by Kate Thorburn
Tap Gallery is tucked away on an inconspicuous Darlinghurst street corner. At first glance it seems fairly innocuous. Sunlight streams through dusty windows. A cat snoozes on a faded pillow. The atmosphere is congenial, the gallery visitors are mostly women. They ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and whisper to one another, leaving with big smiles on their faces.
In the midst of this, sitting on a milk crate, is photographer Philip Werner. It’s his photographs that the women have come to see. Philip’s exhibition is called 101 Vagina Book and features, you guessed it, 101 photographs of 101 vaginas.
The Melbourne-based photographer began his ambitious project over three years ago. Last year, a coffee table book: 101 Vagina: One Hundred and One Women, One Hundred and One Stories was published by Taboo Books, and he has now brought his work to wider public attention for the Sydney Fringe Festival. While the title may be lengthy, the idea is simple. After Philip photographed the women, he asked them to write an accompanying blurb that expressed their feelings about that body part.
Why one hundred and one? Philip explains. “Initially my idea was 365 but the book would have been three times as big and three times as expensive – 101 is a bit of a quirky number.” His next project, not surprisingly named 101 Penis, is already in the pipeline. “There’s as much of a taboo around penises as there are vaginas. Men are shy as well,” he says.
This has been an interesting year for vagina PR. In August, an issue of the Sydney University magazine Honi Soit was censored due to the vaginas on its cover. A June showing of 101 Vagina Book in Redfern was subject to police complaints, and the gallery was asked to cover the windows. Even though Philip welcomes the publicity, he seems bewildered by the hysteria that surrounds the naked body.
Censorship laws in Australia dictate that all vaginas published in the media must be subject to mandatory airbrushing that removes all external genitalia. Labiaplasty, a type of vaginal cosmetic surgery, is on the increase. It would seem that Australia’s supposedly progressive society is a hostile environment for vaginas and Philip hopes his work will act as a catalyst in changing the way we react to nudity.
101 Vagina Book is not intended to shock or titillate but rather contribute to a wider conversation about body image. “The problem is in people’s minds,” Philip says. “It’s in the upbringing of our children, the way we raise them to say that their bodies have to be hidden.” The 101 Vagina manifesto champions diversity and calls for an end to this sexual repression.
A woman darts back to buy a calendar, informing us cheekily that it would make a great present. Philip smiles and says that the overwhelming response to his photographs is gratitude. “One thing I’ve noticed is almost a kind of reverence. A lot of the stories are quite moving and touching and people are very respectful.”
101 Vagina: One Hundred and One Women, One Hundred and One Stories is available on Amazon. Five dollars of each purchase is donated to providing art therapy for women and children who have been trafficked through the sex industry.