These Photos Capture The Emotional Vulnerability Of Boys, Before It's Lost For Good

6 mins
10 May 2023
These Photos Capture The Emotional Vulnerability Of Boys, Before It's Lost For Good

Photographer Angelika Kollin photographs boys in 'fleeting' moments of emotional co-dependence with their parents before the the pressures of young manhood take hold

image Angelika Kollin

words Lucy O'Brien

For photographer Angelika Kollin, moments of affection shared between parents and their sons had always been a foreign concept to her. Growing up in Soviet Estonia, Angelika was raised in a culture where the idea of emotional vulnerability among young men, especially towards their fathers, simply “did not exist.”

But when she left Estonia in 1991 and began to widen her geographical horizons, she also widened her gaze. Moving from her home country to Germany, then on to the States, Spain, Namibia, Ghana and finally South Africa, Kollin was never short of new cultures to navigate. Through all her travels, though, nothing fascinated her more than human relationships. “It was my job to get to know the people and to get to know their culture – and I was doing it through photography,” she says.

Photos by Angelika Kollin

And while working on two projects depicting the differences between motherhood and fatherhood, Kollin became fascinated with a new subject: young sons. “There’s a particular shyness to them – they either let you in or they don’t. As a mother of three daughters, this was a world I did not witness. So to see that fleeing goodness in them was so different – so beautiful.”

Attempting to capture these brief moments of emotional and physical intimacy between sons and their parents is what culminates in Kollin’s latest photo project, Poetics of Boyhood. Taken across different families and communities in Cape Town, her portfolio interrogates the deep emotional co–dependence between young boys and their parents, however fleeting it may seem at this age. From a simple, warm embrace between mother and son to toddlers gripping onto the backs of their fathers, Poetics of Boyhood captures both the fragility and beauty of this precious stage in young men’s lives. Woo caught up with Kollin to reflect on how the project has shaped her perceptions of masculinity, childhood and kinship.

Photo by Angelika Kollin

How does all the travelling you've done influence your work?

Angelika Kollin: When I look back at my images, I see transition. I started by lensing very typical tourists which was just everybody smiling. But then I started becoming more honest with myself and in my work. Now it doesn't mean that we need to photograph everybody in misery, but we need to photograph people honestly. If we make them smile, we don't honour the real story. Because the real story has everything; it has moments of happiness, moments of struggle. It's part of being a human.

Is there a specific reasoning that led you to choose young boys as your focus for this project?

Angelika Kollin: There isn’t. At the time – and it's still ongoing – I've been working on two projects. One is ‘You are my Mother’, and the other ‘You Are My Father’. Inevitably, some of the children [I was photographing] were young. And it became very clear that they react differently. That group of boys were less open to such vulnerable work. But when I was fortunate enough for them to let me in, it was beautiful.

For me, as a mother of three daughters, this is a world that I did not witness. I am not a father, and I was never an adolescent boy. To witness these moments, even if very brief, of their goodness was so beautiful.

Photos by Angelika Kollin

You describe a “fleeting” moment of intimacy between young boys and their parents. Can you expand on what this means and what you observed?

Angelika: It's one of those things that is more invisible than visible. And sometimes it's not even the physical touch; it's something like a very brief moment of being comfortable next to each other. I think boys in particular, especially during those [adolescent] years, want distance from their parents, both mothers and fathers. And to capture that brief moment where they actually feel comfortable next to their parents is so impactful. It's a display of what we, through all stages of life, really long for. Even when we go through the whole teenage rebellion stage, there's still that part, very hidden, that wants and longs for connection. That intimacy. That is the fleeting moment that we were witnessing in those photo shoots.

Are there any other ways the project made you reflect on your relationship with your children or your own childhood?

Angelika Kollin: Yeah. I don't have sons but I did have a younger brother. So in a way I was sort of revisiting some aspects of my childhood with my brother and investigating this type of relationship. It helped me to understand some things that, for example, I didn't know were happening between my brother and my father. I was aware even as a child that their bond was different from what I had with my father, being his daughter, but it was so interesting to see. However, it’s very important to note that the parents and children I photographed had very healthy relationships with each other. This is often not the case.

Photo by Angelika Kollin

Would you say the relationships you encountered subvert traditional expectations of masculinity?

Angelika Kollin: I'm pretty sure that element is present in this work. I grew up in a society and generation where it was not common for a father to show affection, certainly not physical affection. It was very uncommon. I do see that this new generation of men, no matter where you go, are more open to it. In a way, it was like revisiting my own childhood where that didn't exist and recreating it in the way that I wished it was. So there is an element of this dream landscaping; creating a world that you did not experience at that age.

You shoot in monochrome for the entire project, is there a reason for that?

Angelika Kollin: It’s absolutely intuitive. I could not give you a reason for it. I've also been trying to understand it. For whatever reason, something in my psyche could not handle colour. It was too much for me. It's almost like a way to, you know, disconnect a little bit from the busyness of the world.

Somebody once told me that the project is also creating this world of a childhood that I didn't have. And because of that it comes not in real life colours, but in this monochromatic scheme. I think this rings true.

Photo by Angelika Kollin

What do you hope people might learn or feel when encountering “Poetics of Boyhood”?

Angelika Kollin: No matter what portraits I take, I think all of my work is dedicated to a sense of connection; a sense of belonging. I hope when people see my work, they either experience connection, or they become aware that they long for it. I hope my work will encourage people to pay more attention to the relationships they have with others and to the relationship they have with themselves. We all want and desire to connect, and I think this is the main message of my work. It's intimacy in a deeper sense – it’s a feeling that you belong.

See more of Angelika Kollin's work here.

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