Notes on seeing men, the eros of presence and the perils of being the perfect stranger.
Dear Lone, I looked at your photographs and read your Invitation to See and Be Seen on your website. It's surely a topic that demands a lot of sensitivity, and I detected just this (and a lot of sheer natural beauty) in your presentation. I often ask myself similar questions, and sometimes it's hard finding answers. I'm 51, my dear wife and everybody else say I look much younger than that, but sometimes I feel much older. I caught multiple sclerosis 20 years ago and got cancer in 2003, which returned twice, and I'll never know if this nightmare occurs again. But I still stand tall (as good as possible), go to work each day and try to enjoy life like everybody else. I'd like to see you seeing me somewhere in Denmark, curious about the outcome, perhaps a Revelation, surely a deep experience, maybe getting to a better understanding or simply just a new view of myself. Would be very delighted if this has raised your curiosity. Wish you a joyful time, wherever you are right now. Best regards, Karsten
This email makes me pause. Random raunchy calls aside, I rarely receive inquiries from men who convey genuine desire to be portrayed by me. When I do, it's never just about vanity. Underneath there's a quest for more: a new experience of self, perhaps metamorphosis of shame, trauma, limitation, and low self-esteem. Not unlike the one thousand women I have photographed over the past fifteen years, who've come with similar motives to self-discover through my lens view.
I'm not the only one curious about men's inner landscapes. When I give public talks I'm asked, What about photographing men? How is it different? With only a few men under my photographic belt it's hard to tell, but when I proposed the Seeing Men project on social media, men in my feed joked. The thought of being naked in front of a camera, let alone a female photographer, filled them with trepidation. Many expressed self-loathing, certain their bodies deserved no such limelight.
Because men's bodies haven't been subjected to the same degree of public sexualization and scrutiny as women's bodies, they may not feel the same need to counter the public gaze with a personal one. But it's changing. Today more men feel pressured to have perfect physical appearances, shying away neither from Botox and waxing, nor being strangers to self-damage and eating disorders.
When I pitched a Seeing Men essay to EuroMan Magazine, they deemed my idea too artistic. Indeed, the distinction between art, fashion, and documentary photography is significant, and the resulting images depend upon the gaze given: are you beholding, seducing, or using someone to fulfill your vision or provide evidence for your case at hand? EuroMan was clearly too timid to let a woman look beneath the skin of men, and perhaps they should be.
The premise for my work has been to find the trueness in everyone. To that end, nakedness has become an interesting metaphor for honesty; still, Karsten's request fills me with questions. How can I see him? Are my intentions pure? Am I ready to step into this naked terrain with a stranger?
The invitation to undress requires vulnerability and courage from both seer and seen, to walk the delicate line between eros and porn, public and private, object and subject, power and submission. Who looks at whom is never clear cut, and with the naked skin in the middle, the intention becomes more important: Why are we looking?
My work with women has been healing and empowering and helped us exchange our female competition with solidarity, but perhaps I'm naive to think that my gaze can offer healing to men and foster solidarity between the sexes.
In my early conversations with Karsten, we address these matters.
"I want to accept my body and feel strength and pride in it," he says. "I want to see what you see. The people in your photos look like you know them, this make me feel in good hands." His intentions assure me of his sincerity.
Safety is important. For him to trust me to not expose him or otherwise cast him in an unflattering light. For me to feel I can be alone with him and do my work without sensual advances. I ask how his wife feels about him going off to get naked with a female photographer. "We've had to deal with my body for years now," he shares. "We're rather open-minded. She's trusting me to do this."
As we work through the logistics, I learn about his physical constraints. "With only one kidney, catching a cold could be deadly," he says. "I'm not as surefooted as I used to be, even an even surface can be challenging, and without my glasses, I'm rather blind."
I translate his words into visual metaphors to work with: limitation and freedom, strength and vulnerability, object and abject. I try to imagine how to visually approach a male body, let alone a crippled one.
We convene in Soenderborg in South Denmark. I've found two locations: a raw warehouse space above a cafe and a private loft bedroom. Karsten shows up with a walking stick and a bag. He's tall, slender, with dark hair and black glasses. He gets up the stairs with surprising ease. We chat loosely over coffee, before proceeding to our makeshift studio. We're both awkward.
He unpacks his props. A tie, a scarf, shirt, jeans, and cuffs.
"Cuffs?" I chuckle. "Getting a little kinky?"
"No, no," he grins and pulls the fur off the cuffs. "It's to show I'm imprisoned in this body but feel free."
I prep my camera, check the light. "Where to begin?"
He looks around and tinkers with his stuff. I hesitate too. Dropping into the creative slipstream with another is always a deep dive and this time, it's with a naked man.
"There are things I can't control." He says, gaze down. "My wife did ask what I'd do if I got an erection."
"There's that." I'm happy he brings it up. "Once I photographed a man outdoors, he worried the opposite would happen."
"Here's the deal: If it happens, I'll do my best to not take it personally. This is after all not about your penis." I give him a hug. "Why don't you get naked and sit on the edge of bed?"
Through the lens, I notice how the light caresses his rounded back. I wonder how multiple sclerosis feels in his body. He stands up, his body straight and muscular. The scar across his stomach gives his waistline a slight feminine shape. Our words fade as we move about the space, interacting with the furniture, the floor and the light. I search for faces of him, gestures. I encourage with comments. Sometimes I tell him what I see as if to bridge the divide between seer and seen.
The eye of the beholder is never just one-way. While I invite self-expression, my presence solicits responses and sometimes I have to project a lot of energy to help the person before me emote, move, feel. Karsten is soon comfortable moving his body, here and there meeting my gaze. As he appears for me, I sense, he is also appearing for himself.
On the bed again, he moves with subtle sensual force. I capture his exposed neck, his curved backside, the way his hand grips the edge of the bed. Something is there, at once vulnerable and forceful. I hold my breath. My face feels hot. I want to penetrate the flesh to conjure his inner power, poetry, sexuality, freedom, softness.
Would a man photograph him differently? More manly?
We chat over coffee and cake at the cafe. We discover a shared passion for vintage cars, music, and writing. I worry about our stamina and the cold warehouse upstairs, but Karsten insists. While he undresses, I investigate the space. Two windows, wood floor, a pillar in the center and at the back, a wobbly staircase to the attic. Sublime light spills from above.
We begin again. With no place to hide or hesitate, we are both called into immediacy. I watch him respond to the textures. Adrenaline overrides our fatigue, as we become moving bodies, eyes, senses.
"Would you get on the floor?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "It's cold."
"Two minutes?" I can't help myself.
His stiffness shows as he tries to get down. One moment it looks like he is losing control and falling back, before he surrenders. Back on his knees, he's remarkably handsome. I tell him so. Confidently, he comes at me, his gaze completely open. My neck hair rises. There he is. Present. Powerful. Unabashed.
"This always happens." I muse, and click and click. "I fall in love."
How to explain to him that this is the moment I've been waiting for all day, where all reluctance falls away, in him, in me. The signs: my heart swells, I giggle, get goosebumps, sigh, utter, applaud, burst into tears. And then, I'm done.
Karsten drops me at the station. I'm so spent I can barely speak. Before I enter the train, I look back. We wave at each other. Tears roll. An intense session often leaves me sentimental, but as the train bumbles North, sadness sets in. Then emptiness and sheer exhaustion.
My life is a string of short-lived creative love affairs, I sulk inside. I've given Karsten all I've got, loved him forth, and now there's nothing left for me. Tears fall.
Last year I fell in love with a man. He asked me to photograph him, but soon passion took over, and I never did. Living nine thousand miles apart, we did not pursue the relationship, but now, the way he looked at me then, is all I can think of.
At dinner, I share my thoughts with friends. How this intimate seeing is a lot like falling in love, because then we are eager to see and feel and devour everything about the other. How both seer and seen must bare their hearts for art to happen. And yet, the very premise for such a naked encounter is me staying neutral, holding the space safe and sacred.
"I'm the perfect stranger," I declare. "But why is this work so intoxicating, yet so all- consuming?"
When two people meet for an open and intimate journey of discovery, what happens to the empty space between? We want to fill it, I say, but with what? Eros? Spirit? Synergy? Ourselves? I don't know, but it feels like love.
My artist friend says, "Auguste Rodin said the same thing about his work, except he slept with all his models to release the intense desire for merging."
There's that. We laugh.
While I'm trying to recuperate, Karsten writes exuberant emails.
Lone, Only a few days in life are special, only a few encounters are magical, only a few experiences are larger than life, only a few friends get closer to you than anybody else. This was such a day, such an encounter, such an experience, you were able to become such a friend for one day.
Lone, Is there any chance to repeat it? To continue? Would it make sense? Could it be as good as the first time? Or even more intense? I'd like to think so, but I know it would be just a fantasy, a miracle, too good to be true, too difficult to be simple.
Lone, We were heroes on that day, weren't we?
We were. Sorting through the many photos, a man comes into full view: his vulnerability and willingness, ease and tension, strength and seduction. I'm quite pleased with my work. I tell him so.
Lone! I've been waiting for this message, and now I get nervous like a schoolboy who's been waiting for an answer from his favorite girl. My heart's jumping, soul's starting to fly, feels like a freight train running through my chest, good vibrations spreading all inside of me. Guess from now on, I'll have sleepless nights, ready to dive into your photos. Wish you could see me smile from ear to ear.
When I transfer the photos to him electronically, I hear nothing for twenty-four hours.
I just finished watching the photos one by one, reminiscing how I got accustomed to being naked, being watched, being guided by that careful woman I had just met, remembering how I started to feel familiar with you, feel safe and ready to move more elegantly, anxious to capture your attention, finally testing my ability to seduce you. All of this is mirrored in these photos. If I didn't know this guy so damn well, I'd probably fall in love with him.
It dawns on me, that men too can feel invisible to the world and those closest by. The women I've photographed have often come for beauty, but in reality, they have needed to be witnessed without judgement.
Wouldn't a selfie do? Maybe, but there's a difference between presenting oneself and being present with oneself. In my experience, it's the process of revealing oneself, of finding the freedom to be seen by another that empowers, not the temporary shedding of inhibitions. The photos become evidence of your existence.
It is exactly what I hoped would turn out but couldn't find the right words to express, because I was unconscious of this wish when we arranged our encounter. All my physical weaknesses, my long hard fight against cancer, the evermore difficult battle against multiple sclerosis, had robbed me off my self-confidence as a man. By "SEEING ME" naked and challenging me to reveal not only my body but also my personality, you gave me so much attention, showed so much female attraction that slowly I started to rediscover my male identity. And that felt so right and so good. I haven't felt so much at home in my own skin for a very long time. Is it any wonder that I long to stay in touch and go on blossoming for you and recovering through your eye? I probably wasn't even aware of how deep below my soul had been sinking down.
Receiving this overflow of gratitude is at once wonderful and woeful. Had I been a "Madame Rodin," I may have enjoyed the flirtation, but I know Karsten's affection isn't for me. I encourage him to pull back his projections. We should get on with our lives, I say.
Over the last weeks, I felt very lonely, and I wish I knew why. I guess I feel, I believe, that our photo session was such an intense experience for me that it stands out far above the usual, the regular, the average, the normal. I was certainly more than pleased, I was intrigued to get your full attention, all your passion of the moment, your dedication to let me shine in your photos. I haven't felt so valuable, so unique, so precious for a very long time. And the only way to deal with these feelings was probably by directing them towards you. I think I very rarely met a woman who could express such a passion, such a willingness to let herself drift into a dream and follow it with all her power. I wish I could give back to you just a fraction of what you allowed me to share with you.
From elation to emptiness. His ability to express his feelings helps me understand the stake I have in our process, and how rare it is for people to meet in a power-free space.
In my work, I get to meet people in intimate places that are mostly reserved for lovers, and erotic in the truest sense. Not sexual, not wanting, but a free-flowing exchange of creativity and chemistry. A shared sense of discovery. Evoking Eros can be tricky through. It can only be experience by becoming its conduit. It cannot be possessed. When we try to claim it and name it, we kill it.
In the presence of Eros, the hardest part for us mortals is to do… nothing. To leave it alone. To let it penetrate us with life, connectedness, beauty.
Once a woman said to me: "I'm not afraid of being photographed. I'm afraid I won't like what I will see. I think I prefer to stay in the illusion of myself." Her words hit hard like truth: We all long to be seen, but are terrified of being seen.
Having 'stared' into the eyes of a thousand people, I know our gaze holds power. The need to be seen isn't just a symptom of a narcissistic world; it taps into the fundamental way we come to feel valuable, lovable, connected and human. On a subliminal level, I may have tried to protect those I photograph from a cynical, harshly lit world by casting them in a more gentle, lyrical light. With Karsten, I've moved closer to the heart of the matter: Their longing is also mine.
This may explain why my work can feel like both a gift and a curse. When operating from a wound, a yearning, we must move through it to receive the reward. Two sides of the same coin, the seer and the seen, seeking, seeing. Perhaps this is the role and responsibility of the Perfect Stranger. It's a divine thing. It fills me with reverence.
If only it was this beautiful.
The loss of a loving gaze can feel like death, a severing of your lifeline, a fire gone out in the dark night. I know this. Karsten knows this. He writes about upheavals at home and sleepless nights of anguish. It's not unusual for people to seek my services at times of inner turmoil and transition, I explain to him. When one person stirs the status quo in a relationship, a realignment is naturally required.
"Be where you are," I say. "Please take care of your marriage and life."
"A Record of A Romance." This is the title of his next email. To pay tribute to our journey, he has compiled a playlist of songs. Before I fathom, it's his way of coming to a close, his words have tripped me up. Romance? Hasn't he listened? I worry what his wife would read into it.
Upset, I reiterate: "My friendly presence is professional. By alluding to romance, you're crossing my boundary."
He huffs and puffs at my refusal to indulge his fantasies and turns defensive. When he questions my final fee, it's my turn to huff and puff and come to a brutal halt. From being his bright star, I'm now his fallen angel.
For all my ability to bring out the beauty in people, I wonder, if I may in fact be doing a disservice. Worse. I've been here before. With men. After a pure and potent encounter, what we each make it to mean so easily land us in a crossfire of projection and power games.
A more careful exchange ensues. We are sorry. We try to regain each other's trust. The image of Karsten crawling down on the warehouse floor float into my awareness. I'm overcome by the sensation of his surrender to the rugged, the dirt, the imperfect. I think of Karsten's wife, who is holding the space for him in her own domain. After years of marriage she must have seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and therefore cannot see him without their history. Of course, my unencumbered gaze would feel thrilling, freeing him of history and habit, if only for a moment.
We all long to exist in such moments, don't we?
It's tempting to conclude that "men cannot leave something good alone," but Karsten continues to show up for the discomfort of intimacy as we unravel our projections and unhealthy polarity games. In the end it is his humility and his courage that allows me to share our story.
Will he look at his photos with the same rapture? I doubt it, but being as dedicated to honesty as I am, he will embrace the more complex, whole human he is, and perhaps treasure them even more for it.
So, can I see men? With my set of eyes, yes, I can. But not without risk. To see beneath the skin and create the art I do, I must be willing to go deep with people. The presence and permission I bring to the experience also requires a baring of my own heart, which to some men would be easily mistaken for an invitation to "more." When this "more" isn't offered, I risk being judged and rejected for the very thing I am and give. I ask myself if I can bear it.
As a professional, I can set rules and take protective measures to ensure a safe space, but I'm certain, it will be at the risk of killing the art, the mystery, the Eros, and ultimately the chance of finding oneself in the loving gaze of another.