Desdemona Dallas’ Soaking Portraits Explore Gender’s Limitless Possibilities

Desdemona Dallas’ series ‘Soak’ is a collaborative photography and film project and conversation about gender identity. The NYC-based artist photographs a range of subjects submerged in bathtubs using natural light and open ended direction.

Through their collaborative and therapeutic process, Dallas’ subjects open up and share their vulnerabilities. Water becomes a symbol for fluidity, the subconscious, and a place to uncover and soak in the many possibilities of gender expression.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: The title “soak” is simple, yet filled with metaphors. How did you come to settle on it?

Desdemona Dallas: Originally I thought to name this series ‘Princess Below the Sea’, which I decided was too gendered. This title was an ode to the Celtic folk tales of mythic women who were somehow or another banished from their homes and sent to live below the water.

The place below the water is often portrayed as a metaphor for those thoughts, emotions and sensations that lie in our subconscious, hidden deep in the soul. Those parts of ourselves that are often hardest to access. My belief is that the uncovering of one’s true gender expression is in that place, somewhere deep below the surface. ‘Soak’ alludes to going to that place.

Diving into those watery depths and soaking in those uncomfortable waters to uncover new truths.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: Natural light is such a big component in how you bring these metaphors to life…

Dallas: In this series I’m working only with natural light, which means I have zero control over the light. During any given shoot I have to be open to responding to the light with spontaneous adjustments. This allows for every session to develop in its own unique way. In that sense I’m letting the light guide me towards these images, being present with what is in front of me and developing images with an intuitive lens.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: Who are the people in the images and what’s your relationship to them?

Dallas: I’m drawn to photographing people who have expanded my personal perspective on gender and masculinity. People who have been lights in my own life for opening me up to new ways of seeing how masculinity AND femininity can be perceived and expressed in the world.

The first person I photographed for this series, and truly the series’ catalyst, was my dear friend Riot. Riot was the first person I ever knew to use they/them pronouns. We’ve been friends since we were kids, and watching their own growth into a more masculine presentation was really inspiring to me.

As the series continues to grow I’m sure I’ll start to photograph people who I have less of a personal connection to, but I am so grateful to the friends who have allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of my lens.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: In your recent Skillshare interview, you mention how you use photography and the creative process to further understand yourself. How does that play out with this work?

Dallas:This series began before I was using they/them pronouns or identifying as a non-binary, trans-masc individual. At the time I was questioning what role masculinity played in my life. In an effort to understand masculinity better, I started asking friends to sit in these sessions with me. Through this exploration of how others felt about masculinity I was able to slowly open up to my own internal nuances.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: We’re drawn to your use of the words “a safe container of collaboration and exploration…” 

Dallas: Stripped of everything that may outwardly confirm one’s gender, I invite individuals to explore the more internal and personal aspects of masculinity. I really believe portrait sessions can be a gateway to healing. ‘Soak’ is as much a photographic series as it is a place for my subjects to feel seen. The bathtub offers people a kind of time out of reality, a realm out of restrictions, to truly feel into their body and come closer to knowing themselves.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: That’s beautiful. You also have a lot of experience photographing for clients like VICE and BUST. Do you distinguish between how you photograph on assignment and for personal projects like Soak?

Dallas: There are definitely two approaches I have to these different types of work. When I’m entering the editorial space, shooting on assignment or for a brand or artist, I think a lot about who the audience is, and how my images fit in with their overall aesthetic. It’s sometimes hard for me to stay true to my own creative eye, when I’m focused on the needs of a publication or client.

With my own personal work, I can really get into my creative mind. In personal projects there are less distractions, the pressure of what a client might want is eliminated. From this place I can connect better with my own aesthetics, curiosities, and emotions.

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: This series has many larger implications regarding gender identity. What do you hope the world gleans from it?

Dallas: My desires for this series are twofold. Through these photos and interviews I want to give people images that force them to sit with and question their own relationship to masculinity.

Alternatively, I also hope that, in seeing queer, trans and gender non-conforming bodies, people will come to understand there are more similarities in our bodies than there are differences. And to find a space of acceptance for those who may choose to represent their gender outside of societal “norms.”

© Desdemona Dallas

The Luupe: Soak is an ongoing series. Where do you see it going from here? 

Dallas: This is an idea and space I’d like to continue exploring. Especially as more and more people start to open up about the impact our social views of masculinity have on their lives. I’m working on a short film to accompany the photographs, which includes interviews from each of the subjects. There will be certain chapters to the series. It will continue to grow overtime as our own cultural sense of masculinity changes. And of course, if I ever move, I’ll have to change the setting, which might create some challenges or perhaps open me up more possibilities.