Sadness is Sexy

Jessica Schwientek

Assistant Curation by Angela Cornish and Emma Armstrong-Porter

Sadness is Sexy is an ongoing collection of mirrors and shadows. Every image is a mirror and every image is a shadow. Every photograph is a projection of self.


As an artist enchanted by emptiness and stillness I do not photograph with my eye, I photograph with my heart. Every time I press the shutter I capture all of the things I feel within that moment. I seek out sadness in the world, real or perceived, in desperation to connect.


I do not believe in truth in photography, everything is curated and subject to endless interpretations but these are of the most honest images in my vast collection of moments. Nothing is real.


I photograph myself to help gain an understanding of self. When I am alone with a mirror I am only with myself and all of the things I perceive myself to be and all of the built up artificial persona slip away and I see a moment of truth. I like to document transitions in my body, ageing and myself faced in different situations. I am not comfortable with my nakedness and showing these vulnerable moments are hard but important for me to find security in my own skin. Sharing these images with others was never my intention at the time of capture but they have become a crucial asset to this body of work.



Exhibition Essay

By Angela Cornish


Jessica Schwientek’s series Sadness is Sexy evokes the ache of loneliness, and the ache that comes from loving. Caring fucking hurts. Being sad fucking hurts. This genre of photography is about documenting the here and now. In the introduction to her seminal series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency Nan Goldin writes “It’s a common opinion that the photographer is a voyeur. I’m not crashing, this is my party.” As time passes the value of Goldin’s series sharpens. Her position of both author and subject allowed her to create an intimate time capsule of New York on the cusp of the AIDS crisis. Due to their vernacular aesthetic and connection with their subjects it feels natural to compare Schwientek to Goldin.


Like Sadness is Sexy, Ballad centres on self-portraits. Both photographers approach themselves with a sense of curiosity. Looking to the camera to provide insight to their poignancy. Famously Goldin’s self-portraits include several with her then lover who seriously assaulted her. With unflinching honesty she documented her bruised face and bloodshot eyes. In the documentary I’ll Be Your Mirror Goldin explains that she took those photos, “to remind herself never to go back to him.” Goldin documented her physical recovery, however her emotional trauma took much longer to heal. She eventually spiralled into drug addiction. Years later, after leaving a treatment centre Goldin documented herself again, “first to relearn my face, then the outside world.”


As life twists and contorts, expands and ages us before our eyes, some artists have found it instinctual to document periods of transition. Melbourne photographer Carol Jerrems died at the age of 30 in 1980 due to complications resulting from polycythemia. She documented her changing body, often standing in front of mirrors, her camera visible; drawing attention to her being the architect of the image. She photographed herself and her surroundings in hospital until she was too weak to continue. Perhaps photographing the end of her life was Jerrems way of confronting immortality.


Schwientek’s work isn’t necessarily feminist, however being a woman politicises the work due to the hetero-patriarchal gaze in which we (society) view women through. To be a woman authoring her own self-image is still a radical act of resistance. Traditionally women have had our complexity stripped away, becoming objects adjacent to history. I’d like to quote Hannah Gadsby at this point “fellas, you do not have a monopoly on the human condition.”


In 2016 Filmmaker Jill Soloway defined The Female Gaze in three parts; Part One: Reclaiming the body & using it with intention to communicate feeling. Part Two: Using the camera to show the feeling of being seen. Part Three: A reversal of the roles of object and subject. As Soloway explains, “It’s not the gazed gaze. It’s the gaze on the gazers. It’s about how it feels to stand here in the world having been seen our entire lives.” Schwientek has claimed her subjectivity and your gaze in the act of creating self-portraits. 


When photographers such as Goldin, Jerrems and Schwientek turn the camera on themselves they create affirmations of their existence. They seek to take control of their own narrative, as individuals and women; while contemplating the impact of their external surroundings. Life is fleeting, and so much of it doesn’t make sense. No wonder the ‘selfie’ is a cultural phenomenon; photographs are immortal. The aim of a self-portrait is to at once assert ourselves into the ephemeral and transcend it.