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Safe and sexy: The persona project

As an art student in San Francisco in the late 1990s, photographer Sarah Hughes was curious about the concept of “persona,” and how we interact with people in public spaces. “I was doing a lot of research on what men and women fear from each other and vice versa,” Hughes said, “and how society almost simultaneously encourages and condemns women for dressing sexy.”

So she devised a performance project. The idea was simple: She would choose different “personas,” and document herself asking people a common question, “Do you have the time?”

“I chose about six different personas and they got progressively provocative,” says Hughes. “If I was dressed as a business woman, I felt like there was a lot of eye contact, a lot of respect, everyone looked at me. And then with the sexy outfit or rather slutty outfit, I could see men spotting me with their families a block away, staring right at me. And then, when they would get close to me they would move as far as they could and try to, like, not look.”

The experience of exploring her own personas in public spaces spawned the long-term project “Safe and Sexy.”  Over the span of more than 10 years, Hughes has traveled the globe documenting people in one outfit in which they feel safe and comfortable and one in which they feel sexy. The photographs are accompanied by audio interviews in which predominately women, and some men, answer questions about themselves and what makes them feel safe, sexy, vulnerable and powerful. Hughes has taken the project to Canada, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa and Swaziland.

“What happens behind closed doors is more personal. But I’m looking at society as a whole and trying to look at portraiture and interviews as a way of tapping into where people are at,” says Hughes. “Comfortability … what makes them feel powerful, vulnerable, sexy, attractive, practical. Just full spectrum and just by asking simple questions of what makes you feel safe and what makes you feel sexy and then present yourself in that way. Immediately the persona comes out.”

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  • Thelab4

    Wow! What an interesting and well written article! Thanks for sharing this with me and the world Sal.

  • Anonymous

    The video has been deleted it seems.

  • Cbrownlie

    SHe talks about “people” but all of her photos are of women. Is the assumption that men always feel powerful and have only one persona?

  • Deb D

    I think it’s *your* assumption, not hers. Having a narrow focus is a common way to provide more in-depth information about the particular subject, and it is rarely intended to be exclusionary. Don’t inject bias where it doesn’t exist.

  • Mary

    Fascinating. Especially the comments about vulnerability vs. power in Swaziland.

  • Knows Lines

    Here’s a full montage of girls being sexy and slutty WHILE feeling safe and protected by feminism:

  • Knows Lines

    Here’s a full montage of girls being sexy and slutty WHILE feeling safe and protected by feminism:

  • Bsdominguezl

    This is Bee, I live in El Paso Tx. I was born in Ciudad Juarez Chih. Mexico. yes the most violent city in the world for the moment. I would love to propose to you this city it is a mixture of diversity cultural and economical, all around it is a city divided by the border in one side the safest city in the US and in the other the most danger-as.

    I lived in CJ, up to 3 years ago and yes the situation of the city ran me out, but this is just rubeshe… well hope to have piked your interest I have visited your web site and I love it and yes it resinates with me so much.
    Thank you
    Bee S.M.

  • Jinny Rhodes

    Obviously a film put together by idiot misogynists. The feature video is very well done. I would love to see more of it. The ‘suggested’ film by ‘what’s his face’? Is ugly and stupid.

  • expat

    Come to the Balkans Sarah

  • Rory O’Flynn

    Looks Great Sarah – Congrats. be sure to let us know when it hits the “bigger” screen.

  • Gail Burnaford

    Interesting stuff, Sarah – though I wonder about the reactions from the ‘older’ generation – the ERA women – the women who tried to have it all…women like me, like your mom….that would be an interesting project….different from the 20′s and 30′s in your video – but interesting. Love the idea. Let’s see more. (And love the idea of the interview questions – have you written it all up?)