how hawaii's male models are redefining masculinity
Photographer Joseph Maida's 'New Natives' series explores identity in one of the world’s most breathtaking locations.
Blayze #2 (Filipino, Chinese, Irish, Spanish) 2012
For four years, photographer Joseph Maida split his time between the Big Apple and the Big Island, shooting large format portraits of Hawaii's aspiring male models. After casting his subjects on social media, Maida invited each man to compose his own shot in a natural landscape of his choosing. While these models share a home state, Hawaii's exceptional ethnic diversity has resulted in a series of uniquely beautiful boys that was recently published as a monograph, New Natives. It might be tempting to view the images as a portrait of a people, but Maida's intentions aren't to document. Negotiating a new kind of masculinity in a setting that's both exoticized and westernized, the subjects of New Natives represent a more universal exploration of identity in the modern age. Ahead of his talk with ICA Boston's Eva Respini tonight at Spring Studios, we caught up with Maida to find out more about all things aloha.
Tell us about the starting point for this project.
There was a very literal catalyst, which was when President Obama got elected and there was conversation around a new face of leadership and attention to Hawaii because he's from Hawaii. It seemed to me like a turning point in terms of thinking about identity, not only in the United States but in the world, because for the first time we had a leader that looked different than all of the leaders who had come before him. As someone who's always been interested in thinking about identity, Hawaii seemed like a very interesting place to explore all aspects of identity: gender, sexuality, ethnicity, because it has such a rich, complex history.
The images seem distinctly Hawaiian, but identity formation extends far beyond the island. How does the work negotiate local and global?
Even though these pictures are literally made in Hawaii and are of people that are from Hawaii, the work is much more universal. I'm always thinking about local concerns versus global themes, and Hawaii is an interesting place to explore this. If you look at its history over the last 150 years, it's sort of a microcosm of how globalization and westernization has happened throughout the rest of the world. It has this interesting history from the time that the first English arrived in the end of the 18th century to the American missionaries to the different ethnic groups who came to work in the sugar plantations to the annexation as being part of the United States through statehood, and then to having a president who's actually from there. The trajectory is a very interesting one.
And not only am I thinking about identity in broad terms, but also in the cases of specific models. Many times in the project, I'll revisit a model and photograph him at a later date, so each of the models' identities also shifts within the project. A model might first choose to present himself in the more traditional Hawaiian dress, but the next time I shoot him, he might have bleach blonde hair and much more western-informed dress. Someone might perform a more masculine identity on one occasion, and on a separate occasion might gender bend a bit and perform something that's much more female. But while I am interested in photography with documentary possibilities, the work is interpretive, not a literal document. Hawaii is the means to a larger end -- a much broader conversation. I'm interested in the fluidity of identity, and I think Hawaii is the perfect place to look at that.
How have you seen Hawaiian notions of masculinity and sexuality shift over the time period you've shot this series?
I believe Hawaii is the only state in the United States that's never had a white majority. It's one of the most diverse states that we have, but it is a commercial capital. Honolulu is driven by tourism: there's a lot of shopping, major retailers are there and promoting images -- Abercrombie ideas -- about what a man looks like. But the men that are there, because of their ethnic backgrounds and the location's diversity, don't look like that. New technologies like social media and the internet have allowed these men to think about ways to project themselves and to project an image that's part of creating a paradigm shift. This generation-- who's very active in social media, who's making selfies, whose very aware of their own image -- is in many ways responsible for the shift that we're seeing. And I think new technologies are enabling them to take a little more agency and to present a new image of what a man looks like, and one that's not really relegated to this Euro American standard.
What do you hope people take from the work?
My main objective with the work is to generate a conversation, and I think the conversation that the work is engaging with is multifaceted. It's not solely about gender, it's not solely about ethnicity, it's not solely about sexuality, it's about all of these things. We have to think about identity as something that is not fixed, something that can change over time, something that is flexible.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Joseph Maida, courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York