Last night photographer Hugo Fernandes spoke in Emory’s Woodruff Library about his portrait series Intimate Strangers.
To create the series of striking portraits, Fernandes recruited his subjects using websites and apps primarily designed to arrange hook ups (brief sexual encounters). His strategy has changed as the technology has changed, from using sites like gay.com in 2006 to apps like Grindr in 2015.
Once someone agreed to be photographed, Fernandes would try to meet with them as quickly as possible, setting up his lighting and getting release forms signed with a minimal amount of conversation. The rushed processed kept the subjects awkward, just as they would be during an anonymous sexual encounter. He found that by refusing to give input on how the men should pose encouraged them to focus on themselves, rather then on trying to please him.
After a series of initial photo shoots, Fernandes tried even harder to remove his influence from the images and made a “conscious effort to showcase people as they seemed comfortable. If they wanted to be seen, I’d allow them to be seen. If they wanted to remain anonymous, I’d allow them to be hidden.”
Many of the subjects never contact him again. If they do, Fernandes would share a few images with them, but not his final choices for the series. Some of the men express the same sort of shame as they would had the encounter been sexual in nature.
“I like to face my demons,” Fernandes said, “and in a way I am forcing them to face theirs.”
Geography and local culture also had an impact on the work, as Fernandes discovered certain sites and apps were more popular in certain areas, and some countries embrace a sexual freedom that allowed him to find subjects more easily. However, when working on the series in Turkey, he found that the real fear of arrest based on the transmission of homosexual content over the Internet dramatically changed how he could meet models.
Intimate Strangers is not over, but on pause. Fernandes expressed an interest in waiting, as long as 10 years, to resume the work. “I want to see what happens as I get older. Will the people change? How will the dynamics between myself and the people I meet change?”
Speaking about what drew him to photography over other art forms, Fernandes said, “I was able to create situations, I was able to create drama.” The series specifically exploits low light situations to create intimacy, distance and mystery. He cites the painter Carvaggio as his biggest influence overall, and the “Hustler” series of photographs by Philip Lorca as an influence on the series itself.
The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library recently acquired 44 prints from the series, in an ongoing effort to expand our modern photography holdings. Curator Randy Gue, who acquired the photographs, was drawn to the images because, “Hugo’s work intersects with two of the Rose Library’s growing collecting strengths—materials that document LGBT communities and photography collections that examine sexuality and gender. His photos explore how technology is transforming the private aspects of our lives. ”