Stéphane Gizard confronts toxic masculinity and censorship head-on through his powerful and striking male nudes. In his recent project turned photo book, We Removed Your Post Because It Doesn’t Follow Our Community Guidelines, Gizard offers viewers intimate and striking images alongside a call to arms against centuries of prudishness. Swapping naked men for empty streets, Gizard’s new book Paris Silence portrays an abandoned Paris in the midsts of the city’s lockdown. We sat down with him to discuss Paris, penises, and Instagram as the new Catholicism.
I read that you discovered your love of photography for the first time when you were ten years old. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Indeed. I discovered the camera at that age; I found it magical. How was it possible to keep memories of past moments? What a crazy machine! I was so intrigued. My melancholy decided what to do next: I became a photographer.
So far, the majority of your photographs have focused on the male form. When did this focus begin, was it a conscious decision?
I started photographing my friends (either male or female) around the age of 20, but little by little, I was surrounded more and more by boys. It happened a bit accidentally because when I started out, I photographed a lot of famous people. I worked a lot and didn’t have the time to devote myself to personal work. But in 2007, I did my first work on adolescence and its representation through clothing (titled Dress Code), which mixed girls and boys. Then in 2011, I started shooting boys on a much more regular basis, which resulted in my first book, Modern Lovers, published in 2013.
I found your book We Removed Your Post Because It Doesn’t Follow Our Community Guidelines very powerful. The essay that precedes your book by Arthur Dreyfus draws parallels between the attitude toward male nudity in the Catholic Church of the 1500s and modern censorship on Instagram (the platform your title refers to). Do you think religion still rules our relationship with nudity and eroticism, even among those who wouldn't necessarily consider themselves religious?
Religion has been replaced by today’s religion of consumer society. The principles are the same: crowd control. In this case, ideological and mercantile control.
The men you capture in this book appear to be both vulnerable and confident. What do you mean to communicate about masculinity by capturing the male body on camera?
To me, this is exactly what this moment between the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood represents: fragility and, at the same time, confidence (often fake). I like to show this duality.
France, and in particular Paris, has a reputation for being more liberal in its relationship to sexuality than countries like the United Kingdom or the United States. Living there, do you find this to be true? And have you noticed a different reaction to your books in different countries?
My books sell a lot abroad. I believe that, indeed, this French touch is incredible. We are such a free country. Let’s not forget that the Republic is represented by a topless woman holding the French flag! That’s the difference.
You joked on Instagram that your work will never be available on Amazon. Do you think these companies – Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, etc. – encourage us to be ashamed of our body and to defend certain ways of thinking?
Totally. These groups only think about money. For them, man must become an object. There must no longer be an elite; they are the elite. They’re trying to impose a new model of society, and as Americans, they are the kings of prudishness, so their culture is about regression and passivity of the masses, which isn’t new. They indeed point their fingers at nudity while messages of hatred or violence aren’t removed. It is quite terrible because screens don’t encourage reflection.
Your work is also featured in the popular new book Boys, Boys, Boys, edited by Ghislain Pascal. Male nude photography has always been viewed as somewhat deviant and obscene. Do you think we're about to change the way this mode of photography is engaged with?
Indeed. Straight white men in the 20th century decided that the female nude was no problem but that the naked man was for perverted homosexuals only. Fortunately, everything has changed very quickly in the last ten years, and my work has always been in this direction. I find the male nude often elegant, far from the obscenity and deviations, which are only in the minds of those who are disturbed by them.
Do you think that even in the world of photography female nudes are considered more artistic than male nudes? And if so, why do you think this is the case?
Yes. It is all a matter of point of view reduced to one’s own desires. It will still take time for the male nude to be on par with the female nude. The straight man still has trouble comparing his penis to that of the model photographed. But for example, women love to see naked guys!
Your models are mostly young men in their twenties. Despite the taboo around celebrating male nudity, do you think these men have a healthy relationship with their bodies? Does the relationship differ based on nationality and sexuality?
I don’t know. Sometimes they do certain poses to develop their confidence, while others just do it without taboo. They are often straight and very comfortable with their body.
I’m really intrigued by your new book, Paris Silence, as it seems to stray from the rest of your work. The book features images of a deserted Paris during the Covid-19 lockdown. What prompted you to work on this project?
I was born in Paris, and yes, it’s amazing to have made this book because I had to testify what was going on; I couldn’t stay at home. In the end, it’s not that far from my usual work. There’s a sense of continuity or parallelism. It’s sober, minimalist. I always photograph empty sets, and in all my books, there are pages with these images. Paris Silence is, therefore, just the painter’s portrait of an empty city.
Although the spaces you photograph in Paris Silence are deserted, they are still a little comforting, perhaps because of the warmer tones. This contrasts with your previous work, which was mostly black and white or cooler tones. What caused this change of palette and what do you mean by it?
I was just an opportunist! The weather was magnificent; We had never seen so much sun at that time of the year. Everything was photographed vertically with a 24 mm lens and in colour – colour imposed itself; black and white would have been a mistake. A lot of people tell me that the book is great and especially not anxiety-provoking. There is calm, silence, beauty.
Because your previous books have challenged the mainstream culture, they almost become political. Do you see Paris Silence as political? Does it mean to comment on how France, or governments in general, have handled this pandemic?
Very good question. There will remain a testimony of a period of collective madness. This book marks the passage between the world before and the one after. The lack of political courage sacrifices people a little more every day. We no longer accept that death is present in our lives. I am not a philosopher, but I believe that in some time, with hindsight, we will say to ourselves ‘society was crazy.’
After working so closely with models for so long, have you found any comfort in working?
Being alone has been a gift. I was in a state of happiness and calm. It is a wonderful memory.