I have been interested in the idea of what men look like in media, what they are made to express and/or signify and/or represent. Also in the question: what is the definition of a man in today’s culture? How are they portrayed? This got me to thinking about men in Colombia where I live and how they are visually portrayed in the media. I started thinking about it after my visit to New York this past November and after seeing a lot of the Gentleman’s Quarterly editorials. What I thought was that some of the representations in the media were not what I was familiar with. Those are not men I have ever met, anywhere, and especially not men in New York where I lived over two decades. And I am not talking about what they look like since models are definitely not the norm. I am talking about what they expressed as men.
Once I shared the uptown F-train for a few stops in mid-town with a tight pride of Italian wiseguys who jumped on looking back over their collective shoulder. They sat across me in the middle of the afternoon when the train was empty, all decked-out in fine clothing, all gummed up, all beautifully-tanned, all with shoulders lowered in kinesis, and all–except the guy who looked like their captain–wearing a wisecrack smile at the ready to con any man in the house, all speaking Bensonhoirst Brooklyneese. These were men with hard faces even as they were jiving, with constant mistrustful askance glances, with eyes behind their heads, with a place to go to lose someone in transit. They were that distinct, and that obvious, and I felt charmed and could not help the most imperceptible smirk–which the captain acknowledged not without a hint of mistrust– for being in the presence of a dying breed, now extinct thanks to the booring and nerdy dispositions and unhealthy obsessions of law-enforcement. These guys with hard faces–real ones, not actors or models’ faces–were what I saw as a child growing up in Colombia, where a lot of men are still forced to make their own law and defend it so they may see the sun rise another day.
I once saw a male Russian ballet dancer in a Balanchine suite from the $10-dollar, Third-Ring seats at Lincoln Center, and what struck me was the absolute traditional masculine movement he expressed with a ram-rod body plied into elegance by the predator-like mojo of one of those few brave calvary officers of the 19th Century and how stunningly in contrast he looked against the androgynous more effeminate and fluid bodies of his American counterparts. If you have read Homer a hundred times, you will understand that grace was at the heart of any man, even men-killing machines like Achilles, whose pride any man can detest, and grace was conveyed even if you were the most detestable man imaginable. It is why ties were designed, to remind barbarians to keep their basest impulses in check. Give me the Stocktons and the Malones, and the Odysseuses. As much as I enjoy their antics, spare me the Jordans and the Achilleses.
A man no longer stands with his back erect the way he was forced to stand with his back erect before the Twentieth Century. A man is no longer required to know languages, and practice sports, and hunt animals, and go to war, and recite poetry, and whack any man who acts with impunity, and come to the aid of his neighbor, and talk politics, and stand up and speak his mind in any institution, and know his place, and keep his mouth shut while letting his actions do the talking, and be loyal to the same woman for life, no matter what, come hell or high water. A man is certainly not required to be circumspect about why he spends 92% of his life doing things that take away his humanity, or to assess on a fundamental level why the institution of marriage is no longer relevant. A man no longer practices revolution. A man no longer stands up for those who are at a lower station than him. A man no longer lowers his head before the presence of those who are at a lower station than him. A man has been reshaped into a host in a transnational, homogeneous pod, browbeaten into eternally feeding an institutional parasite he can not see, let along imagine that exists.
I am wary of nostalgia, of those who say the past was better and we have lost something. But, I like the plain spokenness of the saying: if it smells like shit, it is shit. And I will be the the first to admit that my thoughts and words are often way behind my visions and meditations. It does take me a long time to articulate what it is I am feeling or meditating about. Often, when I take my camera to a project, it is a metaphor inside my head directing traffic, not well-articulated thoughts. And let me defend that: I strongly believe visuals is our primal language, and it is always a language more accurate, more articulate, fuller of meaning that any human language. I close my eyes and imagine the sense of shock and fright and spiritual ecstasy and stunned-wonder of those seeing for the first time what the artist(s) at the caves of Lascaux had painted on the stone walls 16 thousand years ago, a time when possibly there was no human language yet fully developed. Go ahead. Close your eyes and imagine your entire existence without language or visuals and suddenly there are the bulls you have seen only on the prairie and felt in the fears only in your heart and seen in the dreams only inside your head or seen in your shaman’s visions only during the tribe’s rituals, now perfectly transplanted to a wall. Now try to articulate in thoughts and words what that experience is like. Anyone of us will need several lifetimes to do so.
Images–our primal-brain language–is beyond words. Hands down. And as such, it conveys more meaning to our conscious mind through metaphors more meaningful to our human condition than any writing or human language.
But anyway, I had been thinking a lot about what it means to be a man in my epoch, and specially how men are transplanted to the walls of media. With our traditional roles of masculinity in shambles (a good part of it, rightly so, in my humble opinion, like some of the examples above), with the public and private institutions that are supposed to give us meaningful lives usurped with absolute power by the most sophisticated system of production in human history (yes, corporations determine every inch of our quality of life and that of the earth with absolute power. own it.), we are left with wishful-thinking, happy-go-lucky visual representations and profit-based storyboards to shape our ideas, and consequently our character, as men. We walk about being someone from a magazine, from a movie, from a blog! A system of production’s profit-idea of what we should be.
We, as men, are all about surface today. Nothing in us is built from the inside out. Every act and expression and thought has been designed by a gifted group of industrial psychologists, set into action by a memorandum directive from a transnational CEO (one trapped in the the same trappings), and planted by all media into the corporate real state that has become our conscious mind. I watch any friend or stranger in New York and can trace his facial expressions and body movement to movies, ad campaigns, characters in HBO specials.
While women are generically–pardon the cliche, but it remains quite powerful–portrayed as sexual objects, men are portrayed as desirous of happy-go-lucky lifestyles designed by profit-based meta-narratives. Women are portrayed with a metaphoric bow finely-tied around swollen breasts to direct all women how they too must become bodies of desire, not for themselves, but for the male penis. Men are portrayed–like a carrot stick–as the happy, cool joes they all desire they could be.
But out in the street men are in trouble, they have been in trouble quite a long time. And that trouble is well-manifested in the unconscious, the last line of defense for our humanity, the backbone that makes us sentient human beings.
The promises of popcorn and happy-go-lucky joeisms have dried up. You can only take surface to the bank so many times before its superficial veneers wear out fully and we are left naked and raw. Unskinned, which is where we are.
Men are either sitting at a desk or behind a working-class gig for 10-12-hour days, 50 weeks out of every 52 weeks of all of their adult lives, giving the best of whatever is left of their well-beings to institutions than give nothing in return but depressive/compulsive states and competition paranoia. With a good chunk of that adult life going to the unavoidable need to “sleep, perchance to dream,” what percentage of life do men actually have to themselves? After we take out another chunk for administrative and/or necessary life chores, can we imagine that about 5-8% of a man’s week, and life, actually belong to him? I am not even going into relationships. At over 50% divorce rate, and I can actually imagine it being higher, it is an institution simply by now outmoded, irrelevant, anachronistic, and in direct conflict with what is branded 24/7/70-years into our brain: desire for other women. At every turn of our eye, our evolutionary biological and physical mechanism for procreation is being cajoled, perturbed, instigated, prodded, fired up with nitro so corporate directives for any product or service on the DOW can maintain their ever increasing profit margins.
Where are men? Where is a man I can follow? Not for what he looks like (any top model or hot shot on the paparazzi’s eye), not for how many beers he can guzzle without falling to the ground, or for how good he can be at keeping a room warm (any easy-smile ocean’s eleven actor), or for how tough he can be (any middle-class U.S. rapper or macho U.S. sports figurine: would love to see any of those tough guys live one weekend in a Medellin or Johannesburg slum and see how many hours they can stay alive with their tough-guy attitude), or rich (take your pick), but for sobering up and looking at himself squarely in the mirror and acknowledging that as a gender we are in deep shit. And frankly, squarely fucking up what is left of our world, beginning with the well-being of each of our individual lives.
So what does all these thoughts have to do with the above editorial? I don’t have that answer. It really doesn’t matter. Writing is the last art to catch up to all the other arts, so there. But I came back from my trip to New York with all these unanswerable thoughts and I was looking at Colombian men and how they are represented in the media here (again, generalizations): either as suave, but emotionally-weak romantic leads (business men) in innumerable soap operas; as scantily-clad, buffed (much smaller) macho men from the movie 300; and as angry men who hold the power of life and death over many Colombians: druglords, sicarios (hired killers), guerrillas or military or paramilitary warlords, et al. This last group catches my attention. All the armed groups in Colombia’s ongoing civil war count about twenty-thousand men. And they are all men who carry on what has made Colombia 2nd only to Sudan in the number of internally-displaced people due to civil conflict: about 4 million people (that is half of New York, mind you) out of a 45-million Colombian population. Let’s add another 20 thousand just for the sake of those who might be unaccounted for. So, 40 thousand men have wrecked havoc on the lives of 45 million people. 0.01% of the population wrecks havoc on 99.99% of the population. For those of you who grimace at these figures, let me tell you that there were over 14,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2008 (here). That is almost half of those who were killed-in-action in Vietnam in over ten years. probably triple the 14,000 in the number of family members and friends grieving a lost life for decades to come. Can you imagine the the underreported and unaccounted social disruptions stemming from these killing American fields? Ah, where is a man like Charlton Heston when you most need him? (that is a low blow, and I am sorry, one should never knock a man when he is not here to defend himself). But. I’ll tell you where. In some nostalgic Hollywood studio carrying papier-mache tablets ad infinitum. Exactly the kind of man we all want to emulate and in whose steps we want to follow, right?
So, given all of the afore-mentioned, how do men of today respond to all these individual and public and private shock and awe executive directives being carpet-bombed on their psyche? Because the male psyche has been the Iraq to corporate Cheney/Rummy adventurisms. And I mean in both men in the U.S. and in Colombia. I wanted to imagine that I could construct a response and express it visually. I wanted the most minimal response. I also wanted to reach for archetypes in order to fuse my American and Colombian experience as a man. (I was raised in Colombia; then for 26 years went to HS and college and worked in the cubicles of Manhattan; and have been back in Colombia for three years now). And I wanted to incorporate the idea of a male model editorial, because that is what I had access to, and because I have to make a living, and because I wanted to explore media representations of men from the inside. I knew I could not pull off squarely what I was visualizing, but I knew, like always, that I am a rookie and I have to start with sketches like any apprentice.
I started thinking about how one responds, whether man or woman, to a situation or event like recognizing exploitation at a cubicle farm or at a factory station or witnessing the extra-judicial execution of a man. The first thing that became clear was that the first reponse had to be a first step for introspection and self-examination about one’s life in any of those contexts. And what was clear, from my own experience, because I watched a man being beaten to death by military police as a child and because I worked in a Manhattan corporation surrounded by about 150 cubicles, was that the first step to any action that is guided by conscience is a state of sobriety that forces the conscious mind to acknowledge and accept the unjust reality. And the feeling that came to mind was best encapsulated in the word I only knew in Spanish: desconcierto, which means disconcertment in English. And I thought it captured the state of my mind as a man in today’s experience as a man. With all the afore-mentioned troubles I have experienced as a man, the last thing on my mind, or on the mind of any man I know, is to want to be a happy-go-lucky joe. Disconcertment or desconcierto is what I am experiencing as a man in my time. It is a state of thoughtful assessment of the condition at hand right along the sober expression that a conscious mind is engaged with the condition at hand. And it is the first step to self-examination, to action, and to listening to the unconscious so I can then follow my conscience.
So that’s that. Imperfect words. But…
These guys are Esteban Agudelo (dark suit) and Jefferson Rodriguez (beige suit). This was Esteban’s first photoshoot. Jefferson has been a model for a couple of years. I will keep what direction I gave them to myself, except to say I directed them into being as close to themselves as their own index finger-print. In addition to desconcierto, I also wanted to see what a man at ease with himself looks like. The location of wall and metal was concious. Their bare feet was conscious. The act of anger with hands self-muzzled in the jacket’s pocket is conscious. The strobe showing is about deconstruction. The un-ironed clothes are conscious as I can tell you how many times I went into the office with a crumpled suit and tie, like a lot my contemporaries. The same exact place frame is about exploring the depth of the concept of disconcertment through iteration. There are subtle shades of modern dance influences to the body poses. There is a lot of meaning being conveyed here I was not conscious of. This was done on a shoe-string budget, why there is no fancy lights or hifalutin post-production treatment. And if your music is on youtube, then you should know that a lot of us will borrow it, and hopefully add to your art cause no one is more self-examined and cogent as a man than this Coltrane and his heart’s tune.
I leave you with questions. How do you as a man respond to an act of injustice? How do you as a man respond when you realize that something outside of yourself has absolute control of your human condition? What is your first step?