Watch ‘A Photographer’s Journey’ a short video about the #harshbeautiful series – by Michal Dzierza

For the past 9 years I have been working exclusively on these #HarshBeautiful portraits of men, and there are now around 250 faces in the collection. For me every image feels like an intimate painting because it takes several days of fine post-production editing to complete each one.

In many respects this is a deeply personal project in which every image becomes my self-portrait through which I test out notions of sexuality, gender, vulnerability, desirability, ageing, and physical imperfection.

More broadly though I explore these themes because so much in popular culture speaks with such extraordinary urgency about the need for us to take charge of our bodies and minds, to have a makeover and to “become the person that you were always meant to be”!

This painfully simplistic account of the human psyche gives the impression that we can erase the pain of our earlier life, give birth to a new more contented personality, and take charge of our destiny, simply through the power of positive self-belief, and some bloody good cosmetic work on our external physical appearance! If we could “just” become achingly beautiful, then we will also be effortlessly and unbearably desirable, and our whole lives will be transformed from ordinary to unique.  (I moisturize therefore I am, goddamn it!) 

Conversely, popular culture also sets out the imperative to scrutinize our inner psyches and our outer appearances with the same harsh, intrusive and critical gaze. Any personal vulnerabilities that we experience or any physical imperfections we possess are considered equivalent, and are simply attributed to a failure of willpower and a lazy cosmetic regimen. And such personal flaws mark us out as deserving of shame and whatever cruel punishments that life may throw at us.

And of course digital photography plays right into this fantasy, coaching us to keep clicking-and-pouting till we knock out that perfect selfie, and post it alongside a life affirmation status update. With instant filters at out fingertips that allow us to airbrush at least a temporary nip-tuck of youthfulness onto our virtual selves, even if our material bodies are desperately in need of an MOT. “Nourishing myself is a joyful experience, and i am worth the time spent on my healing.”

On the face of it then, these gritty, hyper-real #harshbeautiful portraits appear to fly in the face of airbrushing trickery and self-loathing. They scrutinize each sitter with an unflinching gaze, and in return he reveals the scars of his life unashamedly etched across his features in forensic detail. Surely this represents the ultimate #nofilter #selfactualising moment in which he courageously bears his soul to the camera?!

Yet the portraits in this series are also painstakingly contrived. The shots have been subject to their own mode of “cosmetic surgery” by being heavily worked on in post-production for days on end.

On the one hand these portraits  have been subjected to the refined sensibilities of formal portrait painting, in which the sitter was show with fine features that came to signify his connoisseurial taste in – and therefore entitlement to – the trappings of wealth, rank and privilege. At the same time these #harshbeautiful portraits also revel in the sitters’ open pores and dishevelled whiskers, and celebrate their imperfections with a gleefulness usually reserved for the down-market earthy characters who populate historic genre paintings.

The expression of each bare-shouldered sitter appears to resonate with uncertainty, doubt, restlessness and world-weariness. Their images seem to portray a tender intimacy – a resilience, ruggedness, and a new-found robustness that comes from surviving life’s crises. Yet with their off-kilter colour palette and otherworldly chiaroscuro, the characters represented in these portraits are as far removed from their original selves as chroma key movie action heroes. #thisisSparta!!!!

Here’s an early article about my workflow from ISO 1200 magazine.