Public Toilets, Private Affairs.
Celebrating the photography of Marc Martin
Martin’s photos, staged with models and using disused train station toilets as locations, are beautifully observed, and celebrate the anticipation, the sexual tension, and the fraternity that can be experienced by men in public toilets around the world.
I spoke with Marc Martin for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.
What was your inspiration for your Public Toilets, Private Affairs series?
Urinals have always had a bad reputation. Bringing colour and life to these long-gone meeting places in the shadow, that was my challenge. I wanted to restore their disturbing share of sensuality.
For generations of men who were looking for adventures with other men, public toilets were privileged places for meeting and recognition. In every city or village, the public urinals served as a lighthouse or magnet.
I wanted to shed an optimistic light on the importance these places had for the community. These public toilets, whose history is intertwined with the lives and adventures of many gays, trans people, escorts, and libertines, are also unlikely bastions of freedom. That’s what I’m showing with this exhibition.
You’ve written that the public lavatory in the main square of your home town was where you had some of your earliest man-on-man encounters. How old were you at that time?
I knew I was attracted to boys very early on. My problem at the time was to find other boys like me. I was living in a working-class city in the north of France. It wasn’t easy for me to meet other gay guys.
Public urinals, which seemed ‘neutral’ in appearance, were the meeting point. These places, where men were constantly coming and going, were instrumental in my sexuality, they aroused my desires, and quenched my curiosity.
Public toilets as cruising places were no heaven, granted. But they were no hell either.
What is it about sexual encounters in public lavatories that excites you?
In public toilets, the unexpected and the unknown were major ingredients to sexual arousal. But the sex stories that took place in the urinals are not at the heart of my project. It’s the human dimension, the freedom offered by these urban public places that matters to me.
I had the most unlikely, unexpected encounters in public toilets. These so-called squalid, gloomy, and stinking places were incredible places of social mixing. Homos and straights of all social strata, men of all ages, cultural and religious backgrounds — they all came together there.
What was the process you followed to create the shots that form the Public Toilets, Private Affairs series?
The come-on at urinals included a long series of preliminaries coded between the insiders to detect if one’s neighbour in the adjacent stall, his sex in his hand, was there only to piss or if he was going to be more demonstrative.
In my work, even on the most explicit photos, I leave a hint of mystery and doubt. I wanted to recreate this tension, so I organised photo shoots and cast men who didn’t know each other. They met for the first time on set, and improvised everything from there on. Most of them were gay guys, but not all of them. I was interested in a game of stealthy looks.
My big breakthrough was when Berlin’s public subway system gave me access to their toilets to carry out my photo sessions. These were public toilets built at the beginning of the last century, at the same time as the subway stations themselves. They’d been closed to the public for more than 25 years but hadn’t been destroyed.
Recreating old-fashioned cruising scenes in authentic toilets from that era was a godsend for my work. The graffiti on the century-old tiling or on the cubicle doors still bears witness to people’s lives, the traces of our past.
I was very moved to discover doors filled with sexual graffiti dating back from the 80s and 90s. Some people might see only an obscene, animalistic expression of homosexuality or simple vandalism of a public space, but what I saw were impulses of desire, and calls to fellow men.
What sort of response have you had to the exhibition at the Schwules Museum in Berlin?
The reception was unexpected, beyond the gay circle.
The exhibition has been extended because it’s been so popular. What has been unexpected is that it’s been well received beyond the gay community. All the mainstream media here in Berlin talked about it — how it highlighted how much things have changed over such a short period of time, including a broad acceptance of homosexuality, the ‘sanitisation’ of cities, and the role of spaces for intra-community connections.
I’ve also received a lot of testimonies. People have been sharing stories that never previously spoken about.
On the opening weekend, an elderly man in the exhibition hall was crying discreetly, the catalogue open against his heart. The book was open on a page with photos of Berlin ‘cottages’ which have since been demolished. I took him for a coffee and he told me his story. Sixty years ago, this man had met a stranger at the toilets in the photo — a stranger who would become his partner, now dead. A beautiful story, but what deeply upset me was that he had never before dared to confess to anyone the truth about how he had met the love of his life, because it had taken place in a urinal. He asked me to write a dedication on the catalogue photo of the toilets where they had met: “Please, write — For Heinz and Jürgen…”
Some of the negative comments and feedback that I’ve seen seem to come from gay men who feel that it’s wrong to showcase or celebrate this kind of sexual encounter, that it somehow gives gay men a bad reputation. Do you think that this is a valid criticism?
This subculture has long been synonymous with shame, even within the homosexual community. It is still taboo, but many relationships were formed in these places.
Public toilets have often been associated with murky perverts prowling around. Against that stereotype, I chose to show in my photos smiling faces, and horny guys in an exciting setting.
My decision to pay tribute to all those men who met in secretive public places, was to build a bridge between my artistic vision and to also provide a real historical representation. I wanted to break with the gloomy and unhealthy aspect that’s attributed to this homosexual subculture.
The fact that an LGBTQ museum welcomes my project is all the more symbolic. We mustn’t forget that homosexuality has long been banned in the eyes of the law. Oppression played a fundamental role in the encounters in the cottages and tearooms, especially among the elder generation. We often view these men who had sex in public toilets as being cowardly, but they had the courage to acknowledge their impulses.
What next for Marc Martin?
I’d like to take Public Toilets, Private Affairs to Paris. For more than ten years I’ve been exploring the stories of street urinals on the Parisian pavement. I found hundreds of documents in the archives of the Parisian vice squad, collected hundreds of old photos, paintings, drawings, and unusual objects. Until then, I’m still working on men, focusing on maleness and its illusions — between poetry and pornography, between pigs and flowers.