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Masculinities: Liberation through Photography
Ana Mendieta, “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” (1972)© The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co. and Alison Jacques Gallery, London Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Eight controversial photos depicting masculinity

From Ana Mendieta to David Wojnarowicz, these are the photographic statements that made us stop and think

In an age defined by #MeToo, debates about gender occupy a central role in our culture. However, the thorny topic of masculinity – increasingly loaded with buzzwords such as ‘toxic’ and swathes of negative press – is often left out of the conversation, or discussed in incredibly narrow terms.

Barbican’s exhibition, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography shows how photography since the 1960s has perpetuated, negotiated or disrupted preconceived notions about masculinity. Curated by Alona Pardo, the exhibition questions: how have artists contributed to representations precipitating today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’? 

Crucially, the diverse show encompasses not only the experience of the heternormative white male, but many shades of masculinity; from ethnic minorities, queer identities, as well as radical reinterpretations by female artists. 

Echoing the observations of Simone de Beauvoir who once said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, the feminist powerhouse, Judith Butler later argued that all forms of gender are socially-constructed and inherently performative. 

Here are eight artists who, by putting men in the frame, have unveiled the masquerade of masculinity.


A photographer who followed the trajectory of Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon (his former tutor), Peter Hujar was also a gay rights activist. Alongside his then-partner, Jim Fouratt, Hujar witnessed the Stonewall riots on 28th July 1969.

Like many young gay men living in New York during this era, he left home at the age of 16 after his mother, Rose, couldn’t reconcile herself with her son’s homosexuality. Consequently, much of Hujar’s intimate photographs present his need for acceptance amongst a creative, gay community. The subjects of his work were often his lovers, friends, and other celebrities: filmmaker John Waters, the trans actress Candy Darling, and writer Susan Sontag. 

Hujar was against idealised portrayals of the male body, which would be the aesthetic of Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist who eventually eclipsed Hujar’s career. He captured disarmingly vulnerable portraits, in which the application of or stripping away of artifice was often the central focus, as seen in this photograph of his friend the drag artist David Brintzenhofe.

Hujar died in 1992, at the age of 53, due to Aids-related complications. While he is now known as one of America’s greatest photographers, he never attracted great attention from the press during his lifetime. Perhaps a result of the fact that his work reflected the unfettered sexual awakening experienced by gay men between the 1970s and 1980s – a form of masculinity driven underground by mainstream culture.


A prolific artist, writer, and Aids activist, David Wojnarowicz has come to embody New York’s febrile East Village art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. A close friend and, briefly, a former lover of Hujar’s, he once described the photographer as “my brother, my father, my emotional link to the world.”

The controversy of Wojnarowicz’s life and work have not subsided since his death in 1992 (also due to Aids-related complications). In 2010, the Republican-backed Catholic League managed to censor his posthumously exhibited video “A Fire in My Belly”, which was removed from public view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

Featuring what was deemed to be “sacrilegious” footage of a crucifix covered with ants, the sequence of short films had been created as a tribute to Hujar after his death.

Between 1978 and 1980, Wojnarowicz had created the photographic series, Arthur Rimbaud in New York. A collection of self-portraits, in which the emaciated artist wears the mask of Rimbaud as he poses in urban areas of the city. 

By doing so, the artist drew parallels between his own life and alienation, with the of the 19th-century gay poet, who like Wojnarowicz, felt like an outsider.

Photographs such as the one below, in which the artist lies on a mattress, seem to prophetically anticipate the Aids epidemic and Wojnarowicz’s premature death at the age of 37 (Rimbaud also died aged 37).


Cuban artist Ana Mendieta channelled performance to address identity and gender, though she resisted the ‘feminist’ label throughout her career.

One of her most famous photographic series, Untitled, Facial Transplant Series (1972), involved the artist glueing the beard of her male friend, Morty Sklar, to her face. The subversive self-portrait demonstrated the interchangeability of gender, but also the performative nature of masculinity.

She later wrote about the work, “After looking at myself in a mirror, the beard became real. It did not look like a disguise. It became a part of myself and not at all unnatural to my appearance.”

Mendieta’s life was shrouded in further controversy after her premature death in September 1985, when the artist fell from the 34th floor of the Manhattan apartment she shared with her partner, the minimalist artist Carl Andre. Many of Mendieta’s family, friends, and fans believe Andre was responsible for her death, though he was acquitted from charges in a controversial trial in 1988. Since then, people have been continuing to call for justice, culminating in the activist group Where is Ana Mendieta?


From 1981 to 1983, German-born photographer Karen Knorr created “Gentlemen”, 26 photographs revealing the exclusive, interior worlds of private gentlemen’s clubs in London. 

Presenting her series as a form of investigative journalism, she probed into the ruling elite of English society. It showed that old Etonians and the most privileged Oxbridge alumni received membership to clubs which have historically acted as bastions of the patriarchy and excluded women, people of colour, and the working classes through their strict membership rules. 

The implication behind Knorr’s series was that upper-class, white men control the political establishment behind closed doors. This sparked controversy as the 1980s was seen to be a progressive time for women, especially as Margaret Thatcher had become the first female Prime Minister. Each photograph is combined with text extracted from contemporary newspapers. One of them reads: “Men are interested in Power. Women are more interested in Service.”


The renowned artist Catherine Opie has been pushing artistic boundaries since the 90s, when she first began documenting the Los Angeles and San Francisco BDSM and queer scenes. An openly lesbian artist, Opie’s work gives representation to silenced subcultures against the background of a heteronormative American society. 

This self-portrait was included in her first exhibition Being and Having (1991), for which Opie dressed up as a drag, alter-ego, named Bo.

By attempting to recreate the expression of “a serial killer from the Midwest who’s a used aluminum-siding salesman”, Opie presented a comical subversion of conventional photographic portraiture, in which she became both subject and photographer. In this instance, she opted for (what she termed) a ‘butch’ identity rather than a feminine one.

Like the other subjects in her 1991 exhibition, Opie’s gaze directly confronts the camera. She explained that this was a way to make “my women embody space”, mirroring the assertive gazes found traditionally in portraits of male subjects.


The photographic practise of Nigerian-born artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode explored the black male identity, conflating race, sexuality, and issues relating to the African diaspora and colonialism.

Directly influenced by Mapplethorpe, whom he befriended in New York in the 80s, Fani-Kayode’s work addressed the historic objectification and fetishisation of the black, male body.

Negotiating his own homosexuality with his upbringing as part of the Yoruba religion, Fani-Kayode’s work evoked erotic fantasy combined with the spiritual values of his Nigerian ancestors. Like many gay male artists of his era, he died from Aids-related complications at the age of 34 in 1989. Though his career was short, he left behind a remarkable legacy that gave a voice to male sexual and racial marginalisation.


Shortly after 9/11, the German photographer Thomas Dworzak was sent on an assignment to Afghanistan by The New Yorker, where he discovered the Taliban portraits.

Under the Taliban’s strict enforcement of Quranic law, photography and representation of the human image were forbidden throughout the country. But when travelling in the deserted city of Kandahar, Dworzak came across a series of photographs of Taliban soldiers in clandestine photoshops. These stylised and retouched photos were taken to create ‘flattering’ and often sultry portraits of the Taliban men, holding guns or flowers as props.

Dworzak noted the unexpected flamboyance of these portraits, which curiously humanised the men and contradicted the abstracted, stereotype of the Taliban fed back to western audiences.

As Ekow Eshun writes in the Barbican catalogue, this series addressed the historic subjectification of the ‘Eastern’ male body through the Western gaze.


Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra creates startling photographic portraits, which often capture the awkward coming-of-age stage of adolescence. Heavily influenced by American photographers, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus, Dijkstra’s work reveals individuals in moments of lost inhibition, vulnerability, or transition.

Her series bullfighters (1994–2000) shows young matadors in the bloody aftermath of Portugal’s bullfighting, an ancient custom in which young men use their bodies as a weapon against an enraged bull. This rite of passage for young men, found in countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Mexico, has historically glorified courage in the face of danger and conflates masculinity with violence.

Although photographed individually, these young forcados would have fought the bull together, as a team of eight. The success of the fight largely depends on male camaraderie and teamwork as they dance around the disorientated bull. 

By presenting a series of individual portraits, Dijkstra’s series explores men’s relations to one another. The group of photographs highlight societal expectations for collective brotherhood, or the ‘pack mentality’, which can subsume the individual’s identity.

Masculinities: Liberation through photography runs at London’s Barbican until 17 May 2020