Here is the thing about personal shoots, I almost always never know why I shoot them until I look back at it. I only have the urge to create, and I am driven to fulfil that urge. It started innocently enough when a friend, Agrim, sent me a picture of him holding a bottle of beer in his hand. Nothing out of the ordinary, a cool bunch of people are helping me with another personal project. I looked at the image and moved on.
Early next day morning, I woke up feeling really groggy but curious. I had dreamt of something beautiful. I saw a hand in my dream, and the hand surrounded by flowers. That was all the dream was about, that is all I can recall.
And just like that, this was the beginning of something big - time would tell me later how I would dive deep into the theme and the narrative. But first of all, big shout out to all my friends for being able to take in my absurdity, and indulging me. This is not the first time someone has agreed to do something out of ordinary (for them; ordinary for me), but I'm pleasantly surprised each time a friend helps me out with my interests and fanatic pursuits.
The first question I had was, why his hand? At that point in time, I used to get images like this almost on a daily basis because of my other project, so why did this image have a stronger impact on me? What was it about this hand that caught my attention? I was curious, even more so because I barely ever choose to shoot male subjects. I knew I viewed the hand as a separate entity and not as a part of Agrim (eheh, I'm sorry boy!) because I seemed to be reciprocating differently. With Agrim, it's usually casual banter about anything and everything under the sun. After the dream, I had an intense fascination and thought about the hand quite obsessively for a short period.
Let me break it down:
- His hand's palm to finger ratio is off by normal standards. The fingers are much longer and leaner than normal compared to the size of the palm.
- Imagine holding a glass beer bottle. Now imagine leftover space in your hand to show half your palm. Can you imagine that? I cannot, for sure! My hands are tiny, the scale of his hand stood out.
- Close your eyes, and imagine picking up a beer bottle off a table. Observe how your hands hold the bottle. Now look at the picture on the left. It literally looks like he is cradling a kitten or baby rabbit to me! There is a certain and very genuine softness and gentleness to the hold, very unusual to be seen in everyday actions for most people.
After I moved past why his hand caught my eye, now I had to decide what I wanted to do with my newfound interest. I wanted to shoot - but how did I want to shoot? Is his hand my muse, and I hero his hands in all the images? Or do I take inspiration from his hand, create a narrative and cast another model to shoot the story? I was stuck here for quite a while. Working with a model is always very helpful when there is a narrative to play out. A model is very aware and conscious of body movements. They know exactly how to move to produce a certain look, it's easy to work with such high awareness when I need to communicate with them to bring out a character. Agrim is not trained to move his hands, he does things instinctively. I spent time looking at other guys' hands and how they move it instinctively. I spent a lot of time studying Agrim's hands in his pictures (slightly creepy, I'm aware). I looked for pictures where his hands were doing something, and not just placed. His instinctive movements plus the look of the hands matched the vision I had for the narrative so I decided to go ahead and shoot his hand!
I realised that this stood out for me mainly because the concept of a soft male touch was unknown to me. I grew up in India, and then moved to Singapore. India is more unsafe for women, we're taught and told to constantly look over our shoulders, told to cover ourselves up because the threat of unwanted sexual advances by strange men is real. With male friends, the first thing that's set off in my mind when some physical contact is made is - what is the meaning of his touch? I did not find myself having the same thought patterns with women. This lead me to the heavy realisation that while I enjoy physical closeness with the women in my life, I do not have the same relationship with most men who are a part of my life. I refuse to believe that physical intimacy is something to be found in only romantic relationships. I refuse to believe that the meaning of all physical touch is only sexual in nature.
I observed how touch played out in my life in the friendships with the women around me. I gave her a warm hug when I met her. I willingly leaned on her, and she allowed me to rest on her because I had a tiring day. I held her as she cried and spoke about her sadness. I held her hand because I was scared, I was anxious, I needed assurance. She gave me a gentle push and nudged me towards the uncertain. We walked shoulder to shoulder on the streets almost inseparable. I dozed off on her shoulders while she read a book. I can give you many more instances, the list doesn't end. It is in the tiniest things, in how we enabled each other. Each of these women are from different walks of life. We connect through touch at a much deeper level, something very visceral. We, as humans, want to be understood, want to be wanted and want to have a voice. In the relationships where we were very giving, including with touch, I felt that it was easier for me to have all my wants satisfied. I felt safe.
This safety is in question when touch comes into the picture with men. I spoke to many girlfriends, and we tended to agree that it's hard for us in general to ward off unwanted sexual advances from men, even known men. Our touch would be misunderstood by them too. I spoke to some men in my life. Apart from familial relationships, a lot of them held back from engaging in physical contact. Some even told me that after a certain age, physical touch ceased in their interpersonal relationships with family members. Why? Where does this leave men? What about the ones who do not have romantic relationships, how do they connect with people? Does this leave them in the dark? Does this make it harder to connect with others?
I remembered reading this piece written by Mark Greene in the days leading up to this shoot. He writes, "In American culture, we believe that men can never be entirely trusted in the realm of the physical. We collectively suspect that, given the opportunity, men will collapse into the sexual at a moment’s notice. That men don’t know how to physically connect otherwise. That men can’t control themselves. That men are dogs. There is no corresponding narrative about women." From an Asian perspective, this is not untrue. From my conversations with my male friends, I picked up on their apprehension to initiate physical contact. They didn't know how to connect physically through friendship with a woman, they feared their intentions would be misunderstood. They feared they would be labelled as "creeps". They feared that they would create an unsafe space for the women in their friendships.
On one hand, this was very worrying to me. On the other, I took away a deep sorrow as well. In my attempts at connecting physically in friendships with men, I have to gradually ease them into it and create a safe space for them as well - for them to feel safe enough to connect through physical contact. But the problem arose when I discovered, in the beginning, that I myself couldn't identify what a safe male touch would look like to me. My walls go up within split seconds, before my conscious thoughts manage to catch up. They are not even given a chance, a consideration. How could I remedy this? I would shoot of course!
This shoot with Agrim serves as a visual guide to see what the gentle platonic touch of a man would look like - for both men and women. I personified the woman with the flower. She would be held, she would be supported and she would be lifted up despite the walls around her. He would hold her, he would support her and he would hold her up despite the walls around him. Let's be honest, ceteris paribus, women still struggle to have equal voice and freedom as men. Let us help each other in growing and enabling each other.
I would love to hear your experiences if you're willing to share with me! x