This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.
For the series New Natives, Joseph Maida solicited aspiring male models of ambiguous ethnicity, race, and gender through social media, and photographed them against the backdrop of their home state, Hawaii. After I saw his recent show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, we talked about why he began making these photographs, how masculinity is performed for his camera, and what he considers to be a shift toward acceptance, evidenced by our current president.
Let’s start with a bit of background about these images. I read on Elisabeth Avedon’s blog that these pictures have something to do with President Obama. Can you talk about that?
I’ve always been thinking about identity, particularly in terms of sexuality and masculinity in my work. But when Obama was elected, that seemed like a turning point. For me, his presidency represented a swing in a direction that’s more open-minded and accepting. I thought Hawaii is a really charged place, and it may be the perfect place to explore these issues in more detail.
That’s one of the things that I wanted to talk about, the exotic landscape that Hawaii provides.
I encourage the subjects to bring me somewhere in the landscape that as a visitor I wouldn’t find on my own. You mentioned the idea of the landscape being exotic, and I’m interested in the relativity of exoticism, because if you’re from Hawaii, the landscape is not exotic. New York is exotic.
In the biographical section of your website, the first thing listed is that you’re “American and Italian.” What does your history have to do with the project?
As a kid, I would come to lunch with a prosciutto sandwich that my mother would make me. And I remember at one point thinking “most of the kids are eating peanut butter and jelly” and I would end up swapping my lunch with other kids so I could have this experience of having something that was more mainstream or conventional.
Making work that deals with ambiguity doesn’t necessarily provide clear, easy answers but it does raise questions. If art can raise interesting provocative questions then that’s actually doing a lot.
What questions do you hope these pictures are raising?
I hope that they’re engaging the viewer in a conversation about how one thinks about sexuality and masculinity and how one performs those things.
Do you find these men beautiful?
Beauty is a very subjective word, and part of what I’m resisting in this work. What I’m fascinated with in these subjects is that they have aspirations to be models, to be recognized for how they look and many of the cues that they receive come from a mainstream [America] approach to masculinity. These guys don’t fit that bill. They can’t. They’re not built in a way that can look like that. And the idea that they would aspire to be something that doesn’t fit into a traditional or conventional idea of beauty is really interesting to me. Perhaps that suggests a shift in terms of what we think about beauty, what we think about masculinity.
When I went to your show I was thinking of Gauguin and Rousseau. How do these pictures fit into the Western art historical tradition of depicting and sometimes fetishizing otherness?
Well, the big difference is that now the local people are aware of those those depictions of themselves, and for better or for worse are informed by those things. When you continually repeat ideas about who a people are, when you ask local people to package their culture in a way to then perform it for a tourist audience, it complicates how one understands himself. Hawaii is not this remote place in the middle of the ocean that has no contact.
Do you think that you’re making documents?
I don’t think any photograph is a document. Photographs, like any other form of representation, are interpretations. While I think that it’s important for me to understand the place and the people where I’m working and who I’m engaging with, fantasy is a huge part of the work. Identity is often a projection of how you want to be perceived—it’s a fantasy. And when I go down and meet with these male models, it’s an opportunity for them to project a fantasy.