Manhood? Or Penis-hood?

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Debbie and Laurie say:

Photographer Laura Dodsworth has completed a major project on penises (following a project she did on breasts). She calls the project, and accompanying book, Manhood: The Bare Reality, saying “One word for penis is manhood, so it seemed a perfect starting point to talk about being a man.”

Dodsworth did some admirable things for this project: she went looking for a wide variety of models, including trans men, men with micropenises, disabled men, and at least one strap-on. If you want to learn about the variety of penises, this is great. The Guardian article linked here includes interviews with several of the models, and the book probably has interviews with all of them.

This is a project we want to like. Familiar Men taught us both a lot about men and their penises, and the subject is under-explored, especially visually. But Dodsworth made two choices which deeply undercut the value of her work:
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First, she chose headless, and surprisingly bodiless, photography. Because all the men are standing in the same position, the same distance from the camera, with their hands in the same positions, the message is that the penis is the only differentiation, and thus the penis is the man. Anything else that might be of interest about each man is invisible, and thus unimportant. (Her breasts project is done in exactly the same format, equivalently making the breasts the only interesting thing about each woman.) In the same vein, she chose to make all the men nameless: not only no full names, but no first names, no initials, no handles, no aliases. Just their age, and the picture of their penis. Dodsworth succeeds in dehumanizing her models, reducing them to a single view; the interviews dispel this a little, but not enough.

Part of Dodsworth’s narrative about both of these projects is how brave these people were to have un-airbrushed pictures of their sexual organs shown in public. It’s always brave to tell your story; nonetheless, when we read these stories and the only visual context we are given is a picture of the penis that goes with the story, we lose track of the full humanity of the person behind the interview.
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Familiar Men exemplifies photographs of men of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and body types, showing their entire body and face to the world. In Laurie’s photography and our joint work, the penis is not the man. Where Dodsworth anonymizes, we strive to personalize.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the pointer!