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Soft Nude Portraits Challenge Representations of the Black Male Body (NSFW)

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For a recent series shot for ADULT magazine, Washington, DC-based photographer John Edmonds examines the black male body as it stands nude within sunlit interiors. In a world in which African American bodies are so often seen through a lens of otherness, coded as both virile and violent, Edmonds cuts through the political valence that surrounds these bodies to reveal the humanity and gentleness of each of his young sitters, who are most often strangers he encounters during his daily routine.

Today, we stand at a critical juncture, in a time when the black male is both feared and fetishized as a masculine ideal. In gaining the confidence of his subjects, Edmonds subverts deeply ingrained stereotypes and highlights the nuances of each individual self—his introspectiveness, his vulnerabilities, and his pain. In courageously opening historic wounds, the photographer works in service of the healing of our modern world. Here, softness and sensitivity become the paradoxical modes of defiance, and the black male body ceases to be a figure of otherness and isolation, but one of unity and closeness. We spoke to Edmonds about the project.

What inspired you to pursue such an intimate project?
“My work investigates both the idea of intimacy in its construction and the portrayal of an actual intimate engagement. I have anxieties surrounding trust and closeness with others, so in many ways my work is a way for me to confront these feelings. I wanted to photograph men nude because bodies have complicated implications and histories. Even today, the nude has a weird place within the context of art. Artists are trying to find ways to break from its convention because it has such a strong tradition.”

“I had been speaking with the amazing people at Adult-Mag who were generous enough to have me do a series of work that I care very much about, and highlight it in their second issue.”

How did you find your subjects? Within the perimeters of African American men, were you looking for anything specific?
“I find people I photograph from being out in the world—mostly through public transit, on the bus or on the train. Sometimes they are friends of other friends. So more often than not they are people I do not know. I have posted model calls on websites before, but I actually don’t like doing that. It’s too impersonal for me. Finding sitters in everyday life allows me to feel more involved in the making of my own pictures. It’s important because there’s an affinity for each and every person that I choose to photograph.

“The choice to specifically photograph African American, or black, men comes from the fact that there is a physical, emotional and cerebral attraction. I’m black and I want to look at other men who are black also. I wanted to look at these people bare, with an amorous gaze that is in the more formal portrait work I had done before.”

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How did you gain the trust of these men? What inspired them to open up to you, do you think?
“Trust works two ways. I have to trust them, and they also have to trust me. I think gaining trust from anyone comes mainly from being honest and up front about what you want. It’s like letting someone in your house for the first time—no matter how well you know them, there’s always that weird moment you think to yourself, ‘This person could be crazy,’ but you just have to get past that and let your guard down. This is something required for both artist and model. I do think that, ultimately, me also being black plays a vital role.”

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You write that the black male body is “the most hated body in popular American culture and/or society.” Could you elaborate on the roots and consequences of this prejudice?
“Pathology is something that many people feel is too over-talked to discuss—there is so much stigma around it (even in 2014!), but pathology is real because it is what many people navigate the world through. I think an excellent example comes from bell hooks’s essay “Eating The Other.” She talks about the pathology of the black male body and its relationship to primitiveness, slavery, labor and pain. She also links pathology to commercialism and how blackness is fetishized and hyper-eroticized in mainstream media. This creates a false idea of otherness; of black bodies being hypersexual, hyperviolent and hyperaggressive (she links hypersexuality to violence and primitiveness). There are many layers, and pathology’s relationship to athleticism and sports culture is a fascinating one.

“As far as consequences go, there are too many. I think the reaction to Ferguson is a very, very clear example. Black men are exterminated all around this world. Women, as well, of all backgrounds, classes and ethnic groups are victimized because of binary power dynamics. Representation is very important and can have much personal and political resonance.”

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about black women in popular culture and the ways in which they are objectified, but black men are also eroticized by the media. Why is it important that we change the ways in which we think about male bodies as well as female?
“It is a proven fact that the media’s representation has a tremendous influence in the way in which we experience and see the world. It could be argued that it is even more harmful today because psychologically the ways our understandings are reflected in our engagements are so nuanced—microaggressions can be just as impactful as any prejudice expressed overtly. Body culture, or simply how one sees another’s body, has influences misogyny, rape culture, racism, transphobia, sexism, ageism and a bunch of other ‘isms.’”

With nude photographs, there’s a fine line between sensitivity and objectification, and yet you avoid the later completely. How did you accomplish this?
“I accomplish this because I’m interested in the people. I recognize that there are politics in what I do –that’s intrinsic—but it comes secondhand, because what I am doing is about how I feel about the people I photograph.”

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What do you hope your subjects see when they look at these images?
“I hope they like them! I hope they can see my affection. And, with the danger of sounding too cliché, I hope they can see what I find interesting about them as people.”

Your work is made in Washington, DC. To what extent, if any, is the project informed by its position within the political capital of our country?
“I’ve spent almost my whole life in DC and have watched it change immensely in so many ways. I think the context could inform the work politically; however, because of the way I approach making photographs, it could be done practically anywhere.”

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What can we do to change harmful cultural stereotypes? Do you see any progress being made?
“That is a very difficult question because in essence, you have to ask people to think differently, and that can take a lifetime. You also have to ask the world that we live in to be different. And while I do see progression, there is also an equal amount of regression—so we are always in this limbo state of things ‘getting better.’ I think much of it has to do with shame culture—there are so many, too many, things people do not want to talk openly about, or are shamed into not talking about at all. In order to make progress and truly move forward, there are many complicated, painful discussions that need to be had—you have to make yourself vulnerable.”

All images © John Edmonds

via Dazed

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