‘We all have a feminine and a masculine side,” says French photographer . “Why would sensuality or tenderness be especially feminine?” Her series of portraits of young men from Middle Eastern countries, entitled Mectoub, asks this very question – not just of her subjects, but also of their viewers.
The men vary widely. Many look as if they could be roaming around Belleville, the up-and-coming Paris neighbourhood where our interview takes place. Hazem, for example, was photographed in an abandoned palace in Cairo, wearing a red polo shirt and matching satin red heels. A dancer and choreographer, he once staged a ballet about gender and used the heels in his performance.
Khalid, meanwhile, was also photographed in heels – his own – in an old Renault garage. He runs the only LGBT magazine in Jordan. And Ahmad, a Palestinian who lives in Ramallah and has a tattoo of a key on his forearm, is photographed in front of birdcages filled with yellow-breasted birds. “It’s exactly the situation Palestinians are in,” Coten notes.
It is safe to say these are not conventional shots of Arab men. Fahd, shot in Cairo, has a tiny pet snake on his left shoulder and a cascade of braided dark hair tumbling over his right. Artsy has a fancy scarf wrapped around his face, and “Je ne regrette rien” tattooed over his heart; while Nabil, from Algiers, has “DIY” inked across his belly button and the words “Sex Pastis and Punk Revolution” on his left arm.
“It was important to show any tattoos,” says Coten, whose photographs are . In Arab countries, they are haram, forbidden by religion. Tattoo artists do exist, though, living discreetly behind closed doors, their work being a symbol of “revolt and freedom”.
When Coten started working in Morocco in 2012, she felt her photos conveyed the spirit of energy and hope that was in the air, following the Arab spring. But gradually, over the four years of the project, they began to reflect something darker. “It’s not resignation – because they all said the revolution is not over, it continues. But there is something sad and uneasy, that emerges over time.”
Coten graduated from Arles photography school in the 1980s and went on to shoot a series in nearby Camargue, capturing the region’s nomadic population and the caravans they lived in. Next came , a long-term project with a tribe of bedouins in the Sinai desert. She describes it as: “Not reportage, not documentary – it was a love story. That’s how the Arab world became part of my life. I fell in love with these people, their culture.”
She spent time in the Moroccan seaside town of Essaouira. Even before the revolution, she spotted the gap between the new generation – who want consumerism and modernity and liberty – and their traditional families. Coten decided to tell this story through the men she saw everywhere in the public spaces she travelled through.
“We always talk about the condition of women, the veil. As a woman, I asked myself: who are these men?” She knew the stereotypes, but the years she had spent in Arab countries contradicted them. Her goal became the exploration of masculinity, to show men as she encountered them. “They are very aware of the image they have in the west,” she says. “It makes them unhappy. They were glad someone was interested in showing how they really are.”
She visited seven countries within the Mediterranean basin (“Except those at war”), asking where young people gathered, at which bars. “Then I’d sit, watch and approach those who seemed interesting– the way they dressed, their styling, their movements.” She stresses that the series is about challenging notions of masculinity, not sexual orientation.
The title is a play on the Arab word mektoub meaning “it is destined, it is written” and the French word mec, meaning guy. “As it happens,” she says, “nothing is written. These boys are in the process of changing the narrative.”
Coten would build a rapport with her subjects as they scouted for appropriate backdrops: old bistros with no clientele, or abandoned houses, places that said something about the state of a country – and the minds of the subjects. “Because I wasn’t a native, I really became a confidante. They could tell me things they could not tell their loved ones: ‘I don’t believe in Allah’, ‘I don’t follow Ramadan’, ‘I’m gay.’”
She wanted these elements to infuse the portraits. “Being alone, face-to-face, was essential, so the subject would have the opportunity to be himself. Which meant abandoning himself, letting go, not being constricted by society’s dictates.” In the beginning, the men would pose, but things would become interesting when they’d tire and become less self-conscious. She would seize on the body language, the attitude, the look. “The only direction I gave was, ‘Don’t smile – and look at me.’”
The power balance brought its own surprises. “It is not easy to photograph a man, to isolate myself with a man. I could not have done this if I was 30 years old. The age I am today” – Coten is in her 50s – “allows me this intimacy to ‘seduce’ them, because the portrait is a question of seduction. No one lets themselves be photographed if they’re not seduced by the project.
“But it’s seduction within limits because, as women, we are in danger everywhere at any time in all societies. Mectoub has made me want to work on the subject of men, to use a woman’s gaze on them. It is a reversal of the history of art, to the extent that I orchestrate and the man poses.”
The reaction from the subjects has been varied. While several proudly use their portraits as their Facebook photos, one man is battling with Coten to have his image pulled from the series.
Although Mectoub won , Coten feels the work has gone unrecognised in her native France. “I think it disturbs people. I am asked to justify why, as a French woman with no Arab origin, I went to an Arab country. People even ask me if I slept with the subjects. We never ask a man why he photographs women.”
• Mectoub is part of , until 12 November.