Reinventing the masculine discourse with photographer William Lakin
“Presenting things in a way which appear colder and more objective helps the viewer question the veracity of the systems and hierarchies we are used to,” says William on his new photography project.
- Joey Levenson
- 4 August 2021
“My interest in photography has grown to be more about ideas and problem solving,” north London-based photographer William Lakin tells It’s Nice That. “I like starting with a subject and thinking of different ways I can approach it.” It’s a far cry from his early days in Shefford, Bedfordshire, where William’s teenage endeavour into photography was a “very superficial and cliched idea of what makes good photography.” Now, William’s tender framing, unique crisp lens, and stark colour palettes are anything but cliche. They’re conceptual but grounded in a humanity that makes them within reach for the viewer. Familiar quotidian subjects seem slightly off, as if he’s trying to pinpoint something out of place but unknown to what exactly it is. “Recently, I have definitely veered more towards black and white, or working with very limited colour palettes,” William says. “I prefer to make images more graphic, or images which isolate simple gestures as opposed to images that are colourful and overly emotive.”
It’s a visual language William says reflects the critical approach he takes in his work, backed by his academic research on social hierarchies, particularly of gender. “My critical approach rejects the idea that these social norms are set in stone,” William explains. “Presenting things in a way which appear colder and more objective helps the viewer question the veracity of the systems and hierarchies we are used to.” Most recently, William has broached the subject of Western hegemonic masculinity with his project Five Minutes After Birth. “The subjects I am interested in are often current popular topics of discussion,” he tells us. “In this sense, my work is quite predictable and reflects, or at least begins in, an area which a lot of people are talking about.” Using his academic research into social theory and gender studies, William produced a photo series that speaks to the current public conversation on masculinity whilst transmuting it into a unique piece of art. “I think it is also important to watch and think about reality TV shows like Love Island,” he adds on his research. “They inevitably inform us on things like current beauty standards and expectations in relationships.”
“Five Minutes After Birth is made from the viewpoint that masculinity, as with other group identities, is performed and culturally reproduced,” William explains. It’s a theory that has been ubiquitous in the terrain of queer theory for years, such as in the seminal work on performativity by Judith Butler in the 1990s. “The project initially started off as an illustrated essay, but I quickly moved away from this approach when I found the essay was stifling the imagery,” William says. “As a broader body of work, it exists as a series of photographs, text pieces, a video piece, a series of cyanotypes and some archival work.” Whilst William notes that the overall project is still a work in progress, what we can see so far is an uncanny disarticulation of a popular topic we’ve all come to know as naturalised facets of society. “I want to communicate how ambiguous the term ‘masculine’ really is, highlighting how many different things it claims to account for and how difficult it is to give a personal account of what masculinity means.”
Amongst this exploration of the discursive “masculine”, William has intertwined photos with interviews of the male subjects, where he asks them to give an explanation of what masculinity means to them. “I ask them not to use gendered words such as ‘masculinity, ‘femininity’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, etc,” he says. “This is to encourage them to give a more detailed and descriptive response, but also to highlight our reliance on these terms.” In the end, William found that none of the interviewees managed to avoid using gendered language. “Many of them struggled to give a succinct account of what masculinity meant to them,” he notes. In the photographs, where the spoken language is not possible, William opts for a focus on gesture. “I like isolating gestures or taking body language out of context because I think it helps break down the ways we view and communicate with one another and dissociates it from continuous ‘natural’ ways of being,” the photographer explains. Many of the images also contain an element of suspended balance or a gesture to movement, which William implemented to “communicate the tension and anxiety inherent in performing and monitoring these identities.”
Now, William is looking for opportunities to exhibit the work. “I have a couple of exhibitions coming up and I am very fortunate to have been selected for the Photo Open Up open call which will be the most comprehensive exhibition of the work so far,” he tells us of the exhibition in Padua, Italy which runs from September to October 2021. “Whilst this work is still ongoing, I am starting a new project which has some cross over with this one,” William adds. “This new work will go towards my PhD studies, beginning this September, and is on the subject of conspiracy theories and group narrative formation.” Considering William’s approach to the conversations surrounding masculinity, we eagerly anticipate his foray into conspiracy theories. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned in to his online curatorial project XLVI Space, which has two online exhibitions currently running.
GalleryWilliam Lakin: Five Minutes After Birth (Copyright © William Lakin, 2021)
William Lakin: Five Minutes After Birth (Copyright © William Lakin, 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.