This summer I went to see the Gerrit Rietveld graduation show in Amsterdam. There I came across the work of Jeanne Gironde (b. France) whose project stayed in my mind for quite some time. Intrigued by her portrayal of men from a female perspective, I took the chance to interview her about the book and series No, I Just Think You’re Beautiful to learn more about her way of seeing. Curious to know more too? Then continue reading below…
What initially inspired you to start No, I Just Think You’re Beautiful?
My interest in the different representations of the male body has always been there I guess. As far as I can remember I have been attracted to men and desiring them, but the need to investigate and materialize this topic really started to only grow last year. I have made several projects featuring male faces and bodies and didn’t even notice I was doing it until one of my teachers told me I had a “fetish” for the male body. I didn’t know how to react even though it amused me at first. I found this word so intense and not true to what I was trying to express unconsciously; my desire and appreciation for the other sex. I started to ask myself if I was indeed a bit obsessed, then questioned it the other way: What’s so crazy about the fact that, as a straight female creator, I am featuring something I am attracted to in my work? It started there, this tension. It led me to realize that it was not a fetish but more of a need to look and show in my own way something I was desiring and couldn’t have access easily to on a daily basis. So I decided to write my thesis on the subject of male body imagery from a female point of view, and later on, continued this search with my own photographs.
For your project and thesis, you explored the male and female gaze primarily within the cinematic context. What did you find relevant in relation to photography and contemporary society?
I do think that cinema has an extraordinary power, it occupies a central place in the way we behave as a society. You are inevitably influenced by the images, clichés, and sex symbols that are coming out of it. That’s why the focus during the research phase for my thesis was mainly pointing towards movie scenes that would feature the male body from different angles than the traditional ones.
It’s very easy to observe the apparent domination of male vision in the image world; the cinema, photographs, and videos are made mainly by males, with protagonists being men, and the muse being women. This domination leads us to a one-sided type of image and ultimately, a one-sided vision of how to understand and position ourselves in society. I see cinema as well as photography as a universal language. By having the same references, and seeing the same content, we are experiencing and sharing similar things that we are mimicking. Women and men integrate the looks they undergo on the screen into reality. So if the look on the screen/paper changes, it can help lead us to a new way of looking at the world, not only at each other but also at oneself. By shaking this power dynamic between what is expected from a man and a woman through imagery on a daily basis, transformation can happen in the way we conceive and express ourselves in our gendered roles.
Throughout your research, did you come across any artists that you thought contributed to the discourse in portraying desire towards male bodies from a heterosexual (female) perspective?
I did, and they helped me a lot. For female photographers, I discovered the works of Yushi Li (especially the series My Tinders Boys and Paintings, Dreams and Love) and Pixy Liao (the series Experimental Relationship). With different approaches, they both changed the inherent female/male power dynamic in looking by reappropriating a known classical gaze while featuring themselves next to males in their photographs. Their gaze is focused on contemporary masculinity, desire, and erotism. As for cinema, I have to talk about the amazing movie director Claire Denis and her masterpiece Beau Travail. This movie was fully shaped by the eyes of women and shows us such a beautiful radical film about masculinity. The way she was filming these men with some zooms or extra large framing where the bodies are merging with the landscape was just amazing. But above offering stunning shots, she succeeded in deconstructing toxic masculinity while exploring this super rigid macho realm such as war, and its failings through repression, desire, and insecurity. It was the first time during my research that I felt I fully found what I was looking for in terms of aesthetics, energy, and speech.
In your project statement, you wrote that there is a “lack of male body representation in a sensual, erotic, and desirable way outside of a queer context.” How do you think such a lack could be tackled?
By showing more work made by females featuring men. I remember while looking for references having such a hard time finding women artists that would picture males with the intention to eroticize them. Also, all the slightly erotic fashion campaigns or beautiful sexy photoshoots with males I could find were always made by men. In the common conscience, if a man is sexualized, it is by another male. This shows a lack of understanding and consideration regarding women’s need for access and expression of what they can consider visually attractive, erotic, and stimulant.
In a bigger picture, suck lack could be tackled by first trying to deconstruct the taboo around the objectification of men. In the sense that when a male is going to find himself the center of desire he will most of the time be portrayed as a subject in action: fighter, superhero, cowboy, mafia guy, etc. But there is also a lot of beauty and care in passivity. The female body is used to being mainly shown as a passive object of desire when the male one is not shown that way enough which creates a disequilibrium. I think as women we have a particular way to glance, looking and understanding masculinity, sometimes on a deeper level than men themselves. This kind of natural inclusiveness in looking at men, not just for what is expected of them but for what they are, is lacking. Trying to make the male representation evolve towards more consensual passiveness could be beneficial not only for the pleasure of women’s eyes but also for helping men adopt more conscious and safe confidence within their masculinity.
Who were the people you photographed and how did you go about your shoots?
My subjects are men around me whom I find attractive for different reasons: some are my colleagues, some are my friends and some are impossible loves. None of them were models and all have different inputs when it comes to their masculinity and history with their bodies. As you can imagine, I also have very different relationships with all of them, so it was interesting to see how different (or not) we would interact when I am holding a camera and asking them to get into an intimate situation. Before the photoshoots, I took a drink separately with everyone in order to explain my intentions, dive deeper into the project, give some disclaimers, and ask them questions about their relationship with their own beauty and body. I was deeply touched by their openness.
I photographed them at their places and for some, I had a second round of photo-shooting at mine. The base was the same: dress, undress, pick an outfit in which you find yourself sexy, what you want to show me, etc. I was so amazed at how well these photoshoots went. Even when a model was a bit shy or insecure, we succeeded together in making him go past that feeling and have so much fun. What also really makes me happy is that each one of them told me how much they enjoyed going through this process with me, and expressed how happy they felt for pushing their own boundaries. I found that amazing because, for me, this project is not only about the expression of female desire, it’s about allowing men to let go. It is okay to be put in a so-called “vulnerable” position towards a woman and actually feel pleasure and empowerment through it. It was truly a fantastic journey.
You compiled all of your images into a book and a fanzine, how do these two publications operate alongside each other?
I see the big book as my main project: an artist’s book, something really focusing on my gaze over these guys in a more peaceful, retrospective, and anonymous way. So it was really important that it will be carefully edited and I also wanted people to be able to feel that they can take their time while going through it. The fanzine on the other hand has a way more easy-going way to it. It was made faster and is made to be gone through faster too. In it, you can see me posing with the boys this time, as well as some process image collages and some pictures that didn’t make the cut in the main book. It’s a way to approach the project and the subject through a similar yet different narrative. In the end, I am not sure with which production you can see me the most. I would say that my gaze is stronger in the book but my personality shines more through the fanzine. So in a way, they are quite complementary.
What were the reactions of people when they saw your book?
I got a lot of comments such as “Oh, you are a woman! I thought a gay man did this,” which showed me, even more, how important these types of projects are because the gaze of a woman over a male body is still surprising like I just expressed before. Some people also asked me how many of my models I had slept with, completely missing the intention of the project which was about not sex but female desire and its visibility. Anyhow the reactions were great because, even when confused, they opened a door for many discussions and debates. I had different talks about the expectation of female production when it involves eroticism, the female gaze, the complexes, and fear masculinity can create in men over their bodies, the mental charge differences between men and women when it comes to being sexy for your partner… This was such a great experience to be able to interact with people from all different ages about this topic. Ultimately, the best reaction I got was from a woman who looked at it and told me “Wow, this is so hot!” with such honesty. That’s all I needed, to arouse and make another woman happy through the view of my beautiful hot men.
You have just recently graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. What are your plans now for the upcoming months?
My plans are still a bit vague, I probably have to process these three intense years at Rietveld! I know for sure I would like to pursue photography and image work by this time focusing on and learning more about some technical aspects such as lighting. In a collective way, I’m definitely open to collaboration with people I can share similar interests with artistically speaking. At the moment, I am working on a magazine with my dear friend Özgur Deniz Koldaş about the sequencing of images: how their narrative can influence our way of interacting with a book. We are looking through a lot of archives and movie images for this. It’s very exciting! On a more personal level, I just exhibited No, I Just Think You’re Beautiful at Melkweg on the 7th of September and I have a book launch for the Best Dutch Design Books at the Stedelijk Museum on the 29th of September. Ultimately, I know my journey with the female gaze through the male body isn’t over and I will definitely keep working on it. I was told I should do an erotic magazine for women and the idea is in my head, maybe I’ll give it a try.
is a French visual artist based in Paris and Amsterdam. She graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam with a BA in Graphic Design. Her work currently centers on the erotization of the male body from a female perspective.
For purchasing No, I Just Think You’re Beautiful, you can contact the artist directly.