“Masculinity is very difficult to define, the spectrum is so broad, but I think that’s a positive thing.” Mahtab Hussain documents the identity politics of Britain’s Asian population, honing in on the changing face of man and boy in Birmingham’s working-class Muslim communities.

Beard, Abs, and White T-Shirt from You Get Me?, 2010
Beard, Abs, and White T-Shirt from You Get Me?, 2010

What do you think of when you hear the word “masculinity”?

At first, I always see a flash of one of my portraits and the direct gaze of one of the sitters. There is an allure of power, confidence and sureness, a hardened and controlled exterior, a performance, really, of what we are visually told is a man. Then I think about all the men I’ve met in my life: teachers, friends, mentors and acquaintances, those who have been strong role models. Gentle faces, smiles, laughs, men who have shown me how to be kind, vulnerable, emotional and brave. Masculinity is very difficult to define, the spectrum is so broad, but I think that’s a positive thing.

Green Chalk Stripe Suit from You Get Me?, 2017
Green Chalk Stripe Suit from You Get Me?, 2017

Your photo series have focused individually on both the male and female experience of Asian communities in Birmingham. How do you feel the experience differs for the men and women of these communities, and what was it that you were particularly looking to convey or explore with the male-focused series, “You Get Me”?

Both sexes have suffered from racism, in different ways of course, but feelings of alienation have been felt in roughly the same way. However, I think among the younger generations, the men are struggling more now than ever to find their voice and place in society, and this isn’t just the effect of political events, it’s a consequence of the global shift in how men see themselves in a post-industrial age.

There were a multitude of things I wanted to explore in the series, You Get Me?, but ultimately, I wanted to break the unwavering stereotypes about these men. There is such a prevalent preconception now, permeated by the media, that since they are Muslim, they are all either jihadists, pedophiles or wife beaters. Being a Muslim, being labelled one today, above everything else you might be, carries so many depressing negative connotations that substantially undermine these young men. Consequently, many are victims of this societal bias which forces them to be on the defense, a hard place to perpetually find oneself. I hope that their portraits, and the honest interviews they gave, will give a different perspective.

“They are beefing up their bodies because they are under attack by the very society they want acceptance from”

Many of the male bodies you photograph are very physically commanding—muscular, proud and stacked. How do you see the body in particular functioning in your work? Is it a protective shield or a form of self-expression?

The body, just like the mind, is a vehicle for communication, but the body is a literal and instant form of communication. I think it is interesting that these men, who are feeling the pressures of alienation in so many ways, are on the one hand trying their hardest to conform to the West in terms of clothes, style etc… On the other hand, they are beefing up their bodies because they are under attack by the very society they want acceptance from. If you live in country with staunch preconceptions, protecting oneself, making oneself look strong, defiant, frightening almost, is the most natural thing to want to do. So, yes, it is a protective shield, and by default, a form of expression too. It was also the case that when people from Asia started to settle here in the fifties and sixties, they were generally considered to be a weaker race, and I think to an extent the youth are seeking to readdress this too. They now have terrifically powerful icons to look up to and want to emulate—Muhammad Ali, Naseem Hamed, Amir Khan.

Man with Japanese Akita from You Get Me?, 2012
Man with Japanese Akita from You Get Me?, 2012

You also touch on adolescence in your work, photographing younger boys and males on the cusp of manhood. How do you see their lives being shaped or hemmed in by our preexisting expectations of masculinity?

Well I think this is an issue for most young men and men of all faiths and cultures. While women have their own struggles, and while progress for complete equality is far from done, they are increasingly staying in education longer, obtaining better positions in the workforce, and finding a stronger voice to say “We want careers over families first.” The men, consequently, have been left in their wake struggling to define themselves, as male patriarchal roles in the community are also being redefined. The traditional concept of what it means to be a man is fading, and so on top of asserting themselves from a protective perspective, these men are navigating the changing perception of masculinity and resorting to extreme notions of manhood by using bodybuilding, or a performance of violence, to become the tough guy… it’s an overreaction.

On top of all this, their lives are being shaped by continuous cultural conflict between East and West; there are different ideas about what it means to be a man in these opposing cultural spheres. Given where they were born, most in the UK, and the families they were born into, they naturally feel akin to both. Defining who they are is extremely complex, but interestingly what has emerged from this complexity is a hybridity, a fusion of both worlds.

Young Man Asleep from You Get Me? 2010
Young Man Asleep from You Get Me?, 2010

I’ve seen the word “shame” used in descriptions of your work, that your typical subjects might feel a level of shame about their religion and heritage. How do you hope to confront this feeling with your work?

By showing these men not as Muslim men per se, but just as men. Men with issues and insecurities like everyone else. The political environment, after decades of the “war on terror” against Muslim countries in the East, and the actions of a tiny minority of Muslims to cause destruction and havoc in the West, has positioned the Islamic faith in such a terrible place, from a Western perspective. Shame has become embedded in the youth I photograph because it’s all they have known from birth. I want my work to show that these sitters want to be fully accepted in the West, that the younger generations think, look and behave generally as every other British youth, and above all, they share the same values. Their interviews talk of alienation, of wanting to belong, as well as undertones of wanting to share in the collective conversation.


This feature originally appeared in issue 38

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