Arts & culture, Humanities, Visual arts

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.

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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 written version of “Art student’s photo series explores masculine vulnerability”:

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.

“The concept was this idea that men, we are not allowed to show skin as scars, emotions or weakness,” said Sánchez.

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 said is cause for celebration.

There have been moments in art practice’s history when it was unclear that art should be at a university at all,” said Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture and affiliated faculty in art. “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.”

He said 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 said, often involves deep explorations into research and can have important political motivations and impacts.

“It’s a discipline that is really reflective of individual truths,” Rael said. “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.”

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

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.

My dad has this machismo mindset,” said Sánchez. “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.”

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.

I’d ask these questions to them, like, ‘How do you feel in this moment?” said Sánchez. “How do you feel being vulnerable right now?’ Just making sure they were comfortable and not crossing a boundary.”

Sánchez also was a model for the project, which he said was a big commitment.

You cannot ask anyone to be vulnerable if you’re not being vulnerable,” Sánchez said. “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.”

“It’s also really brave to put your artwork out there in the world, right?,” said Stephanie Syjuco, an assistant professor of art practice. “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.”

“Brandon’s installation took up an entire wall,” said Syjuco, who taught Sánchez in her Art and Archive course last semester, and encouraged him to print and present his project.

“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.”

Syjuco said 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.

“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,” she said. “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.”

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.

Read a feature story about Sánchez and his path to UC Berkeley.