Wake Up!

I borrowed the title of this post from Madonna’s last album, and her performance this May at the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. The album is quite political. I like that; I think it’s necessary.

The two self-portraits below – photos taken in 2006 that I’d almost forgotten about – were also politically motivated. The beard is very real: I’d been growing it for five months (my beard grows very slowly). The photos were taken only a few days apart.

In 2004 a filmmaker named Theo van Gogh was killed by a young Muslim terrorist. This was the time of 'the Hofstad Network', a group of jihadi-motivated individuals who committed terrorist attacks across Europe. I spent a lot of time thinking about this group. Wanting a clearer idea of what was going on, I even visited a few of the cases tried in Amsterdam-Osdorp myself to learn more.

The beard I grew for a reason. I wanted to examine what it means to have a beard like this, what it would do to my identity.

It was an...interesting experience. Some white Dutch people would joke that I looked like a terrorist, ask if I was planning to blow anything up. I also drew the attention of several Moroccan guys from my gym, who complimented my look asked if I was developing an interest in Islam. In general, people started to compare me to all kinds of religious men: rabbis, Hindu religious leaders, etc.  

So, this wildly grown beard, without trimming or shaping, is apparently seen as a religious symbol. Interesting.

Note that I am a gay man – not heterosexual, and definitely not religious. In all honesty, I don’t see the relevance of religion in today’s world, or at least in the world I live in. I see a broad spectrum of religions all consistently discriminate against gays and women. If you are gay in the eyes of religion, you are bad, filth, unnatural, a bad influence, or not how God wanted you to be. I see women treated similarly. It’s exhausting.

Over the course of history, I see religion used again and again to oppress people and to keep them ignorant. Encourage them not to use their own brains and to stay passive. I think this is very dangerous. Spouting this ideology under the guise of “freedom of speech” is a damaging misuse of that right.

Let’s just say I am not comfortable with religion at all.

And so, during my project I started to dislike my beard. The beard started to feel like a symbol proclaiming myself ‘better’, ‘more male’, more religious, pious, knowledgeable, etc. I felt my beard was saying: as women rarely have beards, they will never arrive at this supreme level of masculine power. They will always be second best.

It’s important to note that I do respect another person’s spirituality. I have a strong inner spirituality myself. But I believe it’s important that each person arrive at their own definition of spirituality, using their own brains that their ‘God’ gave them.

There is also another reason I created these two photos, a painful spot on my soul.

When I was 19, I lived in Israel for six months. To summarize my experience: I learned that many Israelis believed, at that time, that they had to hit hard and bloody. Not an ‘eye for an eye’, but even harder. Otherwise the country of Israel wouldn’t survive. I was young, and I believed it. But I later came to realize it had been a major mistake. This still haunts me.

I visited Israel again a few years ago, and I was saddened to find the situation there, this sort of thinking, is worse than ever. Maybe if history had led the country to a better place with happier people I might still believe in the benefits of hitting hard. But it’s not a better place. It’s divided by a wall, much like of the one no longer standing in Berlin, reflecting one of the saddest periods of my continent. It feels unfair.

Working with the USA, Israel has created this modern reality for itself through misleading propaganda. It is not a place friendly to people outside the dominant religion, who are treated as second-class citizens through a system that looks far too much to my eyes like Apartheid. I personaly have experienced this Apartheid on several occasions. I know my feelings are strong, but I feel genuine pain when I see this situation.

Now, knowing all that, look again at my photos. What do you actually see? It is the same nice guy, a guy with his own flaws. He's human, he is me. What do you see? 

WAKE UP! And start using your brain, the one whatever version of God you believe in gave you.

Harrie de Fotograaf