What does it mean to be a man today?
What does it mean to be a man, ‘L’Uomo’, today? In a Trump and #MeToo movement era set against a new sense of awareness with regard to self-representation and gender fluidity, masculinity is a concept that is being redefined. At present, men have more options in terms of masculin role models than ever before, yet much still needs to be done to free them from stereotyped representations of race, manliness and identity. L’Uomo Vogue asked five photography experts to choose one single image that they felt was representative of the contemporary man.
Photographer John Edmonds has produced an impressive body of delicate portraits of friends, family and lovers. A graduate of Yale’s photography Master of Fine Arts programme, Edmonds has made a name for himself by producing quietly complex portraits that speak to the intersections of art, social justice and the complexities of representation. His breakout series
Hoods, made in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, asks questions about the politics of race and style, about how young black men are read in public space. Edmonds has spoken of how he wants his work to ref lect the fraught realities of the United States at the moment we l ive i n.
A follow-up series - titled Do-Rags and begun when Edmonds had moved to the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn - offers unique studies of young men donning nylon head coverings (a common style in this predominantly black neighbourhood). These s inuous, shiny garments a re worn to keep hairstyles in place and are, somehow, simultaneously masculine and feminine. In Edmonds’s careful rendering, a casual i tem of personal s tyle begins t o r esemble a n object of religious ceremony. Writer Hilton Als observed that in these pictures: “black men were shown on t heir own, l ike t otems, but not lonely”.
Most recently, Edmonds’s work was featured i n an exhibition i n Columbus, Ohio, cal led Family Pictures, a show i nspired by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’s classic 1950s- era book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, an endur i ng portrait of l i fe i n Harlem. The s how a ssembled a g roup of def ining Afr ican- Amer ican i mage-makers, f rom Car r ie Mae Weems to LaToya Ruby Frazier and Lyle Ashton Har r is, al l photographers who have been signif icant inf luences on Edmonds. Here he exhibited his most recent ser ies, i ncluding an exquisite, dramat ical ly l it i mage cal led American Gods,
2017, where three shirtless men, donning do-rags, are seated in a pyramidal form, suggest i ng their kinship - a kind of fami ly tree - and appear i ng simultaneously sel f-possessed and power f ul, whi le remaining per fect l y vulnerable. As the young photographer himsel f said in a recent interview: “great a rt comes f rom a p lace of u rgency and desire.”
A question such as ‘What is a man today?’ is not as simple as its written words. The concept of man is not something that can be explained from simple sex dualism, but more so something ‘imagined’ in our minds. Unlike other animals, we as human beings need identity: we are obsessed with attaching meaning to everything in life. Such behaviour could be derived from the plasticity of human behaviour. We can make conscious choices in life, but without certain rules these decisions still create chaos. That’s where culture comes i nto play: culture is like a s ystem that controls our behaviour.
An identity acts as an interface that connects culture to individuals: in this case, an identity works like a command. Therefore, if we perceive an identity to be self-evident, our behaviour natural ly fol lows unconsciously. Throughout the years, man has consistently acted as one of these commands - but all this wavers in the modern world today. Now, doubts are being cast towards gender roles; social media networks have allowed voices to be heard, affecting the young generation who are native to these platforms. The idea of man is no longer the stable command it used to be that determined behaviour nat- urally. This has led man to become something vulnerable. This is especially true in Japanese society today. It is constantly a two-way battle between an internal shift to new values, and the external structure of society made to fit with the ‘old command’. The real challenge exists at the point where the new and old values intersect. A primary example of this is the workplace. Paternity leave and/or flexitime, for example, are not considered to be the norm in Japan - the acquisition is difficult due to the pressure exerted from the boss and col leagues, demonstrating the malfunctions occurring within the command ‘man’ and the uneasiness of the i ndividual i n this given situation. Masculinity is a concept that’s being reconsidered, but the transition is not so easy. Yet I am strongly in favour of this process. In exchange for anxiety, man is being set free from the old command. This is significant in that having been liberated from the command, man is now able to remain uninhibited when communicating with others. Man’s role, t herefore, is more important than ever in dissolving the conservative gender order and realising a more emancipated society and culture away f rom the subjugation of gender.
Hank Willis Thomas’s photograph The Cotton Bowl, part of his 2011 series Strange Fruit, challenges ideas of race, manliness and identity in America using the faithful following of American football a s the stage for his i nvestigation.
Two anonymous black men square of f against each other in similar poses, crouched almost like a prelude to a wrestling match. The cotton picker has no chance. His cotton picker uniform offers h im n amelessness but no i nsulation a nd protection from the cold brutal it y of contemporary American capitalism that rewards modern man with huge salaries but denies him a sense of individual it y and a voice. The anonymization of the individual is deliberate and reduces a man to a body to be bought, t raded and branded. The paradox of the image creates an arch between previous cotton picker slave ownership and today’s performance.
Why is this important given our contemporary understanding of a post-racial understanding of manhood? First, no sensible person really believes that we live in a post-racial society, and all injustice whether against gender or race is abhorrent and unconscionable. At f irst glance, Hank’s The Cotton Bowl image appears benign - especially in contrast with well-documented slave markets in Libya and other similar publications of man’s cruelty to fellow men. But conduct a simple Google search on manl iness and observe a plethora of images that depict athletic sportsmen in various intimidating poses. It is tel ling. Images as transmitted through contemporary visual culture in arts, f ilms, sports, TV shows, literature, magazines and so forth shape our perceptions of manl iness and what society expects young men to aspire to. Recent events are, however, changing these perceptions and expectations. Men need heroes but heroes of a d if ferent sort.
Swaggering playboy athletes with huge salaries, the James Bond persona, the win-at-all-costs CEO, the amoral successful movie executives and producers, the inf luential predatory media editors who commodify women and promote racist stereotypes, and the dashing singular avaricious artist and art curator - they have all served and in many cases served well, but they are no longer good enough. We need a new breed of socially conscious men. We do not arch back to the anonymity of the shear cooper earning a living shaded under his hat, or the athlete protected under a helmet and a huge income. Today’s man needs t wo attributes, one physical and one moral. The physical is to be identif iable with a sense of individuality and style. A sense of style is essential. How you present yourself says rather a lot about you and your possible intentions. Personal grooming is the only cultural practice that everybody in the world partakes in, and it is a courtesy to those who have to interact with you. As for the moral aspect, today men must aspire to justice and equality i n an i ntersectional perspective and not just the reductionist view, but rather positioning the rights of each and every individual, irrespective of gender, as equal to ours. It is an i nstinct that sees the r ights of each and every individual respected. There is power in a movement that values men speaking out wherever there is an injustice, self-regulating and checking each other’s excesses. The new man i s a f eminist who believes we must a l l be feminists.
Men today have so many more options as role models for masculinity than ever before - yet most of us remain tied to tradition and conform to the societal norms of where we grow up. The photography of Devin Yalkin startles the senses and depicts the world as a monochromatic hallucination. His photograph of two young basketball players embracing after a game is a beautiful image of brotherhood and looks l ike a mirror image standing before a crowd. Within the frame two boys on the cusp of manhood embrace in a moment of unbridled emotion, love and support. It sadly reminds me of how most men are still only comfortable expressing this type of emotion within the realm of sports, the military or mourning.
The most profound moment in my life was holding my f irst child in my arms for the f irst time. That moment redef ined w ho Iam.It al so made mere con si derw ha tit means tome to bea man, andwhatth etra itsar et hat de fine ago od man. Jason Hallett, the man in this photograph, was a United States Marine in Afghanistan in 2010 when an explosion caused him to lose both h is l egs above the knee, as well a s h is right arm above the elbow and two f ingers of his left hand. In addition, shrapnel lodged intohis testi cl es. In an in stanthewentf rom beinga strong, able-bodied manto some o new ho needed help to accompl ish basic tasks. And he had to learn to function without the use of three of his four l imbs.
After multiple operations and several years of painful recovery, he fell in love with and married his former teenage girlfriend Rachel. Like me and my wife two decades earlier they decided to have children. But because of several issues, some relating to his injuries, they needed assistance from in vitro fertilisation. This is when the photographer Kirsten Leah Bitzer started her intimate documentation of the couple’s journey to parenthood. In this particular photo, Rachel helps Jason shave. What struck me about this image was her tenderness, his vulnerability, and the love they clearly have for each other. They went on to have twins, and though he could not hold them in his arms like I did with my daughter, his love for them was, I a m sure, at least as overwhelming for him.
I chose this photograph because it makes me consider what it means to be a good man. Is it physical strength, mental toughness, the bearing of responsibilities? Or i s it the ability to love, to be vulnerable and to be i ntimate?
I tell my son - my second child - that it is brave to love, to be intimate and to be vulnerable. It may be risky but being a man i sn’t about choosing what i s easy.
Mi c hael Famighet t i i s editor of Aperture magazine. After working with Aper ture Foundation as managing editor of the eponymous magazine, he was appointed editor in 2013 and entrusted with the publication’s redesign and editor ial reconceptualisation. The magazine won this year’s ICP Inf inity Award and has been nominated several times for a National Magazine Award. Hi s wr i t i ng has appeared in Frieze, Bookforum and Aperture, among other publications.
American Gods Photograph by John Edmonds The choice of Michael Famighetti
Ihiro Hayami is the founder/director of T3 Photo Festival. He is also the former chief editor of Japanese photography magazine
Phat Photo (2012-2014), and was the gallery director of Ringcube (Ginza). His selected curatorial exhibitions include Alejandro Chaskielberg’s Otsuchi Future
Memories ( 2016), Alex P rager’s Week-End ( 2010). O ver the past f ew years, he has served as juror, lecturer, and reviewer at various international photo festivals and photography universities. Photograph by Mayumi Hosokura
The choice of Ihiro Hayami
Photograph by Hank Willis Thomas The choice of Azu Nwagbogu
Azu Nwagbogu is the founder and director of the African Artists’ Foundation ( AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. Established in 2007, the AAF organises art exhibitions, competitions and workshops with the aim of unearthing and developing talent in Nigeria. Nwagbogu founded the National Art Competition in 2008, an annual arts competition that provides a platform of exposure to emerging Nigerian artists. Nwagbogu is also founder and director of the LagosPhoto Festival and Art Base Africa, a new virtual space for discovering and learning about contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. Nwagbogu has served as a juror for photography awards including Dutch Doc, POPCAP, World Press Photo and Prisma (2015). He lives and works in Lagos.
James Estrin is a senior staff photographer for The New York
Times. He is also a co- editor of the newspaper’s photography platform Lens, with David Gonzalez. He is the co-executive producer of the documentary film Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro, which appeared on HBO in 2016. He teaches widely and is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.