Ira Lupu captures the Ukrainian cam girls navigating ‘the virtual gaze’

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Lupu’s ethereal images straddle fantasy plus reality, capturing the liminality of an increasingly online world

When Ira Lupu began photographing Ukranian webcam models – “my girls, ” as the girl calls them – the girl hoped to confront the fetishisation of Eastern Euro women by presenting the particular lives of sex workers working there in full. Her project On Dreams and Screens does this and more. The NYC-based Ukrainian photographer captures seven “cam girls” living online, offline and the liminal space in between. Her images glow with fluorescent lights, blue heavens, and pixelated screens, portraying the models as they function and in their moments of contemplation. We see post-Soviet landscapes, the models preparing for the camera, and sometimes posing in snow areas.

from the series On Desires and Screens © Ira Lupu.

As Covid-19 swept across the globe, digitising the work, love, and intimacy, Lupu’s images took on an added significance. Just like the camera girls, our online and off-line selves became fused collectively and pulled apart. Lupu witnessed this tension first-hand: “The girls would request me to their [online] stream and I would see their constructed persona or web persona. This exact moment was nearly transitional. ” To be on the internet is to be nowhere and almost everywhere at once.  

While many of the models love their work, ‘camming’ can also take a mental toll. “All of them, aside from maybe one, started having issues with being online too much, ” Lupu explains. “Mostly, you just look at yourself. Psychologically, it’s really intense. This brings out a lot of your shock to the system, issues with relationships, with males or with your own body. ” 

Though the images are unstaged, the models automatically presented when Lupu moved to take their photograph. “They come with an almost physical reaction to the particular camera, they are not even aware about it, ” she described. “I felt this was an important part of the project; the self-representation and staging. ” 

from the series On Dreams plus Screens © Ira Lupu.

through the series On Dreams plus Screens © Ira Lupu.

The women are very active in the project, says Lupu. They track where the photos appear, lament which ones aren’t included, and share in print proceeds. In the meantime, On Dreams and Displays is expanding. Lupu offers started to supplement her photos with quotes, videos, and audio clips. Lupu is also developing a multimedia microsite for its next iteration. “I believe it’s quite organic to create the project back to the initial world where it was developed, ” she said. The project will be featured in a number of exhibitions this summer, including the Copenhagen Photo Festival (02-13 June) and Belfast Photo Celebration (03-30 June).

Lupu doesn’t try to make a statement concerning the camming industry as a whole. Instead, the work is about the models’ individual experience of navigating what she calls “the digital gaze. ” As the lady explains, “They’re experiencing a split between an electronic doppelgänger of sorts and the real them. ” But Upon Dreams and Screens is not just about the distance and stress between our online and off-line identity. It is about distance and community. As one of the ladies told Lupu, “Believe myself, webcam modelling is much more regarding human bonding than it really is about pure sex. ”

from the series On Desires and Screens © Ira Lupu.

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate student of Yale University using a degree in English Materials, Nurit has published operate Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.

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