LIFE
27/01/2018 12:57 AM AEDT | Updated 12/02/2018 1:55 AM AEDT

These Intimate Portraits Bring BDSM Out Of The Bedroom And Into The Streets

'I think what we discovered... was that it’s about people’s shared humanity.'

The Folsom Street Fair is a yearly event that draws thousands of onlookers and participants alike to the San Francisco street each year. Made for fetish enthusiasts, the event offers musical acts, public play booths and a lot of leather.  

Late last year, the fair offered something new.

Michael Topolovac and Ti Chang are in the business of pleasure. They are co-founders and also the CEO and designer, respectively, of Crave, purveyor of “elegant, sophisticated and thoughtfully designed” sex toys. For 2017, an idea to explore sexuality and self-expression in a new way quite literally fell at their doorstep.  

Topolovac and Chang’s office is on Folsom Street, near where the fair takes place. The pair set up a portrait studio in their office and invited participants to take part in a project.

“We had no idea how it was going to go. We just put a little poster out,” Topolovac told HuffPost. “People were lined up the whole day.” 

Participants were photographed as they presented during the fair. Then, about 50 of them were asked to come in for a follow-up shoot, wearing the clothing they would typically wear out on a regular day.

The resulting photos explore not only the depth of human sexuality but the beauty of self-expression. 

“It’s less about the BDSM aspect per se or their orientation or identity,” Topolovac, who took the photos, said. “I think what we discovered, especially when we shot the second photographs, was that it’s about people’s shared humanity. There was a common thread of, ‘Hey, this is us. We’re complicated. We’re diverse. We’re expressive.’”

Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
L: Kamila and Francisco at Folsom. R: Kamila and Francisco in their "everyday" clothing.

Self-expression and the desire to cultivate a safer environment to talk about sex and pleasure is a common priority for the participants we spoke to, who widely went by first name only to protect their privacy. Kamila, who attended the fair with her friend and co-worker Francisco, hopes her involvement can open up a conversation more people need to be having about sex.  

“I feel strongly about destigmatizing things, and I think that’s what Michael was going for,” she told HuffPost. “I think it’s doing all of us a favor. Sometimes we don’t feel free to express ourselves sexually. This was a great project to start the conversation, free ourselves from limitations and judgmental attitudes. I think way too many of us struggle with insecurities around sex ― about our bodies, about our fantasies ― and the result of this is either bad sex, or no sex at all.” 

Judgmental attitudes surround BDSM still run rampant in society, even as it has more actively permeated the mainstream. The “50 Shades of Grey” era introduced global audiences to what Ashley, a participant, called “a very inaccurate and poor description of what consent is.” She was quick to offer the franchise some credit, though. 

“If it gives people the chance to take a look and explore something that makes them happy, something they can be passionate about that gives them satisfaction in their lives, it could be good for people, too” she said. 

The biggest thing people seem to have a misunderstanding about, according to a number of people we spoke to, surrounds consent. 

Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
L: Stephen at Folsom. R: Stephen in his "everyday" clothing.

“People have twisted it into being wrong or taboo or dirty,” Stephen, another participant, told HuffPost.

“The first thing I say to people with misconceptions is that it’s between consenting adults, so it’s my ‘live and let live’ philosophy,” said Ashley, who attended with her husband. “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, this is how we enjoy spending our time, and that’s fine.” 

Debunking the myth is part of what prompted her to stay involved, despite trepidation. 

“I’m kind of regretting using my real name,” she said. “I think when there’s a chance to expose yourself, opening yourself up to ridicule or for people to misunderstand you is nerve-wracking. But really it’s just who you are as a person. If you’re being true to yourself, why should you be scared?”

Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
L: Ashley at Folsom. R: Ashley in her "everyday" clothing.

She also credits the accepting and open climate of San Francisco and the Bay Area with helping her to feel more comfortable with being more open about her interest. Thrillist San Francisco calls it the “No. 1 spot for kink in America,” boasting a broad range of opportunities to explore BDSM and sexual expression. 

Stephen echoed that sentiment. He told HuffPost that while he usually keeps this side of his life to himself, the support he has found in the community has been profound, and not just limited to the yearly, one-day festival.

“There are all kinds of parks, socials, bars and things like that,” he said, adding, “No matter what, you have a lot of support.” 

Having such a private aspect of your life on display for the world to see can certainly be a scary thought, but some people actually felt safer sharing it. Mason, a transgender man, told HuffPost he relished in the opportunity to show off his body in this environment.

“We don’t really get the opportunity to be visible, especially our bodies because there are safety issues around that,” he said. “So I’m just happy I can be in a position where I don’t feel unsafe.” 

Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
L: Mason at Folsom. R: Mason in his "everyday" clothing.

In fact, Mason said people practicing sexuality as it is so often portrayed in the mainstream could learn a thing or two about consent and mutual pleasure from the BDSM world. “You’re communicating a lot and that’s very important,” he said. “At least with BDSM you make the time and space to have a conversation.”

For the creators of the project and the participants alike, the photo shoot served as an opportunity to showcase the complicated, multi-faceted layers we all share as humans ― and that’s what was most appealing about it, Kamila said.

“A lot of people think being this public puts people in a vulnerable position, and it could be,” she said. “But for me, vulnerability is the basis of any true connection to another human. This mass act of self-exposure creates a very powerful sense of unity, and that’s why I’m here.” 

Check out more images from the project below, and visit Crave to learn more about it. 

  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017
  • Michael Topolovac/Crave 2017