Meet The Artist Documenting Berlin's Sexually Fluid Youth
It isn’t every day that you praise an artist’s work on Instagram one minute, and end up on a 30-minute phone call discussing sexuality and intimacy the next. But sometimes, things happen. From a new book, a Gucci short film, to a photo shoot with the most famous male model on the Internet, it’s been a busy week for Matt Lambert—and those are just the projects he’s releasing right now.
The Berlin-based, American filmmaker has carved out a name for himself in the art world with his unflinchingly raw look at sexuality and youth. He’s worked on projects with Paper, Dazed, Patrick Wolf, Marc Jacobs, Hercules and Love Affair, and dozens more. In between casting for new projects and overseeing the release of the second edition of his breakout book of photography, KEIM, I called him up to talk about his overwhelming love for Berlin’s utopian sexual ideas, the line between pornography and art, and his groundbreaking new TV project.
What do you think separates the queer scene in Berlin from other places?
I think especially in New York and London and those places, there is this obsession with twink and bear, and top and bottom—all of these things. Of course, that still exists here, but those conversations don’t happen.
That kind of labeling is so limiting, too.
Labels and categorization are the things that often hold people back from being as fluid as they want to be. The moment you don’t allow those labels to offend you, is the moment you can actually try things without being afraid of someone thinking you’re that thing.
“There is this obsession with twink and bear, and top and bottom—all of these things. Of course, that still exists here, but those conversations don’t happen.”
Do you think this level of sexual fluidity is unique to Berlin?
I think in a lot of cities people are really considered in their actions. New Yorkers are really considered. There’s a plan and a thought behind everything. You can be doing progressive things, but that doesn’t mean you’re progressive by nature. It means that you are constructing a progressive identity for yourself.
What kind of message do you want your work to send to those struggling with their sexual identity?
I know gay stories aren’t really edgy anymore, but there are still people who could potentially see my work who didn’t necessarily have exposure to that specific narrative, and it may allow them to find their own narrative. We’re still very privileged being in New York, Berlin, or London. There are a hell of a lot of people who struggle every day. If I know that the way that I’m telling stories is allowing them to see themselves in new ways and [it] gives them that confidence, then that’s still worth something even it’s not the most progressive topic at the moment.
You dabble in a lot of surrealist imagery throughout your films, like the bees in the Gucci ad. When you photograph people do you try to incorporate this surreal element or go another route entirely?
A photo for me is a much more stripped down exercise in visual storytelling. When I did the Gucci film it was a fifty-person team. A lot of my projects feel very intimate and raw, but there is a really intense production machine behind a lot of what I’m doing with my films. I enjoy photo as a pure and direct medium because I can react immediately to something I see. My photos are almost like a screen test for my films. I never intended to publish photos; it was more like a way to inform my film-making approach.
“The intimacy of taking someone’s photo is in some ways similar to the intimacy of sexuality. It requires a level of trust, communication, and respect.”
Sexuality is very taboo in a lot of countries—especially in America. Was it difficult to find people to photograph for your book since the subject matter is very sexual?
Fuck, it’s not easy for me either. It’s an awkward experience for both parties involved. Some of the photos are more from moments or after parties at my house, when I first moved here. Every photo has a different story. A few are exes, and they were super open to having stuff published, because they don’t fucking care because they don’t live on the grid.
Your work in photography and film is inspired by themes of radicalized youth, love, and sexuality. What draws you to those subjects?
For me initially, there’s definitely a self-exploration quality to the work being made. It was a way to revisit, understand, and deconstruct my own sexuality and relationships in the past. So, it was quite a selfish endeavor—as I think it is for most people.
In the last few years, as I’ve started to develop this niche audience, it’s become a lot more about the dialogue between my audience and myself. I’ve had some really wonderful stories about people reaching out to me and telling me how the work has helped them to come out or helped them navigate their narrative—whatever that narrative may be. You’re presenting a path to them that’s another option than what they thought was potentially a way that one could be, as a gay or queer individual.
Absolutely. I think this new generation of youth is starting to explore their sexual identity more and forgo labels. Even when you flip through KEIM, there’s no way of telling what their sexuality is.
I think that gay stories are old anyway. Being a binary gay man isn’t a very progressive situation. I think it’s especially a byproduct of being in Berlin. There is such an intense focus on sexual fluidity here. Berlin is such a utopian strange space when it comes to sexuality, in that there are absolutely no repercussions.
Other than your exes, have you formed bonds with other people you’ve taken photos of?
There’s always some sort of friendship there—it’s never just a shoot. It’s hanging out and talking about life, love, and all these things. It’s also an opportunity. When I moved to Berlin, I wasn’t a photographer. I never studied photography, and it was a way to get to know people. The intimacy of taking someone’s photo is in some ways similar to the intimacy of sexuality. It requires a level of trust, communication, and respect.
The book is very homoerotic and explorative of male sexuality. What separates it from something that may be considered pornographic?
A lot of straight people picked up the book and thought they would be more terrified by it than they would be. Ultimately, there’s a sense of humanity, warmth, and love. There is zero sense of exploitation. With my book and the TV show as well, if you just see people fucking it becomes very easy to minimize them to their sexuality, but when you see them in love it’s very hard to “other” them.
“Sexuality is present in everything that we do for a lot of people, at least. That isn’t necessarily what defines you.”
All of the music in your films really set the vibe. How do you pick what songs to use?
A lot of it is people I know socially, who score music for me, or I’ll borrow music from them. I’ve worked with everyone from Le1f to Austra to Patrick Wolf. Those are people who pop up in projects you’ve seen. I’ll do a music video for them, and then it comes back around to me asking for a track for a film I’m doing. It’s this open dialogue I have with about ten musicians. I’m working on something new with Mykki Blanco and with Woodkid. It tends to be queer artists who dig what I do, and it’s quite an organic thing.
Your work really humanizes sexuality in a way that doesn’t happen that often in media. Do you think sex in pop culture has become focused around the sexual instinct rather than the person behind it?
Nobody is ever guilty for having sex, or for their sexuality. Nobody is a bad person. Like in the TV project I’m working on, never once did we talk about the fact that the kids are gay in that episode, nor were any of their problems a result of them being gay. They were more like their mom won’t let them go to London or their boyfriend’s mom is a dick. You realize that sexuality is present in everything that we do for a lot of people, at least. That isn’t necessarily what defines you. It’s a narrative that runs parallel to most of the things you do. It doesn’t mean you’re thinking about sex all the time. It’s just another layer to someone’s existence.
KEIM is in limited release and can be purchased online here.
Photos courtesy of Matt Lambert.