Ko Te Mata te Maunga, Ko TukiTuki te awa, Ko Gareth McGhie Toku Ingoa.
I am an Artist and Carver from Wellington NZ although I am originally from Hawkes Bay, Te Whenua o Ngati Kahungunu.
I am the product of my ancestors and the sum of my life experiences so far.
Although my Tattoo work does not define me, it illustrates that ancestry and those experiences.
It is my responsibility in life to make good use of the gifts I have been given and to try as best I can to pass those on to others.
The tattoo (Tā moko) on my left shoulder, gives me the strength to stand tall and take pride in what I do. With my family on my chest and my iwi Tainui, I will make my mark here in this universe and be sure to make my presence well known.”
Iwi are the largest social units in Aotearoa Māori society. The Māori-language word iwi means “people” or “nation” and is often translated as “tribe” or “a confederation of tribes”.
“Before coming in New Zealand I worked as a special counterterrorism operator. I am from Macedonia, a small country that many people do not know exists even though it was considered a great world power before Christ, led by Alexander the Great. I spent 28 tough years of my life and I do not regret it, as Frank Roosevelt said “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”. I served my country for 5 years being part of the most elite “Special Task Unit”. Its main tasks are counterterrorism, resolving hostage situations and raid into facilities. I was also a part of the diving team, searching the underwater terrain, downers and objects of crime. In 2015 we had a terrorist attack that killed 8 of my colleagues and wounded 36. That was a wake-up call for me to start a family. I got married in 2015 and by 2016 my son was born. As the time was passing my private life started to get influenced by my work and that was the last thing I wanted. In 2017 my wife and I decided to leave the country to start a new life which will benefit us, and most of all our son – we purposely chose New Zealand. We have been living here for two years now, although we feel like whole lifetime. Here I have many opportunities and for me the mission is not over, because only the brave are followed by fortune…” Check out the Bare Truth series to see more.
Introduction and interview by Alasdair Foster *
Published in PhotoWorld – May 2019 **
“Men act and women appear.”
John Berger – ‘Ways of Seeing’
In Western culture, men are traditionally judged by their agency (what they can do to you or for you) and women by their appearance. Women are to be looked at; men do the looking. There are many more images of the female body in the history of Western art than there are male. And, where the male body does appear, it is strictly contextualised in one of three symbolic roles: hero, fool or martyr. The hero transcends the reality of the male body to become a symbol of dynamic triumph. The fool is mocked for his nakedness, removing him from serious consideration as a representative of his gender. The martyr – an especial favourite of the Christian religion – is naked and broken, but his defeat is temporary as the narrative promises he will later ascend to heaven to be eternally revered as a saint.
Real men are not like this. They are flesh and blood, diverse, and susceptible to the inevitabilities of illness and aging. Yet, as men, the way we feel about our bodies is often an uncomfortable contradiction between lived reality and the symbolic perfection reflected to us in advertising and in art.
The photographs of the New Zealand artist Ilan Wittenberg are very different from these impossibly idealised images of masculinity. His extensive catalogue of men living in and around Auckland captures each in all the complexity of frailty and forbearance, uniqueness and imperfection, anxiety and the courage to overcome it. In English, when we speak of ‘real me’ we often mean the opposite; we mean individuals who appear to live up to the impossible aspirations of masculinity. But Ilan Wittenberg’s photographs truly do present real men; the unadorned reality of male faces and bodies in all their great variety. As the title of the series declares, this is literally and figuratively the ‘Bare Truth’.
Ilan Wittenberg was born in Israel, emigrating to New Zealand in 2001. He has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and a Master of Business Administration in Information Technology. Having worked in these areas for thirty years, he moved into photography in order to realise his passion for visual expression. He quickly established a reputation as a skilled and creative practitioner, winning dozens of accolades including both the portrait and the overall prizes at the 2018 Sony Alpha Awards. A Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP), his work has featured in many gallery and festival exhibitions including Head On Photo Festival in Sydney, Australia, and the ‘Signature Program’ of the Auckland Festival of Photography in New Zealand. You can see more of his work at his website: www.ilanwittenberg.com
This series of articles is looking at the work of photo-artists who have a different ‘way of seeing’. How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’?
It’s been said that photography is the easiest artistic medium in which to be competent, but the hardest medium in which to have a truly personal vision. It’s very much like talking: everyone can talk but few have something original to say. I have developed a clear style that allows me to tell a story in an imaginative and thought-provoking way. My aim is to create work with a strong ‘stylistic signature’ and a clear narrative sense. I wish to inspire people with images that are crisp and sharp; to evoke emotions and to demonstrate a personal creative vision.
Photography is a way of communicating without words. Unlike videography, which has duration delivering a story through sound and motion, photography is still and present. It does not consume time, and consequently offers the viewer the possibility of interpreting an image differently each time it is viewed. As the famous American photographer Ansel Adams once said: “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” In my work, there is a third, the subject, who is observed by each of the other two.
How did this series – ‘Bare Truth’ – begin?
I had been thinking about the idea of photographing men without the ‘protection’ of their clothes, but I was unsure how to go about achieving it. I had mentioned it a number of times to one of my close friends, but he would always laugh at the idea. Then, one day, he was very busy packing to move permanently overseas. I offered to dispose of his rubbish after he left if he would give me thirty minutes in front of my camera. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed to take off his shirt. As I was photographing, he raised his hand across his chest and looked straight into the camera. I could see the sadness in his eyes, his stress. Set against the simple background, his personality shone through. It was for me a moment of profound insight.
How did the project develop from there?
I asked my son to pose for me. He was just recovering from an operation, so the scar was showing fresh on his torso.
After that, I approached some of my close friends and tradesmen who were working on jobs around the house. Later, I invited men that I met at the local Sunday market. I began to realise that this had the potential to become a unique body of work; one that would become stronger the bigger and more diverse it became. I realised the power of these portraits and the potential they had to form a much larger series. The biggest challenge was finding men willing to pose shirtless in front of the camera.
How did you go about that?
The initial portraits helped me gain valuable experience and formalise a consistent and distinctive visual style. I became more confident in making an approach. I uploaded those initial images onto my cell phone so that I could easily show them to prospective subjects, many of whom were total strangers. This helped to engage them and overcome any initial concerns. Even so, it is a time-consuming process. Out of every ten men that I approach, five say “no”, four say “maybe” and only one actually shows up.
How did you seek out or select men to pose for you?
Initially I would photograph anyone who would agree to pose. Now, I am more selective, looking for people with an interesting ‘story’, men with a personality who will add diversity to the collection. Most of the men are from the local neighbourhood, people I meet at the street or in shops. They live locally so it is easy enough to find a suitable time, but a few do travel from further afield. On rare occasions I receive a request from someone asking to be included in the series, usually via social media. In those cases, I never refuse. Only about ten per cent of the men in these photographs are people I knew before they posed for me.
How many images are in the series now?
I began the project in mid-2015 and there are currently over 200 portraits in the series. I try to add one new photograph to the series every week. There is value in extending the scale and variety of this unique collection: every man is different, and the strength of the portfolio lies in that diversity.
There are quite a lot of men with tattoos. Are tattoos common in New Zealand?
I think that people who wear tattoos tend to be more extrovert than the average person and more inclined to show off their ‘body art’. A tattoo is a powerful personal statement about one’s life, traditional heritage and personal style.
Why did you call this series ‘Bare Truth’? What truth are you seeking to address or reveal?
When I looked at that first photo of my friend before he went overseas, I was moved, touched and inspired. I realised that we attach a deep meaning to a person’s facial expression. It takes us a fraction of a second to judge someone. It’s fascinating to think how quickly and subconsciously we form that opinion based solely on physical appearance: this person looks confident, that person looks depressed, or dangerous; calm, happy, sad… Photographed without the ‘shield’ of clothes, without those things that signify social standing or personal taste, these images provide an unexpected and enlightening opportunity to see the real people behind the ‘façade’. We are all flesh and blood; and we are here on this planet for a short period of time. This project simply reminds us of how fragile we are.
The title ‘Bare Truth’ implies that our face reveals the truth, we cannot hide it. It is also a play on words as the men are naked from the waist up. I think that the meaningful title helps people identify with its purpose. And for some of the more modest or shy subjects, it gave them the courage to expose themselves in front of the camera.
These images have a strong ‘aesthetic signature’. How did you achieve that sharpness of detail and clarity of texture?
I use a single source of illumination employing a ‘beauty dish’, which wraps the light around their body in a very distinctive way. [A beauty dish is a photographic lighting device that uses a parabolic reflector to distribute light towards a focal point, which adds a more dramatic contrast to the subject. The light created is gentler than that of a direct flash but more directional than with a softbox.] I bring the light as close as possible to the subject’s face. This creates a directional illumination with deep shadows under the eyes, nose and neck, emphasising every crease in their torso.
My aim is for the images to have the reassuring directness of a classic, in-camera capture. I want to emphasise the truth of the image in an era when people are losing faith in the ‘honesty’ of the medium. I simply process the digital photographs to enhance their skin texture. This is done using Photoshop with the Silver Efex Pro plugin by Nik. That heightening of contrast helps to create a sense of drama, lending to the series a unifying style that emulates analogue lithographic techniques.
It is very important to me that there is a ‘catchlight’ in their eyes, so I carefully set the ‘beauty dish’ according to their height and enhance the highlight manually if required.
Although these are images of the whole upper body and head, you have talked about the importance of the eyes.
As the proverb says: “eyes are windows to the soul”. The look in someone’s eyes is very meaningful and we immediately interpret it, often subconsciously and always subjectively. Much of our interpersonal communication is not verbal. When we shake someone’s hand we look them in the eye and, subconsciously, judge if we can trust them. The strength of this series lies with the directness of each man’s gaze. It affirms integrity and honesty – hence the title: ‘Bare Truth’.
We tend not to judge men by their bodies. There is a degree of vulnerability in posing without a shirt, especially if one is not young and athletic.
I admire the bravery and humility of the men who agree to participate in this project. Some are young or lean while others are fat or old. The strength of the portfolio lies in how similar the photographs are in terms of pose and lighting, while, at the same time, very different in terms of subject.
How did the men you photographed respond to seeing their photograph?
Most men appreciate the final image, but some find the dramatic way in which the skin texture is enhanced to create drama really confronting. One man who posed said he would never show his photograph to his wife as he did not want to frighten her. But then another man was so proud of his portrait that he posted it on social media! He told me that he had found the process of standing in front of the camera was liberating – a sort of catharsis. He said that he used to hate his body; being a part of ‘Bare Truth’ had helped him on his journey to accepting it.
For the most part, the men who pose really do seem to appreciate the experience. The shoot is an opportunity to spend time together and listen to their personal stories. I ask them about their scars, their tattoos, what they do for a living and so on, and in this way we become more acquainted.
You have said that one of the goals of this project is to raise awareness of the challenge men face when dealing with emotional vulnerability, and the problems of stress and depression they can feel as a result. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Many cultures portray men as strong, physically and emotionally. This stereotype sometimes leads to adverse outcomes, made worse by the way men typically fail to seek medical help for symptoms such as depression, stress and anxiety. One of the goals of this project is to raise awareness by showing men expressing complex emotions of strength and vulnerability, confidence and anxiety. Some carry on their bodies tattoos which help remind them of loved ones that passed away or scars that mark an accident or surgical operation. These are significant markers that give them strength on a daily basis. I think that we all look for a meaning in life and in our relationships one with another. Taking part in a project shared in common can make us feel part of the community.
Images can be valued on many different levels: artistically, as evidence, in terms of the questions they raise or challenges they provoke. What would you identify as the most important aspect of this work for you personally?
I think that this project helped me develop a distinctive artistic style, a personal visual language, which is very hard to do in the field of photography. In turn, it has helped me create a unique body of work of which I am very proud. The process of making the images in this series has made it possible for me to meet people who are completely outside my social circle; people who I would never meet under other circumstances.
I keep looking for suitable people to photograph. This means that I remain more ‘present’ in the moment and in the place; observing people around me and seeking opportunities. It also helps me connect with people. In the process of approaching potential subjects for my photographs, I have been able to learn how to engage people, to read their body language and, in many cases, to face rejection.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these images?
If you have the confidence to try something, you may well succeed. If you do not, you will surely fail.
* Alasdair Foster is a consultant specialising in international cultural projects and a researcher in the theory of arts policy formation. Dr. Alasdair is currently a Professor of Culture in Community Wellbeing at the School of Public Health, University of Queensland. He is also Adjunct Professor, School of Art and Member of the Contemporary Art and Social Transformation research group in RMIT University, Melbourne. Alasdair is the Ambassador to the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum and a Principal Consultant to Cultural Development Consulting.
** PhotoWorld magazine is China’s most influential photography magazine, introducing international frontier image culture, focusing on new concepts and unique perspectives. Published for the last 33 years, it has a profound effect on generations of Chinese photographers.
Photographer Ilan Wittenberg exposes the Bare Truth in portrait exhibition
A former drug addict, a burns victim and a burly builder are hardly typical male models.
But these men – and around 100 more – are the subjects of an Auckland photographer’s latest exhibition.
Ilan Wittenberg began his project, Bare Truth, a year ago, with an idea to portray New Zealand men as they truly are.
Bare-chested, blemished, scarred, and tattooed, the men’s histories are etched on their skin. One of the men had received skin grafts as a child – a pot of boiling jelly had ended up on his chest. Another has a prayer inked onto his arm.
“It’s interesting where people find strength,” Wittenberg says.
At first, his subjects were friends and family (Wittenberg’s 21-year-old son is among the men featured in the exhibition).
But as his collection and his confidence grew, Wittenberg began approaching strangers on the street. Market-goers, roadworkers, hedge-trimmers – any man who looks like he might have a story to tell.
“Out of every 10, four say ‘no’, four say ‘maybe’, two say ‘yes’, and one shows up.”
Wittenberg spent an hour speaking with the men before they went in front of the camera, asking them about their families, jobs, and the tales behind their tattoos.
The first photograph was of a friend who’d resisted participating in the project until the day before he departed New Zealand forever.
“He wasn’t very tidy – not scruffy, but he didn’t take great care of himself,” Wittenberg says of the man.
“In the photograph, you will see he puts his hand up to chest and he touches his heart… he has a little bit of sadness in his eyes.
“I thought, ‘this is real’.”
Wittenberg has about 100 photographs in the Bare Truth collection. Each of his subjects received an A4 copy of their photo, as thanks.
Some of the men were happy with the result, others felt confronted by the image.
“They didn’t actually show it to their wives, because they never saw themselves that way,” Wittenberg says.
The series is inspired by the work of famed photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Platon. Shot before a blank background and converted into monochrome, the photographs depict a stark spectrum of Kiwi masculinity.
“When people look straight into the camera they actually look at the person on the other side, they look at the person who views them, and you can read their eye, you can actually see their soul – that’s what I felt.”
Bare Truth is Wittenberg’s third exhibition this year, showing in Sydney earlier this month, and in Auckland in June.
While images of topless women have become cliches of Western society, there’s something about a photo of a shirtless man – unretouched – which makes observers take a closer look.
“We see thousands of photos every day – on social media, in magazines, on tv, on the internet, billboards – and we ignore…” Wittenberg says.
“If you go to an exhibition, it’s not like looking at something on the computer… you stand in front of a photograph… and you let it talk to you.”
Visitors to the Sydney exhibition offered a range of interpretations, Wittenberg says.
“They say this person is looking very confident, very strong. And that person looks a bit… shy, and that person looks dangerous like, I wouldn’t want to meet that guy down a dark alley or something like that.
“It’s so interesting how in a fraction of a second we judge other people, even when they’re not there, just based on their body language – their eyes, their shoulders.”
But Wittenberg hopes the exhibition will also raise awareness of men’s health issues. Without a shirt, it’s difficult to hide the hallmarks of past surgeries, or chemotherapy.
And the camera offers insight into the soul.
“When people look straight into the camera they actually look at the person on the other side, they look at the person who views them,” Wittenberg says.
“You can read their eye, you can see their soul – that’s what I felt.”
Wittenberg emigrated from Israel with his wife and two children in 2001. The North Shore resident had been working as a business analyst before he took up portrait photography full time in 2011.
While portraits pay the bills, the Bare Truth project was a labour done for love, not money.
Quoting business leader Stephen Covey, Wittenberg says: “We’re here to live, to laugh, to love and to leave a legacy.”
“We’re not getting any younger… my legacy is about pictures I do.”
Bare Truth will be exhibited at Northart gallery in Northcote, Auckland from June 5 – 22. Admission is free.
The exhibition will also feature in the 2016 Auckland Festival of Photography.
Tuesday 31st May 2016
Rebecca Kamm, The Wireless
We spoke to Auckland photographer Ilan Wittenberg about the thinking behind his latest collection.
That’s one reason Bare Truth, a collection by accomplished Auckland photographer Ilan Wittenberg, stands out. Another is his knife-sharp focus on every bodily detail of his 100-or-so unsmiling subjects, which include a former drug addict and a burns victim.
“Raw”, says the artist, whose work can be found at Auckland’s Northart gallery from June 5-22, is what he hears most in response to Bare Truth. But the photographs have no rough edges; they are exquisitely, acutely rendered. That’s intentional: Wittenberg chose specific lighting and processing techniques that would bring the literal mark life leaves on our bodies into sharp relief.
It’s also something of a warning. “There’s this idea that men are stronger,” says Wittenberg, whose 18-year old son features in the collection (he bares the scar of a tumor removed when he was small). “That may be true in some strength-related areas; men have more muscle tissue, for example. But when it comes to mental health or emotional health, the fact is that women actually talk more. They share more. They’re more open.”
He began to approach men on the street. “Out of every ten, four said maybe, four said no, two said yes, and one showed up.” But as the collection grew, so did their trust, and the project picked up pace.
“I asked them about their tattoos: What is it? What does it mean to you? One of them said, ‘Well, I was a drug addict and this tattoo helps me to remind myself how to be sober, and how good it is to be clean. Another said, ‘Oh, this is about my best friend who died.’ We’re all vulnerable.”
That didn’t mean they were all ready to share the experience. “Some men didn’t show it to their wives, because they think [their image] is too confronting. They’ve asked their daughters to do it for them; to explain the context to their wives for them when they pass away. Because it is confronting. We never show ourselves like this to other people.”
‘Bare Truth’ is a compelling collection of portraits of New Zealand men. The extraordinary photographs expose the men who are very humble, courageous and vulnerable. Their edgy portraits are presented in monochrome which emphasizes their shape and form. The simple background eliminates distractions so the viewer can focus on their bodies and facial expressions.
The combination of using a soft directional light while adapting a special post-processing technique, enables me to enhance their body features so the images are raw and crisp. It is important to me to capture a highlight in their eyes so they look directly at the camera – the eyes are the first thing we notice and must be sharp.
The idea of creating a series of photographs showing men who expose their bust evolved gradually. The biggest challenge was finding the first person to agree to pose. After a few rejections and setbacks, I created a portrait with a close friend and became really engaged with looking into his eyes.
At first I asked only close friends to participate. After gaining valuable experience and formalising a consistent look, I expanded the portfolio and became confident in approaching total strangers. Having a few examples helped me to overcome objections until the project gained a critical mass with dozens of portraits. I focus on capturing a variety of ethnic groups, poses, age groups and body sizes.
I gradually became more selective and started approaching people who looked more interesting to me – people whose face and body tell a story. I capture around 50 photos of each man and use a selection process in order to choose the image which best represents his personality. While some people are very comfortable posing without their top, others feel this is completely outside their comfort zone and a few view it as a therapeutic experience.
The project gained further momentum after winning prestigious awards and becoming a Finalist in the Portrait Classic category of the 2015 Iris Awards form the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography which then awarded me the title: ‘2015 Auckland Photographer of the Year’. The portfolio was first selected to be exhibited at Northart Gallery during Auckland Festival of Photography. It was later selected to show at the annual Head On Photo Festival in Sydney during May 2016.
Many thanks to Ron Brownson, Senior Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery, who critiqued my initial project during 2015 Auckland Festival of Photography and inspired me to continue and expand it.
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