will santillo tied masturbating female
Marijn Kruijff
5 min

La Petite Mort: Santillo's Explicit Study of Masturbating Females

5 min

The idea for the pioneering photo book La Petite Mort (translated 'the little death') was born after a debate in 2001 between the photographer Will Santillo (1953) and a colleague from Toronto, who stubbornly tried to convince him to go digital.

Pretty Expensive

Although this was still in the early days of digital photography when it was pretty expensive and of moderate quality, Santillo's curiosity was aroused. He convinced a camera store owner to lend him a camera for the weekend, and started experimenting with it.

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Fig.1. Classic Anya, 45, model & writer

Go To Extremes

He quickly decided to go to extremes, testing his stress level and using really low light levels, and asked his wife to pose and improvise in the bedroom. During the shoot she started masturbating and a delighted Santillo kept shooting.

From Pornography to Art

It was only when he looked at the result that he came to the realization that this could be an interesting art project. In the introduction of La Petite Mort, Santillo is quoted, "The abstract approach possible with digital distances it from pornography and moves it towards art." In a later interview he explains this as follows: "For me, the digital is not just the type of camera. All my effects are done in camera, not in post, but what I can do in post as an artist is how i want to manipulate the image."

will santillo masturbating female


How Would You Like to Masturbate?

Now that he had a clear idea about the approach and the style, he now had to get models. This turned out to be difficult in practice because, as he explains," you don't walk up to a woman you just met and say, "How would you like to masturbate in front of the camera for me?" It got off to a slow start in the first few years, but through word of mouth, and its growing portfolio, it became easier to convince women. When his first book Flagrante Delicto (Latin for "in blazing offence") came out and the women realized he did actually publish, then there was no problem getting volunteers.

will santillo la petite mort


Pregnant Women

When Santillo realized that there was a great variety of masturbating women, he wanted to get the broadest spectrum, not only in terms of physicality, but also in methods. It should go from age 21 on up, as many ethnicities as possible, pregnant women, handicapped women, just to show that your sexuality is not limited by what happens in your life.

Simple-Minded Approach

Santillo: "Unlike men, who have a very simple-minded approach, [women] are much more complicated beings, I found it was not just an elaborate fantasy; it was an elaborate preparation to put them in the right state of mind."

masturbating female in car by Will Santillo

Fig.4. Stacy, 44, mental health professional

Unique Vision of Female Sexuality

For La Petite Mort, Santillo collaborated with the American pornographic magazine editor, historian and regular Taschen contributor Dian Hanson (1951). She conducted the interviews with 37 of the women portrayed who talk about their masturbatory fantasies which, when combined with Santillo's sepia-toned (sometimes intentionally out-of-focus) photographs, provide a unique vision of female sexuality.

will santillo tied masturbating female

Fig.5. Andrea, 28

masturbating female in a car by Will Santillo


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la petite mort by Will Santillo

Fig.9. Montana Skye, 41, Law office manager

Exhibitionism Part

"One of my favorite things is the outdoors, so I'm like, "God, wouldn't it be so cool if we could get away with this out on the balcony?" (Fig.9 to 11) I really enjoy the risky, exhibitionism part of photography and thought it totally captured the true ecstasy of being a woman and being able to bring yourself to orgasm any place you want to. My upbringing was very strict. I was probably  over 30 when I first masturbated. At first I was like, "No, I don't want to do that," But then it was like, "Whoa. This is really fun."

Will Santillo's La Petite Mort


Montana Skye, 41, Law office manager


masturbating female by will santillo

Fig.12. Luna, 37, photographer

"Why Don't You Watch Me?"

"I felt very empowered and very proud of myself after the shoot (Fig.12). I kept hearing the tiny little noise of the camera, but it felt comfortable and almost good to know that somebody was watching me. I thought, "I feel great. I feel like a woman. I feel my age. And I feel proud of my body." It has changed my relationship with my partner. I'm able to say, "Why don't you watch me?"

masturbating female lying on a rock


masturbating female in a chair by Will Santillo


In Premium you can discover an exclusive version of the article with 24 additional images and more special masturbation confessions of the portrayed females

Click HERE for our earlier article on the erotic photography of Will Santillo

Sources: shortandsweetnyc.com, La Petite Mort by Dian Hanson and Will Santillo