The recent noise in Australia over professional footballer George Burgess’ viral nude ‘selfies’, again demonstrated the gulf between conservative opinion and real life. What symbolised scandalous immorality for some was for others simply an unplanned expose of a very handsome sportsman that elicited both pleasure and some sympathy for the poor guy’s embarrassment.
It brought to mind for me what footballer Steve Price experienced when I did somewhat more professional studio nude photographs of him a few years back.
I was working a lot for Studio Magazines who published Blue, a prestigious gay magazine, and I was approached by the sports manager for Steve Price, then captain of one of Australia’s top rugby league football teams, The Bulldogs. He wanted to know if I could do some nude portraits of Steve and get them into Blue. He was being quite sharp actually because his rationale was that the sensation of Steve appearing in a quality, albeit risqué, gay publication, would have the side effect of raising his profile and diversifying his image. Steve and his wife, it turned out, were an uber-cool couple, from a small country town originally, and of that breed of Australian that I love, who think for themselves, have the strength of mind to act independently of their peers, and don’t judge other people who are doing the same thing. Steve, who was partly being guided by his manager, had a great admiration for Ian Roberts, the first, (and last, so far!), Australian footballer to come out as gay. I had previously photographed Ian for Blue and so Steve had no problem following in Ian’s footsteps. Even though he wasn’t gay himself, both he and his wife saw it as a statement of solidarity with the cause much the same as the captain of the Australian rugby union team, David Pocock recently lent his outspoken support in favour of gay marriage.
Well, we did the shoot. Steve and his wife loved the results. The manager loved them. And Blue loved them and eagerly ran a great interview, and the photos. They did cause a sensation. One Sydney Sunday paper ran a headline ‘Why I Posed Nude For Gay Magazine’ splashed across their front page. After a while, I noticed that Steve began appearing more regularly on a high-rating major network weekly football show called, unsurprisingly, The Footy Show. Of course this may not have been down to the bold move he and his manager had made, because he was held in such high esteem as a player and person, I’m sure, anyway. Except I think he had probably previously seemed a decent and unassuming sort of bloke whereas he now revealed himself to have a bit of chutzpah and this gave him cache.
Steve came to an exhibition opening of mine several months later. I managed to have a chat with him during the evening and asked how everything was going. ‘Oh mate’ he said, ‘I don’t regret personally what I did in doing the shots with you, but I would never do something like that again, for my families sake.” It turned out that life in the burbs had been less than comfortable for his wife and family as all sorts of questions were asked, rumours started, and abuse was levelled across a number of fronts. Players from his club had posted the magazine pages up around the club and drawn dildos on images in very suggestive places. He was hauled into the office of the then club president and was told in no uncertain terms that he had brought the football game into disrepute, and shame on the club, by his actions. His parents had not been spared nastiness, and, at the end of the day he regretted that his actions had caused pain to those he cared about. He wasn’t being overly dramatic, but was telling me all this in a good natured way. Both of us feigned having a laugh about it. I know Steve had expected a bit of flack over it but even he was genuinely shocked at the extent of what was unleashed. Poor guy, punished, in my eyes, for being the good guy.
Later that night I lay awake fretting about the uneasy task I set myself in eulogising the male nude in the mainstream, as a thing of natural beauty, when so much of the way our society is structured is against that, and I am sorely equipped for the task. Once again, I felt bad about what I was convinced was an art form. I felt bad about my sexuality, and guilty, most of all for having been a cause of trouble for someone else.
The epilogue to this story is the most peculiar part. Steve and his manager went their separate ways later on, and a year or two later I got a call from the manager. Had I heard the rumours everywhere that Steve was gay!? I told him no. I was incredulous because I knew the rumours would have sprung up and spread as a consequence of Steve appearing in the magazine.
They had by now worked themselves up into such a frenzy that they had destroyed any semblance of the truth of the matter. To the point where the manager was now being seduced by the prejudice he had helped unleash! I guess we’ve all been party to and intoxicated by gossip, but because I was too close to this issue of my sexuality yet again being seen as scandalous, instead of a flippant Jerry Seinfeld retort to the managers enquiry ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that!’, I melodramatised myself and Steve as John Proctors suffering through a mini version of The Crucible.