Portrait of a psyche in flux: photographer Shane Rocheleau on white American masculinity


Masculinity, we’re told, over and over again, is undergoing a crisis. In recent years, the phrase “toxic masculinity” has filled the room like a sour smell. Shane Rocheleau’s first monograph, You are Masters of the Fish and Birds and All the Animals, is an exploration of the space he occupies as “a white American male trying to contend with the entitlement my culture confers upon me”, he explains.

Privilege is invisible; those who have it often don’t see it or chose to actively ignore it. “In his graduation speech to Kenyon College”, Shane tells us, the writer and university instructor, David Foster Wallace "tells a story: two young fish swim past an older fish, who nods and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ As the younger fish swim on, one eventually asks, ‘What the hell is water?’.” For Shane, white patriarchy is the water.

“I think white men need to start challenging their sense of entitlement”, the photographer explains. “I am responsible for making the patriarchy’s vestiges, visible”. Although Shane has benefited from these privileges, like many men, he claims, white American masculinity is a social construct that has “scarred” him.

You are Masters of the Fish and Birds and All the Animals, is an excerpt from Genesis that has been used by those in power to justify their atrocities. In particular, Shane explains, “bigotry, the defence of slavery and the increasing wealth gap”. The publication itself mimics a bible in its design, one you might find dusty and hidden in a seedy motel drawer, an unpleasant reminder of your impurity on a night of debauchery. The cover is a rich, plum fabric with the title embossed in gold lettering, centralised, cross-like.

Shane is not only disillusioned with religion but is also wary of “how certain narratives have shaped his country’s collective psyche”. Throughout the book, we see isolated American symbols, which he describes as “propagandistic messaging”. Musket balls appear like rust-coloured, cratered moons, aggrandising the second amendment. There is a bronze bust of Patrick Henry, a memorialised founding father who led the American Revolution when “anonymous slaves died liberty-less”. One photograph shows the country’s rolling “purple hills”, an image that was taken from a patriotic song "America the Beautiful”, yet the current government is doing nothing to preserve its landscapes.

America is filled with these contradictions, as is masculinity. “We fought a war for independence, while on the other hand, we did so to deprive Native Americans of theirs”, the photographer comments. “Celebrating the cowboy or war hero meant obscuring the emotional neglect, violence and physical injury” that he also experienced. Masculinity becomes a celebration of things that carry deeply negative connotations, and this sorrow leaks into the imagery. With an apocalyptic feel to Shane’s selection, the narrative becomes progressively troubling as you turn the pages.

“With or without the book, here’s what I am saying”, Shane begins. “White America’s masculine expectations — to be violently strong, sexually aggressive and entitled, a successful homesteader, a rational patriarch — yield in its extreme, repressed, aggressive, paranoid men and subservient, scared, victimised women and minorities."

These thoughts permeate the pages. The male gaze penetrates the back of a woman, sat downcast on the bed. There is a headless female statue – all body, no mind. A stake bleeds rain, flowing like entrails down a concrete road, reminiscent of the horrors caused by property lines. An old man sits with a bruised and purple eye. A silhouetted figure bends alone in a misty car park, and a businessman leans dejected against a city wall.

However, the photographs in the monograph leave plenty to interpretation; they are elusive and quiet, and if one didn’t spend long enough pouring over them, their intentions could be missed. Meaning is not fixed, it is free to be created by the reader — an approach Shane learnt when studying English and Psychology at St Michael’s College in Vermont. “I don’t want to create pictures that contain both the question and the answer; I want to create images that withhold”, the photographer explains. “I want my viewer to ask questions about each picture, then make their own connections”.

“Jacques Ranciere argues in The Emancipated Spectator that a teacher does not have the knowledge that the student needs to know.” Shane explains, “Instead, he creates the conditions whereby they can learn through their own experiences.” The photographer does the same here, pushing us to establish meaning ourselves. The redacted list of image titles on the second to last page leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, encouraging us to, literally, read between the lines. Photographs that were once mysterious become clear. Many themes are addressed, each photograph as open and interpretable as a sonnet. Telephone poles are revealed, lying blackened and damp on a forest floor, a tree lies strewn across the road, and a fiery storm brews atop a hill — images we can only imagine hint at climate change.

The narrative throughout rises and falls like a melody, moving towards a violent crescendo then dropping back into silence and space. Amongst other stories told in the book, is the myth of Icarus. “I think Ovid’s myth is not about narcissism,”, Shane tells us, “rather, it is about empathy. I don’t think Icarus flew too close to the sun because of his hubris, but because he was modelling his father’s behaviour and is too young to do otherwise.”

Part way through the monograph we find a bright white image of worms; our feet are on the ground. The following photograph shows the sun, tiny and circular in the distance. In the next, the sun seems closer as if we were zooming towards it, and the third is an image so dazzling that we are blinded, falling into the water on the succeeding page. After this fall comes poverty, law enforcement, the rise of capitalism and violence, all suggestive of the horrors man has made for himself.

Shane’s story is one of inheritance and legacy. It laments the tale of the father and son, conveying how social expectations have been passed down and repeated until they’ve become the norm. It is a profoundly personal recital, yet representative of both culture and his country. “My internal contradictions are a microcosm of our nations”, he explains. “White American masculinity undergirds our politics and religion; it permeated our homes. And it’s scary.”

However, the picture he paints is not one of jostling jocks; it is strikingly sorrowful and anxious. He asks, as a white man, “am I winning yet? Have I won the American dream? I know what I’m fighting against: myself.” Shane seems unable to free himself from gender expectations, to shake off the masculine mask. He is at odds with himself and what he represents.

“I don’t know how to say it’s scary to be a white man in this country, because it’s scarier to be a woman or a minority”, the photographer explains. “While I’ve both benefitted and been duped by my whiteness and maleness, I don’t always feel like a winner. I’m conflicted, confused, ambivalent. This project — a portrait of my psyche — is the language I’ve thus far conceived.”

The figures captured in this book are melancholic, pained and isolated, lost in a capitalist world and weighed down by legacy. Currently, women are being told they can change history, while white men seem doomed to repeat it.

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Emma Latham Phillips

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