sadness is sexy


Sadness is Sexy is an ongoing self study of intimate self portraits that don’t always depict the self. 


These works were never originally intended to become a series. They are snapped compulsively over time like entries in a personal diary capturing moments of stillness and vulnerability.


Every image is a mirror reflecting back everything I feel and perceive within a moment. As an artist driven by stillness I do not photograph with my eye, I photograph with my heart. Every time I press the shutter I capture the emptiness of time.


I am exhausted, heartbroken and empty.


centre for contemporary photography - 2021

Jessica Schwientek is a fine artist working within the expansive realm of photography. Focussed primarily on process and the cathartic act of image making Schwientek’s work always has the human condition at its core. Expressing sadness, grief, love, exhaustion and anger she attempts to make sense of her place within existence.


Schwientek holds a Bachelor of Media and Communications Majoring in Photography (Honours) from Deakin University, Melbourne (2016), and is the owner and director of NOIR Darkroom in Coburg. She was the recipient of the 2019 Moreland Award for her ‘Contribution to Art and Culture’. Recent exhibitions include: Sadness is Sexy, NOIR Darkroom, Melbourne (2019); Diaries (Loosen Art), Millepiani Gallery, Rome, IT (2020); 12 x 12, The Stockroom Gallery, Melbourne (2018); Obscuring the Camera, NOIR Darkroom, Melbourne (2018); All the Feels, Loop Project Space, Melbourne (2018); Dichotomy of Memories (with Neta-Marie Mabo), Deakin Project Space, Geelong (2015); and 100 years, The SUBSTATION, Melbourne (2016).

Photo Credits: Keira Hudson (

Exhibition Essay

By Angela Cornish


Jessica Schwientek’s series Sadness is Sexy evokes the ache of loneliness, and the ache that comes from loving. Caring fucking hurts. Being sad fucking hurts. This genre of photography is about documenting the here and now. In the introduction to her seminal series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency Nan Goldin writes “It’s a common opinion that the photographer is a voyeur. I’m not crashing, this is my party.” As time passes the value of Goldin’s series sharpens. Her position of both author and subject allowed her to create an intimate time capsule of New York on the cusp of the AIDS crisis. Due to their vernacular aesthetic and connection with their subjects it feels natural to compare Schwientek to Goldin.


Like Sadness is Sexy, Ballad centres on self-portraits. Both photographers approach themselves with a sense of curiosity. Looking to the camera to provide insight to their poignancy. Famously Goldin’s self-portraits include several with her then lover who seriously assaulted her. With unflinching honesty she documented her bruised face and bloodshot eyes. In the documentary I’ll Be Your Mirror Goldin explains that she took those photos, “to remind herself never to go back to him.” Goldin documented her physical recovery, however her emotional trauma took much longer to heal. She eventually spiralled into drug addiction. Years later, after leaving a treatment centre Goldin documented herself again, “first to relearn my face, then the outside world.”


As life twists and contorts, expands and ages us before our eyes, some artists have found it instinctual to document periods of transition. Melbourne photographer Carol Jerrems died at the age of 30 in 1980 due to complications resulting from polycythemia. She documented her changing body, often standing in front of mirrors, her camera visible; drawing attention to her being the architect of the image. She photographed herself and her surroundings in hospital until she was too weak to continue. Perhaps photographing the end of her life was Jerrems way of confronting immortality.


Schwientek’s work isn’t necessarily feminist, however being a woman politicises the work due to the hetero-patriarchal gaze in which we (society) view women through. To be a woman authoring her own self-image is still a radical act of resistance. Traditionally women have had our complexity stripped away, becoming objects adjacent to history. I’d like to quote Hannah Gadsby at this point “fellas, you do not have a monopoly on the human condition.”


In 2016 Filmmaker Jill Soloway defined The Female Gaze in three parts; Part One: Reclaiming the body & using it with intention to communicate feeling. Part Two: Using the camera to show the feeling of being seen. Part Three: A reversal of the roles of object and subject. As Soloway explains, “It’s not the gazed gaze. It’s the gaze on the gazers. It’s about how it feels to stand here in the world having been seen our entire lives.” Schwientek has claimed her subjectivity and your gaze in the act of creating self-portraits. 


When photographers such as Goldin, Jerrems and Schwientek turn the camera on themselves they create affirmations of their existence. They seek to take control of their own narrative, as individuals and women; while contemplating the impact of their external surroundings. Life is fleeting, and so much of it doesn’t make sense. No wonder the ‘selfie’ is a cultural phenomenon; photographs are immortal. The aim of a self-portrait is to at once assert ourselves into the ephemeral and transcend it.

Original 2019 exhibition flyer