Content note: This article mentions suicide.
Photographer Paul McDonald is possessed by two things. The first is a set of mysterious and intimate medical slides found by chance at an auction and carried with him ever since; and the second is the very concept of masculinity.
This much is clear only minutes into the first of the two workshops making up ‘Masculinity, Self and Survival,’ McDonald’s event as part of the 2017 Big Anxiety Festival. The event listing promises the exploration of mental health and suicide in men, and at the end of the process we’re to walk away with a unique portrait that we’ll co-create, reflective of our own relationship with the issues discussed.
This sort of collaborative process is familiar to Paul, as are the themes. Masculinity, and the question of what it is to be a man, forms the basis of much of his work. Through a combination of portraiture and landscape photography, he examines the pressures, expectations and lived experiences of manhood. Sometimes the way those themes are explored is overt, and sometimes it’s subtle, maybe so subtle that the only ones who can see them at all are McDonald and his subjects.
In ‘Masculinity, Self and Survival’ we were given a glimpse behind the curtain, or camera so to speak. The first of the two workshops was exclusively about process, but to understand his process we first had to delve into the circumstances in McDonald’s life that saw it develop.
Ask anyone who’s ever been exposed to even a whiff of gender studies about why men and women behave differently and they’ll tell you about socialisation. From an early age boys and girls are given a different narrative about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour; what toys, hobbies and interests are for boys, and which are for girls. It’s rarely a conscious decision, but rather gets communicated to children through an endless campaign of television advertisements, colour coding and childhood conversations.
Perhaps the most damaging of the lessons invariably taught to children is that boys don’t cry. It is this admonition of open emotion, particularly pain, that many people now credit as a reason for the staggering differences in male and female suicide rates. According to Mindframe, a national resource for reporting on mental health, there were 2866 deaths in Australia in 2016 recorded as suicides, 2151 of which were men.
We were privileged in the workshop to see a series of melancholy esoteric landscape photographs captured by McDonald, which he describes as an exploration of his paternal grandfather’s suicide. They are intimate and powerful. He recalls a man struggling with the loss of his wife and independence who turned to the church for help and was told only to “be a man” before being sent away.
The sentiment was echoed later by the same priest, only this time to McDonald himself at the time of his grandfather’s funeral; “be a man” and don’t cry for your father’s sake.
It’s a confronting narrative, but one that is not at all dissonant with the way boys are raised to believe suppressing their feelings is an act of manhood. After many years of ruminating on the experience Paul has emerged with a methodology that requires his subjects to actively consider their own personal understanding of masculinity. The process begins with the making of a mood board.
We’re given a glimpse of one of Paul’s own boards. In the top left corner is an advertisement for Bushmaster Rifles. The poster shows the semiautomatic weapon propped up beside text that reads “consider your man card reissued”. It’s an alarming sentiment that speaks to the violence some men are taught to hold as integral to their identity. It’s also indicative of the underlying sense of humour with which Paul approaches his work.
Also on the board are photographs of male nudes, and excerpts from a favourite book of his, Memoirs of Hadrian, by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar. Recently he created a photoseries with a close friend that began with the same process. The exercise allowed them both to strip back their understanding of masculinity, and in particular the role of clothing in “making the man”. The finished products, including ‘Hugo Sleeping Nude’ (2016), show their subject in positions typically reserved for women in classical art, and McDonald has found much of the power of the works has come in audiences’ discomfort at seeing male bodies in poses that they deem to be inappropriate or ‘uncomfortable’.
When it was my turn to begin the co-creation process, I found in my email inbox a question from Paul: “Is there an image that describes how you identify as masculine?” The image was to form the centre of my own mood board. As an artist and facilitator, Paul provides almost frustratingly few guidelines in choosing appropriate images; most likely reflective of his desire to liberate other men from the constraints of a proscriptive definition.
In the end I found myself torn between two, an image of Marlon Brando with the orange peels in The Godfather, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photo Two Men Dancing. In a way it symbolised for me at least a struggle between a historical tendency towards patriarchal violence on one hand, and a more inclusive and vulnerable experience of masculinity on the other.
The very exercise of being asked to distil something so intimate into a single image was challenging, and the boards of each participant varied greatly, incorporating elements of the personal, political, surreal and humourous. When in the coming weeks we will all meet with Paul again, the concepts articulated in our mood boards will be brought to fruition in the form of a portrait.
Paul’s whole process, then, might be thought of as a metaphor of sorts; the promotion of self-reflection on what it means to be a man. You leave the studio with the benefit of a portrait, but the true value is in the questions themselves, and the burdens lightened just by asking them.