As I am old enough to remember Listen with Mother on BBC Home Service (Radio 4) when the ritual litany was…are you sitting comfortably, well now I’ll begin… as we snuggled up with our stay at home mums to hear a story every afternoon, Aaron Deemer’s play on these words for the title for his project intrigued me from the start. Not that the photos that Aaron has taken of the rooms in fertility clinics where men go to masturbate to produce their contribution to the making of a baby have anything to do with the cosy Fifties world I was raised in. But I didn’t know what to expect when faced with a charming, youthful American man standing next to a photo of a tiny, bland and clinical room at the British Infertility Counselling Association’s study day last Friday. The hint was in the title of the gathering…What About the Men?
Aaron Deemer was living in China when a question was first raised about his fertility. He and his wife had been trying to conceive for about a year when they decided they needed to be checked out. Having become familiar with the Chinese way of doing things Aaron decided (unlike most Americans I know) to have a sperm check done in the public hospital system rather than going private. This was his first, but not his last, encounter with attempting to produce a ‘sample’ into a tiny plastic cup in the imperfect conditions of a tiny cubicle with a flimsy and inadequate door, to the accompaniment of chronic wheezing to the left and explosive bowels to the right. This hospital did not have special rooms for semen production, the available space on offer being the public toilets. On the next occasion when he was required to go through the same procedure he chose a private hospital only to find that the door to the room set aside for this purpose was in full view of the nurses station with a gaggle of giggly women and the waiting room, where he himself sat for a while and timed his fellow men as they entered and left!
As a photographer and artist, as well as a man whose fertility had had questions raised about it, Aaron became fascinated not only by the actual places designated for this strange activity, but by the thinking behind them. Whose responsibility was it to decide what this space should be like in a clinic…or alternatively not to provide a special area at all? He decided to go round as many fertility clinics as possible and photograph the ‘production’ rooms, as I gather they are known as at most UK clinics, talking with the staff as he did so. The results of this project, shown to us on Friday, were fascinating and revealing. The first room looked fine until you noticed that it had a large print of the Eiffel Tower on the wall. Several were drab and miserable clinical spaces, more like depressing cupboards than rooms. One intriguingly but perhaps disturbingly had a large but rather upright dentist’s chair in the centre, draped with a blanket and lit from all sides with spotlights. Another Aaron identified as looking exactly like his bedroom…age 13. But to my mind the most peculiar of all was a room done out in crisp, stylish modern furniture in lime greens and purple with an orgasmic explosion of a lurid coloured artificial plant at the far end. This apparently was the pride and joy of clinic staff who had fought long and hard for the funding for this feature. The only thing all these rooms had in common – with the exception of the Chinese toilet – was the provision of joyless pornography, mostly in paper form but with occasional videos.
Aaron’s presentation to what was very largely a group of women (counsellors in the fertility field mostly are women) was wonderfully direct and full of wry humour. It revealed a thoughtful man able to look sideways at his own experience and help us see in these rooms, and what has to happen in them, something of the dichotomy between a man’s sexual and fertile identities that we had been talking about earlier in the day. Perceptions of mens and women’s infertility really are different. On the whole women are pitied; men have their libido threatened.
Thank you Aaron, I enjoyed your way of seeing. As did former fertility patient and journalist Kate Brian. Read her blog here http://fertilityviews.blogspot.co.uk/
If you would like to see other examples of Aaron’s work – sadly the photos he showed us are not on his web site yet – go to http://www.aarondeemerphoto.com/ Better still, if you know someone who would like to fund the continuation of this project and Aaron’s public appearances to talk about it, do get in touch with him through his website. It’s really worthwhile.