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Young People Fucking: Calgary photographer Sebastian Buzzalino’s new exhibit Little Deaths focuses its lens on local lovers in dangerous times

The Czech have a euphemism for orgasm, Už budu, which roughly translates to: “I will be,” a rather Cartesian interpretation of an act perhaps more commonly known for its peak of completion, rather than a confirmation of existence akin to, “I come, therefore I am.”

Conversely, the French are known for a more finite interpretation of orgasm, la petite mort, or “little death” — a transcendence of consciousness; a surrender of one’s very life force.

It is this philosophy which inspired Calgary photographer Sebastian Buzzalino to curate his latest show, Little Deaths, a series of long exposure photographs of 21 couples being coitally interrupted by the presence of a camera. 

The photographs, hauntingly romantic images of fairy lighted bedrooms, living rooms garlanded in plants, and seemingly empty showers and hallways haunted by the most spectral glimpses of bodies engaged in sex with no defined corporality, take on both the Czech and the French philosophies simultaneously. Sex as being and nothingness.

“(Little death) made me think of the moment of orgasm, and how that moment can’t really be held within a patriarchal binary. That moment, male, female, non-binary, whenever someone orgasms, it’s a moment of transcendence across cultures that we all have, a moment of expansion or transcendence beyond our bodily limits. The two or 10 seconds, or however long your orgasm lasts, it’s this moment where you can exist beyond or in spite of your body,” says Buzzalino.

As both a writer and a photographer, Buzzalino has always been interested in “what bodies were able to do, and that found itself a nice home in rock ‘n’ roll because rock ‘n’ roll tends to be excessive bodies, very masculine bodies, and bodies that goof around with gender. The kind of body that operates at the edges of frames both physically and metaphorically in photography.”

In Little Deaths, those edges are further blurred, with the genders and sexual orientations of each couple nearly completely obfuscated, leaving bare rooms and fluid, spectral shadows in the throes of passion. 

Buzzalino said he was inspired by the works of 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote extensively on gender, sexuality and the dynamics of control. 

In Little Deaths, the viewer sees sex confined to what Foucault called, “a shadow existence” — while Buzzalino adopts Foucault’s ethos of “making windows where there were once walls” — with the hard edges of binaries and bodies obscured. Sex without borders, if you will.

As the entirety of the images in Little Deaths were taken during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a reversal of roles, Buzzalino himself had to physically step away from the camera, entrusting the quality and the content of the images almost entirely to the subjects themselves. 

After putting out a call for couples on social media, a digital camera and tripod were dropped off at each pair’s home, with a brief, distanced tutorial given on set-up and composition. After that, everything was left in their hands, with Buzzalino making any corrections in post. 

“I felt like I used to feel — and I’ve shot way too much film in my life to be excited about this anymore — but I felt like when you get your first couple rolls of film back and you don’t really know what’s going to be on there. I felt like that getting the camera back.”

Because of issues with exposure and balance, many images Buzzalino received back were almost pitch black and needed to be recovered. 

“In recovery, it was almost like watching a photo being developed, too. And the pleasure of watching these bodies emerge in these scenes.

“I was mostly surprised by how well everything turned out. Because I was kind of flinging my camera at people, being like, ‘Here you go. Have at it.’ ”

Buzzalino’s own corporeal absence from behind the lens was influenced by Roland Barthes, another French philosopher known for his essay, The Death of the Author, in which he advocated for the reader — or, in this case, the viewer — to separate the creator from the creative. 

“I make the other’s absence responsible for my worldliness,” wrote Barthes, and it’s in the near complete absence of identity — and author — that makes Buzzalino’s images so striking.

“I am a photographer who is relatively well-known in Calgary for doing this kind of stuff — but I didn’t take a single photo,” he says. “I asked myself at one point, ‘Am I a photographer? Am I the author of these photos? Because I’m not doing anything. I’m not deciding composition, I’m not deciding exposure, I’m not deciding anything. ‘

“For white, male, cis-het, photographers who have dominated the history of photography, you’re the author, you’re the creator. Every last detail of the scene is under your control, and so it was kind of cool that none of it was under my control.”

The result is a gripping intersection of voyeurism and vulnerability. Though conceptually titillating, often the most discomfiting aspect of the photographs is the inherent intimacy of the space itself — knowing that for many of the couples, these rooms were their homes, offices and shelters for 15 months of near-solitary confinement during yo-yo-ing pandemic lockdowns. 

For one anonymous couple, the freedom from time constraints, the comfort of their own space, and total creative control took any pressure out of the process. The fact that it documented a very singular moment in modern history where people were already very engaged with their home spaces and there were strict limitations on who they could be physical with was also part of the intrigue that drew them to the project.

The couple agrees that the experience was fun, positive and validating of their relationship, though one partner admitted that they’re “too controlling to have made it a romantic experience. I think there was a lot of art direction happening from my end.

“We were very aware that it was still performative. I don’t know how organic a person can really be in front of a camera. I think with the nature of these long exposure photographs, it kind of drove us to be more engaged with large gestures, which is something we wouldn’t normally do, but you want to fill the frame. So there’s definitely an exploration of space there.”

Buzzalino says the response was overwhelmingly positive from all of the couples, adding that “consent is king” in his work — so everyone was free to withdraw their photos at any time should they have second thoughts. At time of writing, all 21 participating couples had enthusiastically consented. 

“To people who are not always the most body positive with ourselves, I think it was a good experience in seeing our bodies portrayed in a very gentle and flattering light,” says one of the anonymous partners of the final images.

“No one put it in these words, but if I could read between the lines and put words in people’s mouths, I think a lot of people feel a little bit of an exhibitionist vibe to this. Because they know they’re having sex in that photo that people are looking at. Even though people won’t know who they are,” says Buzzalino. 

He’s also counting on the viewer to participate in the voyeuristic pleasure of viewing each photograph made large when Little Deaths launches on Friday, Aug. 6, running until Aug. 27 at Idle Eyes Collective, the photography studio and gallery space Buzzalino co-founded with Calgary photographer Heather Saitz last year. 

The opening reception for Little Deaths on Aug. 6 will feature live music performances from Mariel Buckley and Astral Swans. Doors are at 8 p.m. and cover is $10. 

“On the opening night, the room itself is going to be pretty dimly lit, with little red lightbulbs to harken to a red-light district sort of vibe. My goal is for people to have to stand close and examine the bodies, because a lot of people are going to sit there and try and figure out who’s doing what to whom. And that’s part of the pleasure in looking at these photos. We know that there’s people having sex, and there’s a lot of pleasure in looking at bodies having sex. But these photos, in that there’s no real distinctive marker for identity or bodies, these photos kind of resist that pleasure a little bit. And I think that makes people feel even more voyeuristic, because they have to spend even more time looking at it,” says Buzzalino.

“I’m hoping that people will engage with the beauty of the photos, because I think they’re quite beautiful from a more traditional point of view. They’re quite wispy, dreamy and ethereal. And I’m hoping that people, in their own voyeuristic pleasure, start thinking about their own bodily pleasures and the limits of their own bodily identities, and then what it means literally and metaphorically to intersect with another body, to be more inclusive.”

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