The penis is diametrically considered an object of worship and abject fear. For a few years, I’ve been photographing penis portraits to exemplify consent and get to grips with the desire and the taboo.
Nearly half of this world’s population has penises, and they are a source of pleasure, pain, love, jealousy, power and shame since the very beginning. The penis is seen as a major attribute to masculinity, its euphemism being the ‘manhood’. Why an erect penis is considered more threatening than a flaccid one, but it is, even though symbolically phalluses are represented everywhere, from minarets to obelisks, chorizo to bread batons and ice lollies, trains and aircraft. Size matters, across everything, the bigger it is, it’s deemed more powerful, and this toxic notion subliminally poisons the male self-image. It’s not strange then that men worry a lot about the size of their penis!
Curiosity got me to probe the many names given to a penis, linguistically and culturally. For instance, Zakar is a Farsi word for penis, in Arabic, the same word means memory/mention and is etymologically rooted in Protosemitic dikar. Shiva ling adorns Hindu places of worship and represents the generative power of Shiva. The 15th century Lama Kunley’s flaming thunderbolt and the temple of fertility in Bhutan fascinate me no end, with the penises painted publically outside and inside the homes. Phallic worship has gone on since ancient times across cultures. Kanamara Festival in Japan is a grand public and family spectacle of the penis. How I wished as a boy, that my father’s hardcover on Khajuraho temples had more definition in those offset reproductions. Classical European art is full of male nudity too, but the penis is fairly underplayed. Thankfully Michelangelo bequeathed us all with a larger than life David, and without a fig leaf masquerade!
I tried to create elaborate tableaux to present some of the images from my ongoing photographic series titled Penis Portraits. Naming it differently could have possibly made it sound more ‘respectable’, fancier or in a language closer to my roots, but then I succumbed to simply calling it what is – Penis Portraits.
The current wave of prudishness ravaging social media in the name of faux-morality is asphyxiating for the disconnect it brings with and to our bodies. I found myself scraping contexts to legitimise my interest in the male body, particularly the hidden. Much has been written and debated on the divides between art and pornography, eroticism and sensuality, hardly any agreements are ever reached. Male love deities; Min to Freyr, Pan, Erotes, Priapus or Tintinnabulum, to contemporary artists Hokusai, Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Webber, Jasper John, Andy Warhol, Helen Beard or Jamie Mc Cartney; to name a few, all garner raised eyebrows, nervous laughter and divided opinions.
In my early teens, pseudo religiosity ruled supreme in Pakistan and any mention of sexuality other than the hetero normative was a big taboo. My desire for the male form flourished like a secret colony of mycelium. I learnt to derive pleasure by visually noting the minutiae; creases and swells under the clothes and the breeze were the informants. Penis curiosity aroused every time I noticed resistance under a fluttering lungi, a sweat-drenched shalwar or those tight trousers of the late seventies and eighties where nothing was left for imagination.
A few years back unfazed by rejection or fear of judgement, I started asking people if I could photograph their penises. Some refused and jested the very idea of it. Some were traumatised by their size, gauged through the disparaging competitiveness, particularly prevalent amongst the gay brethren. Many wonderful people consented and anonymity reassured the rest. Comfortable in their skin, they trusted themselves and allowed me to get up close with my very old manual focus macro lens, at times almost touching their ‘manhood’.
I remain as wide-eyed as the boy I once was who wanted to explore but for decades remained burdened by guilt and shame. I’m gifting this post to myself on the eve of my 59th birthday, to let go of any obligation to explain. It has taken me a lifetime to finally give myself permission without the fear of what ‘people might think’. I craved so long to feast my eyes on the hidden male form, now I can lovingly give it all my attention, and I do. Each of these images is derived from an unapologetic sense of pleasure; these are portraits of cooperation, consent and play.
Someone shrugged their shoulders and called these ‘glorified dick pics’. Even though they are objectified, these images are created in the spirit of sharing the beauty, curiosity and vulnerability of being human. The varying sizes, textures, shapes, compositions and colour; devoid of the face of the person they belong to, possess ample personality, poetry and panache to be portraits and not headshots (no pun intended). Leonardo da Vinci found it curious that the penis was often a source of shame and that men were shy about discussing it. “Man is wrong to be ashamed of giving it a name or showing it,” he added, “always covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and ceremoniously displayed.”
Message me if you’d like to be photographed!
16 thoughts on “Penis Portraits”
You have a gift of showing beauty at the most basic level. You made the penis not seen as just power but humility and vulnerability. This I could pose for.
I look forward to meeting you this summer and it would be wonderful to have your portrait in the folio!
Beautiful writing and photos Ali. Unexpected insights ❤️
Thank you Beena, glad you got around to checking this out.
Exquisite writing and sublime portraits,so full of poetry, if I had a penis I would love to be photographed by you!
Ha ha ha…Brilliant! Penis or no penis, I would love take your portrait at some point!
Darling heart, knowing you is a true blessing. I have watched your many masterpieces of art emerge on my Instagram feed now for years. Each time being intrigued further by what I felt to be a brave & risqué exploration not only artistry but intimacy. You give a safe space for men to reveal themselves physically in a way to me as a relatively straight woman with bi-curious leanings has never seen before. I’m so happy for you not to explain but by asserting this position I have learnt so much more about the motivation behind this inquisitive desire to explore. Thank you for your inquiry and artistry but most of all your sensitivity to this subject.
Thank you for your appreciation of my artistic practice. The close proximity to the subject is what it is, however without in-to-me-you-see none of these portraits would have been possible. Shared intimacy is where hearts are opened wide with no fear of judgement and we can be ourselves just as we are. I feel ever so blessed for having seen you perform all those years ago at Barge House as part of Out of LIFT and our continued friendship between London and down under.
Beautiful photos and very engaging writing with wonderful insight and perspective. If that’s your present to yourself on your 59th, I look forward to your 60th
Thank you Sally. I’m assuming this read made your commute a joy. I’m of course looking forward to the 60th too, lets see what that has in store 🙂
Ali, thank you for your penis portraits, the words you wrote gave me an another aspect to think about sex and my sex organ. And those pictures are so beautiful! Thank you, i like them a lot. And Happy Birthday!!!
So good to hear the writing has brought a new perspective in relationship with yourself.
Great article 🙂
Although, males aren’t the only people in earth’s population with penises. There are a lot of people outside of the binary gender spectrum. 🙂
I’m a trans girl who chose not to go through with sexual reassignment surgery.
Too right!! So pleased for what you felt is the right choice for you. Grateful that we live in a part of the world where we have choices.
Thank you for celebrating the male body. Western society has, at least in the US, become so feminized that even the notion of masculinity is now denigrated, let alone the male body. It is common to refer to the penis as “junk”, and when a male body is shown in public it is considered not only offensive, but “violent”. We need more balance in our society and this artwork and your essay speaks to that.
Thanks for sharing your insights Zak. Another friend from the US reflected on the conservatism of their society, but I wonder how she’d feel towards your observation of feminization. I want us all to be connected and in love with our bodies, and when we do that, we can connect and love and respect the bodies and people around us.