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Wellington photographer gives a face to once-shunned men

Aug 8th, 2012 | By | Category: Arts/Entertainment, Featured Article

ONCE upon a time, their relationships could have landed them in jail – now their photographs hang in a Wellington art gallery.

Toi Pōneke Gallery currently houses the portraits of 45 gay men, which make up the exhibition Men Alone – Men Together, the brainchild of Wellington photographer and oral historian Mark Beehre (above).

Most of these men – whose portraits and stories feature in a book by Mr Beehre of the same name –  lived through the pre-law reform era (before 1986), when homosexual acts were punishable by New Zealand law.

“An exhibition featuring gay relationships in a public, council-funded gallery would have caused protests 25 years ago,” says Mr Beehre, who is also gay.

“[New Zealand] society has moved on a lot. We still have a long way to go, but the fact that I can have this exhibition shows that society is a lot more accepting.”

Mr Beehre, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Auckland, spent seven years capturing his 45 subjects – 14 single men, 14 gay couples and one trio – and collecting their stories before publishing the book in 2010.

He first began interviewing his subjects (starting with men he knew) in the final year of his degree, and he was pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of the men to tell their stories.

“I was surprised by the high positive reaction to the project, and how open some of the men were,” he says.

“These men lived for many years in the closest. They had to be discreet, they could be hassled, people at work could give them a hard time, some were scared they’d get the sack. So their stories were kept under the radar.

“There was a real need for gay visibility. Our mythology is filled with romantic stories featuring men and women, but nothing for same-sex couples.”

Mr Beehre says he was moved by the men’s personal stories. He was particularly inspired by the story of 93-year-old Ian Dixon (right), a former Presbyterian Minister and army chaplain, who came out at age 80 after his wife of 50 years passed away.

“He was very faithful and devoted to his wife, and didn’t explore the other side of his life until she died,” he says.

“He talked a lot of faith and sexuality. He said that he can’t see a loving God having a problem with gay people.”

Mr Beehre also interviewed West Auckland couple Neil Pervan and Simon Nimmo, who lived through the worst of the Aids epidemic in New Zealand.

“They had to rebuild their whole social circle as so many of their friends had died,” says Mr Beehre, who interviewed several other men nursed their friends and partners with the Aids virus.

As well as giving gay men a voice, Mr Beehre wanted to challenge stereotypical images of gay men that the public has come to expect.

“I wanted to move away from the stereotypes, the flamboyant queens, or the cover boys with buff gym bodies. I wanted to show the ordinariness of gay people.

“It’s important that the viewer has a sense of engagement, and feel that they’d want to know the person in the photograph.  I wanted to capture the essence of the person.”

Mr Beehre, who originally qualified and worked as a hospital physician, says Men Alone – Men Together, both the book and exhibition, has received very positive feedback.

“I met one young guy who said he found the book inspiring in terms of how his own life was evolving and him exploring himself as a gay man.

“The book has sold well, which I’m really pleased with.”

He is also pleased with the response to the exhibition, his first at Toi Pōneke.

In the past, he has exhibited at Photospace Gallery in Wellington, and in Sydney and London as part of Wellington photography collective exposed. His project Men Undressed, featuring nude portraits of men, exhibited at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography from April to May.

He is shortly to begin a new project, A Queer Existence, which will focus on the lives of young queer men living in post-law reform New Zealand. He is beginning to gather contacts for the project, and says he will be “delighted” to hear from young men who wish to be interviewed.

“Since 1986, there’s been big social changes – law reform, civil rights, civil unions, lots of important legislation and just a big shift in society,” says Mr Beehre, who lives in Aro Valley with his partner of seven years.

“There will be big differences between these young guys and the guys from the last project.”

The Men Alone – Men Together exhibition will run until Saturday, August 11. The book can be purchased at leading retailers.MEN TOGETHER: Neil Pervan and Simon Nimmo.

IMAGES: Mark Beehre

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is a Whitireia journalism student, most passionate about the arts and social justice issues. Sometimes, she even combines the two.
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