you know, I used to be a drag performer do photography, I work as a visual assistant for a geologist, I started bi pandas last year. So like, yeah, I’ve worn many hats.
But all of them, I think, come from this space of wanting to really kind of explore queerness by sexuality, explore who I am, and my identity kind of intersecting and all of that, because I grew up very, very Muslim.
I still think that I’m a bit Muslim now. I grew up in Pakistan, and only moved over here when I was like 13.
I didn’t really get a chance to explore my sexuality in that environment. Because I lived in very sort of homogenised communities. Basically, when you move to London, the first thing you do is you find your community. And you kind of just stay in it.
For a really long time, I kind of resented that there wasn’t really a space where I could feel comfortable and feel free to be myself. I ended up using lots of creative pursuits as a way of escaping all of that – photography being one of them. So, I’ve been photographing for a very long time now, about 15 years.
It’s always been like a thing that I was just always passionate about. It’s never been something that I wanted to do as a career. Because I’m brown. So I only had the choice between being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. It wasn’t pretty encouraged. It was always like, ‘that’s a good hobby’.
In the last, I guess, six years, after I came out as bi, I was like, this can be a really great tool, a really great practice and a really great opportunity for exploration of what my sexuality and my gender identity mean to me.
I could play with what this idea of being, as a self described as queer and what that means to me.
U: I love that though. Like that creative outlet of that allows you to explore and be able to express it to and connect with other people.
One of the things that I really find challenging is this idea of white supremacist, idealised beauty standards becuase of coming from a very Muslim, Pakistani background, where like beauty standards for a fact people of women didn’t really exist. Our bodies are always covered up. They were never subjected to this idea of a male gaze, even though they kind of were – and that’s a very separate complicated discussion.
U: It must be hard coming from a different country and seeing how different, like how different people dress, how they express themselves. That must be quite scary to start with but then also quite liberating, I would hope?
I found myself more restricted when I came here in terms of how I wanted to express myself. My parents became more conscious about the sexualization of our bodies in a way that they weren’t really when I was growing up in Pakistan – because everybody was wearing like a shalwar kameez. (Which is like a fairly modest piece of clothing).
But then suddenly coming here and not really having access to be able to wear those clothes in a way that meant that we were integrating, it meant that there were a lot more restrictions on what I could wear and what I couldn’t wear. Plus how pervasive the idea of the colonial beauty standard actually started to become within my family.
And actually, it was only when I really started hanging out with queer people with visibly queer bodies. And by that I mean like, non confirmative you know, gender, identity nonconforming in ways that I’ve really wanted to capture, I think and embrace that level of beauty that I found, – for me, it was really liberating.
When I first came to the UK, I found it really restricting in the sense that I would have to change the way that I was dressing and actually, becoming queer and embracing my queerness, meant that I could go back on all of the restrictions throughout my life in the sense of my identity.
So when I started seeing people accepting the kind of freedom of their bodies, it really made me want to kind of embrace that about myself.
U: So it’s actually quite more restrictive when you first moved here? But it’s great that through, like, fellow queers, and the community that you’ve been able to find that balance of, of what is comfortable and what makes you happy as well.
Yeah, exactly. And I think the opportunity to be able to express yourself can be really rare, even in like in the western context. Everybody was constantly afraid of not being good enough, not being clear enough, not being straight enough, not being thin enough, or, like smooth enough, or rich enough to afford all of the nice clothes – And the wonderful part of what I think the queer body is, is that it really just says ‘fuck you’ to all of that.
U: That is probably the best way to describe queer bodies and I’m 100% here for it.
U: We heard about your photography project, Bodies In Lockdown, how did you come up with the idea?
It was inspired originally by David Frost portraits of drag artists that were in isolation at the start of the pandemic. They had been captured using an iPad and framed, it looked amazing.
So I really want to do something inspired by that. But really true to what I want to connect with, who I was but I didn’t really have an idea for it when I first started. I just put a call out for anyone who wanted to be part of this photography project.
I didn’t really have an aim for it. I think I just want to do something.
And then I fell into a really serious, very severe pit of mental health collapse/ breakdown/ you know that kind of isolation experience that everybody has where you feel really disconnected.
So you feel like there hasn’t been any opportunity for you to really kind of enjoy yourself and enjoy your body. Like if you haven’t been touched, or if you haven’t been around people that inspired you to embrace yourself. All you’ve had is this immediate content to consume, or curated lives of other people on social media. Or your mirror, where you just look at yourself every single day. There is nothing affirming about that because you’re not in an environment that helps you foster that.
So I ended up staying in my bed basically, for months. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to do the project until I was like, well, I could just use my bed.
It’s just using an iPad. And my camera’s down in the corner… I don’t even have to get out of bed to photograph, I can just kind of lean over, grab it and see if anybody wants to do a shoot and see how it goes. And then I realised that as I was doing these shoots, that everybody else was also in their bed.
U: Oh, my gosh, I can relate. I spent so much time in my bed too, especially during lockdown.
I started thinking about the kind of semiotics of a bed, and the significance of it in our lives. And I think about what meaning that kind of space has in terms of safety and security and nurturing. You know, even if you were growing up queer, and you were closeted, your bed was probably where you felt most authentic, because nobody else was in it. And it was just you and you didn’t have to perform.
You didn’t have to be anybody else, but yourself. And so I think about all of the memories. Like the wonderful queer firsts that I’ve had an a bed, where I tell the girl I loved her for the first time – and how that was really powerful for my queerness, and my bisexuality and my sexual identity.
Through photographing, I got to witness everybody else’s safe and secure place as well. That became kind of the crux of the project..what that safety and security means for how you express your queerness and your queer body.
Each of the shoots starts off with somebody wherever they want, whatever gender expression they want, there are no kind of criteria into what I’m expecting. There’s no criteria into whether somebody has to take their clothes off, or whether they don’t, or what level of nudity is required.
It’s just about understanding how that person wants to express their body in that intimate, secure, safe space of theirs – in or on their bed.
I think it ended up being one of the most overwhelming conversations that I’ve had with all of the models about that moment – ‘that was the first time I reconnected with my body’ – which I didn’t know I needed.
I think that was the sentiment that came out over and over again. Everybody has been feeling so isolated and so alone. They’ve not been able to feel themself in their body. It’s that feeling of ‘I’ve either been disassociating from it’, ‘I’ve not been acknowledging it’, ‘I’ve been ignoring it’, ‘ I’ve been being abusive towards – it by eating junk food all the time’.
But in that moment, as I’m shooting, we’re in that kind of window where we’re just specifically focused on feeling safe and feeling secure. The bed kind of becomes a queer utopia.
After that, it was really about our relationship with our bodies during lockdown, being able to express it in a space that felt intimate, comfortable and secure.
It was about the ability to connect and communicate via like the online space and because that was something that people were really struggling with.
From the way that you express queerness online, who you’re doing it to and what you’re doing it with, I think there was a fatigue that came from being online all the time. Then suddenly feeling really disconnected, because there was no physicality to those online interactions, and actually participating in a photoshoot where it is all about being physical – you’re kind of just on your own in a way.
The models weren’t able to see me, their phones were facing the other way while I was taking the photographs, but they could hear my voice as I was directing them throughout. Ultimately in that kind of physicality of moments of self embracing, like self-love, self-fulfillment and they were by themselves being guided by my voice.
U: I love that though. Like, I know, we, we talked about our we had our cyber issue and talking about that connection between queer communities online is so important, especially when people are so isolated, but also, like, yeah, reconnecting with your body is so important.
I am a a fat disabled Muslim person with like, brown, hairy body. I have a lot of issues. And when I was doing drag the first time, I went onto stage and I was photographed by the photographer that was at the show. Then when all of the photos came back, I hated them all.
I’d never seen my body from these angles. I’ve never seen my body in those positions. Everything that I’d ever posted on social media was so curated. It was so much about how I could make my body as conventionally beautiful.
But I was making hideous faces covered in slime or goop, and my pants were kind of falling off. Even one of my socks has fallen down- they were not pretty images. And then it happened again, at the next show, and the same similar set of photos came back.
But then it happened again and I was like, I think that’s just my body. That kind of realisation, that slow, subtle transformation into just kind of going, ‘yeah, I’m really used to seeing my body from all of these different angles and positions’.
During lockdown, I gave up drag as a way to focus on my mental health. Not having those images presented back to me meant that my relationship with my body changed very quickly. I wasn’t really expecting that.
When I’m not constantly confronted with all of these terrible photos of myself, I actually dislike myself more. Which is ironic.
It’s so strange, when those kinds of things happen it’s like, I’m the same. My Instagram is very curated. And I will figure out all the angles that make me look at least two sizes more than I am. And we all do it. And unfortunately it’s the way society is kind of brain not brainwashed us in a sense, but like, we’ve got this thought in our head that we have to do that. But I know when my friends take photos of me and I’m laughing or you’re natural, you’re in your moment when that’s how your friends see us all the time. And they love us that way. But we haven’t seen it before. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I like that’.
But actually sometimes it’s nicer. Because I do like to take photographs, but not all the time. It’s more of a hobby. But when I take photographs with my family, and I think oh my gosh, my mum looks so beautiful in this photo. She’s like, Oh, it’s horrible. And I’m like, but it’s not. But I suppose it’s just our perception of it.
That’s also why I have to take pictures of my body from different angles, because I have got curves. I need to accept that. I think it’s so important that we come to terms with that and start embracing it.
U: But I’m sure the photos of you are not aren’t as bad as you think they are. But it’s just personal. Like I would feel the same about photos of me. But actually, you probably look fabulous.
I eventually went from hating them to just kind of accepting them. The acceptance was better than liking them, because then they weren’t aspirational. Instead, they were just a representation of what my body looks like – even if it did look bad, even if it did look hideous, even if it was in this horrible position and all you can see is like the cellulite all over my body and sagging breasts – it ends up actually not viewing that as either bad or good.
Just taking away all of the morality from that body was really empowering.
I think that’s the crux of being queer as well. We take away all of that morality from the body.
One of the shoots I was having with a close friend, they had a real shock when she saw her photos. She’s trans and she hadn’t really kind of seen herself in that position and seen herself look like that. For her, her social media and everything had been curated. It was like having a discussion with her and trying to make her see that what I see is beautiful. It’s in that kind of neutral way in the way that everybody’s beautiful. And getting her to kind of step away from this existing image in her head, this aspirational image in her head – I think I wasn’t expecting that conversation to come out of the project. But it did. And I’m so glad it did.
U: That must be so empowering? We love the exploration and diversity of people and bodies in the series, how easy was it to get people to open up and let you photograph them in what might be deemed a very personal scenario?
I think for the most part, it was very easy. I have a lot of experience in directing people’s bodies, because all they do is portrait photography.
I think the challenge for me personally, was being able to do that for a space that I wasn’t in control of, and trying to describe to somebody which direction they should move in, and exactly how they should move their body, while also directing them on the space itself.
Usually in a photo shoot, I’ll be like ‘ahh those sheets are in the way, let me just move it out’. And being able to do that whilst that person is still in their pose.
But getting them to move their body and to adjust the setting was very complex. I think it definitely became easier after a while. It was also easier for people with specific body types. Compared to others, it was definitely easier for non disabled body types and a little bit more challenging for people who have disabilities.
But, as a disabled person, it was quite easy for me to translate some of my own experiences and go ‘Okay, like, I can move my body this way. I didn’t know if that works for you, or this is the alternative that I sometimes use.’
I think there is also the added nuance of capturing someone’s body in a way that affirms their gender. Which was a huge complexity, I think, for me, especially when you come down to when people aren’t wearing anything at all.
Trying to capture gender presentation when you have no presentation. Apart from your physical body, it can be really challenging without having to kind of revert to very stereotypical poses. Trying to move away from feminising poses and masculinizing poses that people who want the opposite gender presentation all while still meditative in the setting the scene and the lighting. And all through an iPad ! Yeah, you could say it was complex.
U: Well the hard work shows, the photos came out great! I just think how amazing that you were able to do all that, online and at a time where it’s challenging enough. You’ve given back to people because you’ve given them that space to be them and kind of explore their bodies even more like it’s not just not saying just but like it’s not just a photography project. Like it’s a whole bigger thing. It’s kind of like therapy, which I personally think is great.
Thanks, there was a therapeutic element to it for myself too. Yes, I was doing it in a pit of horrible depression, from the crux of my bed thinking that I’d never achieve anything. And then, finally being able to kind of utilise the space I was in to create this project, whilst also speaking to a lot of people.
U: How important is it to you, that we are able to represent bodies of all forms, abilities, sexualities and races within the LGBTQIA community?
I would say it’s not just important, it shouldn’t be the standard, right? It should be the norm, rather than an aspiration.
I’m a firm believer in this idea that any kind of inclusion work that we’re doing at the moment is outdated. And that actually we should be working for liberation and for justice. For transformation, systemic change and inclusion are such a small part of that.
You know, the metaphor that I always love using is that, we need to stop saying that we’re going to make space at the table. Because the table is corrupt, the table is where all of the white supremacist, patriarchal systempremises says homophobic decisions are being made. And for us to go and sit at it to try and change the table….only forces us to assimilate to the table.
Let’s just smash that table up!
U: Hell yeah! We need to do a new seating plan actually. One that’s that this badass queer table, thank you very much.
Or even just new tables?
U: YES. Agreed.
Tables are colonial. I’ve decided.
U: All your photos are in b&w, what was the creative choice/decision behind that?
I think that was conscious, the visual aspect of it was a conscious decision. The idea of it was to make everything look like a film negative. So when you go onto the website, and you see the homepage, they’re kind of laid out like a contact sheet.
It was like the whole idea of creating a window, a negative version of something. And actually, the black and white also allowed me to add a level of cohesion across all of the images. I felt like they were part of the same story, especially with being in different different bedrooms and settings.
I had such a little control over the lighting and the colouring as well, putting it in black and white allowed me to be able to tell that story in a way that felt more cohesive. But also, I find, for example, for colour photography, it can be harder to control. Especially trying to photograph a number of different bodies and a number of different skin tones, it can be really challenging when you have a bit more play in trying to stay true and authentic to people’s skin tones. I wanted to make sure my editing wasn’t washing out that.
U: What’s next on your photography project list?
It’s an excellent photography project….
I really want to educate people. I’m thinking about hosting (once the world opens back up) a series of workshops to help people take photos in a way that’s fat accepting – not just by the positive, but also like pushing the boundaries for what we want to take photographs, or pushing the boundaries of how we take photographs.
There’ll be a lot of selfie workshops and one-on-ones. I’m also really excited about the dick pic workshop. Especially empowering masculine and masculine masc people, and men, to take photographs of themselves – because there’s something inherently for many men anyway. Or especially very straight men.
Yeah, like, taking selfies is, is too gay, bro. And you’re like, but have you seen?
In Asia, selfies for men are a total thing. Whereas like, here in the West, it’s very, very different. And masculinity and toxic masculinity are so intertwined. Where selfies are kind of seen as vain and vanity is inherently a symptom of femininity. Just trying to subvert all of that. And also just to get people to take good genital pics really?!
U: Top tips for our fellow queer creatives who are looking to explore their bodies through the medium of photography?
I would say that a large part of wanting to explore your own body, doesn’t need to come from accepting it. You can still create with your body, you can still create about your body, without needing to love it. I think that sometimes we get so swept up in this idea that we should love our bodies at all times, that it becomes hard to create anything about it when you don’t love yours.
And actually, I want to tell people that you don’t have to be in the greatest place to create something. I created this project from my bed, after a hefty dose of antidepressants (which were needed) and I utilised that as a way of not loving my body, but accepting it and embracing the queerness of it rather than wanting to aspire to find it amazing and wonderful and love it so much in defiance because I didn’t need to that. I needed to be neutral about my body and find the things that I connect with, rather than the body positive toxic standards that push to either love or hate your body, but actually no I’m neutral about mine and that’s how I can create.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Fox. I for one can’t wait to see what you do next and you can count me in for one of your workshops.
To check out more of Fox’s work and imagery you can check out their site here. Or head over to instagram here.
Fox Al Rajim
Interviewed by Lucy Everett