heating up, cooling off, getting wet 2

Part 6: heating up, cooling off, getting wet 1

Nicolas and I hadn’t planned anything in particular for the shoot, for a few reasons. I wasn’t certain how well I’d take to it, and didn’t want to over-commit and thus inconvenience him. He had picked up on my hesitation and kept his goals modest (is “modest” really the right word when discussing a nude shoot?), which meant the location and poses weren’t set in advance. He wasn’t planning to use the shots himself so he had no agenda for production. It was very much a “go with the flow” sort of thing, and you have to hope the flow goes somewhere interesting.

We had started out low-key, and rather than leaping right into the deep end with nudity, he had me start with some clothing that he had brought. Sexy, revealing clothing, but still. I didn’t really know what to do for poses, and he gave what he later called “gentle directions”. I would almost go so far to call them “suggestions”, since I always felt free to agree, suggest changes (or progression), or even decline. There was never any pressure, and right from the beginning I found him respectful, supportive, encouraging and friendly. He created an emotional environment in which I could relax and flourish.

As we went on, he began to ask more of me and the poses became more complex than “stand here and tip your head” or “drip some water on your nipple”. The verbal directions started to become more cumbersome, certainly because of the increase in complexity, and perhaps also because the language in this context can be very fussy and technical.

Eventually he started moving me with his hands — my arm here, my leg there, angling my head. I don’t specifically recall, but he must have tried something simple at first, like gently moving my foot. He was relaxed about it so I was, and this created a virtuous cycle of comfort and ease with each other. We were in a space that was small and unavoidably intimate, and we were almost touching most of the time already; this hands-on contact felt like a natural progression.

Nicolas gave me feedback throughout. I never really knew if something didn’t work, because he never made a fuss about it, and it didn’t matter anyway. We just kept trying new things. When it did work, he was vocal about it, saying “yes”, “that’s hot”, “don’t move, don’t move!” or (my favorite) “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!” under his breath. Sometimes there were no words, just a very satisfied look on his face. Whenever he got a shot he particularly liked, he’d turn the camera around to show me.

Photo by Nicolas Laborie.

Sensing that I was still at ease, we moved on to more dynamic poses. I was still wearing the black dress. The top came down. The bottom came up. And up. I grasped, I tugged, I arched.

Photo by Nicolas Laborie. Oh look, my nipples are hard, no pinching required.

Then he wanted me to cover my crotch with my hand (we were back to verbal directions now), and then stroke a little to give the impression that I was pleasuring myself. By this point, I was nude again.

I hadn’t noticed feeling specifically aroused — I was still very interested in the shoot and wouldn’t have wanted to stop to play — but I did get very wet. Was it the camera? The company? The nudity? Being a little outside my comfort zone? When it happened with Lucas, the circumstances were very different so I haven’t narrowed down the cause yet.

Nicolas had told me before that the best photos happen when the model can make love to the camera. I suppose I was doing well, because during the shoot he announced that he was getting a little too wound up and needed to take a break. That is a compliment that can’t be feigned! We sat on the bed and talked for a while, he in his black T-shirt and black jeans, I still nude, sharing personal things with each other. When we got started again, we had lost some momentum. But then that was precisely the point.

* * *

Nicolas and I were acquaintances through DM and email before this shoot, and I felt that during the shoot we forged a real connection and the basis for a friendship, even before we stopped to talk.

I knew I wanted to do the shoot but I didn’t know for certain whether my old “script” (that nudity and sexuality are bad and/or dangerous) would hold me back until I actually tried it. There’s only so far you can get with thought and rationality regarding subjects that have the potential to be emotional, and sometimes explosively so. I was glad to discover that I’m making progress in this area, and that I was right about what I wanted — it gives me confidence that I’m coming to know myself better.

As I’ve said before, my body image has improved markedly since I started sharing photos of myself on Sinful Sunday, and this shoot was in some ways an extension of that project, but more in the realm of expressing my sexuality. In front of someone I’d just met in person the day before!

Nicolas was right, of course, that this was an entirely different experience from being my own photographer. There was an intensity, a frisson, some kind of chemistry. I was being unambiguously seen in that moment, and appreciated just as I am. And successfully challenging my limits.

Nicolas Laborie would like to work with other people too. If you’re interested, you can get in touch with him via the email address on his website, or via DM on Twitter, where he is @nicolas_laborie.

There are more photos from the shoot, which I’ll be sharing over the next while.

heating up, cooling off, getting wet 1

Part 5: the shoot begins

The room, though attractive, offered only a few backgrounds — white wall, green glass, walnut headboard, white sheets — while reflection shots in the bathroom mirror provided another option. The only usable furniture was the bed. The effect was minimalist and monochrome. And frankly, it was cramped, which limited the angles.

When discussing what to focus on, Nicolas remarked that he knew I liked my breasts. Well, yes, as it happens I do. But his impression would be based on the photos I post, and my regular participation in Boobday means that my breasts are somewhat overrepresented on the blog.

And this photo doesn’t do anything to redress that.

I was now fully nude. Nicolas had been attentive to my comfort, and the space heater had done its job, but this caused two minor problems. First, he was overheating; he took off his black sweater to reveal a black T-shirt and was still too warm. Second, I was comfortable and thus my nipples were rather boringly flat.

He wanted them perky. His first idea was to dribble some water on me. He started and then I took over. It wasn’t entirely effective, but the water droplets look great.

(You know, after stripping that first time, I don’t really remember the subsequent costume changes. I’m just going to assume that Nicolas watched me dress or undress each time. I didn’t find it a hardship, and neither did he, I trust.)

I then got into my black dress. The fabric is substantial, with good body and recovery, so it tended to smooth out details rather than reveal them. Details such as, oh, nipples.

We tried the water trick again, but it just wasn’t up to the task. It was time for more drastic measures. He wanted me to pinch my nipples to perk them up. I didn’t go for it right away. He mimed pinching. He was torn; it would be so easy for him to just do it and get the effect he was after, but it was rather personal! I laughed. He mimed again. I made a half-hearted attempt to pinch them into shape, but I felt awkward too and couldn’t get into it. More miming. More smiling and laughing, on both sides.

We conducted an entire wordless negotiation this way.

Him: I want those nipples hard so they’ll photograph better and pinching is the only way I can think of to do it.

Me: I know, I get it, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

Him: I’m warning you that if you don’t, I’m prepared to do it!

Me: Yes, I know! Go ahead!

And that’s how Nicolas came to be pinching my nipples in a workmanlike, results-based fashion while we both laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.

But it worked, as you can see.

Part 7: heating up, cooling off, getting wet 2

the shoot begins

Part 4: setting up the shoot

Before we met up, Nicolas had said he was looking forward to seeing me, and I’d teased that he had already seen rather a lot of me. This — sharing this space together ­— was different, he’d said. He was right, of course.

I was standing by the foot of the bed while he reclined at the other end, waiting expectantly. Of course he’d be expectant.

I felt a bit awkward, but probably less so than I would have predicted, truth be told. I was about to take my clothes off in front of someone who I’d first clapped eyes on only the night before. But it was also a project months in the works, unilateral, and not romantic.

My problem was an unusual issue of etiquette: what is the most appropriate way to take off one’s clothes for a nude shoot in a small room containing the photographer and with virtually no privacy? For in this elegant shoebox of a hotel room, there was nowhere to retreat.

Stepping into the bathroom seemed pointless: distance had suddenly taken on symbolic relevance, but escaping to the bathroom would necessarily start with an advance towards Nicolas — a zero-sum game. And anyway, I’d roll the door closed and face the mirror while… what? While he watched me through the smoked glass. Of course he’d watch.

No, I’d stay put. This was not romance, and still less a seduction. There would be no eye contact, no slow, tantalizing reveal. Facing straight on felt too bold, but turning my back seemed silly: I was here to do a nude shoot — shall I now spend 60 seconds being modest? For what purpose?

I split the difference and turned to my right, then removed my clothes as if I were alone, and tidied items away on a shelf under the TV as I went: necklace, sweater, T-shirt, leggings, bra… When only the panties remained, I hesitated, then looked to Nicolas for guidance: OK, we’ll just go with this much for now.

Then we added clothing again, starting with a little black net bodysuit that he had brought. The fabric ran from under-bust to hips or thereabouts, with shoulder straps split above the bust to frame each breast, and garters (suspenders) hung from the bottom edge. He snapped some shots and then showed me one that he thought was particularly hot: my breasts framed by the black lace and straps. But ultimately that photo was deemed insufficiently striking to make the final cut.

Being nude when the other person is clothed is an odd dynamic. There is difference and thus power is invoked, but which way does the power flow? “Naked” is a synonym for “vulnerable”, and yet nudity compels the eye and thus has its own strength. This creates an interesting tension but there’s no paradox — vulnerability and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. Anyway, I felt satisfied with my appearance (perhaps even confident) and wasn’t worried that Nicolas would be critical. He had seen lots of photos of me, had approached me, and had only ever been complimentary. That provided me with a kind of emotional safety that I appreciated.

My usual photography process involves a lot of distance: I set up the camera, choose some promising poses, and take photos more or less blind with a remote shutter release; I look at the resulting raw material; I edit; I post; I promote. I see my blog stats change. Occasionally someone will comment. It’s all very removed and any feedback that I get is from a very safe distance in both space and time. I’m not used to being seen directly.

So now, instead of being a passive consumer of the curated images that I chose to share, Nicolas was a co-creator and director. Instead of communicating by means of text on a screen, he was close enough that I could just about feel his breath on my skin.

Part 6: heating up, cooling off, getting wet 1

setting up the shoot

Part 3: last-minute logistics

Room 325 was an elegant shoebox.

I opened the door to see a flat screen TV flanked by two smallish, highish windows that revealed just how thick the outside wall was. The bed was tucked into the corner to the left of the door, and a wee built-in desk nestled at the foot of the bed, in the far left corner. To the right of the door was the bathroom, with smoked-glass walls and a weighty sliding glass door. The far right corner of the room (beyond the shower end of the bathroom) was a narrow space, with three pegs (each bearing one wooden coat-hanger) under the window.

The sheets, space-saving sink, and toilet were crisply white, while the tall padded headboard, bed, desk, shelving and floor were deep walnut. The one free-standing corner of the bed had a fairly spacious void under it to house the garbage can. The whole room was roughly 10’ by 15’.

I dumped my (unstylish) backpack on the bed and hung my navy trench coat neatly on one of the hangers. Other than the bed there was only one place to sit, so I sat there, at the little desk, and ate half of my sandwich while killing time catching up on social media. Whatever I was wearing would have been an iteration of my standard uniform: leggings and a long-sleeve T under a clingy cashmere sweater, plus a bold necklace.

After a few minutes, a knock on the door. I opened it.

“Hi! Come in!”

Nicolas was wearing his black wool coat, and wheeling what looked like an ordinary black carry-on style suitcase, which contained his camera equipment. The room’s dimensions suddenly went from modest to crowded.

We hugged. He edged past me, hung up his coat beside mine, and then turned his attention to setting up his gear.

Earlier that morning when we were making plans, he had suggested prosecco and although I’m not much of a drinker I’d agreed: it sounded like fun and, yes, this photo shoot was worth celebrating. But when he arrived he apologized for having forgotten to bring some after all. I wasn’t fussed. He had thought it might help me with nerves and perhaps it would have, but I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of using alcohol to modify my mood so deliberately. Besides, I need to listen to my gut and alcohol scrambles the signal.

Wearing a black sweater and black jeans, he bustled about the small space and found a spot to put his light — there was pretty much just the one option, right in front of the TV. He brought the space heater out of its corner and set it on high, and then we tried to figure out the high-tech thermostat so the air conditioner wouldn’t suddenly kick in to keep the room stable at 21°. We chatted as he worked. At this point there wasn’t much for me to do except keep out of the way.

He asked which parts of my body I disliked. I had heard that this was a question he asked so it didn’t come as a complete surprise, and I knew my response might inform how he approached me. Months earlier I’d even given some thought to how I’d answer, but when it came to spitting out the words I rambled and qualified my statements.

“I’m going to ask again and I want a word not a sentence.”

Briefly then. Height, stomach a bit, and face a bit. I gathered that my answer surprised him, but if he had different expectations, he didn’t share them. He wondered aloud about the stomach being an issue because there was nothing wrong with it.

In retrospect, I think I understood his question differently than he had meant it. If the question was, “What parts of your body do you actively dislike, to the point that you avoid photographing them and perhaps even looking at them?” my reply would have been, “None — I’m OK with all of it.”

So what did my answer mean? I’ve always wanted to be taller than my 5’2”, but more importantly my horizontal measurements (bust, waist, hips) tend to go with a taller frame; it’s not so much my height as my proportions. As a child I learned from my parents’ example to be self-conscious about my stomach even though I now know rationally that there’s nothing to be self-conscious about. My face doesn’t look in photos the way it does in the mirror. Sometimes I feel pretty but never completely confident, but then I wonder — does anyone? Maybe I expect too much. Anyway, it comes down to this: do I hate any part of my body? No. Do I love it? Some parts but not all, and if anyone had bothered to ask my opinion, I would have tweaked the design a bit.

Eventually Nicolas had done all the setup he could. We had discussed how to approach the shoot. The preparations were complete.

He was now reclining casually at the head of the bed, propped up on his left elbow, looking utterly relaxed with a slight air of expectation. He was ready to start.

The next move was clearly mine: it was time to strip.

I chirped, too brightly, “OK, I guess this is it then!”

Part 5: the shoot begins

last-minute logistics

Part 2: putting faces to names — and bodies

He’d said he would look for a hotel room for us! And now I had to get it done and, oh hell, where to start?

I’d woken up late following a bit of a late night, and a long sleep — my usual routine. But the photo shoot had been top of mind and first thing I’d done, after accepting the fact that yes, I was awake now, was to DM Nicolas to see whether he would be stuck working that afternoon or whether the shoot was a go. His response hadn’t been promising: he expected to be busy until 4:00.

Nonetheless we’d continued messaging back and forth, working out other details. He had asked what would help to create a good atmosphere for me, and specifically whether there were things that he might be able to bring (lingerie, toys, DVDs). None of that had resonated for me (though I did say yes to some prosecco). I was much more concerned about and focused on the emotional atmosphere, and stuff seemed largely unimportant.

After the somewhat awkward shoot I had done a few months earlier, it was Nicolas who had helped me to understand what hadn’t worked, so I was confident that he already had a fair idea of my needs and wants. Thus he had heard most of this before, but I reiterated: I wanted to feel safe, respected, and desired (I’d found Lucas’s cold propriety inhibiting), and I wanted emotional warmth, his full attention, and positive feedback. More importantly, I was getting to know my needs and wants, and that self-knowledge gave me confidence — that I wanted to do the shoot, that Nicolas would be able to take care of me, and that I could and would advocate for myself if something felt wrong.

While chatting, Nicolas had gotten more and more keen to do the shoot that day, despite his scheduling difficulties. It was almost 11:00 when he had messaged to say he’d successfully arranged to be off at 12:00 and would meet me at 12:30, so could I book a room and tell him the address?

Shit! I thought he was going to take care of this, and there wasn’t much time!

I rushed from one website to another, looking for a room that was attractive but affordable. I’d never been to any of these places and was trying to interpret the flattering photos. No, too expensive. No, too small. No, too dowdy. Time was wasting. Nicolas pinged me occasionally: did I have an address yet? He was leaving soon, and where should he go? Shit!

Finally I found a hotel that seemed like it would work. But their check-in time was 3:00. Was there any hope that we could get in any earlier? Inquiring by email would eat up time that I didn’t have. I needed to call and ask, but my room didn’t have a phone — could he call and check? Yes, success! Sort of. We could get in at 2:00, but they wouldn’t take reservations over the phone ­— could I do that? OK. And it was done! We revised the meet time to 1:30, on the off chance that the room was ready earlier.

By this point it was about 12:15. I jumped in the shower and shaved (not my legs…), threw on some clothes (no time to worry about lines from bra or underwear or anything else), stuffed a few items into my backpack (black dress, stilettos, push-up bra, collar and cuffs, a pretty scarf, and, after a moment’s hesitation, my vibe). With a kiss and hug from Gawan and a plan to reconvene here at 5:00 (he was in possession of our one room key), I dashed out the door. There was a Sainsbury’s around the corner, which was perfect for grabbing a pain au chocolat and a sandwich (I hadn’t eaten a meal yet), and then I rushed to the tube station.

I went one stop and then had to change trains. (With all the walking and stairs and escalators and walking in the two stations, it probably would have been just as fast to walk straight to the second station. By simplifying, it might also have felt a bit less frantic.) I nabbed a seat on that second train and finally tucked into my much-needed pastry — but very carefully and tidily, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone eating on the tube and, come to think of it, I think there are signs saying it’s forbidden. Oops.

I made no wrong turns and arrived at the hotel at 1:30. I’d planned to just sit and wait until Nicolas arrived but the reception area was very small and I couldn’t avoid being noticed, so I spoke to the front desk person somewhat reluctantly and stumbled over my words in the process. But the room was ready early and I was able to check in immediately.

There was no lobby as such. Opposite the front desk was an unoccupied café area with chairs and tables. I chose a window seat overlooking the sidewalk, the better to spot Nicolas and the better to conceal the fact that I was eating a banana — I wasn’t sure if outside food was allowed.

My phone didn’t work anywhere in Europe and the only connectivity I could get was through wifi. I’d been burnt a few times by offers of free wifi that required you to receive a code via SMS. I can’t do SMS and that’s why I need wifi! The connection at the blessed hotel just worked, so I sent Nicolas a DM to let him know I’d arrived and was all checked in. He was in transit, about 10 minutes away, and was taking the opportunity to look at my blog again en route. I told him I was going up to the room and gave him the number.

Having sat still for more than 5 minutes and eaten something, I’d finally caught my breath. I wasn’t late and I didn’t have to rush anymore. I stood up, slung my bag on my back and started toward the elevator when it hit me: here I was in an unfamiliar part of London, about to meet a man that I barely knew in a hastily arranged hotel room. No one else knew exactly where I was, and only a handful of people even knew I was in England. We were arriving separately; I’d given him the room number and with it the unstated promise that the door would be unlocked to him. I’d soon be naked. The only thing that kept it from being a total cliché was that I was there for photos, not fucking.

I smiled at myself and went up to room 325.

Part 4: setting up the shoot

putting faces to names — and bodies

Part 1: photo shoots past and future

We were going to be late. Five minutes for sure, maybe ten. Not a long time, but still. We strode through the dark, lonely streets to the bustling pub and searched the entire place top to bottom, twice, before concluding that we were first to arrive.

A picnic table was available outside and we pounced: it was the perfect place to see and be seen. The spring evening was cool but we were dressed for the weather and still warm from our walk, which had not been leisurely.

Time passed.

I concluded that something must have happened and started to wonder how long we should wait and whether this meeting was going to happen at all. Then I remembered that I had intended to provide a description of what I’d be wearing but failed to do so, and then I realized that he hadn’t requested a photo of my face. How did he think he would find me?

Suddenly, there he was, in a black coat that looked to be good wool. He would have walked right past me but I called out, “Nicolas!” and he stopped short. He hadn’t expected to be confronted with us before he even opened the door.

He stopped briefly to say hello and explain that he had DM’d me to say he was going to be late, but I was reliant on wifi and didn’t have access so I didn’t get the message. And he had planned to look for someone who seemed to be looking for someone, so it must have been a bit jarring to be hailed. When Nicolas continued on his trajectory inside to get drinks, I moved to Gawan’s side of the table.

The tone of conversation changed, as it must. It had been Zoë and Gawan, vacationing lovers; it was now Zoë, blogger and potential model, Gawan, companion and blogger, and Nicolas Laborie, photographer.

Gawan put his arm around me and gave me squeezes from time to time, and while we had been inseparable for two weeks already this particular public display of affection was new. The message to me was warmth, love, and happiness to be with me, but I noted with a touch of amusement that Gawan was being mildly territorial, and the message to Nicolas would have been “She’s with me.” But then if all went to plan, Nicolas would be seeing me with my kit off very soon, and I could see how Gawan might have feelings about that. A bit of masculine posturing was not unexpected.

After chatting for a while, we eventually had enough of the freshness outdoors, and Gawan went to look for a table inside. Now we were at a little round table against a wall: Nicolas took one side and I took the other, with Gawan in between. There were no distracting TVs showing the latest game and, surprisingly, no music at all. Just warm lighting and the buzz of animated conversation all about.

Our conversation was good and ranged over a variety of topics, but occasionally I did feel a bit left out. I can’t recall what prompted it, but I stated, “In Western society women are seen as weak.” I meant it as a shorthand. Stereotypical binary thinking, which views “masculinity” and “femininity” to be opposites, assigns one trait to one gender and the opposite trait to the other, and usually the positive trait to men and the negative to women, hence, “Men are strong, women are weak.” Of course, I recognize this as utter bullshit, and I’m sure Gawan and Nicolas do too. But they seemed to think I was saying that women are in fact weak, and then set about citing historical examples of strong women. I thought with a mental smirk, Are they mansplaining misogyny to me? But they weren’t, not least because they were talking to each other more than to me. Ah, well.

The conversation eventually turned to the shoot, as it must. Since my schedule was going to be tight, I had given Nicolas lots of warning about the days that I’d be available and had hoped to make some reasonably firm plans in advance. Nicolas, on the other hand, had picked up on my hesitation and didn’t want to make any firm plans until he was confident that I was in, which meant that he would now have to try to get some time off on short notice.

Two dates were possible. One was the last full day of my trip, but I didn’t want to leave it that late and I was going to want to spend that time with Gawan. The other option was the following afternoon, if Nicolas could get the time off work, which he wouldn’t know until morning.

And there was still the issue of location. The place where I was staying was roomy but spartan, lacking style, and otherwise challenging, so Nicolas said he’d look for a hotel room for us.

There was a moment when Gawan stepped away briefly, and Nicolas leaned in a little closer, his voice pitched for privacy (not that anyone would likely have heard anything interesting over the general hum), but the bigger the audience, the less personal the truths shared. (And some people fail to be truthful even when they’re alone, but I digress.)

All of us knew about the shoot, but only two of us would be participating and that creates a certain intimacy. Instead of straightforward details to be discussed objectively and pragmatically, Nicolas now wanted to know how I felt. I felt good. Comfortable. I had considered all the angles, had done my very best to know myself and prepare, and had realized that nothing more could be discovered except by trying it.

Gawan came back after a few moments and we chatted a while longer but I needed to eat and it was getting on, so with this tentative plan in place we parted ways.

It was late by the time we got back to the room and I would have been happy to go straight to bed, but I had this feeling that Nicolas might be expecting me to send a late night message backing out at the last minute, terribly sorry for the bother. I wanted him to know that I had meant it when I said I was in, so I made a point of sending a message reaffirming my interest in the shoot and my hope that he would be free tomorrow.

And with that big question in mind — will it happen or won’t it? — I somehow fell asleep.

Part 3: last-minute logistics