Nipple Kiss Photograph by Pixy Liao Chosen by Federica Chiocchetti
I’ve always wondered how male and female anatomical differences translate into psychological ones, but every time I try to address the thought, I run into platitudes. The history of gender identity is one of constructed conformity told to us in binary oppositions by religion, the media, mainstream education, and socio-political and cultural systems: nature (women) versus culture (men), weakness versus strength, and feminism versus patriarchy. The real challenge lies in identifying non-binary differences. So, can a more nuanced, less black-and-white approach be taken? Pixy Liao’s Nipple Kiss, from her 2013 series For Your Eyes Only, suggests such a way. Unlike genitals, nipples are body parts that we – men and women – have in common. But this protuberance of the mammary gland is distinct in that females only have naturally open lactiferous ducts, from which milk is drawn by the infant. Though some movies of doubtful taste have attempted to portray the dystopian scenario of pregnant men – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gravid scientist in Junior (1994) comes to mind – male pregnancy is and should remain inconceivable. A nipple kiss consists of the encounter of two similar surfaces without penetration – without, that is, any “colonising” dynamics. Each nipple tenderly touches the other, yet maintains its independence. Hence, paradoxically, even though male and female nipples are alike, because of the different functions they perform, and the different symbology they evoke – i.e. maternity in women – they represent to me, emphatically in Pixy Liao’s image, a sophisticated metaphor for this challenging task of finding non-binary differences, and in preserving them.
Federica Chiocchetti is a writer, curator, editor and lecturer specialising in photography and literature. Through her platform, Photocaptionist, she collaborates with institutions such as the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) and Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (Foam). A PhD candidate in photo-textualities at the University of Westminster, she recently guest-edited issue 16 of Aperture’s PhotoBook Review.
Self-Portrait Photograph by Samuel Fosso Chosen by Ekow Eshun
In 1975, aged 13, Samuel Fosso set up his own photography studio in the Central African Republic, having fled the Biafran War in Nigeria. After closing time, his clients done with, he acquired the habit of taking his own photographs. Picturing himself in flares and platform boots was, in part, an act of discrete rebellion against the censorious rule of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the self-declared Emperor of Central Africa, who had instituted a ban on tight-fitting clothes. But his self-portraits, which were never originally intended for public display, also play with representations of masculinity, gender, status and sexuality. In one image Fosso presents himself wearing only dark underpants and a pair of white gloves. He stands side-on to the camera, his eyes cast down towards the tiled floor and the gloved hands at his hips calling attention to his crotch. In other pictures, he takes on a variety of guises: a dandy in voluminous bell-bottoms; a modest guy with his back to the camera; a louche figure in underpants. For all that such pictures were made in private, they still look as though Fosso had an audience in mind when he made them. In some of the portraits the camera is set far enough back to reveal the surrounding studio lights. Fosso seems to be signalling the artificiality of his setting. Perhaps, too, he’s proposing that maleness itself is an artificial proposition. In his portraits, being a man is not a singular fixed proposition, a way of being that’s fixed in the body. Instead it becomes a pro- visional state that’s open to perpetual redefinition. It is a performance always in the making.
Ekow Eshun is the author of the newly published book Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent. (Thames & Hudson). He is a writer and curator and the former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. He has contributed to several books and catalogues. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, Aperture and Wired.
Father and Son Watching a Parade Photograph by Chris Killip Chosen by Simon Bainbridge
The year is 1980. The scene is a deprived neighbourhood of Newcastle, a once-thriving city famed for its coal and shipbuilding, now on its uppers. No longer a powerhouse of industrial revolution, a masculine archetype has also begun to fade – the proud certainty of the working man. Far away – 280 miles, to be precise – the Blitz Kids are styling themselves as the New Romantics. At their eponymous Tuesday-night club in London’s Covent Garden (where Steve Strange was the greeter, Boy George worked the cloakroom, and fashion student John Galliano was among the androgynous regulars), they were redefining masculinity in their own terms, as a kind of pantomime of the absurd. These two realities – far away, so close – still coexist. But today, gone is the shock of the new. It’s easy to see the Blitz club goers as gender-bending forerunners, and the father and son pictured here as a distant glimpse of a forgotten era, now confined to the postindustrial dustbin. And yet I see so much to admire in that father’s face. I identify with the vulnerable yet protective masculinity so deftly captured by the photographer Chris Killip while working on In Flagrante, 15 years in the making, and now regarded a photobook classic. In 1980, I would have been a little older than the boy here, but there’s not much in it. My father carried me upon his shoulders. We were not poor, but he’d come from a similar place. Born in Liverpool during the war, he’d lost his father to tuberculosis at around the same age as the boy in the photograph. And now my children sit on my shoulders. There’s something in this photograph that touches me directly; a continuity. I’m both parent and child; the masculine me, passed down from father to son.
Simon Bainbridge is editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Photography, and editorial director of 1854 Media, where he has initiated projects such as Portrait of Britain, a countrywide exhibition reflecting on national identity. His first book, Magnum Artists: When Great Photographers Meet Great Artists, is published by Laurence King this autumn.
Bodhi Photograph by Casper Kofi Chosen by Elisa Medde
Some time ago, while sort of wrestling my two boys in a solo parenting moment, I met someone and she giggled, “Wow, you really are outnumbered now! Good luck, boys will be boys!” I zoned out looking at my oldest, back then rocking long golden locks, thinking of how many times I’d been told, “What a lovely little girl you have!” What did she mean? What she said felt weird and randomly stereotyping, but hit a nerve. Me and their father had long discussions before the first one was born, and we decided that our family would be an ongoing experiment. What happens when you educate kids in such way that no task or behaviour or colour or toy or emotion is associated with gender? What for me was a political necessity, something coming from a rational elaboration, for him was his personal revolution as a man and his instinctive approach on fatherhood. “This way”, I remember him saying, “we have better chances to grow decent, free human beings.” And over the years, I am discovering what it means when boys are free to be whatever they feel: they can be stubborn, sensitive, scared, proud, creative, hilarious, fragile, caring, annoying, petty, loving, binary and extremely complex. They can be superheroes, and dress like princesses. Is this surprising? Is this masculine? Is this feminine? They could not care less. This is our problem as adults using words that need a binary gender system to exist and be defined. I have often been defined as masculine, and my son as very feminine. These words mean nothing to me. But then, when trying to visualise how I wish my kids to be, the images of Casper Kofi come to mind. The absolute, simple and powerful joy of being free, the possibility to shine and evolve into the best version one wants, or can, be. Kind, caring, happy, strong superheroes. Whatever gender they will end up being. Elisa Medde edits, curates and writes about photography. With a background in History of Art, Iconology and Photographic Studies, her research reflects on the relations between image and power. She has been a nominator for the Mack First Book Award, Prix Elysée, The Leica Oskar Barnack Award and MAST Foundation for Photography Grant amongst others, served in a number of juries and written for Foam Magazine, Something We Africans Got and other publications. Since 2012, Elisa is the Managing Editor of Foam Magazine.
EDITED BY ALESSIA GLAVIANOL'UOMO, May 2020