Trista McGovern Can't Stand Perfect Portraits

Category: POV Podcast

Author: Aria Vega

As a model and a photographer, Trista McGovern has always felt a powerful connection to cameras. Throughout her work as an artist, and as an advocate around disability and sexuality, she’s found that the best portraits don't try to hide our imperfections.

Trista McGovern is an artist, writer, and speaker based in Minneapolis. You can find her at tristamarie.com, and on Instagram. Her photography account is @tristamariephoto.

Podcast Transcript:

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Aria Vega [00:00:00] This podcast contains explicit content. Listener's discretion is advised.

Aria Vega [00:00:06] POV by Lustery explores culture, politics and creativity in the sex industry, one point of view at a time. I'm your host Aria Vega.

Aria Vega [00:00:16] Trista Marie McGovern has always had an easy intimacy with cameras. As a model and a photographer, Trista knows how to work on either side of them. She isn't just a visual artist, though. Her sense of creativity is intrinsically multidisciplinary.

Trista McGovern [Interview] So I've been a photographer for probably... It's been over a decade now, but I have recently been more into writing. So that was new. And then the modeling... Those kind of came all about together, because it was all related in the different projects I did. Some of my work has been like photographing someone, and then them photographing me, or I am modeling because I had the disabled body to match with the writings that I pair with it.

Aria Vega [00:01:03] [Voiceover] Trista has severe scoliosis, a condition that causes a sideways curve in her spine. As a disability advocate, Trista raises awareness about justice issues and ableism in society, primarily through writing and speaking. She's always been driven to explore our individual and collective relationships with the human body, and does so through her photography, too. As an undergraduate BFA student, Trista took a portfolio class at the end of her program, for which he executed an ambitious project.

Trista McGovern [Interview] I called it "Confidence," and I photographed like 50 people naked, but like clinically. So it was more just about them not having clothes, on or being semi-vulnerable. And I paired it with some writing about how they got their confidence, or how they didn't have it before, lessons they've learned and obstacles like that. So I had this huge gallery of a blurb with an 8 by 10 photo of somebody, and it just covered this whole wall. That was my first intro of words plus photos and bodies and vulnerable things. And I was like, I'm hooked.

Aria Vega [00:02:14] Oh! OK, that actually — I'm glad I asked you to get into that, because I feel like it's a really helpful backdrop... It's a good lens through which to see your work, because I definitely see the the influence of that project. What was it like to be on the receiving end of so much vulnerable storytelling? It seems like a lot to absorb. You said 50 people?

Trista McGovern Yeah. I have always been really interested in getting to know people and knowing... Being trusted with their vulnerable stories. I've just always been really interested in the ways we are the way we are, and how we became that way. So it did not feel scary to me. It felt very interesting and kind of honored that they were so open to doing it, and everybody was very trusting with me, and one of my favorite things that kind of led me into doing intimate portraits, which is like one of my biggest types of photography I do, is people will be really nervous, and then afterwards, they're like, "Oh my gosh, that was actually awesome. Thank you so much!" And I'm like, I feel so good.

Aria Vega [00:03:34] Yes, it's the best feeling to feel like you helped someone like find an experience that had intimidated them before, but then they found joy or whatever it is.

Trista McGovern Or they feel really insecure or something. And I'm just like, Now, just take your clothes off. We'll do this. Anything that you have concerns about, about your body. I have seen so many bodies! I feel like a doctor at this point, so I don't I don't care.

Aria Vega [00:04:04] [Voiceover] A lot of Trista's photo shoots are pretty stripped down, but it's not really about showing skin. It's about understanding who we are underneath the artifice.

Aria Vega [00:04:17] [Interview] So you have an especially intimate relationship with the camera, because you're very comfortable on both sides of it. What is the fascination there for you when it comes to image making?

Trista McGovern I think getting into photography, I knew I wanted to go to college for that because it's like the one thing I don't get sick of. I still haven't. I don't know how, I feel very lucky. And also, photography is the combination of like art science and humans, which is like the sweet spot for me with everything I do. And I think being a photographer and exploring vulnerability and bodies and different stories from my side of it, like looking through the camera, eventually it just was bound to happen where I'm also in front of the camera. Especially doing vulnerability work for also a decade and at some point got to the point where I'm like, Okay, well, the next thing on the docket is to be photographed, so I can't be a hypocrite here. And I did a photo trade with another photographer, and that was one of my first really intimate modeling experiences, where I showed a photo of my back with some flowers and stuff. And the feedback from that was really interesting, just throwing that on the internet. And then and it all went downhill from there!

Aria Vega [00:05:48] To backtrack a little bit, you said you've been doing vulnerability work for the past 10 years. What does that entail?

Trista McGovern I was doing personal vulnerability work of trying to... One of my other catalysts in college was doing a self essay, a photo essay, and it was a day in my life. And I used to be very, very private and I would only talk about the good things. So with this photo essay, I showed both sides of things with disability and medical, but I kind of just didn't talk about it and kept private. I put it on display, but I also paired it with the usual things of going to concerts, and all my daily life to show more of a realistic story of what my life was like. And that was really vulnerable to me. Then obviously, now that means very little to me, just my ass is global and so is all of my writings. So I think doing it over a decade, it sounds like I've been doing a lot, but really, it's really slow kind of shadow work of working on these things constantly and just kind of pushing the boundary and in each thing, where sometimes I was like, Oh, I made a rule for myself that I would if I was hesitant about doing something, then I had to do it. That was my rule. If it was just hesitant for being hesitant, like, should I wear this blue lipstick today? I'd be like, Uhh, and then like, dammit, now I have to do it! Because I thought about it! And so I would, and then I just did that with so many things. And it just became it was a muscle that I had to work on.

Aria Vega [00:07:43] So just really some big "power of yes" magic over there?

Trista McGovern Yeah! And really looking like introspectively, seeing what needs to be worked on next, like What do I push back on or what do I avoid? And what am I not being authentic about or whatever? So that's also part of why I ended up getting photographed and started modeling, and then started writing more and sharing the writings and all that. Now I'm also doing some authenticity through vulnerability workshops, and iy just kind of snowballed.

Aria Vega [00:08:25] Your portfolio, like you said, is primarily composed of portraits. What does portrait photography have the potential to reveal about people? What does the camera help you see?

Trista McGovern From when I'm photographing people?

Aria Vega [00:08:39] Yes!

Trista McGovern Wow. So many things... I love with intimate portraits, especially, with less clothing on you really just see the person. Where I feel like when we have our different styles and... Even just lines of straps on a shirt, it just feels like kind of a black edge where if even if I'm just doing shoulders up and there's no clothing on there, you just see like our skin, it feels more raw and more authentic. Where[as] sometimes when we have the things on us, it's like this personality we're putting on, or like a personality somebody is projecting on us. So then when we don't have that, we're stripped down to it. And a lot of times I get like very honest portraits from people, which I love because they they have nothing to hide behind.

Aria Vega [00:09:46] This is making me think — so when I was in school and pursuing the BFA portion of my degree, I spent a lot of time in figure drawing classes. And so of course, the models are nude. And I remember feeling something about the way I was able to interact, even in that indirect interaction of them creating a shape and me recording it, felt like more honest than any conversations I ever had with anybody around that time. You know what I mean?

Trista McGovern Yeah. And it's nice when there's not a goal in mind. Like, a headshot for your LinkedIn, or like the family pictures where you need everybody smiling and looking happy. My favorite portraits are people implied nude or nude and not smiling. Just sit there, I want you to relax, feel melty, whatever. And those are the best ones to me.

Aria Vega [00:10:50] [Voiceover] Trista's passion for photography stems in part from a desire to create the types of images that she never got to see before social media. As a kid, she very rarely saw photos of other people who were visibly affected by scoliosis.

Trista McGovern [Interview] They just get hidden. You don't look at it. It's either on an inspirational poster, or it's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and they're supposedly the thing you have to hide away. Or, you know, like there's always the literature tropes of disabled people [that] become the villains. And for scoliosis, I think it's the most common thing I saw is people saying they have it, and it's just like this little notch in their back and talk of a backache. And that's all it is, and they don't actually look that different. So there wasn't really much. I felt kind of like a an anomaly. Yeah, I feel like now there is more representation, but growing up definitely very little.

Aria Vega [00:11:58] So you definitely never saw pictures of women with scoliosis being portrayed as soft and sensual beings.

Trista McGovern Oh, absolutely not.

Aria Vega [00:12:08] What kind of impact has it had on you to to create those images for yourself, given that you never had any to inspire you?

Trista McGovern It is interesting because even going from never modeling to modeling and making this work within disability and sexuality especially, or just being visible to people with less clothes on. It was... I kind of had to wean myself into it, and now it feels like good, right? But I think I think there's been some times where I'd get I'd get mad because I'm like, Why does this feel new? It shouldn't. Why is this getting so much feedback? Why is this...?Why are people telling me this hasn't been on their radar because it should have been.

Aria Vega [00:13:06] Yeah, I think that speaks to the extent to which... Basically one of the biggest transitions, social transitions that social media has brought upon us is it changed pop culture from being exclusively this top down mechanism where a select few people are telling all the stories, versus we all now have a platform to tell our own story. And everyone has maybe not an equal chance because of algorithm things, but everyone has the potential to have their story go as far as movies and television used to be the only ways you could, once upon a time. And so people haven't seen these things because we're very early on in this phase of people being able to show themselves, and us living in a society that refuses to acknowledge disability means that no one with institutional power has really ever used it for this purpose before. Which sort of brings me to my next question for you: how did you learn to access and advocate for your pleasure in a society that is so ignorant about not just disability, but also sexuality? That particular intersection is interesting to me because those are some of the biggest social taboos that we have.

Trista McGovern Mm-hmm. I think after working on vulnerability and the type of, I would say, kind of numbness I have to criticism and I have a higher threshold of tolerance than a lot of people, because I've had like things happening to me my whole life. So I feel like I have worked up to the point where it became fun to me to, like, discuss these topics as in the intersection that they are because I like making people uncomfortable, because I've been made uncomfortable my entire life. So we're going to talk about it. And I think especially with disability being one of the least talked about topics, or like identities that are on the fringes, even though that's like the biggest one population-wise. It's interesting that whenever disability or ableism comes up, it's always talking about accessibility or like being judged or like things about worth. It's never... Sexuality is the least talked about subject of the least talked about identity, I guess, or marker or whatever. However, people feel comfortable talking about themselves as disabled people. And so I was like, Well, everything else is talked about. I don't feel competent in discussing like structural accessibility and how we need to change about that, but I was like, I can talk about why I think it's not cool that we're not talking about sexuality and disability, because it's more comfortable for people to, put it under the rug and continue to ignore it, because that's one of the parts that dehumanizes people with disabilities, is desexualizing them.

Aria Vega [00:16:35] [Voiceover] Pop culture finally seems to be catching on to this. As more disabled characters find their way into movies and television, audiences are finally starting to see more disabled sex on screen as well. Trista sees this as a really positive development, but makes it clear that Hollywood is no savior for disabled folks.

Trista McGovern On the flip side, there's always the likelihood that they'll be exploited or used very wildly incorrectly, and that can also be harmful. But I have seen a couple other things that like Crip Camp or Atypical, and they do well at. Stating the obvious of being like, yeah, we're a human. Of course we have sexualities.

Aria Vega [00:17:24] Yeah. And when I think about the potential that media can have to reduce the burden of people who have whatever marginalized identity of constantly explaining a certain aspect of your existence. Because even when people ask certain things in good faith to exhausting, and you know, it would be nice if people could have just like a baseline level of information about disability, (a lot of things, but we're talking about disability). It would be really nice if people could come into relationships with a higher baseline level of information about disability, particularly because disability is something that will affect everyone if you live long enough. You either will die young or you will live long enough to become disabled. It is a "when," unlike other things.

Trista McGovern Yeah, I think that's — I realized a couple of years ago, that is part of why people don't want to talk about it.

Aria Vega [00:18:25] Because they're afraid.

Trista McGovern Yeah.

Aria Vega [00:18:27] Our culture makes no space for what life looks like after becoming disabled. We hear stories about...either we are inspiration porn stories or, you know, someone got into an accident, it was the end of the world, and and that's it.

Trista McGovern Or even they're just older and can't do as much, so let's hide them away.

Aria Vega [00:18:52]

Trista McGovern People avoid it as if it's death, and even that! People in the United States and Western culture do not have a direct relationship with death. We just don't want to talk about anything.

Aria Vega [00:19:18] No, because when we're dead or disabled, we can't serve capitalism. And so why should we talk about that, right?

Trista McGovern Why talk about it? *Laughs*

Aria Vega [00:19:29] So this is why it's so important and so nice to see Hollywood taking baby steps in the right direction. However, I do not want to give them too much credit for one or five or whatever TV shows it is. You know, Hollywood is a notoriously hard place for disabled actors to find work because there are so few disabled characters written period and then half the ones that get written get given to non-disabled actors. So a lot of room for improvement there. What are some things that you'd like to see the industry do to improve in terms of depicting disabled lives?

Aria Vega [00:20:06] I want more people with disabilities as a character and not making it because of their disability. Like, they're just there, just have more. Just bring on, just bring everybody in.

Aria Vega [00:20:25] Even if Hollywood is going to be bad at portraying disabled people, you can still put visibly disabled people in the visual world of the show or the movie the same way that they are in our real visual world. They wouldn't have to write anything different. They don't have to. They can still do all of the other, you know, gatekeeping shit they want to do. And it would have a major impact just to like, see every once in a while, just... You know, now that I use a cane, whenever I see somebody on TV is thinking, Oh! Oh! They're like me!

Trista McGovern Yeah, we you don't even have to comment on it, just swap that person out with a different person, and voila!

Aria Vega [00:21:04] Just show us existing.

Trista McGovern Existing. Wow, what a concept!

Aria Vega [00:21:09] What a concept.

Aria Vega [00:21:16] [Voiceover] That's Trista Marie McGovern: photographer, model, writer and disability advocate. Her website is tristamarie.com, and you can follow her on Instagram at @tristamariemcg. For her gorgeous portrait photography. check out @tristamariephoto. I want to talk to some more disabled baddies! There are loads of us in the sex industry, and some cases because that was the only work that was accessible. If you've got a story like that, I'd love to hear it. Hit me up at askaria@lusterycom, or you can find me on Twitter @vegadreamcast. If you're into the show, please leave us a five star rating and a review. POV is brought to you by Lustery, and this episode was hosted by me, Aria Vega. It was edited and produced by Kathryn Fisher and Adrienne Teicher, and our showrunner is Paulita Pappel. Lustery is the home of real-life partners filming their sex lives behind closed doors. If you're 18 or older, you can find us at lustery.com, and we're on Twitter and Instagram @lusterypov. Until next time, lovers!