“How is it to be soft? How is it to be a man?” In Tenderness, photographer JL Javier invites subjects to confront vulnerability in masculinity through the act of undressing.
Vulnerability is not often something that follows our conventional idea of masculinity. In the Tenderness exhibition, award-winning photographer JL Javier collaborates with director Apa Agbayani to simultaneously define, confront, and scrutinize our notions of softness and its relation to masculinity.
The photos are sprawled across the walls of the recently-opened Everything’s Fine bookstore in Salcedo, Makati. Bright spotlights and overhead lighting highlight the little details in the monochromatic collection. Javier shares,
“In my dreams for Tenderness becoming a show, I had envisioned the images presented this way: a wall of images big and small that felt like a bright space you stepped into.”
The collection features figures of different shapes and sizes shot in varying states of undress. In the exhibition text, Agbayani prompts, “How far do you let someone in? What does it mean to allow yourself to be seen?”
Originally titled Try a Little Tenderness, tangential to the song of the same name by Otis Redding, the exhibit was what Agbayani and Javier’s approach to exploring what the word meant to them. Javier recalls,
“The shoot was in fact an exercise about many things—conversation, consent, masculinity, the male gaze, the queer gaze… After all, we were grappling with the idea of ‘tenderness’ itself and what it meant to us.”
Four Years in the Making
The Tenderness project started in 2019, when Javier partnered with Agbayani to bring the idea to life. “As JL photographed a subject,” Agbayani recounted in the Tenderness photobook, “we asked him to remove a layer of clothing, then another, then another, as far as he was willing to.”
Since then, Javier shares that the project has taken many forms and edits. The project stayed dormant until November 2021, when excerpts were exhibited by FotoMoto PH. Months later in June 2022, Tarzeer Pictures published a small edit of the work as an online exhibition. On the project’s temporary dormancy, Javier shares, “When I revisited it in 2022 with the intention to finally, truly publish the photobook, I redid the entire editing process, from selection to treatment to curation, because I could feel that I’d gotten back to it with changed eyes and a new appreciation. I knew Apa had come to see the work differently, too.”
The exhibit in Everything’s Fine came to life after the house helped publish its latest reprint, which was released alongside the exhibit on its launch day last July 7, 2023. “For the selection, I was intentional in picking images from the book that we hadn’t used yet elsewhere in Tenderness’s previous edits, save for a few, which are some of my big favorites from all the photos,” Javier said.
In the photos, subjects can be seen not only in varying states of undress but in varying states of emotion, too. While the exhibit is a limited curation of photos from the entire collection, one photo shows a man caught mid-laughter, while another portrays the subject covering their face entirely. Agbayani writes in the foreword,
“As they undressed, we heard everything from hazy recollections of past lives to fresh sadnesses rising like smoke from their chests.”
The Devil is in the Details
The diversity in the Tenderness subjects is admirable, as the collection pays close attention to the difference in each subject’s body size. As photos present varying angles of one man’s naked torso, the complex patterns of another subject’s body hair, or the protruding ribs of another, within each shot lie intricate details that require more than just a glance. Viewers should long to seek the vulnerability the collection possesses and, in doing so, must confront what they deem comfortable.
The act of undressing is a vulnerability in itself, and being asked to witness its varying states is an invitation to confront what we deem comfortable to look at. If you allow yourself to look long enough to look closely, the details that make up the collection can be found — the scars in varying parts of a subject’s body, the stretch marks, the mysterious tattoos, or the way a subject’s back captures the light of the sun.
In noticing these details, we begin to feel exactly what Javier and Agbayani speak of in Tenderness. As Agbayani wrote in the zine,
“A body is a map of someone, a map of somewhere if they are willing to lead you to it.”
If these photos are how far they let us in, are we allowing ourselves to come in?
The Tenderness exhibit can be found in Prince Tower, Tordesillas St., Salcedo Village, Makati until July 29, 2023. Everything’s Fine carries limited copies of the photobook’s latest reprinting.