Bunny – a colloquial term used in the Kink community to refer to someone who enjoys being tied or bound.
When artist and kinkster Kat Johnston set out to create a photographic exploration of everyday people who happen to love rope — ‘Bunnies’ — she expected to have difficulty finding models, and for her Facebook friends list to drop. Instead, she received enthusiastic and accepting responses from the kink community, friends, family and strangers.
‘I’ve been surprised over and over,’ she said. ‘All of the models so far have expressed happiness in their final photosets, and the feedback I’ve gotten from family and friends, even those who didn’t know I liked rope before I started this project, has been incredible.’
In Bunnies Unbound, Johnston presents photographs and profiles of rope-adorned, bunny-eared fantastical versions of her volunteer subjects. Each model completes an extensive survey, which forms the basis for Johnston’s Bunny creations. ‘The survey responses shape the costuming, and I make sure each model is happy with the pieces that will be used on them before we go ahead with the photo shoot,’ Johnston said.
The finished product includes the final photoset along with a portion of the interview and a photo of the subject as they appear day-to-day. Johnston sees the shoots as collaborative with her subjects. ‘While I may give some direction, some of the best poses have come from me saying, “Come on… be silly!” and encouraging people to just be themselves, so that their personality shines through,’ she said.
Johnston came up with the concept for Bunnies Unbound after doing a couple of rope-dress shoots with friends, just for fun. ‘One of the friends who had volunteered had been going through a tough time, and was feeling rather fragile. I decided that instead of using the rope just for a fashion look, I also wanted to incorporate some additional fantasy costuming and more specific rope styling to take the fragility she had and transform it into something strong and beautiful. I hoped she could look at the photographs after and think, “I can handle this.”’
Following that shoot, Johnston realised the project was something she needed to do. She floated the idea around to her friends on Fetlife and was surprised at the response. ‘I thought I might get perhaps four or five people saying, “Yes, that sounds like fun.” What I didn’t imagine is that I’d have dozens of people putting up their hands, saying, “Yes — I’d like to take part. Please show to the world a side of me that they don’t usually get to see,”’ she said. ‘I made sure everyone knew that I’d be requiring signed model releases and that the images would be displayed publicly, and I thought this would turn many away from participating, but now I have enough shoots to keep me going for some time.’
Through Bunnies Unbound, Johnston hopes to break through some of the preconceptions people have about rope-based bondage, the people who practice it, and kink more broadly. ‘Kink is something many people misunderstand and fear, largely due to media and pop culture depictions,’ Johnston said. ‘When the only time people hear terms like “sexual sadist” or “bondage” is in association with murders, rapes, kidnapping and assaults, it’s not surprising they have strongly negative connotations.’
Johnston believes the idea that someone might enjoy pain or being restrained is foreign to many. ‘I’m not sure people always see the distinction between sadism for the purpose of bringing pleasure to a masochistic partner who enjoys it and has enthusiastically consented to it, and someone who pulls the wings off flies and turns out to be a serial killer,’ she said. ‘Sadism, masochism and fetishism have all been classed as mental disorders in the past, and may still be treated as such where they cause significant psychosocial distress for the person, or has detrimental effects on important areas of a person’s life… Hopefully this project will change some of those negative associations.’
One of Johnston’s models, Leopard, agrees: ‘Kink is so often portrayed in a scary or dark way that turns people off,’ she said. Leopard believes crime shows and news media frequently use sexual sadism for its shock value, but as a result people link sadism and masochism with rape, death and other violent crimes. ‘Rope is so much more than just bondage,’ she said, and ‘kink is so much more than the consensual giving and receiving of pain… kink is diverse, as are the people involved in it.’
Johnston also hopes to challenge the pre-existing ideas people have about kinksters, kink, and the kink community. She wants to show you can’t tell just by looking at someone that they might enjoy rope, and for her audience to see that enjoying rope — or any kind of kink — is normal, and something we should celebrate. ‘These are normal people doing something they love,’ she said. ‘Loving something a little left of centre isn’t wrong — it’s just different and it’s something that makes people happy.’
One of Johnston’s other goals is to represent a side of kink that the public don’t usually see: the ‘playful, joyous, silly side.’ Johnston said, ‘I want to show the transformation people undergo when they’re doing something that they love, the smiles and the laughter on people’s faces, the sense of peace or the quiet dignity, the ferocious grin on the face of someone who otherwise appears meek.’
For Leopard, who is a plus-sized model, the project is also about showing that kink doesn’t have to be for ‘conventionally beautiful thin people.’ Leopard said Bunnies Unbound ‘shows men and women of all body types in wonderfully whimsical art, and for me, that’s a definite push in the right direction.’
Johnston said she was surprised and touched by many of her subjects’ stories. ‘People have really put themselves into a deeply vulnerable position in order to do this project, in giving information to me, and in putting themselves out there as kinksters in a very public way.’ Completing the project survey forced each of the Bunnies to put some things into words they had never expressed before about why they enjoy rope and what this project means to them.
For Johnston, rope has many meanings. ‘Tying and being tied can encompass such a range of emotions: happiness and heartbreak, calmness and defiance, connectedness and isolation, and a whole host of other feelings,’ she said. ‘When it comes to the decorative tying I do on people for photography, it is an exercise in creativity, and in being able to make a design that reflects the person and flatters their body — it is a puzzle to be solved, and a game to be played.’
When tying for play, Johnston says it varies from person to person and from day-to-day. ‘Sometimes sessions are deeply connective — like a dance that flows with ebbs and swells. Some are playful and have me and my partner laughing,’ she said. ‘At other times, sessions are incredibly profound, such as the last session I did with my muse before she left to study abroad for several months. It was our farewell to each other, and spoke much more clearly than words ever could.’
If Johnston is self-suspending, rope can just be pure fun: ‘It’s a way to get up off the ground and spin around, like a circus performer or aerial artist,’ she said. ‘If I’m being tied by someone else, it can be anything from a calm sensation akin to guided meditation, through to a rough-and-tumble wrestling match of, “Haha! Bet you can’t pin me down!”’
Before Johnston started the project, she decided against using a pseudonym. ‘I knew that doing it under my own name would add legitimacy to the project, so that’s what I decided to do, even though I know it has the potential to close a few doors in my future,’ she said. ‘I also felt that if I was asking people to reveal so much of themselves in the name of this project, it was only fair.’
Johnston grew up in a small town and went to a Christian high school. Though her mother, sisters, and close friends all knew of her interest in kink, when it came to publicly exposing herself through the project, Johnston was scared. ‘I definitely expected my friends list on Facebook to drop, though I knew I would be accepted by those closest to me,’ she said. ‘When I told my mother that I would be doing this project, she responded with the best of responses: “I’m not sure I understand, but it does sound fascinating. Just stay safe, okay?” One can’t ask for a better response than that. I am lucky to have such an accepting family.’
Still Johnston wavers when talking about her project to new people, especially those outside of the kink scene, but she has been pleasantly surprised. One stranger she told said, ‘“Oh that’s not weird at all. My dream is to design the world’s best Eco-toilet — that’s weird.”’
So far, responses to the project have all been positive. ‘Comments I’ve been hearing most often have been, “You can see real joy in those pictures,” or, “that look is perfect for them!”’ Johnston said. ‘Those, to me, are pretty much the highest compliments.’
Johnston said if anything the project has changed the way she sees people outside the kink community. ‘I have been surprised at the support and enthusiasm I’ve gotten from people I’ve only ever known in a vanilla context. I’ve been surprised at seeing people that I used to go to church with sharing the photos, and commenting on how beautiful they are. I’ve heard more people say, “That’s fascinating” than, “My god, that’s weird. Are you some kind of psycho or something?” And it gives me hope.’
Find the project at Bunnies Unbound, get project updates and exclusive access to a sub-series of photographs featuring each of the models posing with a TARDIS teapot from Facebook and Tumblr, and view behind the scenes crafting and progress photos on Instagram.