I am not a good interviewee and have no big words for what I do and how I photogragh. I was meeting a friend in Athens and we went to the limanakia beach to catch a bit of the coastal scenary and of course, the boys. He suddenly said he wanted to interview me for the “The boy is beautiful” magazine, a queer zine focused on Greek heritage, arts and boys. I said why not. After I took some photos at the beach, we started talking on the way back to Athens.
On a hot sunny day in November, the photographer and editor of Tale of Men drives me south to the notorious gay nudist beach of Athens, Limanakia. It’s nice to meet him in the daylight, following our nightime encounters in Belgium a while ago. As he is capturing the local boys in film, I am thinking of how wonderful it is to have such surprising connections with people from elsewhere. On my naked lap rests the biography of Costas Taktsis. At one point in the book he recalls meeting Jean Genet at Sounion, not too far from here. What stories would they share about Nazi occupation and of alliances made with enemy soldiers in the dark. Sudden spank on the butt! Chris has finished shooting and is craving for a souvlaki. I take one last dip and get into the car…
IS: So, Chris, you mentioned at the beach this wasn’t your first in Greece. How many times is it by now?
TOM: This is the fourth or fifth, yeah.
IS: And what makes you come back?
TOM: Hmm… Boys.
IS: What’s so special or different about boys here?
TOM: I think ‘boys’ is a very simple answer. Probably, it’s also because I had fun the last two times. I met many people here and they were really open and friendly. I felt they had a really special quality that maybe boys in other countries don’t have. I think people here are very, in a way, modest, self-contained.
IS: They are modest, you think?
TOM: At least the ones I met… (compared to cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin where the boys are more outspoken, assertive)… they are very human, often showing a kind of reserveness, even vulunerability…
IS: And what about the one at the beach, the one with the hairy fen-tao )? You asked to take pictures of him and he was, like, ‘ok, do whatever’… He wasn’t that modest. (1 Fēntáo (分桃) is “the divided peach”, a euphemism for male homosexuality used in Chinese history.)
TOM: Yeah, he was easygoing, like, ok, chill, why not…
IS: You, also, took some pictures of me… What makes you hit the click and go “yes, this is the picture”? Do you have any references in mind when going about it?
TOM: No. I think it’s more of an organic process. Not a lot of preconceptions there. It’s always about the situation, either simple or unexpected. I don’t want to think too much. If I like something, I just hit the click. It is in a way personal to me. The moment, the frame… when I feel something by looking at it… I just take it.
IS: Don’t you find there’s a certain level of sentimentality in the way the boys are captured? To me at least, they appear kind of fragile…
TOM: When you meet the boys, you expose a little bit about yourself and about the boys as well. During this exchange, there are emotions, stories, sensuality, vulnerability, passion, or simply horniness. I like to think that my pictures capture that. It is not a matter of the fragile nature of them or the fun side, or the passionate… There is always a kind of connection between us that the picture can reveal.
IS: How come nudity is your main focus?
TOM: I think that nudity in many cultures is still mysterious. Sexuality is closely connected to it but there are so many hidden meanings too. I like to connect nudity to sensuality; I like the aesthetics of human body — its diversity as well — there’s so much more to it than simply being naked. When you look at a nude body, it reawakens the emotions more easily. Also, for me, it is a way, not to confront myself per se, but to learn, to grow and look at bodies in a different way. You see, I grew up in a Chinese culture, by which sexuality and nudity are not topics to be shared openly.
IS: How is it different in Chinese culture? I have seen works of erotica that…
TOM: But that’s from many, many years ago (Nowadays pornography is considered a crime while the government openly forbids promotion of homosexuality). There were also male concubines. For instance, there’s the story of the Emperor having his favourite male consult. (2) They are not written in textbooks but the stories are there. It’s been said that Chinese people have been repressed sexually because of Confucianism. We inherited a very different moral system than the one of our ancestors.
(2)Probably referring to Emperor Ai of Han, More on his story in: Bret Hinsch, Passions of the cut sleeve: the male homosexual tradition in China, University of California Press, Berkley 1990.
IS: When you take pictures, do you take into account the origin of the person?
TOM: No. Everyone is an individual and nationality doesn’t matter.
IS: What makes you feel fulfilled with a shoot… how do you decide when it’s a wrap?
TOM: Sometimes it’s difficult to stop. You always want more but then there are conditions that might limit that, for example time, and of course, the film rolls, they are so expensive now… It’s all about the flow, and to never push too far… you have to be mindful of people’s emotions. For many, it is their first time naked in front of a camera.
IS: Is it easier to do a shoot indoors or outdoors?
TOM: I prefer outdoors… It was weird what happened on the beach earlier. It is very liberating, you just let the environment speak.
IS: What’s your favourite shooting location in Greece?
TOM: Limanakia, no doubt!
IS: Do you think people in nudist beaches feel freer to pose?
TOM: On the majority people there are into nudism and generally more open-minded but I still think different settings work for different people. At this point I should add though that I don’t consider myself a photographer. At least, not a typical one.
IS: Why is that?
TOM: I am more of someone who captures things than someone who creates stuff like Kostis Fokas for instance. It requires a different artistic background to do that, I guess. The project is equal parts about the photos but also about storytelling.
IS: Besides their artistic value, those stories are helpful… looking at what someone is willing to share and how one can relate to that experience. On that, I find there is one thing that stands out in your work. The openness in diversity, different queer backgrounds, bodies, stories. We rarely see sexuality captured through non-gym freaks. I don’t often see bodies like my own or chubbier and I don’t know how much of that is the result of people’s own insecurities imposed by society or if they are not asked enough? From your experience, is it easy to find people that are not muscular to pose for you?
TOM: There are people who refuse because they don’t feel secure enough to pose, or comfortable compared to people with other bodies. I find it a pity because we are not just a body. Also, like the saying, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Don’t put yourself down!
IS: Are you naked as well during the shoots, fans are dying to know!
TOM: It depends on the model’s decision. If it makes them feel less exposed, I mean. I don’t mind getting naked. It’s also a way for me to step out of comfort zone, to be there and to be free.
IS: Do you see your body in a different light after taking pics of tons and tons of men?
TOM: Not necessarily. For me, a body is a body. It doesn’t change my perception of my own body. Also, the body someone has is not a key factor for my work.
IS: Have you changed as a person though — after doing this for such a long time?
TOM: When I started it was difficult to be open about it. I recall more or less hiding the first naked shoot I have ever done. People get judgmental of this not being “art” enough, labelling it as pornographic and other clichés. So certainly, as a I person, I have changed a lot. I mentioned that I am from China where people are not so open about nudity and sex. I think a big reason why I am doing this project is to confront these topics. As time passes by and as I shoot more and more people, I feel that I become more open and more comfortable.
IS: Has pornography made you note down what to avoid or add in your work?
TOM: No. There’s nothing wrong with pornography in terms of aesthetics. There’s porn with great aesthetics, angles, connections between actors. The disconnected ones are the ones I don’t like. Even when there is sex involved between my models, I like to capture something beyond that… the real emotions between people, either kinky or romantic.
TOM: Back to your question on why I return to Greece again and again. For me, I am someone who feels easily attached to a place or a person, when nice moments have been created. And by cherishing that, it becomes part of me. The first time I came here I met this boy, I call him my Greek God #1. He is such a sweet person and very considerate. So I always have this memory in my mind to come back to see him. Not to relive the past but for continuity. And then the last time I was here I met my Greek God #2. He is also a very sweet person. It’s always nice to catch up. That’s good enough for me to return — as long as I have these connections. I feel that Greek guys are very friendly… What?
IS: On no, I’m laughing cause if they are Greek Gods, what am I?
TOM: You are the naughty one.