Why you should care about Buzzfeed deleting Kristine Potter’s cadets
by Jason Hanasik, a film and video artist based in San Francisco, responds to the controversy around photographer Kristine Potter's request that Buzzfeed remove her work from their site.
“I think the men in your images are your surrogate boyfriends” said one of my advisors during my first critique in graduate school. Dumbfounded and confused, I nodded and said, “Um, okay, sure.”
Noticing that our hour was up, I escorted him out of my studio and as I returned to a wall of my photographs of men in various uniforms, I thought, “Why is it that the majority of (straight identified) male advisors and mentors that I have worked with through the years, never seemed to be able to see anything but coded desire in the intimate, emotional and vulnerable representations of men that I am making?”
On November 5, 2014, Buzzfeed published a selection of the artist Kristine Potter’s project “The Grey Line.” Shortly after publication, flip comments and perplexed responses flooded their site and other social media platforms, and subsequently the original article and images were removed from Buzzfeed at the artist’s request. According to Gawker, “the more questionable photos” were removed from Potter’s personal website as well. When I checked my email on Friday, November 7— the day the Gawker article was published —a dozen messages appeared from friends with a link to the Gawker post with comments like, “Have you seen this work? It reminds me of your projects and soldiers.” I replied, “Yes, I know about Potter and her work but had not seen the Buzzfeed article. I find many of her images incredibly haunting and extremely compelling. Most of all, I appreciate how they challenge the dominant narratives surrounding the marketed (recruiting) images for/of American Warrior Masculinity.”
Buzzfeed’s article on November 5 presented contextual information about the creation of the United States Military Academy at West Point — the location the photographs were made — as well as snippets from Potter’s artist statement about the project. In their one editorial statement about the images presented, the article’s author, Gabriel H. Sanchez says, “Kristine’s photos capture the cadets before they are fully formed soldiers and officers to explore ideas of masculinity, allegiance, sexuality, and vulnerability.” As I read the homophobic responses on both sites, the lines which end Gawker’s article—“Gawker readers are invited to share homoerotic military photos of themselves or others below. No judgment”—andBuzzfeed’s editorial remark, I immediately flashed back to my first critique and the unfortunate comment my advisor had made. The big difference between then and now is that the specter of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been removed, and while gay men and lesbians can serve openly in the US Military, expectations and limitation surrounding their gender performance — and their heterosexually identified counterparts — in uniform are still pervasive in popular culture.
When I was in the midst of completing my own investigation of American Warrior Masculinity, my subject, Steven — a US Marine — asked me, “Why do you care? Why are you making these images and what are you going to do with them?” I tensed up immediately, afraid that the answer I knew I had to tell him would kill the project and I would be left searching for a new way to investigate my questions about the American Military Industrial Complex. I replied, “I think Military Men — especially Marines — have as complicated a relationship to masculinity as gay men and that while we do not sit in the same space on an imagined continuum of normal masculine performance, we both have to constantly negotiate the way we present ourselves. I hope that in some small way, by making and presenting these images, the emotional and vulnerable body you can inhabit as a Marine can expand and, by proxy, the expectations of normative male performance can broaden for me and other men as well.” As I finished, I closed my eyes and braced for his response. When nothing came, I opened them and noticed that he was smiling. He said, “I think you’re right. I have a few things to show you,” and he left the room.
Steven returned with his laptop and a series of digital photographs and videos he had made while stationed in Iraq. As we flipped through his archive, I began to tear up. He had made the antidote I was looking for. His pictures were vulnerable, emotional, and intimate images of men in and out of uniform in a combat zone. The difference: Steven identified as straight, and while questions of homoeroticism while in homosocial environments did not magically vanish from the images he had made, his sexual identity complicated the surface and knee-jerk reads others eventually shared when looking at his pictures next to my own.
Potter’s images of her cadets at West Point performing the role of Military man operate in a similar way. In her photographs, the cadets perform various activities in a generic wooded landscape. Still in training, they play out the fantasy of the American Warrior as they reenact wrestling moves, are covered in camouflage netting, or in a more ethereal photograph, begin to disappear behind a cloud of smoke. These images — like any photograph — are not truths but receptacles for our own constructed narratives, concerns, and desires. Potter’s images present a much needed expansion of the way a cadet could (and probably does) perform outside of the frame of the Military’s standard recruiting materials. In short, she broadens how we allow ourselves to look at men in uniform and that makes “us” — and the tight control the military holds and presents of that body, that representation — incredibly uncomfortable.
One of the videos Steven gave me from his archive, is of a Marine teaching another Marine how to ballroom dance in the corridor of a military barracks in Iraq. When I have exhibited the video, some viewers share that they think that the man who is being taught how to dance is gay. “Look at the way he lovingly rests his head on the lead’s shoulder?!,” they say to me. I smile and reply, “In a war zone, it’s not terribly common to hold or be held by someone else, and if bombs were going off I certainly would take any opportunity I had to physically connect with another human being. But then again, I’m gay, so apparently I’m only allowed to have one relationship to men: sex.” If we follow the logic which has been presented in light of the Buzzfeed and Gawker articles and comments, if one wrestles in the woods, lies in repose in a meadow, sits for a portrait in one’s uniform and stares into a camera, and walks through the forest with a friend — amongst other pedestrian activities — we too have trespassed across an unspoken line, perhaps that is “The Grey Line” Kristine Potter wants us to expand?
This Op Ed was originally published on Medium before being picked up by dot429.com on 11.11.2014.