An exhibition in London explores male self-image in a globally connected era, where gender standards are constantly changing.
A quiet revolution
Questioning your own identity is usually a lot easier when others are already doing it for you. With the onset of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s, the LGBTQIA+ community — alongside Women’s Lib — led the push for questioning the values of the global patriarchy and machismo attitudes. Photographer Sunil Gupta captured gay men in New York at the time of the Stonewall Riots.
Men in uniform
At the top of the abstraction that is patriarchy, there have always been men of war. This photo-collage by Tristan Fewings shows just how powerful and intimidating those men can be; looking at this avalanche of images of generals and admirals from movies about World War II can feel overwhelming. Yet the images appear to be stacked up like a house of cards that could easily collapse.
If aggression is a key feature of toxic masculinity, it might be skin-deep. The aesthetic of this picture is part of the Taliban self-image. Photographer Thomas Dworzak compiled dozens of such shots in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2001, as the US-led invasion of the country started. The contrast between macho insurgents portrayed by the media and their vulnerable self-image could not be greater.
Also read: Let’s Talk About Male Body Positivity
Adi Nes likes to document the unending conflict in Israel. Highlighting moments of intimacy and carelessness among soldiers, he shows the softer side of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Many of his pictures are deemed homo-erotic and have a following in the gay community around the globe. Nes insists they reflect moments he experienced personally while he was in the Israeli army.
A good man is supposed to ruin your lipstick and not your mascara, or so the saying goes. But what happens when the person wearing the mascara is a man? Peter Hujar looks at a prism of non-conformist male identities. Is a drag queen necessarily any less masculine than a soldier wearing face-paint as camouflage? And who gets to make those decisions?
What makes a man a man? That’s not just the lyric of a Charles Aznavour ballad but the subject of Catherine Opie’s body of work. She likes to dress her son in a tutu or invite her friends around to tack fake mustaches on them. Opie aims to explore differences in behavior, perception and poise when a small feature is altered on a person. Does facial hair alone a man make?
Men of colour often experienced different narratives in their quest of male identities than Europeans and Caucasians. From O.J. Simpson to Bill Crosby, they saw their own role models rise and fall. While defining and redefining masculinities was often a slow process for “old white men,” people of colour witnessed change at a higher pace, fighting racist stereotypes of violence and hypersexuality.
Only in recent times have men been objectified in the same way that women have in the media. From body dysmorphia to suicide, reaching for impossible beauty standards has taken its toll on men and their self-image. The ‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ exhibition makes mention of this, but in its quest to fully portray contemporary masculinities, it unfortunately falls a bit short.
Rotten Adam’s apple?
Is it just an Adam’s apple — as seen here in a photograph by Sam Contis — and a Y-chromosome that separates the sexes, or is there more to it? Is patriarchy dead? And what kind of self-image do men adopt in the #MeToo era? The Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin looks at many such questions with its ‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ exhibition, which runs through January 10, 2021.