“Mectoub,” a project I worked on from 2012 to 2016, is a series in which I photograph men living in the Arab countries of the Mediterranean basin. From North Africa to the Middle East, in the confidential context of a face-to-face encounter, my photographic act is something like a performance dedicated to trust—an unveiling.

“Mectoub” offers a viewpoint, a relationship that I decided to have with men who were strangers to me. The men I chose had a freedom of spirit about them, and I sensed a mutual mystery in their attitude. These are portraits of men, taken by a woman—a woman who prompts them to abandon themselves and accept a loss of control, even as they are aware of its ambiguity. In each of these settings, there is always a sort of ambivalence, a struggle between abandon and resistance.

By questioning the masculine identity of an emancipated generation, I hope to produce a subtle questioning of the traditional image of men in the Arab world. The portraits plunge us deep into our preconceptions—then overturns them. They unsettle us because they show a reality that is unfamiliar: the Arab male and his multiple identities.

What I captured is an image of both complexity and, in particular, modernity. “Mectoub” challenges traditional notions of gender, concepts of masculinity and even the male relationship to women. As an artist, I position myself as a woman who gazes at men, thereby affirming that the camera itself has a gender. By doing so, I seek to raise universal questions of identity and power, inviting the viewer to reconsider the supremacy of the masculine perspective in the history of art.

—Scarlett Coten


Editors’ note: “Mectoub” and Scarlett Coten were given the 2016 Leica Oskar Barnack Award—congratulations to Coten for this much-deserved recognition! Discover an older edit of the project here, first published on LensCulture a few years ago. It’s always a pleasure to watch a series evolve and grow over time.