Photographer Pete Muller speaks on gender, photography

Photo by Hannah Roach '17

Photo by Hannah Roach '17

BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE '19

On the evening of Thursday, March 30, Mount Holyoke students, faculty and community members filed into Gamble Auditorium to hear a talk from Pete Muller, the Cyrus Vance visiting professor in international relations. The event, “A Tale of Two Wolves” was a conversation between dean of faculty Jon Western and Muller.

Muller is a photographer and researcher striving to explore the intersection of conflict, masculinity, and violence. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya. As an internationally known photographer, he is a contributing photographer to National Geographic, TIME, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

The event was opened by chair of the politics department, professor Kavita Khory. She expressed that the event was especially timely, as Muller’s photographs explain the power of image and narrative, reexamine the assumptions of politics and make observers think about the ethics of representation.

The conversation between Western and Muller included the presentation and discussion of a handful of Muller’s photographs and cumulated with a Q & A.

In his work, Muller often examines is- sues of masculinity in relation to conflict and social organization. The first photograph that was projected behind Western and Muller was a photo of a burly young man in a football uniform. Muller explained it was a photograph of himself; he was 18 when it was taken. He went on to say that this photo represented an aggressive form of masculinity — he wasn’t taught to express of his feelings, so all of his emotions came out as aggression. Muller noted that this charade is common, and many men are brought up this way around the world.

“Young men are always told to ‘man up,’” he said.

In 2011, Muller spent two weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo covering mobile military tribunals, a form of judicial proceedings aimed at prosecuting soldiers who have committed human rights abuses. Pete followed these soldiers’ stories and photographed them and their victims. However, Muller was attempting to answer a larger question: “What was happening to these young men that was leading them to pervasive violence,” he asked. “How can I explore it further?”

He talked about his subsequent, two-year inquiry into the relationship between masculine identity and violence in the context of the war in eastern Congo.

He showed the audience a photograph of a soldier sitting with a gun laying across his lap looking into the distance, beads of sweat on his face. Muller spoke about the conditions inside the Congolese army and how they relate to how soldiers perceive their worth as men, as well as how these dynamics play into acts of violence. Muller then began to articulate how he captures his photographs.

He explained that he first gets to know those who he has interest in photographing, sometimes for significant periods of time, to build a relationship with them. He also emphasized the importance of being truthful and upfront with his subjects.

“Be very mindful, be open about who you are and what your intentions are,” he said. Muller said he then shares his own experiences of masculinity with a subject, though they may be different, and looks for connections between his experiences and those of the person he is talking with.

Muller reflected that it’s at times “hard to talk about masculinity as gender.” However, according to his own disclosure, Muller said those he talks generally with open up to him. Thus, Muller has had many conversations about constructs of masculinity with men and women around the globe. He then looks to see if there is a connection between unfulfilled masculine aspiration and violence.

Muller explained that he has a natural inclination as a portraitist, as he has always been interested in people. His photographs are outgrowths from the interactions between himself and the subject and thus Muller will take many of his photos during conversations he is having with his subject.

Muller went on to show another photo during the talk, this one of Congolese soldiers scattered across a lush, green field firing rockets at rebel enemies. Western asked Muller why he puts himself in dangerous situations.

“War is very intense,” Muller said. “I had never seen war like what I witnessed in the east Congo. I had never seen tens of thousands of mobilized soldiers.” However, while Muller often photographs conflicts, he does not consider himself a war photographer. He is more interested in the conflict behind combat.

Muller also spoke about his recent works for National Geographic. He shared some of his photographs from his project for National Geographic’s Gender Revolution edition published in January.

His proposal for this edition was focused around the masculinization of boys in different parts of the world. One of the locations to which he traveled was Mississippi, where he followed an 11 year old boy, Drew, and his father on hunting trips. Perhaps the most striking of the photographs Muller shared from his time in Mississippi was a photo of Drew after killing a massive boar, standing amongst the hunters with the boar’s blood covering his hands. Muller said he was able to observe the relationship between father and son and to see how the hunting played into that.

A sizeable portion of those in attendance were Mount Holyoke students, one of whom was Katie Cashin ’19. She attended the event because it was encouraged for her Propaganda and War class in the politics department, taught by Khory. She was also interested in hearing a photographer for the National Geographic speak, as she is a fan of the magazine.

“I thought his photos were positively beautiful,” Cashin remarked. “It was very refreshing to hear him describe the ethics he maintained while acquiring the images, such as valuing authenticity, no staging, being upfront about intentions and conscientious about his status as an outsider.”

However, Cashin explained that she wished Muller would have discussed what masculinity actually was. “His whole project was said to investigate this concept, but he never really defined it,” Cashin said.

As Mount Holyoke’s Cyrus Vance visiting professor in international relations for the semester, Muller is currently teaching a course titled, Instrument of the Curious: Photography as Social Exploration, in which his students dig into the conversation behind his photographs. Muller explained that the question driving his course is: “How can we use photos to engage in conversation?” He also explained that he came to Mount Holyoke to teach his course because of the school’s active participation in the conversation surrounding gender. “I wanted to present this work to minds that are interested,” Muller said. “Here at Mount Holyoke, the discourse of gender is alive.”

Sarah McCool ’18, a student in Muller’s class, said it was interesting to seesomeofthephotospresentedthat they had discussed in class.

“Images that we spent 45 minutes looking at were on screen for a considerably shorter period of time at the talk, but they sparked just as much thought then as they did in class, which is the goal,” she said.

Three of Pete Muller’s photographs will be on display at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum until April 23.

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