WRITERS PRIZE: 28 / NOV / 2023
by Neva Elliott
Our relationship was meant to be casual, an intermittent distraction. The first photograph I took of him was less than a month after we met. That night I dreamt of drowning. In the morning, I photographed his hand lying on his chest, Christ-like, corpse-like, too beautiful to be real or alive.
We continued to see each other, more often than planned. I kept photographing him – in his flat, my house, hotel rooms, holiday apartments, forests, the back of my car. Naked, laying bare his human fragility. This is what we do we’d joke, sex and photography.
I attached theories to my preoccupation that kept true motivation at arm’s length, writing statements that reflected themes of intimacy, identity, and the gendered gaze. I claimed opposition to conventions around how men are often depicted, plagued by a set of physical ideals and a damaging vision of masculinity.
"The artist works with men she has some relationship with to create images that dismantle gender binaries and toxic conceptions of male identity, to represent her subjects as vulnerable and beautiful, attributes traditionally thought of as being feminine, to express a more fluid conception of the nature of maleness."
I cited exploration of the complexities of the gaze, the idea that how we see and represent one another can be gendered. If the male gaze is understood as dominant, how can its counterpoint, the female gaze, be registered, I asked?
"The series does not offer a definitive response but instead asks how masculinity as a set of social constructs can be redacted and what it means to be a man looked at by a woman."
But, this making was underpinned by something beyond a critique of societal structures; something in my chest was hot and alive; I was not detached and theoretical; I was poised to fight.
I needed to clear the table of all ready-made concepts and critical theory to determine the real, personal source of my actions.
The question wasn’t what it meant to be a man looked at by a woman, but what it meant for me to look at him.
I wanted to photograph him.
To show how beautiful he is, I said.
How delicate and pretty, how vulnerable.
Vulnerable, where does that come from?
Seeking information beyond the reach of my conscious mind, I stepped into the picture frame to be caught in mirrors obscured by my camera while viewing him. Then, my hand on his back, camera leaning on his shoulder, I see it – on the ring finger of each of my hands – my eternity ring and the ring, connection for my camera strap.
I investigated further, taking images I was drawn to without a designated outcome, using the camera lens to scry for insight and meaning.
Furze bushes piled their needles dry and brittle, a sapling’s broken branch, a gleaming, white, cordate stone.
Crying out as nurses drove needles into bruises to find
the tracks to his heart beneath pale freckled skin.
A barren tree through my darkened bedroom window.
Sad again today.
Funereal black foliage dead on the ground.
That he could die and be gone.
Gone from this earth or ash or bone.
I broach my findings at breakfast; he says, "It is no surprise to me that you want to photograph the men in your life having lost your husband and father."
Having been unable to save them.
Here are the results of my search for understanding through photography: For me, growing close to someone equates to grief and loss. While this is a possibility, even an inevitability for all of us, the anticipation of such a catastrophe lives in the foreground of my brain and body, having grown so used to losing those I care for.
So, I hold on to this loved one the only way I can in a chaotic world, in my gaze, taking photographs of him again and again, capturing his beauty and presence, that he is here.
He is still here.
Neva Elliott is a contemporary artist based in Dublin. Hold On was shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography in 2023.