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



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