Penis Sheaths and Modern Masculinity: An Interview with Kenneth Bamberg
From a Swedish-speaking part of Finland, photographer Kenneth Bamberg has always been a misfit in his own country. This outsider status has allowed him to view his society with keen detachment, as well as a wry smile. His work focuses heavily on what it means to be a man in the world today and finds the absurd contradictions that come along with it.
His Koteka Impressions series appropriates a tribal tradition as a way to discuss the fragmented nature of current day maleness: each man in this series aims to create an object that represents manliness, yet ends up a member of his own tribe.
I spoke to Bamberg (who is also my cousin) about his new series, the fluidity of gender roles, and his dream participant.
What motivated you to start this project?
I got this idea when I was in the Cultural Museum in Helsinki, and they had this exhibition going on by a Finnish anthropologist, Gunnar Landtman, who was in Papau New Guinea in the 1900s. And I saw the penis sheaths: some were made of different roots and some were made of seashells, and they had all different shapes. And from what I understood they all have different meanings. I started to think, how would I build mine?
How did you build yours?
I was sitting outside after a sauna, thinking “what should I build a koteka from?” I see this green rake, and I think, “that would be a nice symbol.” Because it has these twenty different metal blades that are pointing in different directions, like paths or roads to follow. Then I wanted something on the base, so since this was metal and very sharp and hard I wanted to combine it with something soft and round, so I used this wooden basket. And for the picture I decided to do in Åland in a place where I had been camping that I liked, on an island.
You are in New York looking for models right now. What motivated you to travel with this project?
I am willing to take some risks if the potential payoff is enough. I ask myself: How will this “part 2” differ from these current images? What aspects of maleness are potentially universal, and which are grounded in specific cultural traditions? How will my insights be deepened (or the opposite) by aiming my camera at a (at least geographically) distant culture? Will these cultural differences show or will the project mostly attract people from certain social groups?
You come from a part of the world where the men are famously introverted, but listening to the interviews they are all very thoughtful, and even excited, in talking about their kotekas. How do you account for this?
I think that is because it’s such a personal experience for them. They are putting a lot of time and effort into thinking “what should I build, where should I wear it, how should I pose with it, what should it symbolize.” And they know they have a video interview where they are talking for five minutes about this and what it means to them. And of course for them this is in the background, they are thinking they must put some meaning into it.
What do you look for in models?
I tried to get as wide a range of people taking part as possible — age-wise and career-wise. I make a point that each participant design his own sheath and selects the spot where to make the photo. I ask the participant to be naked when wearing the penis sheath, without additional clothing that might distract the form, shape or color of his sheath. The wearer also selects the spot where to take the picture.
Sometimes I get asked for how much money I am willing to pay the participant. I don’t pay anyone to take part — then they would be taking part for the wrong reasons. Neither do I look for people in socially weak positions.
If I would make their sheaths myself and pay people to pose with them in front of my camera, one can immediately start talking about my privileged position as a photographer. I believe it is most important that the interest comes from them, that they feel they must take part or they will miss out on something.
What are your thoughts on the kotekas your models have made?
I love to see all the endearing kotekas the participants construct. I feel they celebrate, mock and deconstruct traditional masculinity all at the same time, which is always a starting point for discovery, discussion and new thoughts.
I hope it shines through, across the entire series, my respect for, and also my “simpatico” with my subjects. While the humor element is sometimes visible — and utterly delightful — the series would fail completely if the point had been merely to “make a joke.”
That seems to be a reoccurring theme in your work, challenging traditional ideas of masculinity. How did you come to focus on it?
I grew up in a small society, on an island between Finland and Sweden.
Closest to me where my group of male friends, my two older brothers, my father and mother. The atmosphere where I grew up was very homosocial. Me and my surroundings focused mostly on manly stuff, playing ice hockey, fishing, collecting bird eggs (thats a an island behavior) and shooting with airguns. My older brothers taught me how to do all of those things as well as how to wrestle. Sometimes our father took part. I remember the summer day I beat my dad in armwrestling at sixteen, under my brothers’ watching eyes. It was a glorious moment that gave me a symbolic ticket to manhood.
Shortly after that my brother committed suicide. His actions made me start questioning my own uprising, history, behavior and my surroundings actions. From there my interests in concepts of maleness and identity started.
How has your personal idea of masculinity changed?
It has gotten much more open, the more I do this. It’s such an actually abstract issue with gender, and they’re really floating into each other. And there are these labels that are in a way expected that you have be a certain way. A bit of pressure in societies that there are different ways that you have to be. And they can be very contradictory in different societies — how a man should be or a woman should be — and those tensions are very interesting and good starting points for making work.
Many of your models sought outside input — from wives, girlfriends, and family members — in making their kotekas. Is the community aspect something you anticipated?
To me it came to a surprise that a few of them asked their wives and girlfriends to help design the sheath, but why not, once again I put no restrictions on their sheaths or how the define it. I think that it’s really heartwarming and nice that they do, and it might tell that the guy is letting the girlfriend have a lot of input into his masculinity, and what’s wrong with that? Nothing.
Has your work been met with any resistance in Finland?
The exhibition in Helsinki was on TV and major papers wrote about it, the response was big. In general one can say that the people that mostly warmly embraced my project in Finland are people who vote for the left and green parties. Conservatives being quiet, meaning perhaps they don’t like it.
My favourite koteka participator would be Putin.
Because there’s this very strong political issue going on since he is [Finland’s] neighbor. And I would be really interested in knowing his thoughts. How he would solve this? How would he talk about masculinity? Would he talk about masculinity? What would it be and how would he present this? I would be really interested, not just seeing the koteka, but in listening to him and what he has to say about this.
Kenneth Bamberg is currently seeking models for his Koteka Impressions project. If you are interested in participating contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org