Two years ago, gay photographer Luke Austin moved to the United States to pursue a now successful career in photography. His muses, typically sun-kissed, naked, and queer men, represent a gaze of the male form many queer men don't see outside of a 2am romp on PornHub. When I first discovered his work in 2012, however, I was both enamored and disheartened. His stunning portrayals of the male body played a large role in diminishing my own body dysmorphic disorder (big nose, oily skin, "unconventionally" attractive, to name a few) and encouraged me to show my own body without shame. At the same time, a majority of the bodies in his images were white and draped in muscles. While it's unfair for me or anyone to deny the beauty of his images solely off the color of his subjects' skin, the gaze he unknowingly created discouraged visibility and public appreciation of black bodies.
Fast forward to present day; Luke's feed over the past year and a half is lush and thriving with bodies of all colors and body-types. Despite this welcomed inclusiveness, Luke himself notices a disparity of the number of likes of brown and black versus white bodies. This past Sunday, Luke posted a stunning photo of Mike (below).
After 3 hours, the photo garnered about 1,600 likes. (Goals, right?? Maybe.)
One hour later, Luke posted a selfie of himself in his underwear - after the same amount of time, the photo was sitting at nearly 3,800 likes (more than twice as much as the photo of Mike in less time). In Luke's caption of his selfie, he added a quip at the end:
"...*also you can go like the previous post [referring to the photo of Mike] which is a much better photo than this one..."
Technically speaking, Luke is right on the money. In terms of composition, texture, tone, exposure, lack of grain, rule of thirds, etc., the photo of Mike IS a much better photo than Luke's selfie. But are the 2000 people who liked Luke's photo but not Mike's racist?
Certainly some would argue that other factors outside of racism play into why Luke's selfie garnered more attention, but none of them add up. Many photos in Luke's feed are very similar in their environment, tone, location, colors, the visible part of the subject's body, etc. - the only differences are the subjects' skin color. The one compelling argument I can garner is that people tend to like photos if the subject is the owner of that Instagram. I can definitely attest to liking someone's photos more often if they are in the photo versus a stranger, but the disparity of attention between white and black bodies on his account is undeniable. Numerous men of color garner less than 1000 likes, while white bodies in similar poses with similar compositions often have (thousands) more likes.
Furthermore, I manually browsed hundreds of photos and searched the "likes" for a number of accounts I follow personally. I compared their likes between photos of black and brown bodies versus those of white bodies and, as tough as it is for me to swallow, there is a major disparity there as well.
While the word "racism" tends to scare a lot of people, its practices (whether their initiators are conscious of it or not) run rampant across social media, news outlets, television/film, job placement, fashion, and more. Perhaps using a phrase such as digital discrimination (lack of attention or recognition of people of color on social media reflected by appropriation or distaste of their culture) makes it easier to swallow, but it doesn't change the implication or impact this discrimination has on the mental health of people of color.
Luke's own identification of this digital discrimination comes at a (perfect) time when the binary between Trump versus the world continues to separate religions, races, genders, and sexualities. As someone whose work has impacted me and so many other queer men, I wanted to get his take on all of this.
What inspired you when you first started shooting? What were your feelings toward your own body versus the bodies of your subjects?
When I first started photographing men in 2007 it was just any of my friends who would sit for me. Gradually, through MySpace/Facebook and then Instagram, I would seek out the muscle boys to take portraits of. I grew up really skinny and was always attracted to anyone with muscles. It was always such a thrill to have a dude sit for me, in his underwear, who was literally double my size. At that point for me it was all about the muscles and I didn’t even really care that much about the face. I hate even saying this, but that's what I was in to. I think a lot of guys out there that went through high school and into their 20s super skinny all really wanted muscles. I would be in gym locker rooms and just sit in awe of the muscles. I remember going to my first gay club at 18 and just standing in a room surrounded by real life G.I. Joe dolls with shoulders as big as my face and thinking it was so hot and wishing I had that. Also in the beginning i thought it was easy to photograph muscles and come away with a photo that everyone would love. That initial rush of “whoa this photo/guy looks like something out of a magazine” was what got me excited about shooting. I would also shoot really skinny boys but my main focus was on the muscle boys. I’m still that skinny kid inside that spends way too much time thinking about what his body looks like and many gym hours, but in terms of my portraiture work the above is so eye roll now.
What compelled you to add that quip on your latest selfie (directing everyone's attention to Mike's photo?)
This is something I really struggle with in terms of my Instagram and knowing what my followers are in to. A half naked selfie is always going to blow up with the likes and will always do better than posting a photo of someone else, BUT as someone who actually does photography as a profession its hard to see your work passed by. About a year ago I posted a portrait i took of a black man and it got something like 800 likes over the course of the whole day and then i posted a white guy and the likes shot up. In the caption I included a line saying, “it would also be nice if you could like the previous post as well” and the black guy's likes then shot up to 2000. The fact that people could like it only after being asked was disturbing to me. I did this again on Sunday and same response.
When and how did you first notice the disproportion of likes between white bodies versus brown and black bodies? Was there a defining moment for you?
I really noticed straight away. The number of black guys in Sydney is so low that i never had the chance to photograph them but obviously moving to America in 2013 changed that. I’ve never chosen a model based solely on their skin color ever, I’ve always just photographed whoever I meet and am attracted to. I began photographing black men and I would post those photos to Instagram like all the others yet they would always get half (sometimes a third) of what the white guys would get. And that was if the black model was muscly, the skinny black guys struggled to crack 500 likes. It was so strange to me.
Why is this conversation important for queer men? Why is it important for white people to initiate this conversation?
I mean [queer] white people have privilege coming out their ears in America so when they have any sort of ‘fame’ on social media people listen to them. It’s important that white allies of minorities/poc use their standing to call out other white people. “Why don’t you like a portrait of a soft gentle black boy?”
What advice do you have for other photographers and creatives to build a more inclusive system? How do we move forward?
I often get messages from black men saying things like “good on you” and “so proud of you”, and these type of ‘give yourself a pat on the back’ messages sit strangely with me 'cause I don’t want to be praised for doing something that all should be doing, you know? But what I do get from [these messages] is black men feel under represented on social media, they want to see themselves and know they are seen. And I see them. I guess my advice to other photographers who mainly photograph white men is to just ask yourself why that is? Do you only have white men in your life? Do you maybe have inbred racism and just not see the beauty of black skin and features? I also think you have to really see the beauty of the model to be able to photograph them well, you can’t just go and find yourself a black model to make your social media look inclusive. Really see all colours [of] people.
Luke Austin can be found frolicking through Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles.
lukeaustinphoto.com (portfolio and store)