Mainstream representations of black men – and in turn, their masculinity – tend to oscillate from one extreme to the other: criminal, hyper-sexual, reviled or idolised. Rarely do they stray beyond these tired tropes. This is what motivated Cam Robert, a New York-based, award-winning creative artist, to launch "Pastel", a photography series aiming to capture the fluid masculinity of black men. While a number of photography projects in recent years have sought to reclaim black masculinity, here we see depicted either the "softer" and "feminine" or "hard" side.
Photographer Myles Loftin's series "Hooded" evokes a sense of playfulness, juxtaposing smiling black teens donning an item of clothing long associated with violence and black fatalities against the backdrop of pastel colours. Meanwhile, Kris Graves' "Testament Project" portrayal of 25 black men might be on their own terms, but the end effect is a hyper-masculine gaze. Conversely, the subjects found in "Pastel" showcase the spectrum that exists within the black community.
"Ultimately, my goal is to help shift the narrative of what black masculinity is because, in reality, there is no defining narrative," Cam tells me. "Society puts us into a box, but the point I want to make is that it's unreasonable and unnatural to expect us all to fit into it."
When sitting down in Starbucks without ordering anything can get a black man arrested, while shooting a dog can get an officer arrested but shooting an unarmed black man doesn't, a project like "Pastel" has never been more pertinent.
I spoke to Cam about the power of photography to challenge preconceptions, the limits that society continues to place on black men and why they deserve a new narrative.
VICE: Hi Cam. How did "Pastel" come about?
Cam: We've been fortunate to see black men represented in a completely new light, where the softer sides of our identity are being showcased in full. That being said, a lot of the projects I’ve seen about masculinity lean too far into that and don’t consider that masculinity and femininity are part of a spectrum. With "Pastel", I wanted to hone in on the fact that the box black men is often put into is unnatural to begin with. I decided to create these subtly surreal worlds to showcase just how unnatural the box the world tries to put us in is.
Why did you decide to call the project "Pastel"?
I wanted to play into this idea of societal expectations. When you hear the word "pastel" you automatically think of something soft and delicate. I want the audience to come in thinking that this is another project showcasing the "softness" of black men, and then have them discover that there is actually more to it. When I also think of pastel colours, I think of colours not at their full vibrancy, almost as if they’re in transition. It’s a perfect metaphor for the current state of black masculinity. It hasn’t been fully realised yet for a lot of us, because we’re limited by what society expects us to be.
For you, what makes "Pastel" significant?
"Pastel" is for those who feel that they don’t necessarily fit into a certain criteria, for those who withhold some of their feminine qualities because they think their masculinity is at risk. As trivial as this may sound, this is for the black men who want to sing Beyoncé at the top of their lungs when they’re at the club, but hold it in because they feel their masculinity will be challenged or invalidated. It’s OK! "Single Ladies" is a jam. Let it out. You’re still the same man you were before you sang that song. You don’t have to live in this fantasy world that’s been forced upon us. You can be yourself.
Mainstream media rarely spotlights on how diverse and fluid black masculinity can be. How much has that influenced your work?
Given that that’s what I always see whenever I read the news or watch a film, it definitely fed into the creation of "Pastel". It hurts seeing your people constantly subjected to these sorts of things. It takes a toll after a while. We’re not animals – we don’t deserve to be shot down in the streets and locked up for years for petty crimes. In this social media age, it’s being presented at an exponential rate. I know who I am as a black man, I know who my friends are as black men, but I see a completely different narrative within my community. We as a people deserve a new narrative, because the one presented currently is tired and old. With this project, I aim to help redirect that.
Is now the right time to start the discussion on black men and masculinity?
If not now, then when? This goes for any POC or marginalised person who feels like a piece of their story is not being heard. In this particular case, I chose black men as my subjects because, as a black man, those are the people I can most accurately speak on from experience. I felt like this was a piece of the conversation that was missing.
Do you take photographs specifically for young black men?
I don’t think it’s my primary focus across the board. That being said, I’m very cognisant of the type of images I capture and put out, and make sure that they always align with my morals and uplift my community rather than abuse it.
There’s a sense of intimacy your photos evoke, particularly the image of one of your subjects sleeping in the bath. Is this intentional?
Definitely. We’re always made to look intimidating and unapproachable by the media. Capturing this level of intimacy in a photograph combats that notion.
How and why did you select the subjects that you did?
All of my subjects are people I’ve had some sort of relationship with beforehand. It was important for me to not just choose random professional models, because in order for a project as intimate as this to truly have impact, there needed to be a level of trust between me and the person I’m shooting.
Is there an image from the series that particularly resonates with you?
The photo of my friend Deniro holding his son. I love the juxtaposition of a fully-tatted man holding his newly born son. When I shot that photo, I wanted to create an image that showed what fatherhood looks like, and that we’re blank slates before all of these labels and expectations are projected onto us.
What do you hope people will take away from the images?
That people will walk away being more open. Blackness is limitless. We shouldn’t be put into a box. If I can add to the canon helping make the preconception of black men into a positive one, then I’m doing my job right.
What’s next for "Pastel"?
It’ll continue to grow. What started off initially as a short-term project has now turned into an ongoing series because of the amount of support it’s received. As inspiration strikes, I’ll be further exploring the spectrum of black masculinity that exists.
All photography courtesy of Cam Robert. You can find more of Cam’s work here.