After being immersed in Berlin’s underground scenes for a decade, Florian Hetz publishes his debut photo book. Here he goes head-to-head with Matt Lambert on sex, intimacy, and censorship
Berlin-based photographer Florian Hetz’s debut photo book The Matter of Absence takes its jump off from early days of discovering his sexuality. As a young gay man, he would frequent public toilets, using glory holes to explore sex. Now, years later, his work eschews portraiture of the male body to instead offer peep-show-like flashes of flesh and body parts – leaving the rest up to our imagination.
Born to a Bohemian-Norwegian-Prussian family, after stealing his first Mapplethorpe book at 14-years-old, Hetz would, like the late American artist, find solace in photography. Often hailed as “the future of German Queer Art”, given he’s spent a decade immersed amongst the city’s underground scenes, his debut feels as considered as it is overdue.
In an age of selfies what’s most intriguing – as Hetz’s notes in his foreword – is a deliberate lack of identity, meaning these men could be anyone. Also writing in the book‘s foreword is designer Stefano Pilati, who observes how Hetz “interprets the body as a quintessential sex object through simple, domestic gestures”. Which he does, unapologetically, via images that are sensory and tangible. Photos that unashamedly understand sex to be a vital function for our bodies.
Ahead of its official launch party tomorrow at Berghain / Panorama Bar, fellow Berlin-based photographer and filmmaker Matt Lambert goes head-to-head with Hetz on sex, intimacy, the Berlin underground, and censorship.
Matt Lambert: How would you describe the book?
Florian Hetz: The Matter of Absence is actually literal because none of the photos are actually a portrait of a person; it is always a little piece, a little bit, of a moment of something – of a minute sexual act of a person, of a body, but the whole person is never really there. Growing up as a gay boy I used facilities like public toilets and glory holes where you only actually got tiny fractures of scenes. You look through a glory hole, you never really saw the whole body; you saw little bits and pieces going on behind it. Maybe one person, one body part, a dick, an ass, a couple. Lots of people are having sex but not getting the whole thing is exciting. To imagine what is behind that wall, what is actually the rest of these body parts, to put all of that together and have them in my head...and I'm still excited by this – to see just really bits and leave the rest to my fantasy.
Matt Lambert: In general, intimacy is that anyway. You take that conversation out of it and even if you're lying in bed next to someone, you never get the whole piece of them. It's always these little moments where I think about the sexual experience. You never think about someone's whole body; it's the little pieces of them that make up that moment. It's a piece of neck, it's a piece of eyebrow, and the label of a beer that's sitting over on the table. It's these little fragmented moments that actually feel so much more real and intimate than the whole thing.
Florian Hetz: Basically, every time I can be with somebody, there's something different. That's the thing with my photography. I'm not really using model models, just quite a lot of daily normal people but still, I discover pretty much from everyone. I discover that one thing that really fascinates me, which I'm obsessed with. I can get really into it. There is the excitement and then it gets really intimate because your focus really pulls close to that beard or collar bone, for example. It can be stunningly beautiful and fascinate me completely.
Matt Lambert: And what do you think that line is? Some of the photos feel really humanistic and some of them feel a little bit detached and disassociated. It's this thin line that you're constantly on. There's a blurry line between cold and intimate, and there's a constantly shifting line which is quite a subjective thing anyway, right? Somebody can look at this image, in your book, and say it’s a romantic celebration of a moment, and some people could say it's reducing people to just their cock.
Florian Hetz: I do think that I reduce people to their body parts in that moment because I don't give them space enough presented as a person. I'm not interested in them as a portrait, in this particular book, it is about the body parts and I don't really see a problem with that so much. The separation between cold and warm is interesting because actually that was never an intention in the beginning, but then I realised the more and more there is a division between these two things. The cold part that is way more abstract maybe, like body forms that really turn to this abstract landscape sometimes, even. And the other parts that are way more sexual I think – both are really intimate in different ways.
“I do think that I reduce people to their body parts in that moment because I don’t give them space enough presented as a person. I’m not interested in them as a portrait” – Florian Hetz
Matt Lambert: The body becomes just the vehicle for you to explore the way that you look at bodies. It becomes more about your gaze and your subjective view of what you want to look at in a person? It's very autobiographical work and you're in the work often. Sometimes your hand is in the work.
Florian Hetz: My hand is quite often in the work. (laughs) It is absolutely, definitely subjective. It is my view; I don't want to claim to do anything else. This is my particular view on male bodies and male sexuality, also gay sexuality sometimes or for me, it's hard to divide it between the male and gay sexuality. It is definitely my view of it but also my obsessions and my sexuality plays into that without even wanting to hand out everything – what I'm into or what is my thing. But of course, there are big parts of me in there and that makes it, for me, important.
Matt Lambert: People often look to Berlin as a place that represents an unfiltered vision of sexuality and intimacy. It’s surely influenced all my work. What’s your experience been?
Florian Hetz: I think we're quite blessed in this city. I think definitely all of us participate from that general vibe of openness, or that people are but definitely more open also to just drop their clothes and say, "Hey, do you wanna shoot? Let's try something," and without shame. I think the shame factor is not that strong here. I think we had a tradition in Berlin since the 20s and the Weimar Republic where everything was quite open. Things changed a lot, but this tradition is still here. The intimacy part – I’m not sexual with every model but there's definitely that moment of intimacy. The moment started really when that person is undressing in front of my camera. And mostly I am dressed and behind the camera, and they need to trust me for me to feed into their trust by creating that special moment, and that is for me a fascinating moment every time.
Matt Lambert: The camera is just an intuitive accessory to capture that discovery and building of trust with people. It’s genuine and beautiful. You often end up bound to these people.
Florian Hetz: Also it's a part of who you are inside, I think. I know a lot of photographers have a shoot and then never really catch up with the people. It's a part of your talent and a part of your personality is that you feel really comfortable to be around and actually want to be around you. And I think that is a big talent.
Matt Lambert: Another thing about this city that must influence your work as well is time. In New York, London or Paris people the process can get so streamlined and people become so fucking efficient with their time, and efficiency isn't always the best way to make great work.
Florian Hetz: Depends on what work you want to do but I think in that field, and especially when one contains personality and sexuality, you can't put a timestamp on it. Like okay, we have 13 minutes now. It's not really going to happen; you need time to establish that first.
Also that moment of spontaneity. Not everyone works. People are spontaneous. They really can be like, "Okay what are you up to? Let's meet in half an hour," and they're there. (clicks) It's incredible. Quite often, it’s me who’s pulling back when I don't really have something to shoot right now. I don't really have an image that I want to do. Most of my photos that I actually have, before I shoot them, I have them in my head. Of course, I go to the left and to the right, and develop and move to other things and see what the situation brings me. But ideally I shoot that one photo, then I want to shoot, and then I shoot even more because it turns out to be that person has so much more.
Matt Lambert: What gives birth to the moments you shoot? Is it memories and desires?
Florian Hetz: It's a mix but mostly it's my fantasy, my slightly weird world that I'm living in my head. Some certain beauty standards that might not necessarily be the same as someone else or in a standard world. That way that I see skin tones and I want to see skin tones as often quite different and other people. I go into my printer at my exhibition, I need to print a certain photo. I always try to explain and think of a corpse, think of a dead person when it comes to white skin because I don't want them to look healthy. These things are only a fantasy. Symbolic in my head, there are certain aesthetics that started out really early on in my teenage years, be it from movies, be it from watching or flicking through photo books of great people like Avedon, Man Ray, different things that came together that culminated in becoming who I am now, I think doesn't necessarily fit always in a healthy, happy, healthy body image.
Matt Lambert: That's a really relative thing.
Florian Hetz: Yeah, I know. But it's critique that I get from some people is that my photos look really sick. For me, I take it as a compliment. I don't think it's meant as a compliment. That's how it's supposed to be.
Matt Lambert: Berlin sexuality within nightlife...
Florian Hetz: I think it's changed really after all these years. I've been living here for 16 years now and when I moved here, this city was way more liberal than it is now. And it's still among all of the cities that I know in countries, it's probably the most liberal one. But I think it has changed a lot. With this Berlin hype, of course, we have a lot of people moving here but they move here with the expectation of liberty and freedom but they bring their kind of morals with them. And you don't even need to bring it down to sexuality, bring it to nudity, public nudity.
Matt Lambert: They want to spectate.
Florian Hetz: And not participate. I miss – and that's me getting old probably – but I miss places like the club that was really...like you would have acid there. It was a regular techno club, but really good techno club – probably the best I have ever been to. People would have sex everywhere and Berghain is different, Berghain came out of Ostgut and Berghain is definitely milder in terms of sex. Ostgut was really a visually stunning club, but also, like literally, you would bump into people on the dancefloor fisting each other, pissing on each other – but it was joyful, it was nice to have everyone completely accepted there. No one would go and be a spectator. You're automatically a part of that and you got drawn in and you participated. I had a lot of sex there. Literally, everywhere and it was amazing. When Berghain started, it was a great, it is a different club, and it's a fantastic club, but that sexuality from these days of Ostgut, I haven't seen them anymore.
Matt Lambert: Yeah, and how do you think that being in and around nightlife has affected the work or influenced the work, I guess outside the obvious which is probably just meeting a really open cast?
Florian Hetz: For me, I don't know – it influenced my personal sexuality because I have definitely less sex since I'm so much in the spotlight through that job. So I explore that, but I think because of that, I think my sexuality is more visible in the photos than actually in my real life. I pull myself out of the whole thing a lot and, of course, I've seen a lot of things in the last 11 years working in Berghain and to say that didn't influence me would be stupid, of course it did. I've seen be it faces, be it body types, be it different ways of how people carry them – there are moments that are really, when I work, when I see something, that are really like, keep in my head and that will appear in the photo. Or suddenly there might be like a gesture that, of course, I see it happen in the club where I get inspiration. Not necessarily always one-on-one and I say, 'Ok, that's exactly what I need to have in a photo,' – it's like little things that appear on the photo again.
Matt Lambert: I know you've had a few Instagrams deleted, right? And you were playing a bit on your Instagram with food in place of cumming dicks... How has your relationship to digital spaces affected the work?
Florian Hetz: Tumblr is where it all began, definitely. That was the place where I, for the first time ever actually, posted stuff. I've always been really visual. I've always liked really consumed photography from early age on. But I never actually put something out and Tumblr was the first place where I put a photo up with my hand holding the dick just after sex. It's a really nice photo. Instead of reposting something, I had ridiculous feedback and likes, and reposts which made me think “ok, I’ve got some more”. That's actually the starting point of my whole thing. For that, I'm quite thankful for digital spaces. Instagram, however, I am mixed and torn between, because at one point, I think it's a cute outlet for people producing, showing their stuff but the regimentation and the censorship is beyond ridiculous. And I got deleted, once, for a hand on a blanket. A hand grabbing a white blanket – that's all you could see. No indication that under the blanket was anything but then the photo of that got deleted, so it's completely out of control. There are so many wonderful artists that get deleted for not necessarily showing dicks...
“We have a lot of people moving here but they move here with the expectation of liberty and freedom but they bring their kind of morals with them. And you don’t even need to bring it down to sexuality, bring it to nudity, public nudity” – Florian Hetz
Matt Lambert: Yeah, I got deleted once. There was no nudity, all context, and they reinstated it after I flipped and started doing interviews with a focus on homophobia within social media.
Florian Hetz: I got reinstated but just three hours later, I got deleted again. I had this whole thing from November to January this year I got six accounts deleted. And in between, I got some of then reinstated and then straight away deleted.
Matt Lambert: Haha, I think Gio Black Peter's on number nine but he intentionally tries to get deleted. Even that SWEAT film I just made for Nowness was deleted from a lot of people’s walls.
Florian Hetz: It got removed from my wall, also. Not even with telling me; not even with the Facebook ban thing. It's just like secretly removing it from my wall which I find really shocking. You step into this thing and take something–
Matt Lambert: Without a conversation, without an explanation, without a...
Florian Hetz: Not that I can really argue with a conversation but at least I want to have this idea that okay, there's someone telling me that okay, that's against our guidelines. And you can say, well, what is against your guidelines?
Matt Lambert: Yeah, there needs to be more spaces, for sure. It's quite interesting, too, we talk about this idea of shame and I really feel like this Facebook/Instagram censorship is policing of our fucking minds, really, and starts to reinstate gay shame. There's even times when I'll post an image of two boys kissing and I feel bad, and I feel like I've done something wrong, and I feel like I'm in trouble, and I'm like "what the fuck is wrong with me to even have those thoughts?" It becomes this internal reaction, the programming that I fought so hard to break from, these social spaces actually start to build that programming back into me a little bit, to feel like I've been naughty for posting something that's actually completely fine to post.
Florian Hetz: I now imagine the kid, 13, 14, growing up gay and growing up with these morals from Facebook, Instagram...
Matt Lambert: Being embarrassed to 'like' something because you feel dirty.
Florian Hetz: That is sick, that is so sick. I see girls now in Berghain, having their tits out but taping the nipples, I said "what's wrong with your nipple? You show your whole breasts, I don't get it, either you're standing in front of me bare-breasted, and then you hide your nipple? Who's telling you that your nipple is bad?" "Yeah, well, it's not allowed on Instagram", "you're not on Instagram girl" That is scary.
Matt Lambert: And this is in a club where you can’t even take photos and in theory is removed from outside censorship and digital spaces.
Florian Hetz: It's sick, it's really sick, and I find it really, really scary. I don't want to live in a country, or in a place where all of a sudden I will get these really weird morals, indoctrinated from some...
Matt Lambert: Well it's an American ideal, it's American corporations and this puritanical fear of sex and shame of having a sexuality that starts to permeate all of the world because it's their social media platforms which everybody fucking needs to have to exist, to function.
Florian Hetz: That's bringing me back to our talk before about Berlin; I like Berlin for its openness towards sexuality, and like that it is not this whole shaming... for a really long time – it's changing now, slightly, that we have all of this streamlined parties, but Berlin was really open for different body types, which I liked. You could be the skinny boy, you could be the chubby or anything, and it was ok, you found your group, you found your niche or your pals, your parties and I don't want that getting streamlined, I like the diversity, sexual diversity that you had; different fetish parties for very particular fetishes and all of a sudden found something like that, but also for a lot of my trans friends, that they could actually move without any fear in the scene for a long time, and I think that is changing now slightly, that all of a sudden this whole hyper-masculinity is putting a threat sometimes to trans people, which makes me sick. I have nothing against guys who are hyper-masculine, but most of them are actually not, they're just in a hyper-masculine muscle-suit.
Matt Lambert: But I think, for me, there is an effortlessness and a confidence that a lot of people in Berlin do have when it comes to their body and themselves… or just laziness! (both laugh)
Florian Hetz: I don't mind, nothing wrong with that!