Arts & culture, People, Profiles, Visual arts, Berkeley Voices

Berkeley Voices: Art student's photo series explores masculine vulnerability

"It came from this idea that as men, we are not allowed to show skin as scars or emotions or weakness," said Sánchez, of his senior thesis project, "A Masculine Vulnerability," on display last semester in the campus's Worth Ryder Art Gallery.

By Anne Brice

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A black-and-white photo of a young man without a shirt on holding and squeezing the bare skin on his chest with a pained expression on his face

"A Masculine Vulnerability," by Brandon Sánchez Mejia. 

Brandon Sánchez Mejia

Read a transcript for Berkeley Voices episode, "Art student's photo series explores masculine vulnerability."

Anne Brice: Brandon Sánchez Mejia stood at a giant wall in UC Berkeley’s Worth Ryder Art Gallery and couldn’t believe his eyes. In front of him were 150 black-and-white photos of men’s bodies in all sorts of poses and from all sorts of angles. It was his senior thesis project, "A Masculine Vulnerability," and it was out for the world to see.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia: The concept was this idea that men, we are not allowed to show skin as scars, emotions or weakness.

Anne Brice: Sánchez will graduate from Berkeley this May with a bachelor’s degree in art practice. His cohort is part of the Department of Art of Practice’s 100th year, a milestone that department chair Ronald Rael says is cause for celebration.

Ronald Rael: There have been moments in art practice's history when it was unclear that art should be at a university at all. And even more recently, there were moments when the university administration wanted to end art practice within the university. And here we are, at 100 years, and it's one of the most popular majors on campus.

Anne Brice: Rael is a professor of architecture and affiliated faculty in art. He says we live in a moment where the arts can be a vehicle to discuss complex issues in ways that other forms of expression can't. Art practice, he says, often involves deep explorations into research and can have important political motivations and impacts.

Ronald Rael: It's a discipline that is really reflective of individual truths. And I think one thing that's very beautiful about being an artist is that you can tell those truths, you can tell the truths about your own becoming, in a way that allows others to see them.

[Music: "Across the Table" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: For Sánchez, showing his true self in "A Masculine Vulnerability" felt scary, but it was something the photographer felt he had to do.

This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music fades out]

Anne Brice: As a kid growing up in El Salvador, Sánchez was sensitive — he felt connected to nature and animals and was often moved to tears. But he learned from his dad that crying wasn’t what men did.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia: My dad has this machismo mindset. If I was crying, he was like, "Don't cry." He’d get mad if I was crying. And it is a cycle that repeats and repeats again. He learned it from his dad, and his dad learned from his dad. It's just a cycle.

In Latin America, the concept of macho man, that men don't cry, just stuck to me very hard. And me, (I'm) trying to break the cycle.

Anne Brice: In "A Masculine Vulnerability," there’s a close-up of an eye, crinkled soles of feet, hands intertwined and in clenched fists, fingers squeezing skin and stretch marks. In the people’s bodies, you can see details — pores, lines, blood vessels — that you normally wouldn’t.

During the photoshoots for the project, Sánchez made sure his models were comfortable. Most of them are his friends, a few friends of friends. Although every photo shows bare skin, everyone was wearing some clothing. And to each of them, he explained his thinking behind the project and made clear they were in control throughout the process.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia: I'd ask these questions to them, like, 'How do you feel in this moment? How do you feel being vulnerable right now?' Just making sure they were comfortable and not crossing a boundary.

Anne Brice: Sánchez also was a model for the project, which he says was a big commitment.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia: You cannot ask anyone to be vulnerable if you’re not being vulnerable. I always grew up having these low self-esteem issues, like I’m too short or I’m too fat. But I’ve been working in the past year about loving myself and trying to see all the good things that I have, physically and emotionally, and trying to embrace it. If I’m not starting to learn how to love myself with my skin right now, it's kind of pointless.

[Music: "Inspector F" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Stephanie Syjuco: It’s also really brave to put your artwork out there in the world, right? Everyone, you know, you can be so worried about judgment — Do people appreciate this? Do people like it? And to sort of make a claim to a visual statement in the world is already one step towards seeing yourself in the world the way that you would like to be seen.

Anne Brice: Stephanie Syjuco is an assistant professor of art practice. She taught Sánchez in her Art and Archive course last semester, and encouraged him to print and present his project.

Stephanie Syjuco: Brandon’s installation took up an entire wall. To sort of project those images, not just on a screen, but in front of the viewer, so that when someone stood in front of the images, it actually had a kind of physical relationship to the viewer’s own body.

[Music fades out]

Anne Brice: Syjuco says that through the creative process, artists develop the ability to fail and pivot, instead of quitting or getting stuck trying the same thing again and again. And these skills help them succeed in so many fields of study.

Stephanie Syjuco: I’ve heard from other professors in more STEM- or research-based fields that the art practice students, they notice how brave they are to just jump into a project and to be confident in the unknown, because that's literally the practice that you are going through when you create a work of art. You really don’t know what’s going to come out on the other end, and you have to get comfortable with an experimental process.

Anne Brice: For Sánchez, the art practice department has been a space where he has felt free to investigate and interrogate his own experiences and to develop his photography practice in a way that's thoughtful about the culture and community he comes from.

[Music: "Blue Jay" by Blue Dot Sessions]

To read more about Sánchez and his path to UC Berkeley, you can go to Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu. There, you’ll find a feature story with photos about how Sánchez as a teenager was made to stay inside for a year, then decided that no matter what it took, he would get an education and pursue his dream of becoming a photographer. There’s also a link to the story in our show notes.

I’m Anne Brice, and this Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. If you like Berkeley Voices, please tell a friend or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. You can find all of our podcast episodes, with transcripts and photos, on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

[Music fades out]

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