“I always saw being gay as something superior, as something better”
It saved his ass at the time, says photographer Florian Hetz. A conversation about growing up, fear of the penis, and his dad passing away last year.
Words by Caspar Pisters, all photos by Florian Hetz
////// part 1 of 2 //////
We sit on his couch, under a huge print of a ketamine molecule – it is impressive. After the interview, Florian Hetz invites me next to him behind his computer, at his home, located in Berlin’s gay epicenter Schöneberg.
All the bars are there and he never goes.
Five summers ago I met Florian, rather casually when I was outside at a coffee place next to Nollendorfplatz with a mutual friend. Some two meters tall, bald, and tattooed up, Florian’s presence is hard to miss. Already I had seen some of his work, which started to get a buzz back then. He expressed an interest in my veins – no, didn’t sound scary – later made some photos and we became friends.
I never suffered under my feelings for guys, I never felt that I was wrong.”
Florian shows the layout of his new book, AIKO, he’s in the process of deciding which pictures go where.
Naked men, yes, in the distinctive, clear, and investigative style that makes you recognize his work instantly. But also shots that are seemingly casual. Carefully paired together they start to interact and tell stories. About a big city that feels empty and deserted, about isolation, about a father dying.
You might miss some of it if you don’t know.
Florian’s own hand – a prop that shows up regularly in his more erotic work – is seen pushing a blue waste bag with clothes in an orange dumpster. They belonged to his father. The fragile hands of his dad, folded, are elsewhere in the book. As well as a stripped hospital bed in a bedroom, and a paper bag with medicines. Leftover, it turns out.
The close-up of his dad’s hands – the picture is echoed throughout the book in cropped shots from classic artworks – is probably one of the most intimate photos that Florian ever published. Which, when you think about it, is quite remarkable, given that he made a career out of photographing the human body explicitly naked.
It was interesting to see that first photo go viral. Not so much scary, but weird.”
“I took photos of my dad on his deathbed”, Florian says. “They are something for me to remember. Still to this day I have a hard time looking at them. It is nothing I would ever hand out to an audience. I wanted my dad to be in the book but muted. You see him without really seeing him.”
As he had promised when his father got diagnosed with cancer eleven years earlier, Florian would assist with whatever he needed in the final days of his life. It meant helping him with his morphine shots.
“When my mom called, I knew that was going to be my job. The first day I arrived, in bits and pieces his presence was still there, I could still talk to him. I spent a week washing him, diapering him, lifting him out of bed, into the bath. It got progressively worse.”
Having my intimate moments out there felt intrusive.”
AIKO isn’t a sad book, or heavy. It is sexy, poetic, pretty, sleazy, alienating, tender, gritty, quiet, confusing (you can’t always immediately be sure what you’re looking at) and hot. A sense of humor is in there, too. After all, AIKO stands for Aufgeben ist keine Option: giving up is not an option. The overall message is an optimistic one, be it with grinding teeth.
The diary approach – all the pictures in the book were taken in 2020 – has Florian’s work circle back to the stage before he set out to be a pro. The first time he picked up a camera was because he suffered from memory loss, an effect of rather a serious brain inflammation. The pictures served to remind him where he had been and with whom.
“It was never intended as a means to express myself artistically. I would take a photo of someone’s hand, a pin they were wearing on their coat. My memory is okayish now, I don’t need that camera as a crutch anymore. I kept carrying it with me, taking photos of stuff that interested me. It conditioned me to see things photographically.”
Some six years ago he started pursuing photography more seriously after a photo he posted on Tumblr went viral.
A penis is horrible, a vagina is beautiful? That distinction is largely motivated by homophobia.”
“You see my hand holding a dick that is just getting soft, a really intimate moment after sex with a lover of mine. It is beautiful in terms of light and composition. To see it go viral in such a short time was interesting, but also… Not so much scary, just weird. A couple of weeks later I posted another photo and the same thing happened. Having my intimate moments out there felt a bit too intrusive for me. The logical next step was to buy a better camera and instead of documenting my life, create moments with people that I didn’t have relationships with.”
With AIKO Florian published his third book, a combined 260K people follow him on social media, his work is shown all over Europe and in the US.
And he sticks to naked guys for now.
“It would be easier if I do commercial work, there is a lot of money in advertising and fashion. But I’m not equipped mentally to work in that field. I could lose my interest in photography itself if I have to mold myself around clients’ wishes. It makes my life harder because I don’t have that paycheck. It also makes my life easier, because I’m less likely to end up stabbing people.”
The coloring of every dick is different. The skin texture completely different from hands or arms.”
In his chosen scope, there is plenty of room for expansion still, Florian says.
“The male nude is the least popular topic in the art context. It sells the least, and at the lowest price. Which is crazy. We grew up with the idea that the naked woman is beautiful and the naked man is not. I object to that heavily. Every human being is beautiful naked. Full stop. To make that distinction – a penis is horrible, a vagina is beautiful – is largely motivated by homophobia. The irrational fear of the penis, I understand where it comes from for many people. But it is also just a piece of skin and some filling material in there. Dicks are fascinating, the coloring of every dick is different. The skin texture of dicks is fascinating, completely different from hands or arms. I think it’s important to be aware that many don’t even consider it something that can be appreciated.”
Is the appreciation for penis picking up?
“I want to be careful here, but to me, it feels like we’re running backward. Not only with male nudity but with nudity and sexuality in general. Social media and massive companies are colonizing the world with their morals, it feels like we’re at the end of a development that will crash into a new, prudish Doris Day 50’s situation. I hope I’m wrong.”
Recently OnlyFans considered banning ‘adult content’.
“What many people forget: we trust in these companies so much that we place our work and everything in there. We are part of their success story, we make money for them. We also rely on them to go on forever, and that is a big mistake. This is a private company, they can decide tomorrow that only pictures of bunnies are allowed. Internet as this free space where you can do what you want is over, it is getting more and more restricted. Always under the guise of the need to protect the children. I can see why that urge is there, but there are better and more inclusive ways of doing it. Not wipe out anything that has to do with sexuality. In the end, it’s mostly minorities, smaller groups, that suffer. Never the straight people because they get enough space to exist.”
There is a lot of potentially interesting artwork not being created because of social media.”
In an earlier conversation, you stated: not all nudity is treated equally.
“The ban on the female nipple is a clear example, that is a level of idiocy that I just don’t get. We shouldn’t rely too much on social media. I always ask myself what would happen if they delete me. What does it mean to my work, to me, to my idea of my career? Do I want to be so dependent on social media that it also informs what I do? What I show? I know so many people who create work that is only Instagram-conform. They started at a different point, but now Instagram shapes their content and they don’t realize it. If you make that decision consciously, I respect that. But to not even be aware of it is a bit sad. There is a lot of potentially interesting artwork not being created because of social media.”
Simultaneously, the liberty people feel nowadays to take pictures of themselves naked, film themselves having sex, is at an all-time high.
“Are you feeling more relaxed with who sees what of you?”
I’m definitely much easier with sending pics and even videos. A while ago I would never send anything with my face in it. Now… Haha, that has changed.
“When I take a photo, it can end up in a book, in an exhibition, other people see it. I ask people that I photograph naked: did you think about it? Quite often, they are on OnlyFans and all of that is already out there anyways. I appreciate the relaxedness. These new performers decide to do their own thing, and kind of make it more normal. The power is taken away from the big porn studios. I’m not sure how it is in the straight world, but in the homo population, at least in an urban setting, it seems so normal to make a little bit of pocket money like that.”
If you have a good dick and you are not on OnlyFans, you’re a thief of your own pocket.
What I think is of value with OnlyFans – and Twitter, where a lot of that content is advertised – is that it helps people free their minds. All body types, all colors, all ages get to have their success on there.
“I imagine there is a variety, I see things pop up sometimes. It feels like a space that can be really specific. If you are into super skinny guys with three eyes and twelve nipples, you might find them.”
You’ll likely find a whole section. Something catches your attention, you start following that trace, and you realize there is this whole thriving, dedicated niche.
“Do you think it enriches your sexuality or limits it? Does it broaden up your view and ideas, or do you focus more on what you are interested in already?”
Before internet, if you wanted to get fucked but were painfully shy, you had to find a way of pretending that you’re not.”
For me, it’s the first. I discover things I didn’t know I was attracted to. Also, running this website, I’m always on the lookout for whatever else is out there.
“Nice. That is exciting. I found the discovering always the interesting part of sexuality. Like taking a blindfolded ride on a rollercoaster. You have no idea where it leads you, but it’s super exciting. Well, sometimes it turns out to be boring, but you never know, so you keep on riding.”
If it’s something that I’m not into, or even far removed from that, I can still often appreciate that it is out there. People do stuff that is bonkers and meet other people who are into the same thing, there is beauty in that.
“I’m always curious to see how explorative people are in real life. It’s nice to see someone online, be fascinated, get into that one thing for a while, and then move on to something else. But how explorative are people when they actually meet? That, at the moment, is where sexuality is kind of standing still for many people, I believe. Because many only know online interaction. Most people our age learned sexual social skills in the open setting of a bar, a club, sauna. All these places, they had not only the meaning of drinking a beer, and maybe hooking up. If you wanted to get fucked, and you were painfully shy, you had to find a way of pretending that you’re not. By doing so, you learned to read people’s body language, to flirt, or at least to react to situations. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get laid. Often it also helped you in real life. You apply the knowledge to charm down the armor of the annoying lady at the office, you learn how to flirt a little bit and get something. It’s probably not the same for everyone. For me, they were important skills growing up. It gave me a lot of confidence in the long run. I’m not sure how I would be if online had been my only option. This is not something to blame a young generation for, they grow up and the world is a certain way. You and I grew up without the internet and were also young enough to fully embrace it. We are lucky to have both experiences.”
I knew sex was happening in the public toilet of a park. I didn’t dare to go in for a long time. Once I managed, I found a whole new world.”
I remember being age 15, 16, growing up in this tiny village. Hormones raging through my body and having zero outlets for it. I literally wished at some point I could press a button and have a guy next to me in bed.
“You have it now. You’re only two years older and you have it.” [Laughs]
I wished Grindr into manifestation, you have me to thank – or to blame. I may have been pressing that button a bit too much, meanwhile.
“I would say blame. I grew up similar to you, in a tiny village, middle of nowhere, no access to anything. But I never had that frustration you describe. I knew that the world was out there. I didn’t want to bring it to me, instead, I knew I needed to leave where I was. I had a double life for a long time. My parents traveled a lot, they often parked me with my godmother. She lived close to the English Garden in Munich. I knew sex was happening in the public toilet there. I didn’t dare to go in for a long time. Once I managed, I found a whole new world.”
At what age did you start discovering that?
“My first sex was when I was twelve. Quite early.”
Did someone go to jail for that?
“No, I went there because I wanted to have sex, I wanted it to happen. It was not the most exciting thing in terms of quality but it happened, and it was amazing. There were two guys, they were about 25 years old – which back then felt really old to me. I was tall, more or less already my current height. I definitely didn’t look twelve. I was so proud afterward. I walked out of there feeling: oh my god, I have finally done it! It was not good sex, but it was sex, I had earned that medal of honor. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it but that didn’t matter. There was no trauma, just an absolute feeling of happiness and pride.
So your first sex was a threesome?
“Uhu. I’m not a friend of threesomes, maybe because of that.” [laughs]
My first sex was when I was twelve. Quite early.”
Looking back as a grown-up: how do you feel about the older guys engaging in sex with you?
“I didn’t run in there with my ID: hey, anyone wanna fuck a twelve-year-old? I don’t think they saw a twelve-year-old, I was definitely developed. They were not kiddy fiddlers. They were having their thing, I was there, and I was allowed in. I felt ready, I was happy it happened. It didn’t traumatize me or any of that.”
It’s quite amazing how people’s processes can be so different. At age 12 I slowly started realizing I was gay, I had only just discovered jerking off. No way I would be ready for sex, be aware cruising spots were a thing, know where to go or have the guts.
“It took me forever to enter that public toilet, I don’t know how many rounds I did around that thing in the park. I can’t remember when I had the word for being gay, but I was madly in love with my kindergarten teacher, a man. My interest was always towards men, never towards women. Later on, I’m pretty sure at some point society told me that something was wrong with me, but I never suffered under my feelings, I never felt that I was wrong. And that probably also comes from growing up in that village. There was a weird arrogance that I developed early on in my life, and that had to do with my sexuality partly. I always saw being gay as something superior, as something better. But also I also generally saw myself as a superior person. Probably that saved my ass while growing up. I had this absolutely deeply rooted belief that I was better than them.”
If you don’t like my work, that’s absolutely fine. I’m not going to stop talking to you because of it.”
Haha, let’s call it confidence. How is that now?
He laughs. Then: “I definitely don’t have that arrogance anymore. Well, I don’t look much left and right, I’m sure there are bits and pieces still in there. I believe in what I do. And I like what I do. I meet a lot of people who cannot verbalize that what they do is good. They will discredit themselves when you make a compliment. That always irritates me. The stuff I create – and that’s where the arrogance comes back in: I know it’s good. I like it. And that’s what counts. If you like it, that’s a nice add-on. It’s important that I can sell prints and pay my rent, sure. But regarding the quality of the work, what another person thinks doesn’t influence me. I create for myself. If you don’t like it, that’s absolutely fine. I’m not going to stop talking to you because of it.”
Having all these followers on social media though, does that give any validation, motivation, confirmation?
“I don’t know. It’s this weird number, for some it sounds like a lot, for others it is little. It means something to me when I get a reaction from someone in a country where what I do is not possible. When someone feels supported by my work, because they see that there is a direction, a movement out there that pushes for liberty. The whole gay liberation movement started in the sixties. In the bigger picture that is a blip. A lot happened in a really short time. It can provide hope to someone who is in a difficult situation: apparently, things can shift in a matter of decades. It’s also a reminder to protect these liberties for us, and help others get there. We cannot be lazy.”
Oh, but there’s more. In part two of this interview, we discuss – show – the work Florian can’t publish on most social media. We also talk about a fascination for dead animals, and how she used to be a gothic.
Order Florian Hetz‘ book AIKO. It ends with a beautiful note his father once sent him. A snippet: I’m on standby, someone who no longer acts too tough and decisively in the real world anymore, but someone who nevertheless is still there.’