A photographer based in Portland, Oregon, has thrown himself into a project exploring and questioning notions of masculinity.
Matthew Dean Stewart was born and raised outside of Los Angeles. He started his photographic journey in New York City after moving there in 2012, before his more recent relocation to Portland, Oregon.
He tells GSN he has always taken pictures, but started doing it professionally while living in NYC, shooting drag queens and nightlife performers.
Throughout 2017, he traveled across the US taking pictures of over 100 different people from all walks of life. His work focuses on gay men, but he says he’s open to shoot with anyone ‘who is different and creative and wants to challenge what society expects of us.’ He’s just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new book, Fragile Masculinity.
‘The idea for this project came out of a constant frustration of seeing how society separates men and women,’ he says.
‘No matter what country, we each have specific things we are “supposed” to do according to societal standards. So the question “who told us that it was supposed to be this way?” always comes into my mind, and my work.
‘Obviously within the gay community we have many men who identify in many different ways, but even we have an idea that we are attracted to men, so men should be “masc.”
‘I had the idea of putting men in dresses in a stripped down sense. Not trying to impersonate women, or making it like a drag queen, just showing how an article of clothing falls designed for a woman falls on a man.
‘Clothing has always been a hot topic for me, because it is another societal expectation placed on us and other people telling us how to represent ourselves. And men (straight and gay) seem to be scared to wear something that is designed for a woman, scared that it challenges their manhood and makes them less than.’
He says he hopes the book will help to shift attitudes and minds.
‘I talk a lot about what society expects of us, but I really believe that this is a major flaw in us as humans. We are so drawn to the media and what the media tells us.
‘So if our whole lives we have seen that a man is only a man if he provides for his family, dresses in a suit and calls the shots, how can we continue to grow and strive for equality?’
‘We are all beautiful and should embrace all the parts that make us who we are’
He says he has noted in the gay community, a tendency over the past few years to discriminate against more feminine men. This is particularly pronounced on dating apps.
‘That’s where the idea of “Fragile Masculinity” comes into play, being scared of losing something that you think makes you a man. But in reality all it does it distance you from experiences, and meeting amazingly beautiful humans.
‘I want us all, straight or gay, to be able to look at how we view ourselves in this world. And I want us to challenge ourselves to try and be more open and understanding of everyone and how they identify.
‘I would like to open up the doors of conversation with this book to hopefully prevent a young person from feeling badly about themselves because of how they present themselves to the world. We are all beautiful and should embrace all the parts that make us who we are.’
‘The world is a melting pot of different people’
Matthew says he found 30 men for the project from five different cities, all recruited through social media. The men all pose in a dress, and then nude. The naked images here have been censored – you’ll have to hope the book is published for the uncensored versions!
The book will also feature contributions from illustrators and writers, exploring the theme of fragile masculinity and gender norms.
‘Standing full frontal and nude is a very vulnerable place to be in, and I wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable with me, and with the images being produced. While looking for people to photograph, I wanted to make sure that I was representing as many different variations of men as possible.
‘It is important to me to represent a world where there are different types of people, which goes back to challenging societal expectation and what we have been trained to see.
‘We need to constantly be reminded that the world is a melting pot of different people and we are all; trying to co-exist together.’
‘Every person can identify with a certain level of masculinity or femininity’
Lastly, I tell him that his work might be challenging for some people. Some gay men who identify as ‘masculine’ may feel they’re being attacked or ask, ‘What’s so wrong with being masculine?’
‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with masculine guys!’ he affirms. ‘If I were to sit here and start going against any masculine men, I would be contradicting myself and everything this book stands for. We should be able to be whomever we want to be and represent ourselves however we want to represent ourselves.
‘The goal is to live on this planet together and accept each other for who we are as individuals. Every person can identify with a certain level of masculinity or femininity, and it is up to them to decide how to live their own lives. It is not for us to tell them how to live.
‘I want us to be at a place of acceptance and understanding, and if we don’t agree or like something, maybe we can just take a step back and look at the bigger picture.’