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The black male image – an interview with JD Dragan about his photos in Modern Slave at AXD


JD Dragan knows how to light pigmented skin with exquisite finesse. His photographs of black male bodybuilders on exhibit at AxD Gallery are lush, sexy and very disturbing. Upon walking into the gallery I thought I was being confronted by the works of a black artist dealing with his or her own internalized racism (a subject worth exploring), until the gallery director informed me that the photographs were by a white man. In my mind that changed everything. My first instinct was to leave as quickly as I came in but instead I decided to ask a few questions. I can’t say I fully understand these photographs, but I made an attempt by asking the artist to grant me an interview. I must admit that agreeing to this interview with JD made me uncertain: I wasn’t sure I could trust a white person making these kinds of photographs of black people. I’m not completely sure what to think and how to feel about these works — they are not easy, and they are demanding! My conversation with JD helped ease my mind about the matter a little but I still have reservations about “Modern Slave,” and these reservations are themselves a by-product of racism.

Once Property
JD Dragan, Once Property, from the show “Modern Slave at AXD Gallery

Corey Armpriester- Does race exist or is it an artificial construct created by academia?
JD Dragan- In biological terms there is no racial difference — biologically there is no race. If there were different races, we would not be able to successfully inter-breed. It is a human, social and political construct.

Where is the line drawn when it comes to fetishization vs. celebrating the black male?
I think that might be in the eye of the viewer. As a photographic artist I do my best to keep those two distinctions in the front of my head when I’m photographing because I do not wish to fetishize these men. When I photograph these men I don’t photograph them with that in mind.

How do you address or deal with your own bigotry?
It’s a life long struggle isn’t it? I think any Caucasian born in the United States has the cloak of racism put around them in unknowing ways, subconscious ways and subliminal ways. This is constantly being hinted at around you. As a responsible adult, you have to be aware that this may be coming at you and to disarm it if you can.

Do you photograph black men with their clothes on?
I have on occasion yes, but not usually.

Free Reinweb
JD Dragan, Free Rein

Besides being an artist, are you also a pornographer?
I don’t think so and as you know, that’s a very difficult line to draw. I don’t want to be a pornographer.

How do you know when you’re looking at a work of art or a work or porn?
How do you know? That’s a good question, I think its intent.

Where do you find your models?
Honestly, now my models find me. I’m very fortunate, I have gained enough of a reputation that men now call me or email me. Most of the time they find me.

Jesus Interruptusweb
JD Dragan, Jesus Interruptus

Do you ever photograph the black male prostitutes that walk up and down your street?
I have not. I have seen young men out there in the dead of winter advertising in the boldest of ways. The whole down-low thing in this neighborhood is somewhat amusing and sad at the same time.

Do you pay your models?
I do, most of them I pay cash, sometimes some of them want photographs in exchange. But even then if they want photographs for their time I also pay them some cash.

Do you only photograph bodybuilders?
No, I like bodybuilders because of my personal history, It’s the kind of men I grew up around in my home and I think till this day that is the reason I gravitate towards that body type as the epitome of masculinity. My father was a bodybuilder, my uncle and my cousins. I was around these men all the time.

Southern Prideweb

So are you a bodybuilder?
JD- No, I think it’s important to go to the gym, as animals we need to exercise our muscles.

Are we animals?
We’re not plants.

Do you accept Melanin Consciousness as a force that exists within human nature?
I don’t know what that means. I don’t think that any individual cell or cells has consciousness.

Are you interested in black men or black male beauty?
Well I think both, it’s difficult to separate the two. It’s been demonstrated now that if we go back in human history not all that many generations ago, certainly all humans were originally black because all humans evolved in Africa and it was not until later in our evolution that Caucasians evolved out of people that had heavily pigmented skin.

Article 1
JD Dragan, Article 1

Do you think Caucasians were created by black scientists?
Of course not.

All the men in your photographs have idealized bodies; this seems to help foster absolute objectification, no?
No, do you want a photograph of John Goodman above your living room sofa naked? I think it celebrates not only their intellect but also their physical beauty.

How does a photograph celebrate a person’s intellect?
These men that I photograph are smart, I think to actually want to use your body as your own personal canvas as your own personal art form to build, requires a smart man, because it requires dedication, fortitude and money. It supports the entire notion that these guys are smart and I find that to be very much the case. My best models are the smartest men.

Showing black men in handcuffs, wearing a noose around the neck, holding a gun and bound by chains. How is this transgressing the slave-master mentality?
the reasons are simply because I have only so many ways visually to paint this picture. I do have a small chance with titles to drag the viewer along with this and try to make sure they don’t get totally derailed with what they are seeing but I want people to be disturbed at some level by seeing this. I want them to see the injustice.

Do you feel threatened by Christianity?
I feel it’s the worst thing that’s happened to mankind.

It has taken a superstition, a set of fables that they continue to perpetuate till this day this fiction. Brainwash is a good word because the pathways of your brain do change by being subjected to this addiction again and again changing the brain to believe in this fictitious thing. People can now use it [Christianity] to not be responsible for their own actions. If we were all responsible for our actions in a rational and practical way, we would all be much better people.

The Truthā026web
JD Dragan, The Truth…

What’s the significance of photographing a man urinating on the Holy Bible?
Well, I don’t find anything holy about it. I’m not even sure I know what that word “Holy” really means. The significance of that series was not just the final outcome. It was a story told in ten frames, from a perfect man in the first frame, uncircumcised and not incarcerated, free, black, the original man. Now going through to the very last frame, through a series of incarcerations, lies, circumcisions all of this and including Christianity being forced upon him, he actually discovers the truth. And the visual that I choose for this awakening and the discovering of this truth is urinating on the symbol that had oppressed him.

How many models did you ask to do this before finding one that said yes?
I don’t know how many but I know how long it took, it took about ten years to find a man willing to do this, because I will never, ever — even with money — force a man to do something that he is emotionally and philosophically  against.

What is your ethnic background?
I’m Romanian American. My father never liked Romania nor had anything good to say about it and he did his best to make sure that none of the family history from Romania was known to us. It was a very bad chapter in his life and he just closed that door.

Are homophobia and racism one in the same expression of fear?
That’s a very complicated question. In one sense they are — we seem to fear the stranger and this is not necessarily a rational fear. It’s a fear that evolved from a response to someone not from our tribe, whether they look like us or not, and I think that [fear] persists today.

AxD Gallery hosts the closing reception of “Modern Slave” tonight, Saturday July 30th, from 6pm to 8 pm. Admission is free and one 11″x14″ print (gelatin silver photograph) will be raffled off. The artist and one model from the series will attend reception.