“Under late modernity there is an ideal subject who is white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, (re)productive, and conforming. Bodies which deviate, either by nature or design, can become sites of disruption to dominant power systems. I’ve long been interested in ways in which my body either conforms to or resists the expectations imposed upon me,” says Mitchell Moreno.

Like most of us, the UK-based, queer artist has a complicated relationship with the online world and what it means for their identity. “One of the benefits of the digital network,” they say, “is that it has given fringe identities more visibility and helped marginal people and groups to connect.” But, on the other side of the coin and “in the service of neoliberalism,” Moreno adds, “ it has also reached into and monetized areas of life that were previously deemed private, such as dating, or the photos we take of ourselves. Consumer capitalism needs to keep us in a perpetual state of anxiety and desire—and digital culture does this incredibly effectively.” The artist points out a “paradigm shift” too—one that has seen young men now subjected to some of the same pressures to conform to idealized body standards as those historically experienced by women. “And children and young people of all genders are experiencing phenomenal pressures to look a certain way,” they add, “with all the fallout of mental health issues that entails.”

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2019 © Mitchell Moreno

Since 2018, Moreno has been working on a remarkable self-portrait project in response to these ideas. Exploring the world of ‘men-for-men’ hook-up culture, BODY COPY sees the artist collect the titles of online dating adverts and then pose as a whole host of characters responding to them. ‘SUCCESSFUL GUY SEEKS V SPORTY JOCK’ reads one, and in the corresponding image the artist dons sports gear and flexes their muscles; ‘WHERE ARE ALL THE NORMAL ENGLISH BLOKES?’ reads another, this time accompanied by an image of Moreno with a tabloid newspaper and a full English breakfast, an England football shirt and a mug emblazoned with the Queen’s monogram. It’s all about overt symbols, you see—exaggerating the physical accoutrements we use to perform our identities. Through this use of props it’s humorous, but in a nuanced way—the type of work to elicit a wry smile from the viewer; to make us stop and think about what we’re seeing.

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2020 © Mitchell Moreno

“I want to give my viewer something consequential to think about, but I also want to give them pleasure, and humor is a key part of the available toolkit for that… our bodies, our drives, our kinks—they are often absurd, so a series like this demands a sense of playfulness,” Moreno told me during our first conversation about this project. “I’m striving for a kind of tonal awkwardness—the tipping point between seriousness and humour, naturalism and camp,” they add, “but when I talk about camp I’m not talking about effeminacy so much as a discourse of queer parody which relies on intertextuality and a surplus of signification. So, for example, I see ONLY ULTRA MASC as a very camp image, because it draws on so many cliches and is overloaded with the visual reference of conventional hyper masculinity.” Indeed, in the image in question, the artist embodies a caricature of the archetypal ‘manly man’, seen doing pull-ups next to a collection of guns and hunting pictures mounted on the wall.

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2019 © Mitchell Moreno

Growing out of Moreno’s own mental health experiences, the project began as part of a process of recovery from body dysmorphia and disordered eating. “For a long time I hadn’t allowed myself to be photographed, so the genesis of BODY COPY was deeply therapeutic. The first photo I took in the series was a response to an advert which said ‘STUFF UR MOUTH—WEIRDER THE BETTER.’ In it, I have a large octopus in my mouth, which both relates to pathologies around food, and also obscures quite a large part of my face, acting as a kind of half mask. Most of the other early photos in the series involve some kind of masking or obscuring of the face, and then as the series went on I felt able to show more of myself.”

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2018 © Mitchell Moreno

Born in the late 1970s, Moreno grew up working class in Leicester, and pursued a decade-long career in theatre and directing before finding an outlet in photography. Now, signifiers of both the artist’s socio-economic circumstances and that history of performance can be located in their work. “All the images were made in my flat—mainly against the same stretch of wall next to a large window—and I constructed, painted, and styled each set, moving back and forth behind and in front of the camera and inching towards the final image,” they explain. “I sourced quite a lot of stuff from sites like Freecycle and the freebies sections of classified ads, along with eBay and charity shops. Everything was done on a shoestring budget, and I think this DIY quality definitely informs the aesthetic of the series and contributes to a sense of the constructed nature of the portraits.” Approaching many of the images as one might a scene in a low-budget drama, Moreno thought about the character’s backstory each time, the specifics of their life, their job, where they lived, and tried to inhabit something of their way of being with what they had at hand.

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2019 © Mitchell Moreno

If the space of the photograph offers a powerful place to perform, it also offers a space in which to rehearse potential versions of ourselves. In Moreno’s own writings about the project, the artist refers to a lineage of queer creators who turned to the camera with similar impulses to their own in the past—folks like April Dawn Alison and Claude Cahun who staged themselves in radically performative images—and it’s easy to see how BODY COPY picks up from where they left off, but where does this tendency come from?

“I think a lot of queer folk become adept from a very young age at hiding aspects of themselves, or adopting socially-expected manners and behaviors as a means to survive in the world, and that is a key reason why you see a lot of work in the queer archive which is to do with performance and the self,” Moreno says, by way of an answer. “Historically, queers have not been visible in culture. Or, when we have been, we’ve been subsequently ghosted or straight-washed, so photography has been an important way of self-memorializing our lives and our narratives,” they add. Photography provided a space to be seen. “A lot of queer and trans folk were not able to be their authentic selves in public—so vernacular photography has been an important way of validating and bearing witness to our truths.”

From the series “BODY COPY,” 2019 © Mitchell Moreno

The politics of identity have always been shaped by complex social constructions, but somewhere along the way, this has become even further muddied by social media and the ubiquity of cameras. At its heart, that’s what BODY COPY explores. “More than 150 million years of mammalian evolution have encoded the subconscious cues which lead us to experience repulsion or attraction to another human being—cues including eye contact, tone and pitch of voice, body language, and smell—and none of these cues are available to us when we look at a stranger’s photo online,” Moreno says thoughtfully. “I think that’s why hookup ads and profiles are so performative and atomically specific—the key words, the kink, the archetype all operate fetishistically, allowing us to project our desires onto a symbolic object in the absence of sufficient real information that we can use to evaluate attractiveness.”

Ultimately, Moreno’s photographs picture the body as a commodity in the age of digital hook-up culture. It’s never been easier to craft a character, align with a tribe, and present yourself as such out in the world, has it? But what they also speak to is the role of photography in all of this—the seductive power of images to help us shape how the world sees us—and this is consistently reinforced by the presence of a shutter release in each of the portraits in BODY COPY. In this way, we can never forget the presence of the camera, and that is entirely the point.