With a beautiful new photo book being released on September 30th, we catch up with Florian Hetz to discuss his latest project. The title zwei, meaning two in German, is rich with meaning for him, and the book encompasses his contrasting approaches to life and photography. This collection of photographs is a view of manhood free from strict standards of masculinity and repressive online guidelines. Within this, tenderly paired images explore the duality of the double page and the connection between nature and queerness. Ultimately, Florian prompts us to question and let go of the shame surrounding bodies and sexuality.
Congratulations on your new book! Has creating a photo book been a long-term dream or a more recent idea?
Making books is really gratifying, and I would lie if I told you that I didn’t want to make another one. Since my first book, The Matter of Absence, came out, a lot of people kept asking me when would the next one be published. But I really wanted to take my time with it. The first book happened pretty much in the beginning of me taking photos. Zwei, on the other hand, is looking back on a couple of years of my photography, how I started and where I am now.
This book promises to be a wonderful collection, including work from your studio in Berlin and your residency in Los Angeles. Do these two places and the different ways you approached shooting (carefully set up to capture a specific idea in Germany, then more spontaneous and naturally lit in the US) play into the title zwei at all?
Zwei is the German word for 2. And the number meanders through the book in different forms: it’s my second book, the photos are taken in two continents, I use the duality of the double page to examine two individual photos and their relationship with each other, the book has two texts by Matthias Herrmann and Ryan Linkof, and it shows pretty well the two different ways I approach photography.
In Johann Wolgang von Goethe’s drama Faust, Doktor Faust says: “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast.” And that’s how I often feel about my photography. There is the warm joyfulness of the photos from the US, and then the cold preciseness of my photos from Berlin. The images showcase pretty well my life: my more reclusive life in Berlin, and the very outgoing and explorative life when I travel. And I think that shows in the photos. It’s interesting to see how well the photos work together.
Paper Affairs Publishing is dedicated to “creating a space for a diverse confrontation with manhood.” How has your experience publishing with them been?
Paper Affairs has been a great match for me. Their dedication to details like paper and printing were exactly what I was looking for. Peter Schmid, my publisher, and I both share a deep love for beautifully printed books. Making books in 2020 is not something you do to become rich; you do it because you want to make a beautiful object. And having a publishing house behind you that supports you in that approach feels very privileged. I met Peter when he started to collect my photos in 2018, and two years later, we created something together that we both can be very proud of.
Do you have plans for any future photo books?
Yes, we are talking already about new projects…
“Similar to the church in the past, Facebook/Instagram is colonising the world with a very dangerous and hurtful set of morals.”
This medium is notably free from the kind of censure you face due to online guidelines, was this a healing or welcome project to work on?
I’m glad that with the book I can show a part of my work that doesn’t surface online so much because of restrictive American censorship rules. Social media has created this very unhealthy way we deal with our bodies and sexuality. We strive for unrealistic body images and get anxious if we are not reaching those goals.
90% of the people that I work with are not models but normal people – often the first time in front of a camera. A big part of my job is to show them their own beauty. With the photos, I hope they can see themselves in the way I’m able to see their beauty: including all the scars, stretch marks, bellies and hair. No one should feel ashamed for who they are.
Similar to the church in the past, Facebook/Instagram is colonising the world with a very dangerous and hurtful set of morals. Morals that tell queer kids worldwide that their sexuality is not valid, that their bodies are shameful, that they have no space in society unless they look like the cis, straight, white, shaven, American Stepford family member. But we are here. We are beautiful and valid, even if we don’t fit into Mark Zuckerberg’s restrictive world.
How has the double page spread impacted the way you present your work? The juxtaposition of two photographs side by side brings to light beautiful new connections and an almost organic flow between the bodies of people, plants and landscapes you capture. I imagine this effect was carefully curated?
I boiled down the concept of zwei to the most simple concept there is: what have two photos on a double page say to each other? How do they interact? Where are the similarities? Often, it is very easy to understand, there is clear communication between the pages. Sometimes it even looks like that one page is mimicking the other. But there are also pages where it will be harder to understand why I paired exactly those photos. And even if I don’t explain why, I believe that people can understand it on an intuitive level.
I also often pair traditionally beautiful images with candid photos and raise the question, why do we look at a photo of a plant differently than the way we look at a photo of a penis? If we deconstruct the photos, both offer a variety of colour, texture and shape, but one will be read as shameful and the other one as beautiful. Why is that? How much more personal information do we add to an image when we look at it?
As the topic of manhood, specifically gay manhood, is often the subject of your work, what does masculinity mean to you?
The simple answer is, personally, it means nothing to me. I was lucky enough to grow up as a very androgynous child, which offered me the chance to question the concept of masculinity and femininity from an early age. Generally, I am very wary of the fixation of the gay population on the white, cis, masculine, muscled man. Masculinity should be one archetype of many. But my big problem is that this seems to be the only archetype that is allowed into many spaces. I don’t believe monoculture is a healthy concept. And manhood has nothing to do with masculinity for me.
There are deep-rooted issues of racism, fatphobia and toxic masculinity within gay male communities. In what ways does this reality impact the art you create? Are there ways you deliberately challenge these destructive narratives in your photographs?
My photos mirror my life pretty well in the sense that I don’t surround myself only with Caucasian, thin, muscular, masculine people. So why should I only shoot white, thin, masculine people? I am very fortunate that my sitters allow me into their life to portrait their beauty. And that beauty is as diverse as life is.
And finally, many people are still unable to touch their loved ones in the wake of the pandemic, and images like these are both a beautiful and painful reminder of physical intimacy. Has this time of social isolation/distancing from the queer community reminded you of the pre-coming out time which you explore in many photographs?
Luckily, the pandemic doesn’t force most of us to be in a closet. But the isolation has definitely created for many a strong desire for intimacy. In that sense, there might be some similarity. But what I mean when I talk about pre-coming out times is a time of secrecy and often confusion. Before we come out to others (or ourselves), we can not publicly say who we are. We have desires that confuse us mostly because society tells us that those desires are shameful and wrong. We have to hide a big part of who we are and completely question our existence. Visuals get amplified to a maximum. The veins on the arm of someone we have a secret crush on all over a sudden arouse us, because it is so out of our reach. Straight kids have similar experiences but hardly ever have to question them because their sexuality is the norm. A lot of queer people, on the other hand, still remember those moments very clearly because they had to hide them.
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