Evan Walsh (b. 1995)is an NYC-based photographer originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In May 2017, he graduated with an interdisciplinary degree from Emerson College in Creative Nonfiction & Photography.
Evan’s photographic work melds deadpan and environmental portrait styles in order to comment on the construction of masculinity. Mythologies of male intimacy and touch inform his photographic and his nonfiction-writing work, both of which examine the seemingly ubiquitous and invisible barriers between men. Performative and intimate life portraits show men as they really are—lost amongst themselves, looking for connection, and yearning for family.
Evan’s work has been published by Out Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, on book covers internationally, notably for New York Times best-selling author David Levithan and for the creative director of The Hunger Games. In 2016, his photo thesis Paragons was chosen for the Boston Photo Resource student exhibition, and for the annual Boston Flashpoint Festival & Portfolio Review at Gallery Kayafas. In the past, he held internships with Scholastic, VH1, and Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Currently, he works for For Freedoms, the artist-run civic engagement initiative co-founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman.
The Space Between Us
KS: You went to school for both creative nonfiction and photography. Which love came first, and how does one form feed the other?
EBW: I always wanted to be a writer since before I can remember. When I was in high school I was bullied a lot the first two years—everyone knew I was gay before I did and they wouldn’t let me forget it. Feeling like an outcast made me draw up fantasies, and I dreamed up stories about living in some other, more accepting world. But it was never nonfiction back then that I wrote—I didn’t really know that nonfiction writing could even become creative; so fiction had become that escape for me. But then the camera became some sort of way out. I went to all boys prep school, and as a sophomore I started making pictures of everyone, my theater friends, the nerds, the geeks, the jocks. I used it to make new friends in this hypermasculine environment. Photography let me dig myself out of this outcast image I had felt; it allowed me access into this realm I had otherwise been denied access to. That was the first time I ever felt the power of documenting my world: I was taking pictures of men who had hurled insults at me and then I was suddenly taking part in their representation. They wanted to be seen, and represented well, which is the first time I ever really uncovered something vulnerable in the men around me.
By the time I graduated, I was out of the closet and had strong relationships with jocks and queer friends alike that I still have today and that are in these images. So when I went to Emerson College and took nonfiction, I had this memoir-style class where I really reflected for the first time on how this shift from outcast to insider affected me. To go from being an outsider and pulling myself out really convoluted my self-image, and learning how memoir embraces liminality and ambiguity, how it has this idea that nothing is morally black and white… That changed me as a person as an artist. A lot of times in our nonfiction class we talked about photography for just these reasons—its search for truth and how it asks the question if truth can be altered or subjective. It started this cycle I’m in now, where my nonfiction examines just the same things as my photography: gender, masculinity, family, acceptance, what I called the “physiology” of intimacy. Sometimes there are tangible questions writing cannot answer; sometimes there are narratives photography cannot easily explore. So they build on one another in this way.
KS: With this body of work, The Space Between Us, can you explain your use of “deadpan” as a way to reference the way men are traditionally photographed?
EBW: I learned “deadpan” from studying my first major influences: Richard Renaldi, Joel Sternfeld, Rinneke Dikstra, Alec Soth, August Sander. They used this style where the subject is at the center of the frame and generally always has this stoic, almost empty look on their face. What drew me to it was that it had this ostensible visual equality, it was formulaic in a way. It’s a style of shooting that could be applied to many subjects, and I felt it would be democratic. Of course now that I’ve studied more, I am ever-skeptical of photography’s power dynamics, and still I ask whose formula is it? Does its power change depending on who enacts the formula, or the manner in which the formula is applied?
That being said, I will always adore that style of shooting. So when I was making images for The Space Between Us, I approached it in a different way. I started analyzing my idea of the mythologies and sensibilities of maleness. Growing up, I had always seen men depicted as emotionless, stoic. In group photographs, men were rarely ever touching, and if they were touching, it was this traditional hands-over-the-shoulder, broey-type intimacy. It always stayed within certain bounds. So when I would go to make pictures, I asked my subjects to refer back to that rigidness: the only rule I would ever give was to be neutral. So our deadpan directly reflected this male emotionlessness in a way. But with these photos, we would add in this element of physical touch or, conversely, we would pose to accentuate the distance between us. Depending on the context, we were either rejecting or emulating this traditional manhood. But more importantly, we were discovering that the optics of male intimacy are actually changeable.
We also knew we were performing. Men act out hypermasculinity every day, but they’re unaware that it’s a performance. For the series I had the camera on a self-timer and I’d walk into the shot with everyone after setting it up. But it was on film, so we couldn’t see if the images right away. Normally, the photographer is the director and we’re casted for them; but because of the circumstances I was equally as much an actor as anyone else. So we all performed together, and as we did it felt like we were on a stage for the whole world to scrutinize us. It’s a double entendre then, the “space between us”, not only between my friends and me, but between the viewer/world and us. In both cases, The space between is filled with all that murky ideas of permission and acceptable touch. It forces you to confront what biases you bring to images, and I loved the performance for that reason. It broke down walls in my own life. After all, I felt empowered: I posed alongside my best friends, who had become such family to me, who created a space where I could exist as every possible iteration of myself all at once. And so I felt lifted, and loved. There we were, with these rigid stares on our faces, performing manhood. But our arms were grazing against one another, we were leaning on one another in the silence, together as family.
KS: Did you reference any type of material concerning mythologies of intimacy? It seems our ideas of intimacy between men has become more rigid and removed in the space of a few hundred years instead of more open, I’m interested if you felt like any sources spoke to you?
EBW: I lived and breathed theory while making these images, I was so obsessive. I particularly was drawn to Bell Hook’s The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. In it she writes that because there’s such a dearth of male love in our American life, we are left searching, desperate to have male love realized in any way possible. I’d seen this in the men in my life: the raucous in the locker room, the football games, the drunken bro-hugs and declarations of dude, I love you so much, while brandishing bud lights in the corners of dive bars and basement parties. I realized as I got older that a lot of the men around me lived in this state of emotional starvation, and in these binds they were searching for any way they could find acceptable forms of connection. With so few options, men are often left to a kind of “friendly” violence, to sports and to competition. They’re given these meager channels to express their loyalty and affection to one another.
It hurts when I see how much my straight friends struggle with this expectation of emotionlessness. Everywhere there are invisible walls, telling men when to dial it down, when to cut off sharing their emotions, when they’re getting too close to one another. Because I was gay, I could see these boundaries very clearly. And that ability to see them at all afforded me the privilege to reject these boundaries. In reality, all men want to be loved, we all want to be accepted, and we all want to be a part of a family. It’s why men will drink to the point of obliteration at frat initiations. Men are willing to sacrifice their sense of selves—and their morality—to be a part of a group, because a lot of times that group, however toxic, may be the closest thing to male love we may ever get.
That being said, the source material that drove me to make these images the most was my own life. What motivated me to do this project was the feeling that my relationships I had with all my friends weren’t being represented anywhere. My queer friendships were beautifully unconditional, but I felt my friendships with straight men were even more radical. I took those two photos in the bedrooms—”First Awake” and “Patriots”—to show that yes, we men spend time here together. I wanted to reclaim that space as one friends could share. To say, yes, we cried here. After all the lights were off, we’ve had that moment of, okay, who will say the last word before we shut our eyes? We’ve had the drunken spins after a party. Told each other stories about hookups with guys and girls. Woken up to hearing each other snore. But it’s all platonic, all in this familial context. This vulnerability between close male friends had always pervaded my young adult life, but I had rarely seen it represented in mainstream media or literature. And so I thought, why not represent it myself?
You have had a really wonderful response to your project this year, deservedly so, do you have any plans moving forward with it?
Thank you for that! It’s been hard to make more images; I haven’t made any in about a year since I’ve spent a lot of the last year moving around and working and not being able to see my close friends. But the break from making work has been good, and I just recently moved to New York City, so I’m excited to settle in and come back to this work. Male friendship as a landscape will always be ever-changing, so I’m excited to keep digging.
To view more of Evan’s work please visit his website.