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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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