American photographer Aaron Ramey received an unexpected lesson when he traveled to Cuba a year ago. During his time in the Latin American country, he noticed something peculiar about the way Cuban men treated each other.

“The expression of brotherhood I witnessed while visiting Cuba for the first time was noticeably much gentler and embracive than what I was taught in both my home and on the corners of West Philadelphia,” Ramey wrote in an essay.

Ramey documented this phenomenon his photography series “I CAN’T APOLOGIZE AGAIN.”

In even the toughest of environments, Cuban men were able to display the complexities of masculinity.

Aaron Ramey

"I think it’s important to state that masculinity is a spectrum," Ramey told Blavity. "That’s where I stand. What I noticed in Cuba was different nature of brotherhood. For example at the boxing ring, there was a kid in fatigue shorts, who tweaked his wrist during the sparring match — a very minor injury. I witnessed the whole gym pause to check on him. Some of trainers and fighters came over and one of the boys hugged and kissed the injured fighter on the cheek. Within five minutes, the boy was back to fighting and was ferocious. [It was] the first time I’ve ever seen that in a boxing gym — in any sport, rather."

The scene showed Ramey gentleness shouldn’t be considered a weakness.

"It was harmless and non-sexual, but it was powerful," he continued. "The reinforcement of love combined with confidence in a brutal sport like boxing was very impressive. Being gentle and expressing love to your brothers doesn’t remove you from manhood. It’s human. In this case, it didn’t make either of the boys anything less than the warriors that they are. Toxic masculinity is an issue in Cuba, like majority of the world, but there are situational differences between how they express themselves that we all could learn from."

Aaron Ramey

The experience also made Ramey more cognizant of how he occupied the world. He realized he had to unlearn some of his societal conditioning.

“What I walked away with was better understanding of accepting newness and individuality,” he said. “I feel that in ways the elders may have failed me and society by teaching me to devalue women and LGBTQ communities rights to be equal, feel safe or be free without social, psychological or physical persecution for me, as Black man. But I know that I am not the only one. I fought many battles to protect my individuality that I can empathize with any person that is fighting for the same things. It’s a certain level of delusion that I don’t possess to put another group down so that I feel taller.”

Ramey acknowledges society is trying to combat toxic masculinity, and he wants his art to contribute to the fight. However, he hopes men will also be afforded a chance to learn and grow without being discarded.

“The world is changing,” Ramey said. “I think there are so many strong examples in art, film and even on social media how both men and women have committed to the work of dismantling toxic masculinity and inequality. From films like Moonlight, the R. Kelly docuseries, the #MeToo movement, works by artists Quil Lemons and Brandon Stanciell, to Young Thug wearing a dress on the cover of a trap album, there is an ongoing expression of artists that are saying, ‘Nah, we are gonna challenge this shit because it has to change.’ What me and my friends talk about a lot is that there's an overload of exposing what’s wrong with men, but I don’t see a lot of solutions to correct these behaviors.”

Aaron Ramey

Ramey says his experience has prompted him to be “more patient with my brothers.” He knows there will always be critics, but he isn’t afraid to challenge any status quo. To Ramey, that is the true purpose of art.

“I’ve always been a black sheep, and I’ve always been drawn to creating alternative versions of things. So no, I don’t feel any hesitation to create whatever I feel,” he declared. “The thing about art is that it’s meant to free people. The responsibility of the artists is not only to engage ideas that most people wouldn’t dare, but to create works that allow people to realize their own hurt and pain, help them define it and free themselves from it. So if I choose a topic that many refuse to acknowledge to liberate those who need it, then I’ve done my job as an artist.”

Head to Ramey’s website to view the full “I CAN’T APOLOGIZE AGAIN” series.

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