Masculinity is under a bright spotlight in 2020. Many ‘traditional’ ideas about men, from expectations around behaviour, to work and family life, are being questioned, and the culture is debating whether ‘gender norms’ should be redefined, or thrown out entirely.
Last year was a particularly significant one for the discussion around masculinity. From conversations in the workplace to high profile television adverts — think Gillette’s hotly debated ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign — nuanced topics like toxic masculinity and gender identity gained a new level of visibility.
Photographer Alicia Portillo Vazquez has explored the theme of masculinity in a recent photography series, ‘Man Down’. In it, she offers a different perspective on the ideas held up for so long as the ‘norm’.
I spoke to Alicia about her work, the themes that run through the photographs and what she hopes the viewer will take away from them.
Hailing from Spain originally, Alicia honed her craft in Scotland, where she earned her degree from Heriot-Watt University. Though she studied Fashion and Communication, she admits “I always liked it more behind the scenes on a photo-shoot.”
The ‘Man Down’ project brought her focus back to her roots: “This project was focused on creating in a different perspective on the idea of masculinity in Mediterranean countries like Spain, where the rules for being men are still traditional.”
But what originally led her to this kind of project? “The expression “Be a man” is obsolete, and we still embrace traditional aspects, so for me it was the need to show older generations and new ones that this expression could now be anything that represents a man in a healthy way with your thoughts and actions.”
During the last part of her studies, Alicia began to research cultural, political and social aspects of life, as her and those students around her began to decide “what we have to say” with their work. “I researched Mediterranean masculinity, and saw the affect of this on the men around me, and how I could reflect this in a positive way through photography, styling and graphic design.”
Of course, just because an artist wants to portray a subject in a certain light, doesn’t mean that the subjects are easily found. “I have to search a lot for male models who feel confident enough in front of a camera doing poses which aren’t the most conventional” states Alicia, “In the starting point of the project I wanted to use only Mediterranean models, but all the men I contacted refuse to do it because, in their opinion, their masculinity could be judged if they were seen like this, and it’s not how they should look, as a man.”
“I hope with this project older generations can open their expectations and ideas about what a man can be, and with this have a healthier relationship with their masculinity, but also for current generations in Mediterranean countries to have the option to feel and identify with more than this idea about what means to be a man.”
I ask Alicia what she enjoys most about this series: “For me, it was the creative direction and styling of the whole project, the part of creating a publication from a conversation I heard last summer, and representing these ideas through photography and styling, about a theme which is still controversial in my country.”
There’s no doubt that constructive discussions around masculinity can bring about positive change, even if it’s simply giving more freedom to the ideas that serve to question traditionally held beliefs. It seems like the work of artists like Alicia Portillo Vazquez is likely to be a catalyst for those conversations.