Despite South Africa’s growing reputation as a hub for arts, culture and design (with events like Design Indaba showcasing local talent), a dark cloud of violence looms over the country, which many argue is intensified by shifting gender norms. Acclaimed photographer—winner of the 2011 World Press Photo for her moving portrait of Bibi Aisha, and also a Johannesburg local—Jodi Bieber explores masculinity and male vulnerability in her new portrait series “Quiet.” The solo exhibition, which opens today 3 April 2014 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, combines Bieber’s unique ability to tenderly capture the core of her subjects, while providing a rich and pressing social commentary that applies to not just South Africa, but gender power dynamics around the world.
“It took me a full year to conceptualize this project,” Bieber tells CH, “I was stricken by how men everywhere—from the gym, to politics, to sports, to business—are always in performance. There’s a constant posturing of masculinity.” The title of Bieber’s series implies both the still tone of her composition, the atmosphere around production and the impact on the viewer. “You never see the quietness of men,” Bieber explains referencing the ceaseless performance of masculinity, “They’re always wanting to be doing something. So the question is: how do you remove that mask and portray male vulnerability, the quietness?” The answer, Bieber found, is for men to pose in their underwear in their own environments.
The success of Bieber’s work—what gives her photos their gripping personalty and relatable depth—lies in the relationships she cultivates with her subjects. “I’ve covered the depth of darkness in society,” Bieber says, “but I always avoided men.” In her previous project “Real Beauty,” that focused on female identity and defining stereotypes of beauty, there was an outpouring of women who wanted to participate. “The phone was ringing off the hook. For ‘Quiet’ it was a different story. Women bare themselves much more than men do. For men, vulnerability is hard to express, it’s been associated with being wrong.” Bieber adds, “My hope is that with this series portraying men in a different light, we can open up a space and dialogue where it’s OK to be vulnerable.”
On the actual process of shooting, Bieber is known for asking a lot of her subjects; taking time to wear down the pleasantries and buzz around shooting so the subject can open up. For many men, this imposed silence served to further expose themselves emotionally. The images, like the title suggests, instill a certain quietude. It’s not an awkward silence, but it holds a certain weight; a soft tension that is at once a mark of human vulnerability and the imposed social pressure to conceal it. “Most of them yawned,” Bieber says, “Being quiet was very difficult for them. Some even fell asleep.”
Jodi Bieber’s solo exhibition “Quiet” opens today 3 April 2014 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
Images courtesy of Jodi Bieber