Israeli photographer Nir Arieli was shocked by some of the homophobic comments posted last week on the top-viewed Huffington Post article about his work.
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The article (“Gorgeous portraits capture the feminine side of masculinity”) depicted Arieli’s series “Men”: intense, intimate shots of very vulnerable-looking guys, from the blue-eyed, thick-lipped “Matt” who has tears rolling down his face; to “Paul,” a bearded redhead laying sensuously on a flowered comforter staring piercingly with come-hither eyes. (“Men” was originally a school project for the School of Visual Arts, which Arieli recently completed, and also exhibited at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.)
“I was searching for that component in masculinity that has been suppressed for years,” says Arieli, 27, who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “All that gentleness and censored emotion, feeling things that men don’t think they can show or it’s not cool to expose,” says Arieli, who, with his black hair, goatee and doe eyes, exudes that gentleness himself. Many of the 1,000-plus comments on Huff Po were supportive, a number questioned typical definitions of masculinity and femininity, but quite a few were blatantly homophobic.
At first Arieli was uncomfortable, but then he became fascinated by it. “We live in this New York bubble, where everyone’s a Democrat and I’m surrounded by artists,” he says, “but in our society there really are people living in a really dark place.” Yes, gay marriage is legal in many places, but “there’s such a long way to go until people feel really okay accepting something different from them.”
And that’s what “Men” is about: not homosexuality, but difference. “It’s not about gay people,” confirms Arieli, who didn’t inquire about the sexual orientation of his subjects. “It’s about this component of masculinity that’s not okay to be expressed with straight and gay men.”
Gay men can’t express their emotions?
“People think gay men do, but I feel like they don’t. Within the gay community there’s a whole issue that ‘feminine’ men are not attractive,” he says, echoing commentor Charles Evanstar, who wrote that the issue of masculinity has created a great divide in the gay commmunity. “Even after all the bullying so many young gay men have been through, in my opinion gay men who may be considered ‘feminine’ are still shunned and alienated by fellow gay men, who apparently think they themselves are more ‘masculine,’” Evanstar wrote.
Arieli, who comes from what is known as the very masculine culture of Israel, doesn’t feel his homeland is that much different from America. “In Israel and the United States, there’s extremely right-wing fringes - but there’s also a lot of progress in Israel.”
He mentions “Arisa” - the Mizrahi-themed gay parties in Tel Aviv that are extremely popular. The image of the Israeli Mizrahi “gever” – the man’s man, Arieli says, in a mixture of Hebrew and lightly accented English - is “not something that once went with homosexuality; and Mizrahi music from outlying towns and lower-class neighborhoods wasn’t compatible with the Tel Aviv yuppy community,” he explains. But he believes it’s all changing: “We’re getting there slowly, toward a better place.”
Arieli describes himself as a mix of Iraqi, Polish, Austrian and German heritage. He grew up the second of three children in the small town of Maccabim, where, as a teen, he felt like he wanted to create. But he didn’t know which medium, so he tried out graphic design, video, painting on glass and photography, which frustrated him because developing film in the darkroom didn’t allow him to achieve the results he wanted.
It was only when he got a point-and-shoot camera, where he could quickly manipulate digital photographs, that he decided to focus on photography, taking his camera everywhere, always experimenting. “I realized pretty quickly that I needed my subject to communicate with me,” he recalls. “It’s an aesthetic thing: I need a dialogue; I need intimacy to be created.”
His portfolio landed him a spot in the army at Bamachane, the Israel Defense Forces’ magazine, where his work won him a scholarship to New York’s SVA.
There he learned to reveal what lies beneath, like with “Men” and his upcoming series, “Inframen,” which will exhibit at Daniel Cooney Fine Art from January through March. He used a special infrared lens to allow the viewer to see under men’s skin - freckles appear like black dots; scars and bruises show up on those usually perfect specimens: dancers.
Most of Arieli’s portrait series use male dancers (often scantily clad), whom he came into contact with because his cousin was attending Juillard’s dance school. “I didn’t know anything about dance,” says Arieli, admitting that he cannot dance “at all.” But as he learned more about contemporary dance, and photographed the dancers, he began to think of them as supernatural creatures because of their physical abilities.
Capturing the moment
His thesis for SVA, “Tension,” used double exposures of the dancers. “Photography is all about that one moment, the decisive moment,” Arieli explains. “Dance is about a series of moments. It can’t exist in one moment.”
Arieli might be the master of capturing the moment. Although he considers dancers collaborators with him in staging the photos, in his other portrait work he has to help “clueless” subjects. “It’s about energy. I think when people feel comfortable, they trust me, and they feel they can be who they are,” he says, noting that they just talk about the poses, the angles, nothing more. “I make them be present,” he adds.
Arieli talks about this whole new movement of “psychological portraiture,” where people believe that to make a really good portrait you need to talk with your subjects – sometimes for a day or two – to really get to know them, and only then can you photograph them. “I completely disagree with that concept,” Arieli states. “I feel like an interesting moment can be created in two seconds.”
One of those moments happened in “Men” when he was walking the subject through his apartment and told him the light was perfect. “Can I cry?” the man asked him. Arieli thought it would be a tear or two, but the guy started weeping and Arieli started shooting.
“That’s what I like about photography,” Arieli concludes, “it grants me the access to experience intimate moments with strangers, most of whom I don’t know. I’m not a very social animal, and this is something that photography gets me into, so I’m very grateful for that.”