‘It’s so powerful to be seen,’ an interview with Su Cassiano  

Su Cassiano is a self-taught documentary photographer and visual artist based in Istanbul, whose striking photograph Fake Fur and Real Scars was a runner-up in the This is Gender 2021 competition.

As part of our Representation Matters series, This is Gender curator Imogen Bakelmun connected with Su to hear more about their work, punk gender transgressions, fragile masculinities and the role photography can play in forging connections and revealing vulnerabilities.

Fake Fur and Real Scars, Su Cassiano

Liam gazes towards the camera, his fur coat slipping off his shoulder to reveal a torso patterned with self-harm scars. He is in his childhood bedroom and behind the camera is his friend, photographer Su Cassiano. 

When Su first shared their vision for a new narrative portrait project exploring masculinities, Liam was eager to participate. The two spent time delving into questions of masculinity, father-son relationships, and what it means to be a man. Together, they selected a safe space to background the portrait. 

As Su explains, ‘My work is about intimacy, I prefer to photograph people in their own space as it is a space where they can be themselves. Safe environments, particularly places like a bedroom, enable different kinds of self-expression, realness and rawness.  For Liam, he chose his bedroom, or rather his childhood bedroom where he grew up. The whole shoot was intimate, I met his parents, and he showed me things from his childhood. Liam cried through this shoot, he looked at me and just broke into tears. I asked if he wanted to stop but he wanted to continue. We’re good friends, and this moment was significant for us, it brought us closer.’

Building trust and human connection is central to Su’s practice. Rather than directing their sitters/collaborators, they give space to allow them to express themselves. For Su, the process is always collaborative. The resulting images speak for themselves, Fake Fur and Real Scars is an arresting yet intimate, powerful yet tender depiction of male vulnerability. 

What is concealed, and what is revealed

In Fake Fur and Real Scars, there is a play between concealing and revealing, light and shadow. Liam’s chest is bare and he stares towards us but half his face is covered in shade. The scars that line his torso are very light, almost imperceptible. Dancing between what can be seen and what can’t, Su pushes us to question; how visible are our scars, our trauma or are we as people?

They state, ‘When it comes to self-expression there is always a performative aspect. Everyone has a sense of their self, a way that they want to be perceived, so getting a genuine image is hard. When I was taking Liam’s image, I kept thinking how even our private spaces, somewhere as personal as a childhood bedroom, are always connected to other people. In the space of our fathers and mothers, how much can we be ourselves? How much of others do we hold within ourselves?.’ 

Mapped in the scars is Liam’s struggle with the pressures of a rigid masculinity, and the visual trace of his complex relationship with his father. Liam’s dad, an Australian veteran of the Vietnamese war, suffers from PTSD. Growing up in ‘bloke’ culture, where feelings are deemed weaknesses and pain can be endured, Liam craved paternal affection and recognition. Liam was never hugged by his dad, but he inherited his trauma. 

‘Liam wanted to look tough, and he was so surprised by how vulnerable he looked,’ Su explains. ‘It’s so interesting what we think we conceal and what we reveal. The image revealed to him a part of himself that he didn’t recognise. I’ve had similar feedback from lots of the men I photographed for this project. They say they look weird or that they thought they looked different. It’s interesting to see the difference between how they wanted to be seen, and what they see within themselves through the image. It’s actually been quite hard for me to find men to photograph for this project. A lot of men are reluctant, I think it comes from a fear of being seen, of being seen as vulnerable, and maybe a fear of recognising something in themselves that they don’t want to see.’

In a world where masculinity is often perceived as the default, entrenched within a patriarchal system that elevates and prioritizes white men, the exploration of ‘man’ as a nuanced and gendered identity remains largely overlooked. Unlike women, non-conforming and transgendered people, who frequently confront and challenge gendered norms and restrictions, men are often positioned outside the realm of gender, and less likely to recognize the impact of societal stereotypes and limitations on their identities.

Su contends, ‘If you’re the default, you might not recognise yourself as the result of these gendered stereotypes and limitations. As women ( or someone being perceived as one), we confront our gender on a daily basis and are acutely aware of the limitations of gendered boundaries precisely because we are oppressed by them. It’s not so clear cut for cisgender men, and I think that’s where this fear but also surprise comes from with the men I photograph.’

Despite this, Liam was excited when the image was selected. He showed his mum the image and even started a conversation with his dad. 

As Su exclaims, ‘It’s so powerful to be seen.’ 

Photographing masculinities 

Su’s experiences with their masculinities photography project expose a significant gap in gender representation and discourse. Indeed, This is Gender is a project that set out to capture the diversity and complexity of gender and the full spectrum of gendered identities, and yet each year we only receive a small portion of images that depict male subjects. And it is understandable, in most spaces, places and discourses men – particularly of a particular class and colour- are the default. 

Su themselves was initially reluctant to engage with projects that focused on men and masculinities. ‘For a long time, I didn’t photograph any cis-men, they are the default- I wanted to represent people that were less visible, less represented. For years, I’ve been working on gender identity and I was never really interested in men, why would I give them visibility? They are the ones who make the gaze, they are the ones always represented, they are the ones shaping the world -our imperialist, patriarchal, heteronormative world,’ Su explains.  

‘But recently I read Bell Hook’s The Will to Change and Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination, and it’s clear that you can’t have a conversation about gender without also having a conversation about men because they are part of the problem or the cause of the problem, and certainly are affected by the patriarchy too.’

‘Men are not encouraged to be vulnerable, it’s something that is gendered from a very young age. Boys don’t cry. Masculinity, like femininity, is constructed and conditioned. One of the only emotions that are valued for men is anger, but it’s a cover. Men can’t grieve. It’s very harmful, and it’s harmful to the entire society. As I recently read somewhere, anger is grief that has nowhere to go. So for men, the only socially acceptable emotion is anger. Now that I have moved to a Mediterranean, Middle Eastern culture, I can perceive this even more.’

From a health perspective, men everywhere in the world, in every society are more likely to die younger. Men are 67% more likely to die from the common cancers that affect both sexes,  twice as likely as women to die prematurely from diabetes, and three times more likely to die from suicide than women. The patriarchy is bad for everyone, including men, so why are we still reluctant to examine men and masculinity with a gendered lens? 

In the Guardian’s  This is gender feature Visualising Gender During the Pandemic – In Pictures, Su’s image, though a runner-up in the competition, was not selected. For Su, this reflects our hesitance to critically examine men, masculinity, and whiteness in contemporary gender discourse. She explains, ‘I agree that there were other images and stories in the collection that need to be told, but I do find it problematic. There’s a general reluctance to see anything about men, we don’t want to talk about gender as relational. It’s incredibly reductive for such a diverse humanity to restrict itself to a binary. But if we don’t talk about the origin of the problem, it’s like being in denial of the world we live in. If men don’t change, no matter how much we represent others, the world won’t change.’  

‘Masculinity is not just for men. It’s very complex and it needs to be interrogated,’ they emphasise. 

Inverting the male gaze

Representing masculinity and capturing its complex relationship to gender, systems of power and inequality present challenges and raises numerous ethical questions. How can we approach the visual representation of men without reinforcing harmful stereotypes or perpetuating rigid binaries? How do we render visible men’s health, issues and experiences without further centring men and further occluding the suffering of others? Advertising and mainstream media often entrench unnatural dichotomies and propagate dangerous stereotypes. So, what is needed? Can photography disrupt and dismantle these hegemonic constructions of masculinity while also illuminating the complex, often painful realities of being a man in a male-dominated world?

Su’s work offers a compelling response. In their image, Liam’s gaze meets the viewer’s, yet it is remarkably soft and vulnerable. As his coat slips off his shoulder, the scene subverts the traditional male gaze, presenting an intimate inversion. Through this portrait, Su not only challenges conventional depictions of masculinity but also invites us into a profound conversation about male vulnerability and the nuanced experiences of men by framing a different kind of gaze.

As Su explains, ‘Normally a man is behind the camera, and the woman is passive in front of the camera and looking vulnerable – reversing the tendency is important. I think the punk in me likes to play and push gender performances. Re-situating the space of vulnerability and shifting the gaze and society’s expectations and representations.’ 

Su closes, ‘Photography is just a medium, but representation and visibility are really powerful. The more gender diversity, the more the gender binary and the concepts around the rigid concept are played around with and the more we highlight the absurdity of it all, the better for our humanity. And in turn, people will be better able to express themselves and see themselves. Photography can be a tool for your expression, their expression and the viewer’s expression. If you never see yourself reflective then how can you ever feel at home in your skin?’  

You can discover more of Su Cassianos’ work here and browse the full collection from This is Gender 2021 here.

For any queries regarding This is Gender or Representation Matters please contact curator Imogen Bakelmun, imogen.bakelmun@globalhealth5050.org.