“I’ve waited a long time to bring this book out and between Donald Trump and #MeToo, I don’t see how it could possibly be a better moment,” says the photographer of his book, a insight into the seamy underbelly of the US' exclusive college societies
“I’ve waited a long time to bring this book out and between Donald Trump and #MeToo, I don’t see how it could possibly be a better moment,” says Andrew Moisey from his office at Cornell University, New York, where he is an assistant professor in art history and visual studies. The book, The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual, is published by Daylight, and is looks at the secretive, ultra-masculine worlds of the fraternity houses that dominate US university life.
The image we now have of fraternities is very different from how they were when they first set up in the late 1700s. The initial male collegiate organisations were literary societies, where university students gathered to debate politics. Many had mottoes and names in Greek lettering, such as the first and perhaps more poignant Phi Beta Kappa in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Over the years these gave way to social societies in more universities around the US, recruiting members according to their race, religion and social status. Their exclusivity, need to differentiate and tradition of privacy were traits that gradually reached extremes in the modern day, and have now earned them a reputation of encouraging misogyny, bullying and elitism.
Moisey includes an essay in his book, How to be a Man Amongst Brothers by Nicholas L Syrett. It summarises exactly what it is about fraternities that make them so attractive to a certain type of North American male and so unattractive to most of the rest of the world. The stereotype is chest-thumping, binge-drinking, hygiene-ignorant men who have a slippery grasp of consent and no-meaning- no. Its opening paragraph reads: “Fraternities are the essence of what it is to be a man. Everything we do is in the hope that it will make us more masculine and thus a bigger person. All the activities, such as excessive drinking, hazing and womanising, can all be seen as trying to make ourselves a more masculine man.”
The project began in 2008, when Moisey was studying photography in California, and George W Bush was president. “I was just so angry,” he recalls. “We had the ultimate frat guy as president and I saw so many parallels between the ways that fraternities behave on campus with the way the United States behaves on the world stage. It protected its own from justice, it was hubristic, chauvinistic and I started to wonder just how many of our leaders had been in fraternities. When I discovered how many had, I realised that the critique that I wanted to make about fraternities was the critique that everyone wants to make about American culture.”
Moisey began photographing at the fraternity where both a friend and his brother were members (he calls it ‘Psi Rho’ in the book, although its real name is undisclosed). “I had set out to do a kind of Robert Frank or Roy DeCarava project, but as I was photographing, it turned out to be more like Planet Earth [the TV series], where I was sitting around waiting for nature to happen – the kind of nature I know people want to see,” he says. “It’s like getting a picture of a lion hunting – it takes a long time to get a picture of that and it takes even longer to get a picture of a lion hunting the way lions do – and not just tearing something apart.”
His approach was not without its challenges, and met with some criticism from his peers. “I’d go to Jim Goldberg’s class or Abner Nolan’s class – the critiques were that I wasn’t getting enough provocative stuff, and then the critiques were that the debauchery wasn’t meaningful. And those were salient points.” He adds: “I rejected them when I got them but they were true. I just had to develop all the skills as a photographer to make pictures that resonated with people and weren’t just funny.”
The book is divided into key sections within a structure based on an old fraternity handbook – but more on that later. There are sections on drinking, organisation and rituals; there are lists of presidents, senators and judges who were members of fraternities; and a history of fraternities, plus a short story on what it is like to be a woman visiting a fraternity.
One tradition is called ‘hazing’ – the psychological and physical humiliation that takes place during initiation ceremonies, and is a central feature of the book. “They treat each other terribly. One of the very first pictures is like something out of Abu Ghraib,” says Moisey of a picture showing a group of hooded young men involved in some kind of ritualistic behaviour.
Other pictures show the forced drinking that is part of the hazing rituals, and responsible for many of the deaths that occur in fraternities. One image shows vomit dribbling from a man’s lips, another a man nearing collapse. He’s at the end of his drinking tether, but the face of another fraternity member leans in telling him “one more, just one more”. The picture is uncomfortable and fits into a series of images that are dark with the threat of uncontrolled, low-level violence close at hand. Moisey captures the puking but says that his immersion in the fraternity community took his work beyond simple pictures of people being drunk.
“You can always photograph people drunk, but it’s hard to photograph people in a way that shows their drinking and womanising as part of a cultural force that doesn’t exist with most other people,” says Moisey. “It took a long time to make pictures that, to me, didn’t seem like I was just photographing drunk people.”
This is evident in a series of images where the fraternity members are dressed up and partying with a joyfulness that Moisey sees as the positive side of fraternities. “One of Nietzsche’s critiques of the modern age is that you don’t have the spirit of Dionysus anymore, where you say ‘fuck off ’ to society’s mores and to the machine that modern society puts you through. Fraternities are the only place that still cultivate it. But then it spills over into the picture of the dog (being abused) and you can see that it’s not just something that stays behind closed doors. That is where it crosses into danger.”
Drinking, in fact, is linked with the historical purpose of fraternities. “Just 30 to 40 per cent of male students at Cornell are in fraternities, but at other universities it’s closer to 70 or 80 per cent,” he says. “For a long time the fraternities were so powerful that you didn’t have a social life if you didn’t join one.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of class mobility here and if you’re going to move between class (which is mostly economically defined) you’re going to have to find the right route. The fraternity is a social ladder. You can come from a lower class, make friends with a bunch of people and learn their ways through the fraternity. I spoke to several older fraternity members and I asked them why they joined and they said, ‘I wanted to learn the ways of the upper class’. There was a time when you learned how to have guests to dinner or which fork to eat with.”
Throughout The American Fraternity there are references to the misogyny of frat house members. It’s there in graffiti on a door of a stick-‘dude’ having sex with a stick-‘chick’, in the girl passed out on the bed, her legs wide open, and it’s there in the picture of the stripper on the table getting her vagina checked out by a series of men who stand, point, leer and look embarrassed in equal measure. A clause in Syrett’s essay explains: “There are numerous occasions when at a party you can see a brother picking up a girl and throwing her over his shoulder and bringing her to his room. These acts toward women are done in order to achieve this high masculine status.”
The women in the book have a wariness about them. They are not quite sure what they are getting into and there is the sensation that the boundaries that they bring to the fraternity house are not ones that will always be respected. The lines, Moisey is saying, are deliberately blurred.
Indeed, fraternities are upholders of the idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’; a toxic heterosexual masculinity that holds power and perpetuates itself through shared social systems (starting with fraternity houses and going up to male-dominated spaces in law, politics and commerce) that combine the subjugation of women with a heavy dose of homophobia. This idea of what it means to be a man reverberates throughout the book.
It’s a masculinity which is lived through testosterone-busting performances of heterosexuality mixed with short vignettes of homoeroticism designed to keep the real thing at bay; pants are dropped, penises are waved, and testicles (of which there are many in the book) grasped.
It took Moisey seven years to make the pictures, but it was by complete accident that he stumbled on an old fraternity ritual manual that would help structure them into a coherent form. “I had the pictures but I didn’t know what I would do to make them into a book. Then a couple of years after I’d finished shooting, somebody told me that a fraternity had just been kicked off campus,” he recalls. When he arrived at the frat house, the doors were wide open.
“I couldn’t believe it; there was nobody there. I walked in and I saw the doors to the chapter room, which is where the rituals take place, and this book was lying on the floor. It took me a while to realise that if I used that ritual manual as the basis for a book I would have an original project. Photobooks are made for everybody and when you hold it, it replicates the feeling of holding the original manual.”
The irony of The American Fraternity project is that Moisey’s own student life was a far cry from anything in the book. “As a student I had no interest in uniting myself under some masculine banner with other people,” he says. “I don’t believe that they are an environment that’s going to benefit my character in any way. I didn’t want to be a frat guy – and now I have this project that identifies me as a frat photographer.”