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Embracing Imperfection: An interview with Lotte van Raalte

A woman in black and white, nude smiling at us.

Lotte van Raalte’s series BODY is on show in the group exhibition NUDE at Fotografiska Berlin. Read our interview with the artist in which we discuss the project, changing standards of beauty, and her latest film Guerreras.

One afternoon around five years ago, Dutch photographer Lotte van Raalte was sitting by a swimming pool in Morocco next to her producer, editing pictures. She had just finished a shoot for a beauty brand, but looking through the shots she felt that there was something missing from her selection.

“I was looking at my producer and for some reason I thought I needed more kinds of skin textures because it was for a skincare brand,” Lotte recalls. “So I asked her: ‘Can I take some extra photos of your belly?’ It felt so liberating, and I think she felt it as well because she’s not used to being in front of the camera – she [also] has a lot of freckles and I thought the model of the campaign was a bit too perfect.”

They were a success – some of the shots made it into the final campaign, but they would also form the inspiration for her project BODY. Over the next 16 months, Lotte would photograph 46 different women, aged between 13 and 94, proudly baring their skin. With intimate closeups of stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, freckles and much more, the pictures celebrate the beauty of the female body in all its various forms.

BODY was published as a photobook in early 2020 and is now being featured in NUDE – the opening exhibition of Fotografiska Berlin that will run from September 14, 2023 until January 14, 2024, featuring 30 female-identifying artists whose work interrogates the female gaze. Ahead of its opening, Fotografiska caught up with Lotte to chat about the project, changing standards of beauty, and her latest film ‘Guerreras’.

How did you get into photography in the first place?

I actually wanted to potentially go to theater school or study psychology, but for some reason I ended up applying for art school and got in, so I thought “okay, I can travel with photography, and I can meet nice people”, and it was a very unconstrained job in my head. I ended up graduating in fashion photography, but my final project was very documentary – it was more sociological research into our relationship with clothing.

With the BODY series, can you tell me about the different women who are featured?

I started quite openly because I thought I just need to start and see what comes out of it. It was women around my age that replied to my Facebook and Instagram messages [at first], which made sense because those are typically the people that follow me. So I realised I need to have different age groups as well, so for example my mum is in the book, and then I went to a nude beach and there were 84 and 73 year old women, and started to ask around. But the editing process was very interesting, because you don’t want to be too forced in terms of diversity, but you want to show diversity.

Also, I interviewed all the women in the book, asking them all the same three questions: What’s your relationship with your body? What do you think of the current beauty standards? Describe your body as objectively as possible in short words. I decided to have the answers from that last question as kind of an index in the beginning and end of the book, so it says “small boobs, beautiful pussy, big eyes, brown hair”. I didn’t want to make the subject loaded, because a lot of stories from the women were difficult or emotional, and I wanted the book to be a bit more open, and I think in those answers there’s a bit of humour, and it worked well in the end.

Some of the shots are really dynamic, and others more still – can you tell me about the process when it came to exploring different types of bodies?

I photographed the women outside or in a daylight studio, then after I rented the studio I decided to photograph in my own house. I had a big apartment back then with high ceilings, and I felt it was safer for them in my personal safe space – I thought they opened themselves up in a very vulnerable way. Indoors it was more about the textures and shapes and then outdoors it was a bit more dynamic. It was interesting to see and feel that when the women were shot outside something really opened up, and for me, it makes a lot of sense because we are part of nature.

A female figure without clothing, featuring numerous spots covering her body.
Anouk, from the series, 2019 © Lotte van Raalte

With the idea coming from a skincare shoot, what do you think about how the beauty industry has affected stereotypical ideas of beauty?

It’s already difficult because the project was published three years ago, and in that time a lot of things have changed. Like it’s now a trend to show diverse skin, ages, etc., which is great – I’m very happy that this project was part of that wave. I always overthink everything, and my biggest issue I think with the old beauty standards – and there’s a lot still even in Hollywood movies – is the faces that don’t have any expression. Maybe I will use Botox one day, but I think it’s just so important and beautiful that we see growth and change, and we accept impermanence because we are impermanent people. Just like how trees have beautiful roots or trunks, it would be very weird to look at a Botox tree.

So my goal was really to embrace the imperfect things that I think are perfect – like the older women, the more stretch marks, the more interesting it actually was for me to photograph. And not only me, but also for the women in that were in the book. I received so many messages saying that it really changed the way they looked at themselves. I think we spend so many hours overthinking what we should look like or want to look like. I embrace getting older.

Do you think overthinking about your image is an inherent part of being a woman?

I feel like men have the same issues and insecurities, they just talk about it even less. Maybe that’s an even bigger issue, but women are usually portrayed more as a beauty or sexual object in general, so I think that’s where the problem lies – it’s usually from a male’s perspective. Luckily, that is changing, but it’s still going very

A woman without clothing swinging her arms happily.
Carlijne, from the series BODY, 2019 © Lotte van Raalte.

Your latest project, Guerreras, interrogates similar themes as BODY right?

I worked on this film for four years – the idea started in 2018, when I was still working on <em>BODY</em>. I did an artist residency in Mexico and met [some] really incredible women, and then had this realization that I needed to make a film about these Mexican women. So, I started to interview these women about their relationships with their bodies, their spirituality, their ancestors – all things that I thought were different from my Western culture, and from those I made an idea for the short film.

And then Covid-19 happened, and I wanted to integrate silence [into the work] – there was more silence around me and I thought that it was such an important thing. So I asked one of the three main characters: “What’s your relationship with silence?” And she said: “Silence to me is deleting the power that women have.” I was literally still, and I realized I had to change the film, and she started talking to me about her stories of abuse. So behind these strong women there are also stories of abuse and violence – not only in Mexico, but throughout the whole world. So I didn’t want to make a film only about abuse, so it’s integrated in a subtle way, and I realized during the film that it was a personal process for me as well – it’s more like a poem and a melody, but it talks about our lost relationship with nature and listening to our bodies.

Two kids with lipstic on their lips looking directly to the camera.
Still from film Guerreras, 2023 © Lotte van Raalte.

What does having work from BODY feature in the NUDE exhibition, alongside other artists exploring the diversity of the female gaze, mean to you personally?

It means a lot, actually. I went to the [NUDE] exhibition in Stockholm, and I was standing in the middle of the room. It felt very abstract, like I just felt like a visitor looking at other people’s work. So my work didn’t really feel like my work – when I went to the New York exhibition, I had the same feeling. It was only when I shared it with other people and online that it gave me a really nice feeling. But of course I’m very grateful that this got picked up and is still relevant and exhibiting after three and a half years.

Isaac Muk is a freelance writer based in London. He is the socials editor and photography writer at Huck Magazine.