Photography Julia Falkner

ethereal portraits of boys free from gender confines

Julia Falkner and Lorena Hydeman traveled from Barcelona to a mountain village documenting boys — age six to 16 — in their homes.

by Sarah Moroz
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18 November 2018, 10:45pm

Photography Julia Falkner

Austria-born photographer Julia Falkner and Qatar-raised stylist Lorena Hydeman met when they moved to London five years ago. Flatmates and friends as well as collaborative partners for brands and editorials — “the night before every shoot, I try on all my outfits on Julia,” Lorena says — the two teamed up on an ongoing personal series. Blah Blah Blah Genitals encourages boys to experiment with the boundaries of masculinity through fashion and beauty as they navigate their budding sense of gender norms. Over the course of a year and a half, Lorena styled and Julia photographed 14 subjects between the ages of six and 16 at home. There’s no “boys will be boys” juvenilia: the flush of youth is rendered gentle, sprightly, poised, incandescent. Each answered a complementary questionnaire about gendered presumptions.

Images from Blah Blah Blah Genitals is on view at Photo Vogue Festival’s group show Embracing Diversity in Milan this weekend. We chatted with the duo about revising gender generalizations, the parameters of documentary, and how fashion photography is — slowly — stretching towards inclusive representation.

Blah Blah Genitals

It’s interesting that you styled the boys but still frame Blah Blah Blah Genitals as a documentary project. How much did you orient them?
Julia: We gave them clothing and shoes to play with, and hair and makeup, but they made their choices. It was more like a vehicle, giving them paint and a canvas for them to express themselves upon. If we didn't bring the fashion element into it, the boys wouldn't have the opportunity to express themselves as how they would want to be seen — it would remain as how they present themselves in front of peers at school.

Lorena: We tried not to intervene too much. We would speak with the mothers beforehand to get a feel for what the boys would be interested in doing. I would always bring options: suits, dresses, and heels. I would go through with them what they were interested in at the beginning of the day. Boys that I wrongly had stereotyped as ‘sporty boys’ would be the ones who would be like, ‘Ah, I really like wearing these heeled boots, and I don't wanna take them off.’ It was surprising how much further the boys wanted to go than we thought they would.

Blah Blah Genitals

Did what the boys wanted stray from what their families wanted?
Julia: All the mothers involved were really supportive — they really gave a strong indication of how open the boys were. A few fathers were not as excited about the topic of the project.

How did you scout for subjects? Were the boys linked to you directly or indirectly?
Julia: It started with a trip to Barcelona. We couch surfed and the hosts became our friends. Their sister had a son who was 11. She told us that he’s very dreamy and playful and flamboyant, and he would love to express that. And we said, ‘You know what? Why don't we do a shoot? I have a camera with me, Lorena has clothes in her suitcase.’ Growing up in Spain, he would never be able to express that in school, that he’s done a shoot like this, without being bullied — even though he was very excited and couldn't stop talking about it after. I also shot my cousin in Austria, who is very typically boyish. I understand exactly the background he comes from because I grew up in the same tiny mountain village with 600 inhabitants. Gender roles there are still very stereotypical.

Lorena: A few boys were through children’s modelling and acting agencies, but it was mainly word of mouth. I worked on a vegetarian meat substitute advert where there was a children’s party, and there were a lot of boys on that shoot. I spoke to their mothers about the project. They had friends who were interested, siblings… with siblings, because they’ve grown up in the same environment, it was interesting to see what personality traits were innate and what was a result of their surroundings.

Vogue Italia Festival

What were your findings, through the series, about what is innate versus conditioned?
Julia: The younger the boys are, the less they really identify with certain precepts of what it means to be male or female. They don't have such a set idea, they are still open: they wanted to do nail polish and makeup. The older they get, the more they’re influenced by their environment.

Lorena: Even the 16-year-olds we interviewed were very emotionally intelligent — they were aware of the pressures that they had upon them by society. Although now, there are more men for them to look up to: male makeup artists online, singers and actors coming out. There are more people for them to identify with and less of a need to prove themselves as typical men.

Vogue Italia Festival

You mentioned coming out… Did any of the boys openly identify as gay?
Lorena: We didn't ask directly. We didn't want them to categorize themselves, and we didn't want to put any pressure on them. There was a boy who dressed in drag and wants to win RuPaul’s Drag Race and be in a wig and makeup. It’s amazing, and doesn't necessarily mean anything about his sexuality.

How did you decide on the title of the series?
Lorena: We were really struggling with the title. I was skim-reading some research, and said, ‘Blah blah blah genitals.’ And I thought: Oh — we should just call it that.

Julia: To me, to have some academic background helps you approach a new project in a different way. It was important to understand the pillars of toxic masculinity and where it comes from before we started our project. But it really is a great title, because it indicates the insignificance of using our genitals for defining our sex.

Vogue Italia

Which photographers have influenced you, and/or have treated the idea of gender fluidity in a compelling way?
Julia: There’s the photographer-stylist duo Kristin-Lee Moolman and Ib Kamara. We saw their exhibition [ 2026] at Somerset House in London. They don't shoot any models; it’s all people from the neighborhood in Johannesburg. It’s documentary, but they use fashion as a vehicle for expression. Western photography of Africa is not true to what the actual culture is. [Moolman] wanted a new type of photography that’s not too political, but starts a conversation. It’s definitely easier to use fashion and art to discuss issues that might not be as discussed by the general public. There’s also the Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide — her Magnolia image is really famous. Over 10 years, she photographed a small town where a third gender exists and is widely accepted. Their society was set up completely differently: men dressing as women ran the town. She did beautiful black-and-white portraits.

masculinity

Julia, do you consider yourself a fashion photographer?
Julia: I do and I don’t. But I think that’s because fashion photography doesn’t mean the same thing it did 20 years ago. Fashion photography has become a lot more diverse: even big brands go out of their way to shoot real people and do more storytelling. I loved Helmut Lang’s last [fall/winter 18] campaign, where they just shot Welsh residents, from a 60-year-old to an 80-year-old, who tell their real stories. I think fashion photography is taking a very good turn into documentary photography that is used as fashion photography.

Vogue Italia

You’re part of a group show called Embracing Diversity . Are the boundaries of representation shifting at large in photography, or does it remain niche? And do you notice a genuine cultural change, or is this a trend that brands are latching onto it?
Lorena: I think it depends on the brand, because they are influenced by the masses and they want to make sales. But I think smaller brands are looking to really push gender fluidity into the public eye. Which is great — the more educated people are, the more accepting they’ll be. Society will function better as a whole… Art and photography are always going to be a reflection of what’s happening in society — there is more and more work outside of the norms. But of course we live in our little liberal fashion-and-art bubble; the majority still have a long way to go, in terms of acceptance.

To turn a question you asked of the boys back on you: give us an example of one male figure that you admire and tell us why?
Lorena: That’s really hard! Julia and I had really difficult backgrounds in terms of male figures. I think that’s why we wanted to do this project. We approached this with the hope that the next generation would be a lot better… I’m not much of a cryer, but Julia would be crying on shoots. Julia’s tearing up now. [both laugh] We were heartened by the responses the boys gave. They were so beautiful and genuine.

This article originally appeared on i-D US.