When, in December 2009, Julia Kozerski embarked on her weight-loss journey, she didn’t know the experience would inflict as much pain and confusion as it did joy and pride. As she progressively became half of herself, losing 160 of her 338 pounds, she documented the life-altering experience with a beautiful yet harrowing series of self-portraits. “Half” speaks to all of us, large and skinny alike; all of us cringing at our own flaws yet forgiving of the flaws of others. Our bodies, so familiar yet ever-changing, imperfect, and unsatisfactory. Building your self-image is really the most private of endeavors – but it’s also impossible to deny the weight of other people’s eyes on your identity. Kozerski used her camera to find her better half; at once looking inwards, stepping away from herself, and surrendering it all to the world.
Marie-Charlotte Pezé speaks with Julia Kozerski in this interview about her project.
What was the impetus behind the project?
I started photographing myself because, as an artist and photographer, I felt like the resulting image/object allowed me to “own” the experience and the moment. I originally started my nudes as a way to better understand what I was doing, had done. I could see, looking in the mirror, that I had stretch marks and sagging skin. I could look down at my naked body and see one thing, look in the mirror and see something else, or I could photograph myself and “remove” myself, allowing me to look at myself more objectively.
A lot of your photos (and their titles) give a feeling of mourning for your old self. Is it because you artistically chose to focus on this aspect? Do you also have happy and proud pictures of your accomplishment that don’t appear in the series?
For the better part of my transition, I lived in a state of secret sadness. At times I was mad at myself for letting myself get in such bad health and I was sad because I felt alone and that I had ruined my body. There are no happy photos of me … at least not nude. Clothing helped me disguise my true insecurities but, under the fabric, the truth lay. “Half” is that truth, it is raw and it is real. I didn’t hold back.
If I was to make that work now, about how I feel in retrospect to my experience (having been “removed” now for a few years,) the titles and visuals would be quite different. “Half” helped me embrace and love myself … the struggle of the physical and emotional journey portrayed in “Half” was necessary for me to get to this point.
I don’t mourn my “old self”, I have just learned to embrace it for what it was and have moved forward towards a better, healthier “me.”
Do you think that working on that series actually made it easier for you to recognize yourself in your new body, and accept it?
Without “Half,” I wouldn’t be the happy and proud person I am today. This series has changed the way I see and feel about myself. I went from examining my body in a very clinical way to embracing my new found shape (scars, “flaws” and all) to feeling proud of what I’d done, and seeing my body and my journey as the ultimate work of art.
Your photos are beautiful, in lighting and composition. Did you have any care for your modesty and self-image while taking them, or were you more concerned with artistic, photographic aesthetics?
The way that I approached the photographs in “Half” was that they needed to stay true to the feeling and message that I wanted to portray. If it meant that I made the viewer uncomfortable by zooming in close and maintaining crisp focus on my skin or standing a bit off-center to create a sense of unease, I’d do it. I did not care how much of myself I shared, I needed to speak. There are hundreds, maybe thousands or images – some photographs can be seen as better than others (if evaluated by the general “rules”/conventions of art.)
As an artist, I see everything as art and I understand and appreciate aesthetics. Did I purposely take images for this reason? No. But I can’t help but make images that embrace my life as art … because I live it. In the end, while editing for “Half,” my main concentration was on expressing my story … the “art” part of it fell second. Substance over style.
Did using your body as a subject detach you from it in some ways?
Photographing myself completely helped me detach. Once on the screen or on the page, my image became the model, the muse, it was no longer me in the flesh. I had unlimited time to ask questions of myself, and to really see what was happening. I will forever treasure these self-portraits. They have helped me to move forward and also remind me of my past. They are me and they are everyone. They are symbols of change and of self-love, even in the darkest of times.
Was the series always intended to become public?
Early on, I took images for myself. I was in college at the time and had a class which allowed us to work in a self-directed manner. I was molding my body and I wondered if others would be interested (or even cared). When I began slowly introducing my images in critiques, I was flooded with questions … I thrived on the dialogue. People wanted to know more, they wanted to see more … At some point I made the decision that I needed to go for all or nothing. Once I realized that the images I was making weren’t “about me,” I gave in to all sense of modesty and decided to share unapologetically with the world.
Is there a message you were purposefully conveying to your viewers about weight loss?
At first, I thought my images were just about weight-loss. That is partially the reason I was hesitant to show them to others, I didn’t know if very many others could relate. Part of my detachment from myself took place when I realized that, while I knew the physical acts behind the images were based in the realm of weight-loss, no one would necessarily know. Were the stretchmarks from pregnancy? Was my loose skin a medical condition? Were my tears from pain? I think “Half” steps beyond the surface of weight-loss. It is about the unattainable ideal of perfection, it is about personal struggle, and it is about the search for self-love and happiness. The photographs have become symbols of something greater. They are about life and death, about success and failure, and they are about beauty in all of its forms. You don’t need to have lost weight to understand and relate to my work, you just need to be human.
Has anything changed in your modesty or feelings about your body by showing it openly?
At 338 pounds, you would be lucky to have seen me in a photograph … and nude? NOT A CHANCE! Now, having lost 160 pounds, I feel more comfortable with myself. I assume that part of this is because of the weight-loss, but it is also in part to the images I’ve taken. I’ve explored myself inside and out. I know who I am, who I was, and who I want to be. I am not shy to show people my self-portraits and to hear their reactions (good or bad.) I am confident in my experiences and look forward to continuing to ask questions of myself (including visually.) I love that my photographs have created conversation. When things are out of the realm of public discussion, we may tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed. We hide within ourselves. My work shocks people, it shakes things up. It isn’t what most would consider “normal.” It may make some happy, others sad, and still others mad. That is the point! “Half” serves to make you feel. What you are seeing is human … so let’s talk about it.
View the full series and more from her portfolio on Julia Kozerski’s website.