Without necessarily calling himself an artist, Robert Tennent has produced a number of tender photographs for his new book Come Back To Bed. This tenderness comes not just from the squares of sunlight landing on naked torsos, or the folds of slept-in linen and limbs entwined — it comes from the motivation behind it all.
Robert was unprotectedly sexually assaulted in 2017, and these photographs are a documentation of his return to intimacy. “I dated men with the intent of getting to know them and this went well,” Robert says. “When it came time to have sex with them, I put my trust in them and we had beautiful times together. Afterwards, I pulled my camera out and took a photo of him … because I wanted to remember that memory and how I felt when I was with him.”
The snapshots of lovers and friends continued for a year, and now they’re compiled in Come Back To Bed along with letters and poems. The book is available to buy here, and an exhibition to celebrate the launch will take place in Auckland on May 22.
Name: Robert Tennent
Nickname: Rob, or Robbie
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I was born in Cambodia and stayed there for seven years. I moved to St Lucia in the Caribbean for a year and a bit. Then I lived in Papua New Guinea for three years. I now live in Auckland New Zealand.
What were you into in high school?
Fashion, graphic design, and pretending to be straight.
In what ways have you changed since then?
Firstly I am no longer in the closet. I am still interested in both of those subjects. I’d say the main thing that had changed is my outlook on life and my personality.
If you had to describe your creative output in five words, what would you call it?
Emotional. Tentative. Strategic. Experimental. Breaks the rules. See what I did there?
In your book ‘Come Back To Bed’, you’re exploring your creative practice as well as the practice of personal healing and self care… can you tell me a little bit of backstory into both?
I was sexually assaulted in early 2017 and I didn’t know how to feel about it all. I was very confused. I decided to stop dating and having sex until I was comfortable again. I was celibate for 5 months. I met a guy and we hit it off right away. I trusted him and we had a great time together and we had sex. After this, I wanted to remember him because he lived overseas and I didn’t know if I would see him again. I took a few photos of him and kept them to myself. I began doing this to everyone I slept with. I did this all subconsciously at the time. After about a year I realised I had these really beautiful images of these special people. So I decided to write poems that made me think of them, and put them into a book.
Before the book I was just taking photos as a hobby and modelling sometimes. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer but I think I have an eye for beauty.
Aside from your subjects, did you work with anyone to create it?
This was something I worked on alone. I didn’t even want to tell anyone I was doing it. My best friends all knew because I’d spend time editing and writing while they were with me. The lay out, words, images, and designs were done by me.
I’m really bad at being open, I usually need a big excuse or catalyst. Was the idea of this book and speaking about it with your partners in order to get their OK with being shot, a useful tool not just in healing but in affording you the opportunity to be open with your partners?
All of my partners knew about my assault. I had to trust them with that in order to even lay in bed with them. And I think they agreed to have their photo taken because they trusted me. It’s super intimidating to be in front of a camera so for some of them it was out of their comfort zone. They were all very involved with selecting which images they were comfortable with me using. It was all about trust, which was something I lost after my assault.
In talking about your assault, did you learn some things in return from others? I mean, it must have provided a moment for the other person to then reveal something hidden of themselves…
These were conversations we had late at night before going to bed. When it was cold and we’d have to stay close to keep warm. When we had to whisper so we didn’t wake up his flatmates. When you’re in such an intimate position you open up to the person you are with. I learnt about their break ups, insecurities, hobbies, dislikes. You can learn a lot from your partners.
Why photography as an outlet?
I think in this case it was the only way I could literally capture the moment. Some of these photos show the sweat on his chest after sex. There were many candid moments. I wanted to remember the night through photos like it was a memory. And photography had the power to do that.
What do you think makes a good photo?
For me I really love composition and playing with shadows. I think that can totally change an image and adds a depth to it. Something pretty to look at also makes a photo good.
You told me over email that you’d refrained from sex for five months and dated men with the intent of getting to know them — sex is obviously super intimate, what was the experience like trying to get inside someone without… getting inside them, so to speak?
Hahaha, clever word play. I think it was natural. I was never someone that had casual sex. I had to meet people for more than two or three times. And when I say meet people I mean like hang out and get to know them for a decent amount of time. I made a lot of friends from this. After the third date with a few of them, we decided we’d be better as friends and I still speak to those guys today. And when it did come to sex with the first guy, it was hard at first but it I think he was the perfect person to do it with. He looked after me and made sure I was okay through out the entire night. Also to correct you, I don’t get inside anything.
I wondered if you had any concerns releasing this book — so open as it is in terms of your sexuality but also your experience with sexual assault. Did it feel like a big step regarding family and friends?
I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect or how everyone would react. I wasn’t worried about how many copies I would sell. I was worried about how people would take it. It’s such a touchy subject and I was opening it up to the world for everyone to give me their opinions. I didn’t tell my family, for two weeks after I released the book I just kept my excitement from them because I was scared they wouldn’t understand. I’ve told them now because it started showing up online and on newspapers so I didn’t want them to find out from somewhere else. I think now my parents and I are much closer from it, which was not something I expected.
And what has the response been so far?
Overwhelming. I’ve had people come out to me with their assault stories. It’s a hard conversation to have but it has to be had. Everyone has be so lovely and kind to me.
If you could stay a certain age forever what would it be?
I really want to know what I’ll be like in my 20s which is only a year away. Probably over 21 so I could legally drink around the world.
What scares you most?
Snakes, hate them. I’m talking about the ones that live in the jungle, not the ones that live behind a screen.
Best piece of advice you ever received?
If you’re good at something, don’t do it for free. Ain’t that the truth.
What is a skill you wish you possessed?
What fictional character do you most relate to, and why?
Edna Mode from The Incredibles because I already look like her and because she doesn’t take anyones shit.
What celebrity do you have a crush on?
You and I have had this conversation before: Simon Porte Jacquemus.
Best Youtube clip you’ve ever seen?
When Ariana Grande says ‘Vegas let me hear you make some noise’ but it sounds like she’s saying ‘fa*gots let me hear you make some noise.’ It’s a gem.
Which three people (dead or alive) would be your dream party guests?
Amy Winehouse, Rihanna and Heath Ledger.
What’s up next for you?
I’m going to listen to my book title and have a big long nap. I have an exhibition in Auckland on the 22nd of May. After that I really want to take the exhibition to Australia or even America if there was enough interest. I really want to do fashion and clothing, or many more photography but with a different subject. It’ll be hard to live up to Come Back To Bed.
Photos: Courtesy Robert Tennent