The choice to use Polaroid instant film for this project enables me to subvert a medium usually associated with party occasions and instil a more thoughtful meaning. It does mean I have to be extremely careful to setup the lighting etc in order that I do not waste any shots especially as each takes half an hour or more to develop which only gives me a maximum of two tries for each photoshoot I organise. The unique feature of the Polaroid print means the subject can be reassured there is only one print which they can have control over and mask in a way that removes their features and hides their identity. The idea of the project being how as a gay man we may be comfortable to expose our private parts to a stranger during a photoshoot but only on condition the face we show to the world is hidden; being as it is a metaphor for how we often hide our sexuality in our day-to-day lives. This act I find intriguing – Susan Sontag says that we often fear the disapproving eye of the camera (Sontag, On Photography, p.65) however I rarely do a photoshoot where there isn’t at least some degree of nudity. So to come to a stranger and undress is quite a brave act in itself in revealing your vulnerability.
Once the image has developed I then hand the print to the subject so they can mask their faces. I have been asking them beforehand to give some consideration on how to do this, but I also have a selection of materials for them to use as well. The very act of defacing the image creates something more from the print – it is no longer a photograph, but has metamorphosed into a mixed-media piece; further distancing itself from the usual associations of photography and placing itself into the realms of Fine-Art. It is no longer a reproducible photographic print, but a unique and special object.
When the face is masked the body is depersonalised and any viewer is then free to see the subject as object. From a specifically male perspective there is an awkwardness in placing your body on display to be objectified. The gay world is more guilty than most at perpetuating the myth of The Cult Of Beauty so this also questions how the male defines his identity when he is expected to live up to the media’s ideals. Having the models pose in slightly awkward un-natural positions simply highlights the absurdity of these idols we are faced with. There is also the question here of the difference between naked and nude. Berger defines these subtleties – naked is natural, whereas nude is being placed on display (with the expectation therefore of being objectified) (Berger, Ways Of Seeing, p.54). For the project I am asking these men to reveal their naked form, but does the act of masking then change their nakedness and turn them into nudes to be objectified? Using the taboo dick (I refuse to use the word ‘penis’ as I am not a fifty year old spinster librarian) my intention is to push the viewer’s comfort zone in order to mirror the discomfort gay men experience in many social situations. But Kenneth Clarke states “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling” and “If it does not do so, it is bad art and also morals” (Clarke in Gill, Image Of The Body, p.27). Is there an erotic side to these images and if so does that detract from the message I am trying to convey. There is no denying a couple of the models are in a state of partial arousal – does this automatically add to any eroticism? Each model fits into a fetishist category, be that tattoos, body hair, youth, chunky or muscle so does this add yet more to any erotic nature of the prints and again does that detract or nullify my message? Or does the form of masking that each has chosen mitigate any erotic content – alternatively is there a see-saw balance here between the mildly erotic and the ridiculous?
Moving on to the actual prints themselves. The gentle soft-focus nature of Polaroid helps to tone-down the shock-value of encountering the nude male and the cold colour-cast adds to the uneasiness of the image as a whole. The clumsy poses reflect the awkwardness of placing your body on display in this way. I found a couple of the images were a little bleached-out in comparison to others, but after a little research discovered the film is best to be kept, exposed and developed on the cool side; whereas the lighter shots were done while the camera has been kept in a very warm studio. In these days of Photoshop the Polaroid frame and effect could be digitally replicated fairly easily, but the smearing of the print at the bottom adds an additional level of authenticity for when these prints are viewed online as scans; and this is important as authenticity is key to the candid message of this collaborative project. The way each man has chosen to mask his face I hoped would give out a subconscious message about their character or their feelings about their sexuality. One man chose to excise his face with a scalpel and then go over in black pen; giving a rather violent result which represented the violence he might face in his work & homeland should his sexuality be discovered. Another chose a cheeky and silly emoji sticker which contrasted with his current mental condition or perhaps this was projection of how he hoped to be feeling in the not too distant future (incidentally you are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health issues if you identify as queer). One man decided to choose his initial as a sticker to indicate his growing pride, while yet another chose a Red Delicious apple sticker simply to illustrate his pride at being ginger.
Finally there is the other side of the diptych – these are meant to be deliberately vague and ethereal multiple exposures of a trace of a hint about the truth of the person. Playing with the trust relationship between photographer and model which is especially important in this particular project where I could cause a lot of sorrow were I not totally professional with my images and respectful of the models wishes. They are displayed in a loose diptych to bring about a dialogue and reflect some sort of emotional or spiritual mood – a calm to contrast with the discomfort of the masked nude. The interchange between the two sides is deliberately vague as a mirror to our connections with our fellow queers – just because we share a sexuality does not necessarily mean we have anything else in common. In point of fact we are often our own worst enemies and the culture that can exist on the gay scene can be just as toxic as the poison we are fed by the heterosexual patriarchy.
I feel the Polaroids have reached their logical conclusion so I shall leave them as a stand alone project. I shall keep expanding upon them when possible, but in the meantime there are other themes I should like to bring in to explore – loneliness, poor self image, ageing, being the part of the patriarchy while feeling simultaneously isolated and fetishes that define our identity. The Polaroid as a specific medium I think would be too limiting in this so I shall probably return to digital merely for convenience, although the thought of taking care and attention with a medium format camera and film is something that also appeals. I must, however choose the medium that is most appropriate; any aesthetic and technical choices must be justified and add to the message rather than detract as gimmicks.
Berger, J. Ways Of Seeing, (London: Penguin Books, 1972)
Barthes, R. Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)
Sontag, S. On Photography (New York: Penguin Books, 1977)
Gill, M. Image of the Body (New York: Doubleday, 1989)