updated 05/20/2014 AT 6:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/23/2014 AT 1:45 PM ET
Brooklyn-based photographer Jen Davis spent years taking vulnerable self-portraits of her overweight body before realizing she wanted to change.
“My whole life I had been overweight or obese – as a kid, too,” she tells PEOPLE. “There was a sense of comfort with that, but also discomfort, too.”
Davis, 35, began documenting her body in 2002.
“The first picture I made came out of a place of pain,” she says. “It’s at the beach, where I felt very uncomfortable being in a bathing suit in a public space. I wanted to make a picture that dealt with that insecurity and pain of being judged.”
“Once I got the film back I was shocked at how real it felt,” says Davis. Inspired to take more photos, she spent the next nine years exploring the themes of beauty standards, intimacy and insecurity.
“I felt like the camera wasn’t going to lie – what it saw and what it recorded was the dead honest truth of what my body really looked like.”
But when she began compiling digital versions of the images – many of them blown up, highlighted and scrutinized – she was forced to look at herself in a new way.
“I had all of my pictures up on the wall. I was dealing with myself, looking at a hundred pictures of me. There was an audience in the sense that other people were helping me.”
She says the “microscopic view” of her body proved to be too much.
“For the first time I felt like I couldn’t even look at myself. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be in this body anymore.’ ”
Davis decided to get lap-band surgery in 2011, and has since lost 110 lbs. She continued taking photographs of herself after the procedure. About 12 of those images appear in her upcoming book, 11 Years, along with about 40 other photos dating back to 2002, starting with that first beach photo.
Many of them will be shown as part of her first solo exhibition, also entitled 11 Years, at ClampArt gallery in New York City.
These days, Davis is enjoying a new perception of herself. “I feel anonymous in a way. People don’t look at me and see my body as the first point of entry or first impression.”
Courtesy of the artist and Lee Marls Fine Art, Shelbyville, IN and ClampArt, New York, NY.