Lincoln Kirstein once described Walker Evan’s photographic style as “Tender cruelty” and I find myself torn between wondering which side of the balance describes Liebaert’s ‘Free Now’ project from 2013.After speaking to men at wooded cruising areas in Germany, Belgium and France Liebaert was inspired to explore or rather allow the subjects to explore the hidden side of their personalities which requires an outlet in order to supplement the mundanities of life. Many of them were married or partnered with careers that stifled and each was looking for a way to release the tensions that 21st century responsibilities create.
Placing an advertisement online asking for nude models he was not short of applicants – all of which were male and in need of the experience Liebaert was willing to offer. For each encounter he rented a room in a sex hotel for an hour or two, asked the models to undress then to mask and allowed them to release their second character to perform for the camera.
The resulting body of work does not compare with the glossy boudoir style one might expect from a concept such as this. Utilizing a film camera and harsh hand-held flash gun these are not pretty pictures. The tawdry décor and lurid lighting are not designed to flatter the experience and yet it seems the experience itself was far more important than the resulting images to the men involved. For a couple of hours the subject can lose themselves from the restrictions of reality and release those tensions. Hiding your sexuality without some form of outlet can wear a person down. These kind of encounters enable an itch to be scratched and they can return to their wives and children in a more relaxed state until the next time the itching becomes unbearable.
The images themselves are not nudes as we would know them – the men are naked and Leibaert’s harsh image style exposes the frailty and imperfections of an aging body for the world to pick over and shudder at. The vulnerability of allowing your over-weight and sagging body to be displayed in such an unflinching manner invites sympathy from us the viewer. Man is not used to showing such a powerless persona and perhaps that is part of the attraction of the encounter. But here we come to question the balance of power – from Liebaert’s point of view he is locked in a small space with a fellow naked man (albeit with 40 or 50 years age difference between them) fully clothed and directing them while taking photographs that could potentially bring their world crashing down should the mask slip. A young man with ultimate control over the Patriarch. On the other side these old men are given the opportunity to undress and perform for a young man; to be the focus of his attention, something that clearly hides a sexual undercurrent, be that at the time or for later recall. It is clear the position of power was held by both sides in these confrontations. And Liebaert describes the project having ‘destroyed his juvenility’ so one is left to wonder whether he recognized his future in the exposed bodies of these old men.