Across his career, Vriens has been intrigued by trying to circumvent gendered stereotypes. He’s interested in photographing men in ways that women have been shown in art for centuries: as objects of desire. And while more athletes might be willing today to embrace and show off their fashion tastes, Vriens still senses internalized anti-gay bias from men who fear that being portrayed as a sexual being might make them look gay.
“What does that even mean in 2022?” he asked. “I think we have regressed. Things have not become more open-minded, and it’s shocking.”
Still, Vriens believes attitudes to nudity and sex are slowly changing.
“I mean, there’s pretty soon going to be a president that we elect that we’ve seen his dick because everybody sends dick and ass and tit pics, and that’s totally OK,” he said. “So I think we should just, like, chill the fuck out and normalize sex and not scandalize it to a degree where it just becomes a very nonprogressive kind of thing.”
Vriens’ photos may even have played a small role in Team USA’s strong showing in the 2002 World Cup, where they made the quarterfinals. Goalkeeper Brad Friedel told the Athletic that the fallout (and laughter) made the camaraderie among the team even stronger.
“That photo shoot, at the end of the day? It brought the team together,” he said.
Donovan didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, but in 2020, he admitted to the Guardian that he had felt a little deceived about the shoot.
“I was 20 years old and very naive,” Donovan said. “I think we were all a little taken aback. But we quickly realized there was a clear agenda by the magazine and the photographer that hadn’t been explained to us. It was more funny than anything. At that point of our soccer history, any press was good press.”
Still, as the years passed, Donovan also appeared to have made some peace with the infamous water fountain photo. In 2014, after he was cut from the squad headed to Brazil, he filmed an ad to promote the World Cup. In the short video, he answered phone calls at his desk while working on a laptop with a desktop background that looked familiar.
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