Amid the many texts written by Susan Sontag, I find the words “To photograph is to confer importance” profoundly moving. At its best, photography reveals the humanity latent in its subjects, and communicates the most intimate narratives from the subject straight to the audience. We photograph and display the subjects that we believe have value, thus shaping our ideas of what is “beautiful” and what is “important.” Because of this, elements we identify as missing from the photographic canon can potentially move society’s zeitgeist. What does it look like when we make a conscious effort to reinsert Black queer people into the photographic canon?
As a photographer, I’ve begun to recognize the possibility and limitless power that images have. I’m particularly interested in exploring the narratives of queer, trans, and racial minorities—even more particularly, Black people. Through intimate portraiture, my work connects the individuals I photograph with a broader audience. In doing this, my photographs give onlookers a sense of who these subjects are and why their humanity is worth the creative space. The work is an ongoing exploration of identity and representation that have been gifted to me from the rich history of Black photographers before me. My work amplifies the voices and complex narratives that have shaped my subjects.
My current project expands upon this exploration and focuses on the exclusion of Black queer life in photography. “In The Life” is queering Black history by challenging the lack of visual representation accorded to queer identities. I am creating an archive of images that Black queer people can look to for solace or inspiration. The photographs show a closer, and more honest look at Black queer life that isn’t often explored and thus affirms and elevates Black queer identities. It is a testament of our existence.
Since its invention in 19th century, photography has been employed by Black people living in the United States as a tool used to construct counter-narratives that disrupt harmful mainstream depictions of Black people. Frederick Douglas, known as the most photographed person of the nineteenth century was acutely aware of the power of photography once stating that photography could “either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths.”
Early photo studios across America gave many Black people the opportunity to accord value to themselves and immortalize their existence. People like Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, James van der Zee, James Presley Ball, and Cornelius M. Battey have operated in front of and behind the camera in order to elevate the beauty and humanity of Black people. They laid the foundation with which my work builds upon and interacts with. I see my work in conversation with and in critique of these predecessors.
“In The Life” bridges the gaps of representation and expands ideas of beauty and importance. The title comes from an anthology (edited by Joseph Beam) of Black gay writing that bears the same name and was formative in my realization of the need for this project. This text allowed me to explore the interiority of queer life outside of my own lived experience in a way that I hadn’t before. The text includes heartfelt stories such as one where a gay father and son talk about their experience of coming out to each other. Or a poem that describes falling in love with an old crush. I want my photographs to do this for others and provide viewers with a window into Black queer life. A window that allows Black queer folk to see themselves and allows those outside the community to gain an understanding of our lives on a deeper more personal level.
The work that I’m interested in creating at the moment deals with understanding the unique relationship that Black queer people have with the world at large as well as reclaiming our own narratives in order to create safe space. It is a process of healing and mediating.
This past spring, I took a semester abroad at London College of Communication and during my six months in London I had a lot of time to myself. I spent a lot of time coming to terms with the harsh realities of my existence as a 22-year-old Black queer man. I was thinking about the way that I, and people like me, navigate society. As a Black queer person, conversations around representation and inclusion within photography become complicated. We are often ostracized in both the general queer populous as well as the Black community. And our inclusion in the overall canon of photography and art is scarcely documented.
I began searching for and consuming a lot of autobiographical visual and written work by Black queer creators who came before me. Writers such as Joseph Beam and filmmakers such as Marlon Riggs. In consuming this work, I realized that it was the first time I had seen these nuanced firsthand accounts of Black queer life. For example, in Riggs’ critically acclaimed film Tongues Untied he illustrates the internalized anti-Blackness that stems from being brought up within in a white society and exposed to a predominately white gay media. I began to develop a frustration in reflecting on the fact that there aren’t many outlets for Black queer people to exist freely and safely, and there aren’t many forms of media, specifically photography, that authentically represent our everyday experiences outside of tragedy.
One project I found particularly interesting when conducting research for this work was a photo essay called “Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Affections” by Trent Kelley. It is a collection of sourced images from the the mid-19th to the 20th century that depict Black men who may or may not have been in queer relationships. They can be seen sitting next to each other, holding hands, or holding their faces close to one another. The essay calls on the audience to imagine the undocumented stories of Black queer couples, as photographing gay affection was unacceptable at the time.
I’m also inspired by vernacular and studio photographs of Black people in America from the 19th and 20th century sourced from databases such as the National Museum of African American History & Culture archive. Photos of everyday Black Americans from various walks of life. These photographs were made during a formative time in creating the visual identity of Black Americans. The work references the early rudimentary methods of image making/documentation as a means of tracing our roots and imagining a future. I’m particularly drawn to the do it yourself quality of these photographs that were created with what little was around to use. Simple film cameras, cheap studio backdrops and affordable materials. It is reflective of the ethos of many marginalized communities who are often forced to make the most out of the least. I’m inspired by our constant desire to chart a brighter future despite the disparity of our current circumstances or resources.
“In The Life” draws not only on the practices of early contemporaries such as DuBois and Van Der Zee but also the work of 21st century artists such as Dawoud Bey, Shikeith Cathey and Mickalene Thomas whose work both function as a means of seeing and being seen. These artists are also taking part of the queering of Blackness, and of Black visual documentation. Thomas’ use of color and form elevate her Black female subjects, Bey creates intimate representations of community and Cathey queers traditional representations of Black masculinity.
These photos depict Black queer people both in public and intimate settings performing everyday tasks. In some photos like Untitled (Prince’s Room), they are watching as a friend undoes his cornrows. In others like Chasing Clouds, they hold hands with a lover while staring at the sky. In the more formal portraits, subjects stare directly into the lens and confront the viewer. Both forms of documentation offer a unique gaze on Black queer life, a gaze that humanizes the Black queer experience. In some of the photographs the subjects are unaware of the camera, simply minding their business, something I believe Black folk aren’t often afforded the right to do.
I think that taking photographs of Black queer people in our homes, with our friends/lovers, enjoying everyday life normalizes our everyday experience. These photographs are not a spectacle of queer life, but rather a glimpse into the mundane and humanity of our collective lived experiences.
The subjects in the photographs are sometimes strangers, others are good friends and extended family members. A lot of them I’ve found through the internet by putting out open calls, searching for people who wanted to be photographed. Like Nayib and Adri, two non-binary friends from Miami who belong to the Legendary House of LaBeija. Or Ashley and Cortney, a lesbian couple from Los Angeles who make self help journals.
With this project, I am searching for my community and also trying to build a sense of community by connecting all these stories. The subjects may be from different states and walks of life, but they are united through their lived experience.
When photographing Black subjects, color is something that I am constantly aware of and it is an important part of the work that I make. Color is present in all of the photographs, and it is something that I think a lot about when capturing each scene. It is an aesthetic choice, but also a conceptual one. Many of the visual and oral descriptions of Black people and Black history have been described with darkness and despair. Photographs and written histories detailing the tragedies of slavery, lynchings, and systematic oppression have obscured our humanity by limiting the ways people saw us. Even currently our joy is clouded by police brutality, the killings of Black transwomen and more. My photos reverse the tradition of darkness in a very literal sense.
Hues spanning the color spectrum can be found in my work. In a self portrait titled Got Your Back, my face can be seen in the top left corner of the frame as I cut my boyfriend’s hair in front of a deep royal blue background. Another photo shows a couple wearing matching blue denim shirts sharing an embrace standing in front of a blue stucco wall.
My photos have a positive tone, but maintain an understanding of the complexities of a Black queer life that sometimes includes tragedy and discrimination. The photograph Untitled (For Nigel) shows a young man sitting in a lavender walled room staring at a photo of Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide because he was being bullied at school for being gay. It is a memorial for his life, and others who have been lost. It is also a small reminder to push forward.
Photographs hold so much value in the creation of our ideas, whether about beauty, politics, or identity. Photographs also create possibility for people by imagining new realities and charting a path for a future no one could have imagined. Image makers have the power to shape our world by taking advantage of photograph’s malleability and spreading a positive message. It is through photography that individuals before me illustrated their marginalized existence and accorded value to themselves and their communities. The work of Frederick Douglass, and Dawoud Bey, and James Ven Der Zee have collectively shaped the reality that I live in today. It is up to me to continue this legacy of image making so that I may do the same for my community.
1.Beam, Joseph. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. RedBone Press, 2008. This book is an anthology of poems, and short stories written and collected by gay African American men. It explores the interiority of Black gay life and its many facets.
2.Willis, Deborah. Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890’s to the Present. WW Norton & Co, 2012. Posing Beauty is a collection of over two hundred images and an accompanying essay that explores the construction of Blackness and beauty through photography. Willis celebrates Blackness while challenging society’s ideas of what is traditionally deemed beautiful.
3.Willis, Deborah. Pictures With Purpose: Early Photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Pictures with Purpose explores African Americans and photography from the 1840’s through the 1920’s. The book features images from the NMAAHC’s collection of nineteenth and early twentieth-century photography that includes daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, cyanotypes, stereographs, and other early photographic forms. The book examines how early photographs of and by African Americans were circulated and used, and considers their meaning; for the sitter, for the photographer, and for the owner of the photograph.
4.Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Picador, 2014. On Photography is a collection of essays by Sontag that express her views on the history and the current function of photography in society.
5. Harris, Thomas Allen, director. Through a Lens Darkly Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. Kanopy, First Run Features, 2014, www.kanopy.com/product/through-lens-darkly-black-photographers-an. A film that explores how African American communities have used the camera as a tool for social change from the invention of photography to the present.
6. Riggs, Marlon. Tongues Untied, 1989. Tongues Untied is a 1989 experimental documentary film directed by Marlon Riggs, and featuring Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Brian Freeman, among others. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs gives a voice to communities of gay Black men, presenting their cultures and perspectives on the world as they confront racism, homophobia and marginalization.