From a man in a latex suit with a hard dick, to a self portrait of the artist in a bath tub peeing on himself: “What we see is the ‘story of my life’”, says Benjamin Fredrickson of his own work, a series of Polaroids that honestly and most intimately capture the artist’s interactions as an ex-sex-worker from the Midwest turned HIV+ photographer living in New York City. Candid went along to his new exhibition at Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery to meet Fredrickson and talk about his work.
In order to pursue and afford his art, Benjamin Fredrickson had to earn money, which is how he got into sex work, and eventually tested positive. The artist found himself not only with a life threatening disease, but also with his life’s ambition to pursue photography unfulfilled. Before losing any more time, Fredrickson left his hometown Minneapolis and made the big move to New York City, where he was “couch surfing” until he got a few working gigs for various magazines and eventually an opportunity to showcase his own work. “Thank you so much for coming.” Says a humbled Fredrickson as people who want to view his work flood the gallery. “I can’t believe all these people actually showed up – I really thought it would just be me.”
The core theme throughout Fredrickson’s work seems to be the longing for human connection, which he expresses either by capturing the sexual interaction itself or through being photographed. Being in front of the lens is a way for the artist to make himself vulnerable, as he puts himself in the position of his subjects and therefore achieves a more open, intimate, and trusting atmosphere. In turn, the men who are being photographed, Fredrickson’s ‘models’, whom he mostly finds on hook up sites, reveal themselves to him, the camera, and the viewer’s gaze. Fredrickson either travels to the subjects’ home, so as to make them more comfortable in their own surrounding and space, which gives him a greater sense of who they are, or he invites them over wherever he happens to be “house-sitting”. Resulting in images that are deeply vulnerable yet extremely graphic. There is a sense of beauty that is flawed and raw – simply human. Ultimately, this makes his art relatable to his audience, or rather voyeurs, as he merely gives us an insight into society and modern day dating, or rather hook-up culture. Meeting these people is what inspires the artist to create amazing images.
The artist shoots on analog, as well as on a tight financial budget, therefore he only takes one shot. Some shots are calculated, whereas other photographs, such as the one showing Fredrickson having sex with his subject, are on timer and improvisational – but each image is one of a kind. Although Fredrickson’s style is experimental, there is a lot of attention to detail.
Fredrickson admits that after the diagnosis his work became more graphic. Art became a way to understand it. He wanted to show people a different perspective on life that he had discovered.
“Being an HIV positive former sex worker makes you experience the world differently than being an HIV negative grocery store clerk, which I was at one time. And I am enjoying life more now, as I am living it more fully.”
There is one Polaroid of him sitting on an older man’s lap. The artist refers to this image as an “age study”. After his diagnosis, Fredrickson was curious about the disease and wanted to learn more about it through connecting with people who were also HIV +. Rather than searching for a support group, he wanted to search for and connect with individuals online to see how they were living with the virus, which is how he met this particular subject. “I wanted to see what it looks like, also physically. I was curious about what’s to come and what will happen to my body after years of taking the medication.”
Fredrickson’s images are daring, experimental and have a sense of freedom to them, as he is an explorer, taking us on his personal, intimate, sexual journey.
“For me it’s like a journey. A personal journey. It’s about being a human explorer.”
Fredrickson has come a long way and his journey is reflected in this exhibition. To him, the diagnosis was a wake up call and with his amazing work and astonishing story, the artist truly sets an example for how to cope with the disease.
Benjamin Fredrickson is showing at the Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery in New York until February 28th. For more information go to www.danielcooneyfineart.com.