“Curaçao is an island of paradoxes where the cliché of macho culture exists alongside strong, independent women and pink coloured skies,” Curaçao-born and raised photographer Gilleam Trapenberg explains, when reflecting on the social landscape of his homeland that led him to create his newest photo book, Big Papi. “There’s a certain stereotype where I’m from that a Caribbean woman is not one to be messed with!” he continues. “Within the framework of this stereotype, women are seen as the ‘boss’ of the household, but this sometimes leads to tensions in that it can be regarded as emasculating for the men.”
Trapenberg moved to the Netherlands when he was 19 to study photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Wanting to continue mining the themes of “status, masculinity and representation” that have been a signature of his work thus far, he says the impulse “definitely came from trying to understand my own position as a man growing up in a culture that has certain codes as to what it means to be a man.” He didn’t, however, want to leave common gender roles, and the part that men and women play in shaping the expectations projected upon one another, out of the conversation. “I felt that I could not talk about masculinity without talking about femininity too.”
Photographed across the Caribbean – in St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, St. Maarten and Curaçao – between 2015 and 2017, Big Papi weaves together tender portraits of young men embracing their female partners, or sitting with their mothers, with images of street signs and the landscape at dusk. He also includes a number of images of ‘status symbols’ such as boats, cars and big dogs, which he says are just as integral to the project as the portraits are. “I wasn’t just interested in the stereotype surrounding masculinity but also in the landscape in which it exists.”
Images featuring slices of text brandishing slogans or phrases such as ‘Viagra’ or ‘Cash Flow’ recur several times throughout the project, and Trapenberg says they help him to reinforce the omnipresence of the culture he’s photographing. “The title Big Papi stems from a yacht in Curaçao, with the same name. I wanted the title to confront the viewer with the stereotype before even seeing the images. On one hand it is the stereotype that the men in my images are dealing with and on the other hand it is also this image that is expected of them.”
Most of Trapenberg’s pictures are shot at sunset, and there's an alluring juxtaposition in soft, pink hues being cast across overt symbols of status and masculinity. “That time of day was crucial to the work,” he says. “The hues came naturally as I realised how autobiographical the work was. Moving to the Netherlands definitely gave me the chance to take a step back and look critically at the subject but at the same time, every time I went back I couldn’t stop making romanticised images of the Caribbean.”
Trapenberg hopes that the visual research he has compiled will help to highlight specifically the dynamics of black masculinity, and break down the clichés Caribbean men have projected upon them. “My frame of reference growing up in Curaçao was largely influenced by American television shows like MTV Cribs,” Trapenberg explains, “so I knew that the image culture of masculinity I wanted to research, and the stereotype of the ‘macho’ man, was tied to the Caribbean but was mostly Western-influenced.” Using a particular example of the ‘bike life’ that is a huge part of the culture, Trapenberg says that it is often seen as a real portrayal of machismo – especially, he has found, from a European perspective. “However,” he points out, “when these guys get together on Sundays to ride and do tricks, the audience mostly consists of parents with their kids who come to enjoy a show.” It’s all about changing perceptions.
When asked what particularly concerns him about the culture that perpetuates ideas of what it means to be masculine, Trapenberg says: “The work isn’t meant to act as a mirror towards men that consider themselves ‘macho’. My concern isn’t men expressing their masculinity; it is the seemingly accepted idea that a young black man is naturally more masculine than a young white man. I cannot wrap my head around the idea that the men in my photographs are macho men regardless of what they do. I want the work to start a dialogue about the viewers’ preconceived notions regarding masculinity and the clichés surrounding it.”