Month: September 2016

What a broken arm taught me about being human…

I was mugged two months ago. Thrown off of my folding bicycle and had my work bag stolen. My elbow and face broke my fall. I was supposed to take the full six week recovery period off from work, but only took four because I feared being made redundant by my hugely capable team.

I’m still recovering, but at least I can drive again. And run. And kind of hold my son. I still can’t cradle him to sleep, or change his diaper because he squirms too much and I don’t have anywhere near the nedded dexterity.

My wife has once again blossomed into another evolution of Wonder Woman, taking on all of the adulting and child rearing responsibilities. It’s the way she copes with all the juggling that still knocks me out. You’d never say she was under strain.

And that’s been one of my biggest lessons: people can deal with major setbacks. 

We all have within us the skills and fortitude needed to elbow out of a terrible situation. My wife, dealing with her personal trauma of seeing her husband arrive at the door covered in blood, simply got on with life. My colleagues, already a staff member down and on a tight deadline, managed to put out two stellar publications.

While I’ll probably never trust my elbow enough to get back into Olympic lifts, I can still run. I ran a 10km race on the weekend with no training. I had to dig deep to keep the legs ticking over at tmes, but reflecting on the personal triumphs over extreme adversity I witnessed all around me after the incident played the biggest part in me actually finishing.

I couldn’t let all the people who rushed to my aid down by punking out of the race. So I ran for them. The music helped, but thinking of the steel built into the human spirit kept me going.

Dadwatching For Amateurs

For all practical purposes, I am a stalker. I stare at strangers in strange lands and I take pictures of them. I’ve travelled through 20 countries in the past two years, photographing moments that – for me at least – say something about what it is to be a human on this planet.

The camera helps me to make sense of the world around me – creating some order amongst the chaos. In the thousands of frames I shot, I began to notice I was becoming drawn to photographing the ideas of masculinity. 

I’ve called the project Manhood For Amateurs. Like any decent artist, I hijacked the idea from another one. I read a book called Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon and duly appropriated the clever title. The for amateurs part speaks to me. I like the idea that manhood doesn’t have to be something to keep scores for, and that mistakes are necessary – if not even essential.    

Manhood is much broader than the magazines that hover around cashier’s tills or the bakkie adverts at halftime on Super Rugby will tell you. And to show how sprawling it can be, I’ve focused on building a spectrum of moments, from the flamboyant and reckless instances to the intimate and tender ones. 

The reckless ones are naturally exciting to shoot: wild fires, smashed glass, caressed guns, clenched fists, mean stares.

The tender ones are harder to catch: brothers staring out of a window together, a father hugging his son on a bench. They’re not screaming, flexing and staring their opinions at you; they’re sharing it between themselves, and you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse.

They’re often between family members. Because of their proximity, our family members have seen us with our guards down. You know, those rare moments when we’re not wrestling bears or downing beers through the eye sockets of the skulls of our enemies. 

Fatherhood has been used to define masculinity. And for the past two years, fatherhood has been a voyeuristic concept for me – something that could make for a good photograph.

In the past two years of making this photography project, the closest I have become to fatherhood was becoming an uncle to my brother’s son and godfather to a close friend’s son – both born within a few days of each other a year ago. Last Saturday both of pairs of young fathers and fresh humans came to the opening of my photo exhibition on manhood. 

The young boys wandered around the gallery – exploring it with the same perplexed wonder as I had while trying to decipher a map written in Armenian or crossing a road in Ho Chi Minh City a few months earlier.

Their fathers hover around them, bent over like hunchbacks as their sons clenched their fingers with their tiny fists. The boys had recently discovered how to walk with the aid of a dangling adult’s limb, and were navigating an alien landscape through forests of giants’ legs.

This was a moment of masculine vulnerability playing in front of me – crouching fathers being dragged around by the whims of their roving, fascinated sons.

I’m trained to see these moments, and I often wait for the cover-up that follows moments of vulnerability. Like when you find yourself realise you look silly so you pull out your phone, stare at it intensely and turn around abruptly and wander off purposely to nowhere in particular. (I can’t be the only one who does this.) 

But it doesn’t happen. And this is something I have noticed from photographing many fathers and sons. There isn’t the expected knee-jerk realignment to Brooding Warrior mode after a tender moment. Not with all fathers, of course, but with a lot of them.

Perhaps it’s because fatherhood is a perpetual moment of vulnerability. Or perhaps it’s because these are fathers and sons in that sacred decade where the father is still a faultless, mythical hero in his son’s supple mind. 

For a moment, I feel envious of that long-forgotten and sanctified closeness. Before I quickly cover it up with a smug thought about how I have a regular sleep cycle.

My expression would have made a good photograph. – Ian McNaught Davis


About the author: 

Ian started work at Men’s Health about a month before me and, sitting next to each other, we formed a strong bond through banter and mutual bullshit calling on the magazine’s subject matter. We’re both intrinsically tied to manhood as it formed such a big part of our careers (he joined that team from GQ and me from FHM), even though we’re not alphas or warriors by any stretch of the imagination. 

He is the godfather to my son, someone I can truly call a friend and a far, far better writer than me. His only flaw is not rushing to join me when there was a vacancy at my Popular Mechanics. He also once gave me a bottle full of his beard clippings.

Catch Ian McNaught Davis’s exhibition “Manhood For Amateurs” at the Grey Area Gallery in the Cape Town Creative Academy in The Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock. It runs until the 23rd of September, weekdays 9:00 to 16:00.

See his full protfolio at www.ianmcnaughtdavis.com

 

What getting a deaf dog taught me about leadership

I tried my best to adopt a pet, I really did. But in my experience, simply wanting to do the world some good by bringing an abandoned puppy home to a spacious backyard, loving family and steady flow of treats. Not even having someone at home most days was enough. No. A rescue animal has to sleep inside. So I bought from a breeder.

I chose an Australian cattle dog because the breed isn’t plagued by an extravagant grocery list of ailments. Cattle dogs also don’t go walkabout because they form an intense bond with one person and want to be near that person at all times. This urge manifests itself in stalker-like lurking at windows around the house, staring at me.  

These are in-your-face real dogs. If you kind of like dogs, but don’t have the time or patience to put in the work to mould it into ideal companion: do not get a cattle dog. This breed will test you beyond what you thought possible. The flip side is that I trust Gruff with my children. Entirely. He’s still young and shaping his temper, but I have complete confidence that besides for knocking them over during play he won’t lash out with aggression.

It’s important for me to have that trust because I wouldn’t be able to call him off of a mauling should the worst possible situation happen. You see, Gruff is partially deaf and the sound range that he isn’t partial to includes the human voice.

Deafness does plague the breed. As well as an exceptionally high prey drive, excessive energy levels and supreme stubborness. They also nip at your heels when excited/frustrated/overstimulated – it’s a breed trait that works great for driving cattle, but less so for catching a human’s attention.

Cattle dogs, like people, crave attention and deeply desire a purpose to their lives. Gruff’s purpose, as far as i can define it at his young age, is companionship and protection. The problem is that he wants more compnionship than I am able to give him (my wife won’t let him sleep inside) and is a shit watchdog. The plan is to have him as my running partner when he’s old enough to hit the road – we’ve just acquired a German Sheperd for protection duties.

Training has been frustrating and greatly rewarding so far. I’ve been told that I’m too timid to be a cattle dog owner. Not “Alpha” enough, apparently. But the dog responds to me. 

I’ve learnt that dogs are mostly visual communicators and that you need to project confidence through your body language to get your point across. The new puppy sleeps inside because she’s a new puppy, and this breaks one of the cardinal rules that govern Gruff’s life. So now all the rules are up for breaking and he is trying to push the boundaries. I’ve had to be firm with him, but he has remained loyal and kind throughout.

I’ve learnt that dogs and humans are very similar in their desire to be part of a hierarchy. As long as the leader trusts them to do their job and empowers them to have he best possible chance of success, then all is well in the world. Well, until you break one of the rules. Then all of the rules are up for testing.