Armpits, sweat, necks, veins, hair, nipples, pubes, butts. We all have fetishes, and Florian Hetz knows most of them well. Based in Berlin, a wild and free city – which, according to him, “feels somehow like a sex tourist destination now” –, the photographer focuses his practice on male beauty, more especially, in homoeroticism. His gaze is unique and turns what closed-minded people may think of dirty and pornographic into pure, serene, and elegant images. We speak with him about how has his artist residency in Los Angeles changed his perspective, censorship in social media, and what’s next in his career.
You’re currently based in Berlin, a city known for its general sense of freedom – more especially, its sexual freedom. How do you think this environment fuels or inspires your creativity and work?
I don’t think Berlin inspires me much anymore. It feels somehow like a sex tourist destination now, it’s become the sex Disneyland for grownups. They come for a weekend of inhibited sex, parties, and drugs. They leave their responsibility in Stockholm, New York, or wherever they live. They party hard, consume people and drugs, and after the weekend, they take their antibiotics against all the STDs they caught and return to their life. It’s more or less the only industry Berlin has. It gets tiring when you live here longer than three years. On the positive side, it’s pretty easy here to find people that are up to be naked in front of a camera, and that’s nice.
Nevertheless, you’ve been living in Los Angeles as part of a residency program. How has this experience affected your photography? What’s the most important lesson/thing you’ve learnt and take back with you to Berlin?
The one important lesson I took back to Berlin would be not to be too much in my head. Most of the time, when I shoot in Berlin, I know already beforehand how the photo will look like. I know the light, the mood, the frame, etc.; the photo is already in my head and I recreate it. But when I went to Los Angeles, I set myself two tiny tasks.
The first one was to shoot without much of a pre-existing concept/idea in my head. Instead, see what happens in that moment with the person I shoot. That forced me to come out of my comfort zone by being way more spontaneous. The second task was to only shoot with natural light – it may sound simple, but I only shoot with studio lights in Berlin because I like the way I can sculpt with them. With two small lights, I can transform skin into something that looks like marble or metal. But I can’t manipulate the sun and it will always create a certain emotion, depending on what time of the day the shoot is. It’s been an interesting learning process though. The photos I shot in Los Angeles definitely have a different feel to it and are lighter and more fun.
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You take photos of penises, hair, sweat, veins, and even explicit sexual scenes. And despite they could be labelled as dirty, unpleasant and pornographic, I actually find them very clean, pure and elegant. How do you play with this dichotomy/contrast?
I never really understood why society views a penis as something dirtier, more ugly, and more obscene than a neck, an ear, or a hand. I don’t see too much of a contrast, to be honest. If you take the function away, then all there is left is skin in various colours. The skin of a penis is fascinating: it’s very thin and translucent and has a huge variety of hues. A finger, a mouth or a tongue can be just as sexual as a dick, and yet no one seems to mind them in daily life. Then, why are we so scared of a penis or a vagina?
Armpits, nipples, necks, pubes, butts. Your photography generally focuses on fetishized parts of the body. Which is your personal favourite one?
I really love necks and hands. And hands on necks I guess…
Do your parents attend your exhibitions? How did they first react when they saw your work was dedicated to homoeroticism?
I came out very early, and in my teenage years I was drawing a lot, either faces or dicks – and mostly photorealistic. So my parents are pretty used to that theme. My mum recently told me: “I just looked you up online, and your non-sexual stuff is not so bad. But I really don’t care for the penises.” I don’t come from a family where one ever gets much praise, so that was quite a compliment I guess.
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Since the photos you take are very intimate and reveal body parts that are usually private, how’s your relationship with the models you shoot? Very cold with no personal implication, or on the contrary, very warm, close and truthful?
I prefer to meet my models in a café for a chat, to get to know them and their story a bit – and to make sure that they get an idea of who I am and that I’m not a creep – before I shoot them. Many of the people I shoot have never been naked in front of the camera of a stranger and it can be intimidating for them if they have to undress in front of someone who stays dressed. A big part of my job is to make them feel relaxed and forget about their nudity. Humour helps a lot there. But I’m also pretty clear beforehand that the shoot is not a sex date with me, and if that’s the fantasy of the model, then I kindly suggest to find someone else.
Even though we should move forward and evolve, I sometimes feel like we’re taking the wrong steps to a more conservative era. How do you feel about the current social and political situation worldwide, especially now that you’ve been in the United States? Would you consider your art as a guerrilla form to broaden and open some closed minds?
I get asked a lot why do I insist on shooting men, especially gay men. Many gallerists claim that they can’t sell my work because male nudity and sexuality are the least sellable in the art market. But in 2018, when the majority of Americans feel uncomfortable around LGBTQ+ people and the rate of hate crimes against the queer community is globally on the rise, I find it important to be visible. Our so-called privileges can be revoked within a blink of an eye. Also, I can’t accept that only a heterosexual aesthetic and subject is acceptable for society. If I, as a gay man, can admire a straight aesthetic, then it should be possible that straight men and women do the same with gay content.
I grew up in a pre-Internet time where I was surrounded by female nudity. Every magazine I opened was full of naked women. For me as a young faggot, it was close to impossible to find imagery of naked men. And up till today, society is still scared of it. Instead of becoming more open, our society is drifting more and more towards the moral code of the ‘50s: a sterile sexless world where no one ever gets offended. Especially Instagram and Facebook with their obscure moral codes are telling young kids all over the world what is ok and what not. Female nipples have never been a big issue in Germany, and now, all over a sudden, kids react to it because a company told them that it is pornographic. It’s absurd and dangerous!
Let’s talk about censorship. I assume your pictures are constantly removed from any social network that isn’t Tumblr or Twitter. How do you fight or avoid it? Is ‘conforming’ and publishing ‘softer’ images a way of submission, or is it more like a bait for people to discover your more ‘hardcore’ work?
Let’s face it: Instagram/Facebook are companies. They are not my friends, my family or my gallery, and they have rules, whether I like them or not. I just have a problem with rules that are not clear and transparent and cater to a double standard. Instagram doesn’t allow penises; ok, understood. But it allows naked ass – sometimes, at least when you're Justin Bieber or a Kardashian. If I post the picture of an ass, the photo gets deleted immediately. Why? I don’t know. Can I ask someone there why? No, I can’t. Are there tons of naked butts on Instagram? Yes.
Their way of censoring feels random and often targeted against the LGBTQ+ community or non-traditional female beauty standards. Their community guidelines are a joke at best. Four accounts of mine have been completely deleted in the past and I didn’t show any dick or ass there. I was playing a lot with what people think they see on a photo, without showing it.
I stopped using Facebook actively already last year. I log into it maybe once a week to see which parties will I not be attending. My friends know not to contact me there because I switched notifications off. Facebook can block me from interacting or answering messages and that’s of no value to me. And I don’t take Instagram too seriously. It’s a nice tool to show people new and old work, but I don´t follow anyone there because I’m aware that I might get deleted again at any time.
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And how do you think the artistic community could fire back at censoring social media like Instagram and Facebook, which are against freedom of speech, creative freedom, nudism, body positive movements, feminism, etc.?
An alternative app for artists that allows nudity, creative freedom, body positivism, etc. would be amazing. But Apple is still not up for putting apps in their iTunes store that are showing nudity, so I don´t think there will be progress anytime soon. And the only language Mark Zuckerberg understands is when tons of people delete their accounts and leave his ‘community’ because only when the value of the company is declining, things might change. We need to understand that social media companies are not working for the users. Instead, users (and their personal information and details) are a product that is sold to make money (#deletefacebook). Use it as a marketing tool to bring your work out there, but don’t see it as your best friend.
What are you currently up to? Any upcoming exhibition, book, or project we should be aware of?
Right now, I am preparing a solo show in Hamburg that is opening on May 18. I will show the photos of the gay community in Echo Park that I took during my artist residency at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. As my final residency presentation at the foundation, I printed a small booklet in an edition of one hundred. It was sold out within one day and now I’m thinking of making a proper book out of it, with a lot more photos. I’m also very excited to take part in the Queer Biennial in Los Angeles in June.
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