The photographer uncovering BDSM's vulnerable heart

The photographer uncovering BDSM's vulnerable heart
Bare-all honesty — Max Eicke spent three years photographing dominatrixes, building up enough trust to dig beneath the surface of stereotypes, masks and roles.

One day, on a flight to Berlin, photographer Max Eicke hit it off with the person in the seat next to him.

The conversation felt free-flowing, they both seemed to be having a good time… until the woman mentioned that she was dominatrix.

Max didn’t know what to say, let alone think, and so the conversation sputtered out.

Davina

Davina

Not long after, he read the autobiography of a young literature student who also began working as a dominatrix. But it felt whitewashed, like the emotional side of it wasn’t being fully revealed.

Max thought back to the woman on the plane, how comfortable she must’ve been to bring it up so casually, and began looking for accounts of BDSM in that same candid tone.

“Finding almost exclusively pretty clichéd, pseudo reportage, I started liking the idea of approaching this hidden world in a more documentarian, humane way,” says the 27-year-old.

Lady Lana

Lady Lana

Max spent the next three years digging beneath the surface of the BDSM scene in Germany, seeking personal experiences that would challenge everyday perceptions of the sex industry.

This meant plucking up the “guts” to cold-call dominatrixes and see what they thought of the idea… though he’s often have to insist that it wasn’t simple a scam for a free session.

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“I think gaining the women’s trust was definitely the most challenging part of the project,” he says. “Most of them were highly suspicious since they had bad experiences in the past, ranging from weirdos stalking them to media representatives wanting to present them as perverts.”

But peeling back the stereotypes proved complicated. For one thing, these figures of power – used to roaring orders with absolute authority – now found themselves being questioned by a man with a camera. It took time for the posturing to fall away.

Fraeulein Schmidt

Fraeulein Schmidt

“There was an ongoing power play between us,” says Max. “I kept wondering why they agreed to be photographed. Was it about being remembered? Was it vanity?

“Did they see me as a potential client? My role remained unclear to the subjects, for whom the camera seemed to offer some kind of salvation – a false promise inherent to photography.”

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All the women came from a wide range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, their motivations to work in BDSM being just as diverse. Some were self-assured and independent, Max says, others appeared vulnerable – stuck in the industry for lack of an alternative.

“My impression was that they often live in the present and think little of their long-term futures.”

Now, having pulled together the results into a book calls Dominas, the pictures are accompanied by anonymous quotes from the women (seen here in red text).

One of them reads, “Strength means being able to stand up and say, ‘I am not a stereotype. I am myself.’” For Max, that’s a good summary of the whole project.

As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming either a detective or a painter – like his grandfather – but now he feels his approach to photography is turning into a blend of both: creating work that explores hidden worlds and questions established values or hierarchies.

Bizarrlady Amy

Bizarrlady Amy

In this case, portraying the BDSM world meant picking apart the double lives that many dominatrixes lead until they reached a point of emotional honesty – overturning many of his own preconceptions challenged along the way.

“One of the women admitted that she had never told someone such intimate and personal details from her life because no one was ever listening to her that honestly before,” he says.

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“I discovered that as a photographer I was being placed into a totally ambiguous role: one that overlapped with the roles of confidant, therapist, scapegoat and, obviously, the younger eroticised man.”

Once, while interviewing a dominatrix in her dungeon, she told her slave – dressed in nothing but a loincloth – to bring Max a Coke.

Later, she allowed the slave to sit in on the conversation and it turned out he was an art historian who had a lot to contribute.

Lady Susanna

Lady Susanna

At first Max felt confused, not knowing how to react, but he soon realised that BDSM is about people, rather than their masks or roles.

“BDSM is often mistakenly seen as a field of violent sexuality with no space left for any kind of romantic feeling,” he says.

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“For many it seems paradoxical that sexual activity involving pain might also contain empathy, tenderness, trust and lust.”

“Also unimaginable for some is the fact that BDSM is based upon mutual consent; that pain with pleasure requires an enormous amount of honesty and open communication.”

Lady Xara

Lady Xara

“Speaking to so many people from the BDSM and fetish community I really got the impression that within this scene there is often more respect for one another – a better knowledge of safer sex and a higher level of openness and trust – than in many conventional relationships.”

Dominas is published through Kehrer Verlag. Find out more about Max Eicke.

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