The Men Behind the Mask: Masculinity in the Modern Era – A Photographic Essay | Photography


I was born and raised in Liverpool, UK. I had a strong sense of community and appreciated the benefits of a loving and supportive network of friends and family. However, I struggled with my sense of identity from an early age. It is then that art and music become an integral part of my well-being and a means of understanding and understanding myself. I often thought about myself, who I was and how I should present myself to the world.

Self-portrait 2012 Paul McDonald.

One of my sanctuaries, outside of the nightclub scene, was the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. In this space, I felt safe and absorbed in their collections of classical paintings and sculptures by artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Turner. I often went alone, or with my grandparents, and in my late teens accompanied by my college friend, Jason.

We would engage in long conversations about what we saw in each work, the composition, the story, and the story it told to the viewer.

It was there that I first observed how the masculine and feminine in history were posed (clothed and naked) and presented in art, and the dialogue that this created with the audience. It is one of my earliest memories of questioning identity, masculinity and femininity.


I identify as masculine, although in environments of [apparent] hypermasculinity I find a lot of stereotypical elements incredibly annoying, like I’m watching a parody on a stage and being asked to participate – Hugo

English art critic John Berger published his groundbreaking work, Ways of Seeing, in 1972, in which he observed how the male gaze and societal views of women throughout history have been represented in the arts. visuals. The following idea is an underlying theme that informs my work.

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use that one makes of their images has not changed. Women are portrayed quite differently from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” viewer is always assumed to be masculine and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubts, try the following experiment. Choose an image of a traditional nude from this book. Turn the woman into a man. Either in your mind or by drawing on the reproduction. Notice then the violence that this transformation does. Not in the image, but in the hypotheses of a probable spectator.

Berger’s use of the word “violence” does not refer to physical violence, but to the disruption or dislocation that the transformed image causes to the viewer’s assumptions and preconceptions about gender. However, I have personally experienced violence in the form of physical acts and emotional feelings.


I think I feel more like a person than a man, so I wonder how to adjust to what is expected of socially constructed gender tropes. – Edward

In my early teens, I was regularly bullied by a boy, both physically and emotionally. He targeted any behavior that he did not consider to be “straight” or “masculine”. This intimidation lasted for 18 months until I stood firm and responded with violence. His demeanor changed immediately and I was never in his sights again. It confused me. Do I have to show my “masculine” side just to live from day to day? Later, as I reflected on my late teens and early twenties, I realized that on an unconscious level I sometimes hid my true self and acted a certain way until I felt like I was comfortable in a new environment. Initially, the masculine side of my personality would be the dominant trait, then slowly, over time, I would reveal feelings, emotions and what society would call my “feminine” traits.


The people I photograph are not models, but my friends or the people I am drawn to collaborate with. The images are constructed either in their own domestic environment or in a natural environment such as the ocean, fields or forests. There are many layers to each work, and I explore my own vulnerability and my own meaning as part of the process. It is important to me that each person has a sense of control over how they are portrayed.

A composite of two images.  Mitch, one of the subjects of Paul and the Sky.

As I grew older and navigated through life, I always wore different masks depending on the situation I was in because I felt like I could never be myself. The sea for me is a place where I can let go of these masks and just be myself, without judgment or worry. When I’m in the middle of the sea I’m my happiest – Mitch

26 Untitled 6 resonance Photographic essay on masculinity.

The ocean is constant, it does not stop, it calls out relentlessly to the land. But the earth seems motionless in its multitude of layers. Yet both their powers and persistence have a healing quality, which is only a tiny part of their character. We are a bit like the ocean and the land. Constant, complex and layered. I think it’s finding us, understanding who we are and being grateful to be you. If we can connect externally, then we can understand our inner selves – Asher

As with many artists, the last two years in lockdown have been a struggle. The loss of engagement with physical spaces has moved artists online. It has had negative and positive implications, but I look forward to the time when we can fully connect as a community again.

My Study of Self book was edited and created during the pandemic. The lockdowns gave me time to review the last decade of my job.

Serge and the landscape.

Even though I grew up in a tough working-class environment in West Sydney and surrounded by toxic masculinity, I have been fortunate to have men around me who have shown me that it was okay to be your own man and to make your own way in life. They taught me what it really means to be a strong man. And now when I meet a younger man I pass this knowledge on so that he can be the man he wants to be and have his own life. Sergeant

My practice is an extension of my breathing. It is part of my life and my existence. If I didn’t create a work and had this dialogue with my audience, I feel like I would just stop breathing.

Sometimes these first thoughts of struggle and identity come back to haunt me: how will people view the work and what criticisms or judgments will they elicit? Self-doubt will never go away completely, but through the work, I have established a sense of confidence in myself, in my voice and in who I am.

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