Witnessing Transient Moments of Inner Freedom
Behind closed doors in the mundane setting of cheap hotels, Pierre Liebaert documents models posing nude and masked as they seek to withdraw from the norms of their everyday life.
“Hello Sir, I’d be interested to expose myself before the lens of your camera. […] I have never done this before… But I really want to… Best. John” Messages filled with urgency and impatience flooded Pierre Liebaert after he published an advert in a local Belgian newspaper looking for nude models. What he realised after 30 sessions is that his subjects incarnated a social trend – that of men willing to expose themselves naked, in secrecy, torn between their ordinary family life and mixed sexual desires.
“It was the first time that I was so deeply involved in a story emotionally. It was very heavy and demanding. For three years, I replied to more than 10,000 emails – these emails replaced my furniture, my relatives. I still don’t know how this project took me this far”, Liebaert explains.
What started as a libertarian project developed into a strictly framed one that dictated its own rules in terms of subjects – inevitably male - and location: the either baroque or rudimentary setting of cheap hotels. “It was interesting to develop the grammar of the series in this context. The lustful atmosphere of the rooms is meant to arouse sexual fantasies and it sometimes seems like the body, fleshy or angular, is part of the decor”, he continues.
The project soon defined the medium too. “Photography was not enough to capture the heart beat of these men. I was interested in the relationship between me and the model, as if it was a third person - the voyeur - in this ritual, expiatory, performance.” Only the video camera could offer the distance that Liebaert was looking for.
Playing on various levels of documentary and fiction, his video dives into the depth of human condition. Unlike the photo shoots, the video scenes are staged, while the audio is a hybrid mix of the conversations that he recorded during the photo shoots and of ambient sounds that he captured a posteriori. “We can for instance hear the sound of the man swallowing because I wanted to tackle the idea of the body as a prison from which one can escape.” We also notice the severity of silence, and the difficulty to handle it when the man murmurs, “do you mind if I speak? That would help me feel more comfortable.”
Ultimately, Free Now unravels like a tragic, carnal opera in which the characters often wear a mask – the same magical tool that, as Michel Foucault pointed out, enables those wearing it to excavate their real self. “Not realising that one can have dark desires is to deny oneself”, Liebaert concludes.
Pierre Liebaert is a Belgian photographer currently living and working in Brussels. His story, Free Now, was the winner of the PHM 2016 Grant New Generation Prize.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.