Photo Essay: Five Photographers On The Idea Of Masculinity Today

By Dan Ahwa
'You Make Me Feel' (2016), courtesy of the artist and Tim Melville Gallery

Artist and photographer Russ Flatt’s work addresses notions of identity and looks towards a reimagined past in order to recognise the present. In 2020, he won the Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award for his photographic image Kōruru (Knucklebones).

What this image represents ...The work I have chosen is 'You Make Me Feel' - a nod to the 1970s disco classic by Sylvester.

The image portrays my own coming of age as a teenager bordering on adulthood, my body, mind and outlook on life-shaping itself. As I watch my son going through the same stage - three decades on - I realise nothing has changed yet everything has changed. The feelings are all the same - but now they play out in the digital era where the personal is public.

Exploring themes of masculinity and identity...Themes of identity and roleplay were central to my early work - when I was exploring the personal narrative of a queer Māori boy growing up on Auckland's North Shore. Growing up gay I've thought a lot about masculinity - and subverting some of the traditional ideas of what it means to be a man.

My male role models growing up...My father was the most significant male figure in my life. He spent a lot of time driving me around and supporting my dreams - I only realise in retrospect what a great gift that was to have. I also grew up around very strong Māori women who I feel shaped myunderstanding of the world.

On our high depression rates among Māori and Pacific Island men...I think it stems back to colonisation and the disenfranchisement of indigenous cultures. Our Eurocentric health system compounds the problem by failing to acknowledge in the intergenerational trauma inflicted on our people.

A good start would be to provide better access to mental health services and to hero traditional Māori medicines and holistic approaches. There are Māori and Pasifika mental health experts working in these spaces. No one knows our people better.

The life lessons shared with my son...We have always been pro conversations, especially the hard ones. No question is off the table. We try to be honest, frank and open. Also, we celebrate sensitivity, rather than trying to suppress it.

It turns out, real men do cry after all.

Tola and TJ (2021). Photo / Geoffery Matautia
Tola and TJ (2021). Photo / Geoffery Matautia

Twenty-five-year-old photographer Geoffery is a rising talent who is part of the Raroboys artist collective from South Auckland. “I really enjoy capturing faces that are familiar to me and represent the people I surround myself with.”

What this image represents...A lot of times we look towards older figures as pillars and exemplars of masculinity, but I’ve found that those pillars might just be your friends. These relationships and friendships you create play a significant part in not only the way you view yourself but the world.

The image of two friends represents the creative brown kids who don’t fit into their respective cultures' masculine stereotypes but have created their own space to comfortably navigate what that looks like for them without any boundaries.

Personally, seeing a lot of the younger creative brown kids create and form relationships among themselves, where they can freely express themselves and their creativity, is a huge highlight of my year so far and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can support them in ways. I only wish I had when I was their age.

My male role model growing up...My dad. He played a major part in pushing me to never settle for the bare minimum. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose my own path in terms of what I wanted to pursue, as nothing was decided for me, and I think that freedom of choice let me become my best self.

On dealing with the stressors of modern life...I go outside. If I’m waking up to a beautiful day there’s no reason I shouldn’t be outside taking it all in or if I’m feeling up for it I usually hit up some of my friends to take some photos. The creative high of an unplanned shoot is always a good refresh for me.

Advice for other creatives...For my fellow POC, please stop doing free work for your family and friends. You can be humble and also be paid too. For everyone firstly, just be conscious of your privilege of being a male in a male-dominated industry and the weight that you might unconsciously be throwing around. Secondly, work on projects you are passionate about. And finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to people to work and collaborate with. Network across and not up!

Dad 1 (2016). Photo / Joe Hockley
Dad 1 (2016). Photo / Joe Hockley

Joe's work heavily explores themes of culture, politics and the environment. “Photography is my therapy. It gives me a purpose, and forces me to think on my feet and break free of my irrational fears and inhibitions.”

What this image represents...This is a photograph of my dad from a little while ago. He had been through a very tough period after recently losing his wife, my mother, to a series of strokes, a period of dementia and eventually a fatal brain aneurysm, and finding himself having to navigate his new life without her.

Since then, despite his vices and bruises he has overcome it all, which to me shows his strength, dignity and resilience in the face of difficult times. This photograph is now a relic of the past, and he no longer recognises himself in it.

What masculinity means today...I’m no longer sure what masculinity really means in 2021, or whether it is relevant at all. Traits traditionally viewed as “masculine” include strength, courage and independence - but these are by no means exclusive to men.

Dad 2 (2016). Photo / Joe Hockley
Dad 2 (2016). Photo / Joe Hockley

What matters more to me is a person’s character, convictions, and the ability to overcome difficult situations in our lives. These traits I learned from my dad, and came to understand later in my life; as an award-winning director and producer in both Australia and New Zealand, and my mum as a television editor, I think I was always destined to work in a similar creative industry.

On dealing with the stressors of modern life...I deal with anxiety and fear every single day. Fear of everything, and nothing. It is irrational but it is real, and it is ever-present. I have found the only way to combat this is to stay active, to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone, and to find pride in the smallest achievements.

What general advice would you impart on men today on how to be better citizens of the world and to look after their mental wellbeing?

Be proud of your achievements, but accept that you can’t always do everything on your own. Everyone has weaknesses. We need each other.

Hinetawa (2021). Photo / Fraser Chatham
Hinetawa (2021). Photo / Fraser Chatham

Photographer and director Fraser Chatham is the youngest photographer to be included in the Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Ad Photographers worldwide. “I like my work to be constantly developing and get frustrated when it feels as though my practice is stagnant. Work that I enjoy making is tranquil, has a strong conceptual grounding, and is technically sound.”

What this image represents...I think that male identity is fluid. This image of water represents fluidity. A person’s identity is affected by a huge variety of constantly changing social, cultural, and philosophical ideas. I think how people view identity changes with time. How people see me as a “male” today is different from how they saw me as a “male” when I was 18 and will be different from how I’m viewed as a “male” when I’m 80.

On dealing with the stressors of modern life...I suffer from anxiety and depression and have had several friends and family lose their lives to mental illness. It’s so scary. I’m not saying I know how to do fix it, but I think discussions like this and putting these kinds of questions out there is healthy. What I personally try to do to control my depression, and am in no way always successful at it, is:

Sleep. I feel the most depressed when I haven't slept or I've been going out partying too much. I think sleep is so powerful and we don't value it enough in relation to our mental health. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is a great insight into how important good sustained sleep is for our mental and physical health.

Taking medication. I've been on medication for about three years and it seriously helped pull me out of a pretty dark place. I recommend reading Homo Deus and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. He really simplifies complex topics and he talks specifically about the advancement of mental health medication. It put these drugs in a really positive light for me.

Exercise. I try and exercise as much as possible. Like medication, I noticed a huge improvement in my mental health when I started exercising regularly.

What general advice would you impart to men today...Always work with someone who identifies as female in your corner. Ask people who identify as female for advice and what they think of your work. Take everyone's feelings seriously, you never know what someone is going through. Ask people for help both professionally and personally. Please go to the doctor if you're feeling sad and sleep!

Untitled (2019). Photo / Matt Hurley
Untitled (2019). Photo / Matt Hurley

Matt is a rising photographer from Auckland with an eye for portraiture, and a focus on art, fashion, music and culture.

What this image represents...The way that masculinity and the traditional traits of what it means to be a man are being broken. The wall of masculinity is breaking down. What it means to be masculine is transforming.

The hit over the head is a wake-up call and a challenge. We need to continue the work being done on shattering and opening up the definition of what it means to be male. In 2021 this means we should be acting in terms of becoming better human beings, and having control over our own identity.

On themes of masculinity and identity...I like to present traits of masculinity and femininity in my work with people regardless of how they identify. I don’t aim to work within the walls of orthodox female and male symbolism. I prefer to photograph people as they identify, whether that includes masculine and/or feminine traits.

My male role model...Primarily my dad and brother.

On what creative communities can do to help high depression and suicide rates...An increase of empathy and understanding of trauma is necessary. Transparency and honest communication in our industry can go a long way in reducing stress and anxiety that can surround work.

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