Shae Detar Is Healing Her Religious Trauma Through Photography

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Another World by Shae Detar
HarukaPhotography by Shae Detar

Shae Detar’s debut photo book Another World captures nude women in startlingly beautiful natural landscapes. Here, she talks about why making these images has been “a form of healing”

Shae Detar’s debut book Another World presents a utopian world populated solely by women. Without a hint of modern civilisation to be seen in its saturated pages, the artist’s subjects roam completely naked through vast natural landscapes, their bodies drenched in vivid shades of red, yellow, green and pink so that they appear almost superhuman. Far removed from external dangers or judging eyes, in Detar’s expansive painterly world, women don’t have to look over their shoulder at night, send a text to a friend to say they got home OK, or worry about the ways their bodies might not square up to today’s beauty standards. This is a place where women are not only totally free but are also charged with a magical kind of power. 

When we speak over video call ahead of the book’s launch, Detar’s screen is like a portal into her creative universe; her dreamlike artworks are propped up on the walls of her studio behind her, and the artist is dressed in several shades of sherbet pink. Much like her work, Detar is expressive and open when she speaks, earnestly talking about everything from her obsession with TikTok – “it’s taught me all about manifesting this year” – to the traumas of her upbringing in rural Pennsylvania, where she was homeschooled and raised in an extreme evangelical church group (which she describes as a cult) during the purity movement of the 1990s. Taught to suppress her sexuality from a young age, much of her adult life and work as an artist has been spent unlearning feelings of fear and shame. 

Detar left the church in her twenties and now lives in New York with her husband, a music composer who was also raised in the evangelical church. She began her artistic practice when she was 30, assembling a makeshift darkroom at home and experimenting with 19th-century oil painting techniques. Straight away, she knew she wanted to shoot nudes as a way of addressing her fractured relationship to the body. The works inside Another World chart this 13-year odyssey, capturing trips to sublime natural locations around the world with real women, such as the Californian desert, the moon-like landscapes of Iceland and the cliffs of the British coastline. Her shadowy later works – which were made after enrolling in classical painting school, and are her most dramatic – see the artist wash her nudes with a signature watercolour technique that she spent three years perfecting.

The resulting book represents both a safe place for women and a document of the artist’s personal journey to healing. Here, speaking in her own words, Detar tells us about the making of Another World:

“I was raised in a Christian cult. I grew up during the purity movement in the 90s, which was a reaction to the sex, drugs and rock and roll era of the 60s and 70s. Reagan was president in the late 80s and he created this programme of abstinence and tried to get it into secular high schools in America. The church [I was part of] is really an evangelical church, and all the evangelical churches in America hopped on to this idea. It was very much about women being responsible for men’s lusting – you cause them to stumble if you dress a certain way, you can’t masturbate, you can’t have lustful thoughts. You turn off anything sexual.

“I didn’t date anyone until I started seeing my husband when I was 20. When I was 27, I went to pre-marriage counselling at the church, and the pastor told me, ‘Now that you’re getting married, you need to make yourself available to your husband whenever he wants it as many times as he wants it.’ And I was like, ‘All these years, nothing, not even when I’m by myself, and then all of a sudden I’m supposed to be a sex kitten?’ It just doesn’t work that way. Now I know it’s a form of trauma. Therapists say a lot of the symptoms are very similar to people who have been sexually abused.

“I really struggled for years, and so when I turned 30 and I started taking photos I really wanted to shoot nudes. I wanted to find freedom because we weren’t in the church anymore. This book [documents] a 13-year journey of that. It’s literally me finding that freedom, meeting women, hearing their stories and seeing how confident they are. By putting these images out it’s been a form of healing. When I started to shoot nudes, I knew from the very beginning that I really wanted to capture every body type. I have always done my castings on Instagram and it’s a come-one, come-all format, so what I love about that journey is that I’ve met normal women, some of whom have become friends. I try to be respectful and I’m really protective of women’s bodies. It’s been so beautiful that people trust me.

“Going to painting school really taught me how to see, because for two years they almost didn’t let us paint – they made us draw, they made us learn about shadows and form. When I came out of it during the pandemic it was June, we were kind of allowed to go out again, so I just started taking girls into nature and it was the first time I’ve used crazy shadows. Maybe no one else notices those differences but I see it so powerfully. 

“I also fell in love with nature through this book. California was the perfect place to start because it has the craziest landscapes – you have the mountains, the beach, the desert – and then my best friend lives in London, so I started going to England and I just tried to find epic places like the Seven Sisters cliffs [in East Sussex]. And I am so in love with Iceland. Creativity and openness is so built into the fabric of their culture.

“My husband told me something the other day, he was like, ‘You know, you always make a point whenever you do interviews to say how these images are not meant to be sexual. Have you ever thought that’s part of your background too?’ That’s part of the trauma, because I do always preface that. I think there’s still healing to go … I think Another World is about women being safe. I just wish we lived in a world with more empathy. So in the book that’s all there – it’s the world I wish for.”

Another World by Shae Detar is published by Skeleton Key Press and is available for pre-order now.