What does it mean to be a man?
It’s become a fraught question in the #MeToo era. Stories of men’s bad behaviour have come tumbling out of the media machine, telling tales of sexual harassment and assault, of power abuses and the exclusion of women: of a gender that seems to need a sense of control to have a sense of self.
A photography exhibition at the Queen Victoria Museum offers a different story.
Paul Hoelen’s Men With Heart is a series that shows men learning other ways of being in the world. The images were captured over 17 years at the annual Tasmanian Men’s Gathering: four-day retreats run by skilled facilitators in remote locations, by a group called Tasmen.
At the retreats, Tasmen says, men learn to get out of their heads and into their hearts.
“The #MeToo movement is really important in calling men out to take responsibility for their actions, and for the darker side of what men are capable of,” Hoelen said.
“But I guess the issue is that we’re left with a fear and a mistrust around men.
“This exhibition presents imagery that is very loving and heartfelt and courageous, of men working together to face their issues.”
It is somewhat serendipitous that Tasmen have a pictorial record of their work spanning almost two decades.
Paul Hoelen is a lauded photographer, frequently popping up on judging panels for national and international competitions. His numerous accolades include being awarded the Australian Institute of Professional Photography Tasmanian Professional Photographer of the Year three times, Tasmanian Landscape Photographer of the Year six times, and Overseas Photographer of the Year twice.
But his participation in Tasmanian Men’s Gatherings over the past 17 years was not with the intent of capturing a photo essay. He attends the gatherings for the same reason everyone else there does: to learn to be a better man.
Hoelen snapped what he was seeing because, well, that’s what photographers do.
Tasmen have since been granted permission by the men captured for the works to be displayed, in the hope that the “beauty, power and influence” of the images could spark something constructive in viewers.
“I know all of the men in the series,” Hoelen said.
“They have become very good friends of mine – almost like brothers, uncles, grandfathers to me – and because I wasn’t coming in as an observer, because I was part of the community and I was going through the process alongside them, there wasn’t that fear or concern,” he said.
“Somebody who came in from the outside probably wouldn’t have been able to capture the vulnerability and intimacy [of these photos]. It’s the result of decades of relationship-building.”
Placards distributed around the exhibition contain testimonials from the subjects of the portraits.
Here’s Ron, who works in building maintenance.
“I have been going to the Tasmanian Men’s Gathering for 21 years,” he said. “My boys have come to the gathering.”
“The reason I am alive today is because of the sharing of men’s stories which has allowed me to get through a dark traumatic period in my life.”
David, a retired architectural project officer, said the gatherings had been “the single most enriching experience of my life”.
“I thought, ‘wow, what a beautiful bunch of blokes’,” Quenton, truck driver, said, of his first gathering about 12 years ago.
“There [was] something beautifully supportive and grounded in the men that I encountered. So that’s what I took away: support and grounding.”
The goals of the group are both incredibly simple and staggeringly ambitious. They include things like teaching men how to communicate effectively, how to ask for help, and positive ways to deal with anger.
The Tasmanian Men’s Gatherings run yearly, but there is also a weekly option: a group that was started up in January by Lawrence Petersen, held at his office at Second Nature Wellness, 128 St John Street, at 6.30pm on Wednesdays.
Petersen is a relatively new arrival in Tasmania.
He was introduced to the idea of men’s groups in his native Monterrey, California.
Petersen realised he needed to make a change around the time he hit middle age. He was teetering on the edge of depression, struggling with low self-worth, and perceived his job hire-ability to be decreasing with every year he grew older. To try and make himself feel better, he turned to alcohol, and retreated into a toxic relationship.
“It just didn’t feel like things were working,” he said.
Eventually, he joined a men’s group in Monterrey called Breakthrough.
Breakthrough’s slogan is ‘Better Men, Better Tools, Better Lives, Better Dads’. On its website, it promises to address men’s struggle with the “consequence of the male role,” and with isolation.
It says it will teach them how to be happy.
And for Petersen, he said, it worked.
“I was in a relationship where there was abuse, actually, on the other side, coming towards me … and I was doing the standard abused person in a relationship thing of not being able to leave,” he said. “I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t leave.”
“I got out of that relationship finally, and had a bit of a break and now the reason I’m in Tasmania is because of a new relationship. I’ve been married for three years – and it’s been a very new experience of a relationship for me.”
His group now teaches men the tools that he has found so transformative: strategies for successful relationships, making connections, setting boundaries, and self-exploration – “working on some things that may be getting in our way,” he said.
“The very first thing we do is learning about realities – that my reality is my reality and yours is yours,” he said.
“When I’m having trouble with something, very likely a lot of that is coming from myself. A lot of people have trouble with that. They want to immediately blame someone else.”
“Listening is a huge one,” he laughed.
“That when you talk, I shut up and pay attention to what you’re saying to me. These are some of the basic things, and it goes on from there.”
For Paul Hoelen, the QVMAG exhibition is a way of viscerally communicating the power of the groups to an uninitiated audience.
The emotion experienced by the men has been unambiguously captured in the photographs.
In fact, Hoelen confessed that he considered leaving some images out, for fear that the images of men touching each other on the shoulder, embracing each other in a hug, or standing with their arms linked would be inaccurately seen as ‘gay’.
But the fact that intimate straight male friendship could be seen as challenging – in a way that intimate female friendship would never be – was the whole problem, he realised.
“It’s not OK, in our everyday Aussie culture, to be that intimate with other men: to open your hearts, to share your deeper feelings, because you might be seen as weak,” he said.
“And that means that men lose the capacity to heal, to grow, and to feel supported.”