A Photographer Seeks to Emancipate the Modern Slave

By Darren White
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 28 | Posted Jul. 13, 2011

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Dragan’s effort to free the black male from his perceived social “shackles” is a noble cause especially as a white man. But one photograph in his Modern Slave exhibition, “Hanged Weapon,” displays the problem that is inherit in Dragan’s aims. The photograph’s title itself lies somewhere between an excessively stern attempt at creating social awareness and a tired pun on the historic fears of the black male genitalia. Without contextual evidence of his aims as an artist, many viewers have a hard time seeing past the penis. 

“That’s been a large complaint from visitors, the amount of penis in the show,” McMenamin says with an uncomfortable laugh. Though his gallery was brave to take on the brash works, they knew it wouldn’t come without controversy and misunderstanding. “A lot of people I’ve talked to are almost scared to go because of the title,” says Stan Bizell, owner of Café Mocha, a neighbor of AxD Gallery. “Some people see it as a ploy to drum up publicity. My problem is with the amount of full frontal nudity. I understand male nudes,” he continues. “But with that many penises on view, that’s what the show becomes about.” 

Still, Modern Slave has been one of the most highly visited exhibitions for the gallery.

When addressing the criticism of his work, Dragan says, “The sexuality is irrelevant to me. The majority of my models are straight ... If the man was gay at times there would be some supposition that after the shoot it would lead to something else. It won’t. The shoot is not drudgery, but when it’s done, it’s done.”

Dragan likes to tell the story of one of his first exhibitions in Harrisburg. “I remember the opening night of the show. There were these two middle-aged women looking at photographs. They stopped at this one photograph. One of the women had this angry look on her face.” The woman, upset by the perceived objectification of the male subject and his body, locked in handcuffs, was expressing discontent. Dragan overheard the woman and pulled down the photograph and showed her the title, a version of “Bitter Equality” (titled “¿Created Equal?” for that particular exhibition). Dragan says she “immediately got it.” And then she was fine.

“The people that seem to have the most comments, positive or negative, are black women, and I’m delighted by it. Far too few women of color have seen my work. I think there is something there that can really appeal to them.” 

Overexposure of the black penis isn’t the only criticism Dragan’s work has received. “This show encapsulates many of my ideas about religion,” says Dragan. One image features a man, photographed from navel to knee, stepping from behind bars of captivity to urinate on an old Bible. And as you can expect from a man who says, “going to Catholic school cured me of my Catholicism,” those ideas and convictions are strongly held. “Religion has been used to pacify for centuries. When slaves were held captive, they handed slaves a Bible to pacify them again. And that is the truth that I want to reveal.” Dragan believes that religion still has a stronghold over the lives of black men today. “When I was of a certain age in the late ’60s, I was very optimistic. It was a time of revolution in this country. Along with that came a more secular view of the country, and I encouraged that because I think it’s necessary in a democracy.”

But Dragan’s photograph, used to represent the ideological rebuke of religion over the lives of black men, feels like a fumbled attempt at making an unnecessary political statement. The photograph’s title itself lies somewhere between an excessively stern attempt at creating social awareness and tired pun on the historic fears of the black male genitalia. Can the black male figure be liberated in any way through the sexualized and fetishized use of three of the most damning images that have plagued their advancement? “I think that Modern Slave as a title sort of was the best way for me to encapsulate why I wanted to show these images that seem to be political. To me it was a succinct way to describe what I was doing, why I was doing it and how this was a cohesive collection ... each image shows us how we’re enslaved in this modern society. My only twist is that I focus exclusively on men of color in showing this example. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t spill over to the rest of us as well.”

One might be led to believe that after 30 years of photographing one type of subject in a very specific way, a photographer would grow tired or complacent with that subject. But black men continue to intellectually and visually excite Dragan. “Much like any artist, I have found that as you define your genre, instead of finding less to explore, you find more to look at,” Dragan says. And I continue to discover more to explore in black men as a subject of my photographs. 

And as the weeks plod on, the photographer is forging new territory in his work, exploring photographs of less “pristine”-looking men. “I’m going to be doing another young man in the near future. He looks thoroughly urban. He has tattoos, poetry that he’s written (on his chest), lots of piercings. And I asked him, because I was looking at all of his piercings, I said ‘Here’s what were going to do: I’m going to find a piercing parlor that will allow me to photograph you getting pierced nude. The most important part is already hanging out anyway, so let’s just take off the rest of the clothes.’ So I’m going to be doing a nude shoot of him getting pierced.” 

And this is only the beginning for Dragan. He is constantly willing to explore new avenues to exhibit and exalt the bodies of black men. “I have more ideas than I have years left to live.”

JD Dragon hosts an artist talk Sat., July 16th, 3pm. 
AxD Gallery, 265 S. 10th St. 215.627.6250. a-x-d.com

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Comments 1 - 28 of 28
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1. Insensitive person said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:45AM

“This is gay. PW are you serious?

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2. James said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 10:22AM

“Personally, I think it's another white gay male exploring his sexual fetish for the black male form under the guise of emancipating the modern black slave. The work is what it is - solid photography of beautiful men. However, this framing of it as the emancipation of modern slavery is culturally insensitive and sets this artist up to appear as the great white hope when in all actuality his obsession with black male form is no better than the exclusion he supposedly is trying to over come.

As a black male and an artist, this work is simply recycled Mapplethorpe and the continuation of America's historical exploitation of black male sexuality. Call it what it is.”

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3. pete white said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 10:30AM

“agree with james!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 11:12AM

“A few questions: What the f*ck is a modern slave? How can photography emancipate said person? And why should it take a white photographer with a fetishized fixation for the hypermasculine, black male physique (which has already been oversexualized literally to death.)

I'm sure Black men everywhere are pleased to note that they are deemed appropriate of "emanicipation." It is unfortunate for the photographer's case that freedom is an inside job, that one has to think himself free in order to become "free," that these images displayed on this website involve nooses, weapons, lumber and beefcake--none of which necessarily denote freedom.

I'm terribly confused. Please advise, Philadelphia Weekly.”

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5. pete white said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 01:06PM

“4# thank you”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 01:55PM

“Ok, jokes over. It is no news nor is it a secret that white men love sexy images of black men. So, where's the story? Where's the freedom? Perhaps this is the photographer's opportunity to free his favorite flavor...

This is an un-innovative excuse for "art."”

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7. 1 of 1000 said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 08:59PM

Why PW? Why have you dedicated this much space to this insensitive, ill-considered, naive, embarrassment - when our city is TEAMING with, vibrant, courageous, intelligent, artists and artist run spaces of all ages and backgrounds struggling to be seen and heard. WTF?!!! Where did this guy come from? There must be thousands of other artists you could have highlighted in this city! Get a consultant with a clue or something…
All things aside – I am appalled by JD’s ideas – and the article claims this work is an “important political intervention in the history of art”???!! Modern Slave? Modern?
HAHHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA (sob sob sob sob).

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8. Alberto Lauro said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:05PM

“Toda exhibición tiene mucho de provocación. Lo mismo hacen los modistos pero con la ropa de alta costura en las pasarelas sobre las modelos. Dragan no viste a los modelos, al contrario, los desviste. Y creo que no denigra al hombre negro sino que lo toma como inspiración usando algunas técnicas del trabajo con la luz como hacia Caravaggio y otros pintores que siguieron sus hallazgos. Belleza y provocación: eso son sus fotos. Alberto Lauro”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:25PM

“Recycled Maplethorpe.”

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10. Ryan McMenamin said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 01:00AM

“I would like to ask all these detractors if they have walked into AxD Gallery and taken enough time out of their busy schedules to both view the work and read what is on walls before taking such a high road in dismissing Dragan as just some Mapplethorpe wannabe with a chocolate skin fetish.
You are all more than welcome to voice your displeasure toward one man's passion for depicting other men as beings possessing self confidence and quiet strength in face of crushing societal pressures, but I hope you have not done so without first seeing this exhibition with your own eyes!

Thank you for this lively discourse,
Ryan McMenamin, AxD Gallery”

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11. Rich said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 07:19AM

“All the photo's are tastefully done. JD Dragan is extremely talented and has a great eye.”

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12. James said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 07:43AM

“Ryan, I disagree. Living life daily as a black male is a sufficient filter to respond to the collective nonsense of Dragan's images and his positioning of this work as something redemptive for the black male.

Dragan's work does nothing to normalize or humanize the image of the black male. He does not show us as the fathers, brothers, community leaders, presidents, mayors, business men and the positive influences on the world that we are. Rather, he focuses solely on a very limited view of black male sexuality. That in itself, is no crime. However, positioning this work as something righteous and good for the image of black men is.

How is this work redemptive, if we as a people are rejecting its supposed value? I am no modern slave and certainly do not need to be emancipated or validated by a white man taking pictures of black penis.”

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13. Tet said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 01:44PM


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14. TB said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 05:42AM

“I'm confused as hell.”

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15. Dwaine Gordon said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 06:08AM

“Look past the headlines people. I know Mr. Dragan and I appreciate what he is doing. I have also met a couple of the models and I can assure you the photography of the men enhances their real-life appearance.

Many times the name of an exhibit and/or event is used to start a dialog and/or generate interest. I seriously think "Modern slave" is nothing more than an attention grabber. Anytime Black and slave are mentioned in the same paragaph or title it's bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

I like the fact that Mr. Dragan does and extensive interview of the models before the first picture is snapped. And for those of you who are offended by the props, the models supply their own props, so don't blame the photographer.

The fact that he is a white man should be a non-issue. And to compare his work with Mapplethorpe is an insult.”

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16. Eshuneutics said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 03:51PM

“It is disconcerting that the way most see (as exhibited in the comments here) is Mapplethorpe centric. The shadow of Robert M has inhibited views of the Black male nude for too long-- and has done much damage historically. Rotimi Fani-Kayode almost faded into obscurity because he was viewed as sub-Mapplethorpe. Years on, critics realise their errors and accept that RFK had a very different agenda than Mapplethorpe and his aesthetics were far deeper than Mapplethorpe's. Dragan's work most certainly is not sub-Mapplethorpe, is free of the level of objectification so prized by Mapplethorpe, whosework is without question racist. And racism has mutated since his time, from sexual fetishism into commodity fetishism, the placing of the Black male body on the slave block (once again) to sell. White culture has re-invented what it created in the (18 and (19. As a White male, Dragan's work stands as a critique of White culture and how it continues to imprison the Black male within a phobic body”

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17. aumu said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 06:29PM

“white culture??? crackers aint got no culture!! 1 man can not critique something so diverse.

Please everyone go out have fun or go to work.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 12:49PM

“Read the story,the background,and all the explanations:
I wonder why PW thought this nonsense worthy of the front cover. Oh yeah, we are in freaky Philly,where anything goes for $$$.

Was thinking of attending the showing,but do not want to hurt feelings. White folks just don,t truly understand . The paint(white face,) the noose,the Gay white man(men buyers,)the agenda .

Another Black woman ,NOT FEELING IT !”

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19. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 12:57PM

“Oh yeah! This is just part of the gay entertainment here for this week!
PW leads the way,check out the back ads for additional fun.”

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20. Jordan said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 03:31PM

“Dragan's art would more aptly be called "The Modern Mandingo" rather than "The Modern Slave." This work fetishizes black male sexuality (especially the black male penis) in exactly the same way American culture has since slavery. If we'd like to talk about these works as defying stereotypes, why not talk about the Mandingo stereotype? Why wasn't Dragan asked directly about that? It's a glaring omission from this article, which makes it feel much like a puff piece designed to help Dragan sell his art. Also without that discussion, this work feels to me like a white person confronting certain forms of racism he dislikes while holding on to those stereotypes to which he may be more personally attached. Philly might be a conservative town, but we're all "con" slavery I assure you. The work manages to feel preachy and racist all at once. An accomplishment if you meant to do it, but it doesn't seem like that type of double entendre was intended.”

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21. Nick said... on Jul 17, 2011 at 12:02PM

“I had to laugh when I read that someone who knows Dragan was quoted as saying "(His) work is much more subtle and soft" than Robert Mapplethorpe. Was the friend describing the "soft" way a handgun was held over a subjects taught buttocks, or the "subtle" drapping of a noose around the same subjects muscular back? It is no wonder that Dragan hates being compared to Mapplethorpe but he must know that his work is only relevant in that it is a poor imitation. He is only relevant in comparison to Mapplethorpe. I am guessing that his success comes from the fact that there are a lot of queers with more money than taste in Philadelphia, or they just can't afford the real thing.
Just because there is a lot of dick does not mean it is "edgy", and just because the artist lives in Philly does not mean he deserves the cover. I can't decide who is more gimmicky, Dragan or PW.
Shame on you,”

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22. Dick said... on Jul 18, 2011 at 01:01AM

“I pass my wind, for him to enjoy the aroma.”

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23. kingman said... on Jul 19, 2011 at 08:37AM

“there are no modern slaves. seems like he wants a big black king snake.”

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24. lupus said... on Jul 19, 2011 at 10:58PM

“Take a picture of my big dump, it has artistic value.”

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25. Jeff said... on Jul 20, 2011 at 11:32PM

“Mr Dragan is a remarkable talent who truly embodies every word that was recorded in this story. Speaking with him, and his models, only validates the themes and messages he is trying to convey. For those who have so crudely and inarticulately voiced negative opinions, it's obvious you did not attend the show, speak to the artist, or to any of the men who choose to pose for him.

Your armchair dismissals of his work only prove to the cognoscenti that you are clueless rubes.”

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26. Jim Russo said... on Jul 21, 2011 at 04:48AM

“Here's a novel idea: if PW wants to explore the human condition of the contemporary black male through art, why not run a feature of Philadelphia area black photographers and emphasize THEIR work and themes. Just a little suggestion from another clueless rube...”

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“http://www.sinsinawa.org/lv.html louis vuitton outlet sale”

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28. Daniel said... on Mar 14, 2014 at 01:58PM

“Do you take make nude pics ? If so I am interested
Thanks Daniel”


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