Andrea Russo (better known as his online alias 'Andrej Russkovskij') is an Italian-born, Berlin-based veterinarian and photographer specialising in analog processes, urban exploration as well as the decaying beauty of abandoned places. But for all his purported fondness for decay, you'd scarcely be able to tell less, with much of his work often bursting at the seams with emotion and passion. Whether focusing on showing the radiance of his many, many friendships in his popular ongoing 'BLNKDZ' photo series or in showcasing with great fondness the glow of the connections he's made and the wonder of the places he's visited all across the world, Andrej's work is vibrant, powerful and endlessly inquisitive, always featuring a lengthy monologue in the captions as Andrej grapples with the complexity of human emotion and human soul and the beautiful qualities that we all share across cultures and continents. 

It's as a result of his surprisingly great depth of knowledge and character for someone so young that immediately interested me in approaching Andrej to take part in my Veneer project and to offer his thoughts and personal musings on gender, masculinity, and how exactly he approaches life as a modern, progressive young man. 

I visit Andrea in his apartment on one of the first scorching hot days of the Berlin summer, as he greets me with a cordial handshake and quickly introduces me to Juno, his gorgeous, playful Scottish fold kitty (friendly note that you can view Juno in all her cheeky furball glory in the photo gallery on this page.) After insisting that we tuck into some pasta and enjoy some refreshments (this must be a famous case of Italian hospitality), we get down to brass tacks and talk more of what Andrej thinks its a mean to inhabit masculinity in the 2010s.

Andrej starts, "Sociologically, coming up with a quick and pragmatic definition is not so easy, but I'll give it a go: a gender is what you identify with, regardless of your...'anatomical asset,' and this doesn't necessarily have to deal with your sexual preferences.'

I ask Andrej if he thinks that gender and gendered feeling is innate. "Your identity is innate, I bet plenty of people would prefer having the chance to choose, that would save them a lot of hassle!"

When I ask him about his own everyday life and self-identity, he's quick to emphasise his own non-traditional masculinity, tying this directly to his photographic work and the emotional jubilance it often represents: "I decided long ago to stop trying to fit into what society expects me to be like and be the man that i want to be." Andrej is a firm believer that conforming less to traditional notions of masculinity constitutes a braver move than many other more confirming paths of masculinity, musing that "It certainly might be less traditional masculine in some parts, but shows a big pair of balls in plenty of others." In turn, "what influences my photographic work has much to do with the person I am, regardless." 

It's at this point that I ask Andrej to turn inwards, and to think of all the experiences and origins of his own thoughts towards masculinity and how this has impacted him throughout life. He's quick to characterise and typify his own masculinity as a reaction to the expectations of Italian society, detailing "That was and still is something that I find hard to stomach, and one of the reasons why I struggled so much to fit in. This, in turn, eventually pushed me into moving abroad to other countries," continuing, "I felt suffocated with the expectations that came with being born as a man in Italian macho society."

Nevertheless, it's easy to see that what helped to form Andrej's non-traditional view of masculinity was his desire to truly be himself. "Rather than playing with the other boys," he confides, "I would spend time studying, looking after my pets and doing yoga with my mum!" "My best friend was Valentina, a girl, and instead of soccer teams on my walls I had posters of the Spice Girls!" he says with a grin. 

"I felt suffocated with the expectations that came with being born as a man in Italian macho society."

"I had to “censor” myself in order to be accepted. I forced myself for years to be less bubbly, less sensitive, not as kind, less in touch with my feminine side."

However, Andrej recalls that not simply fitting in with what Italian views of masculinity typified and standardised led to him standing out, often a little too much.

"The more I grew older and the more I realised that, as much as I was comfortable in my own skin, the other kids didn’t seem to feel as comfortable around me. And then the bullying started..." He trails off in a way that many of us do when we rekindle painful old memories. "I simply wasn’t manly enough because, aged 12, I preferred playing Pokemon on my Gameboy rather than watching porn videos." 

Other things that marked Andrej out were as small as his physical characteristics. He continues, "because of my taste in music, because of the sound of my voice. Of course it hurt and I started to feel like something was wrong in me and that I had to “censor” myself in order to be accepted. I forced myself for years to be less bubbly, less sensitive, not as kind, less in touch with my feminine side, however, I still didn’t really fit in. There's a pain in Andrej's words, it's almost difficult to believe that the bubbly, effervescent and endlessly outgoing young man that I know could have in any way projected this self-image onto the world, but there's an earnestness and candour to his message that many a young man with similar interests can identify with. 

"As much as I was comfortable in my own skin, the other kids didn’t seem to feel as comfortable around me. And then the bullying started..."

But he quickly wraps it up, continuing, "that’s pretty much when I realised that it wasn’t really worth it. I didn’t want to belong to something that actually made me feel inadequate for years, and, most important, I didn’t want to play up to the stereotype that I despised so much."

"But yes," he continues, "I felt very much suffocated, and it just got better when I moved away from Italy. Only then I slowly started to gain back my confidence and appreciate my diversity."

I ask Andrej if there's specific feeling or emotion attached to gender or masculinity that he wishes were different, and how we as a society can change that. 

"Absolutely," he states, "If only society could focus less on black and white and appreciate the thousand shades of grey in between, we'd be off to a great start, including letting go of this ridiculous need for labelling everything. Asking him what he means, he says "This counts for both the straight and the LGBT worlds, because, oddly enough, those whose minds are supposed to be more open, often turn out to be judgemental and rigid." 

"If only society could focus less on black and white and appreciate the thousand shades of grey in between."

"Everybody is entitled to live their masculinity the way they want. There’s not a correct and wrong way to be a man."

For Andrej, your gender is inextricably linked to your choice to be who you want to be, part of a wider human nature that is ultimately malleable for each person it belongs to. "I wish people could just accept that everybody is entitled to live their masculinity the way they want, Andrea continues, "there’s not a correct and wrong way to be a man. "It’s fine to embrace your feminine side, and accomplishing this shouldn’t make you less of a man, but actually, a more complete and aware human being." 

As I ask him what has changed, he shrugs in a casual way and says, "it has changed with growing older, becoming more empathetic and less judgemental."

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