After Pete Muller was named a finalist in the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards, he then went on to win first prize in the “General News, stories” category at World Press Photo. In Amsterdam, at the World Press Photo Award Days, we had the chance to sit down with Muller and learn more about his award-winning work.
For all its association with power and strength, manhood is a fragile veneer. It is not a status conferred simply by sex or age but one based on a man’s ability to fulfill societal expectations, which often require men to be stoic breadwinners and protectors. Failure to do so undermines men’s self-worth. With emotional communication constrained and distorted by masculine code, anger and volatility often prevail over constructive responses, with some men going to horrific lengths to reassert their wounded manhood—a quest in which violence can emerge as a tool.
I began my work exploring male gender identity and violence in eastern Congo, pursuing questions rarely asked of men and to which many seemed eager to respond. What makes a successful man? How do men relate to their families? How do they process the trauma of war? Men spoke of how poverty and displacement undermine the patriarchal social contract in which provision of necessities and security affords men authority, respect, and sex—key indicators of manhood. “This situation can create violence because when you are unable to provide for your family, they stop respecting you.”
While some men lash out in response to feelings of emasculation, others utilize violence to fulfill the duties of manhood in the dysfunctional contexts in which they find themselves. Many low-ranking soldiers, often perceived as powerful, recount using force to counter their experiences of destitution. “When they gave me this uniform they said it represented my duty to Congo,” one soldier told me. “Now, when officers steal my pay, I say fine, I have a gun. When a civilian passes, I can take what he has. My family has nothing to eat, how do they expect me to behave?”
Congo presents but one illustration of the relationship between embattled masculinity and violence that I believe exists in various forms throughout the world. In order to reduce violence, it is essential to critically explore the context from which male aggression emerges.