Taking ownership of your body.
There are no photos of a teenage Naomi Werrett.
Born in the Saudi Arabian port city Jeddah, on the Red Sea, she grew up hiding her skin.
“As a teenager, I wouldn't even wear short sleeves. I also wanted to hide a skin condition on my legs that left me with severe scarring. But I think ultimately I was just shy. I hate being the centre of attention.”
Ten years ago she moved to Wellington and at first, little changed. Yet a few years later, when she turned 20, something snapped.
“I just got tired of feeling sorry for myself and decided I wanted to feel as confident as other people seemed to be.”
Influenced by women she admired on Instagram, she booked a photographer.
The shoot was nude: “I just did it. I did it for myself. I wanted to like myself more,” she says.
“I figured if I was going to do it, I would just dive in and face all of my fears and do it all.”
Despite her fears, the shoot went well.
“I’d never had my photo taken before and all of a sudden I was doing a nude shoot. But I already knew the woman I did it with and I was super comfortable around her.”
Nevertheless, she says later being sent 100 unedited photos of herself was incredibly daunting.
“I went through all of them and there were inevitably ones I didn’t like so much, but it made me appreciate myself. There were a few I really liked and made me warm to myself,” she says.
“Just seeing myself through another person’s eyes made me appreciate what I look like.”
The momentum built from there. The more confident and comfortable Naomi felt, the more shoots she booked.
She started an Instagram account and adopted the pseudonym, Sylvia Gold. Her profile built quickly and she she says it eventually reached the 50,000 follower milestone. Photographers would contact her. The type of shoots she would do varied.
Naomi no longer felt in control.
“I felt a lot of pressure to keep people happy. It got quite demanding and made me anxious,” she says.
“I always try to be myself on social media, but you can get stuck trying to please everyone. Wellington is a very small place and I would start meeting people who would call me Sylvia and judging me through social media, rather than who I am.”
Despite turning off comments on her photos, she would be sent direct messages. She’s had men yell at her in the street.
“You’re always going to get seedy guys and that sort of things - especially on Instagram - but I try to ignore it. Ignoring that kind of behaviour is key. As soon as you give them the attention they keep going. I just keep walking and always hold my head high,” she says.
“From day one I’ve done my best to set a tone that I don’t put up with that.”
Yet eventually the pressure became too much and she deleted her Instagram.
The fabulously named photographer Carlos de Treend is one of Naomi’s best friends and a frequent collaborator.
He fell into erotica “quite accidentally”. A few years ago he was designing burlesque show posters and shooting recreations of old French postcards.
“One day it dawned on me that what I really wanted to see wasn’t available. The idea was to make erotica from a woman’s perspective. It had to be celebratory of women, rather than demeaning.”
The concept may seem obvious, but Carlos says at the time, it wasn’t.
“Only a few years ago, it was kind of expected that you would associate erotica with women being submissive. Or women displaying themselves in a way just to satisfy men’s desires.”
His first shoot involved Naomi and two other friends. They hired a mansion and shot a series of simple, but artistic photos. Carlos sold some images through his website and says 50 percent of the funds were donated to Rape Crisis.
“It was a switch in both my attitude and the way I shot. It felt natural - I want women to take ownership of their sexuality.”
I like to think that my photography helps people discover themselves a bit more.
Carlos says he’s been around a lot of naked women over the past 10 years, and has worked hard to develop a trustworthy reputation.
“There is a stigma. Obviously, if a guy approaches you with a camera and they want to see you naked, that’s dodgy in itself. So establishing a reliable reputation is a tough thing to do, but the work speaks for itself. If you respect your models they’ll keep coming.”
He says his shoots are “sexless environments”.
“We create sexual images and a lot of it is charged, but I’m creating something that is visually beautiful and art - and I think that’s what makes people feel comfortable.”
Like Naomi, erotica isn’t Carlos’ primary profession. He says he does it because he wants people to accept and take charge of their sexuality.
“I like to think that my photography helps people discover themselves a bit more, and I love sharing that with the rest of the world.”
He has worked with Naomi so many times, he compares the process to a “dance”.
“When you’ve danced with someone so many times you instinctively know their steps.”
Both Naomi and Carlos have had negative experiences with social media. Carlos has been banned for life from Facebook.
He published his first mansion shoot with Naomi, appropriately censored the images, and yet his Facebook profile was deleted: “It destroyed my business at the time because I had been running things through social media.”
Naomi has been suspended several times from Facebook, most recently because a photo she uploaded included a blurred nipple.
“I don’t agree with it. If a man can show his nipples, why can’t a woman - even blurred? It makes me annoyed,” she says.
“I contacted Facebook and told them there are far more important issues to care about and censor, but I didn’t hear back. I never do. I’ve stopped putting photos on Facebook because I don’t know what I can and can’t put up anymore.”
She has, however, resurrected Sylvia Gold on Instagram.
She missed modelling and connecting with other people. Most of her followers are men, but the proportion of women is increasing.
“I’ve gotten some of my friends into doing it because they’ve seen how confident it has made me. I’ve seen them build that confidence themselves,” she says.
As more people view her photos, the more she feels empowered.
“I really enjoy it, especially the creativity and being expressive with what you look like. I find it very empowering to be comfortable with yourself - clothed and unclothed. Lots of people shy away from nudity but the way I look at it, we’re all people and no one should be ashamed of what they look like.”