Header image: Copyright © Jordyn Belli
The images that we see in the world are how we are first taught to understand society, a narrative that is delivered through film, television, books, and magazines. What we’re supposed to look like, how we’re supposed to act, and what we do with our lives is woven into this framework. The power it has to influence us is vast and too often underestimated.
If you look like the people on TV or in the magazines you probably have never given a moment’s notice to any of these stories being thrust into your day-to-day. Why would you when the story itself caters to you in every way?
When you don’t see yourself on the big screen or little screen or anywhere really, it can be frustrating. If you do appear it’s sometimes as a joke or even worse, a vicious stereotype. The message you receive is one of not belonging; your skin doesn’t match, who you love isn’t right, and there isn’t any space for you in these stories.
What do we do when that’s the only message we’ve heard our entire lives? How do we find a space for ourselves in a world that doesn’t reflect us?
Photography is one of the most pure forms of this kind of storytelling. Within a photo lies a moment frozen in time which tells its story without embellishment. This singular focus gives it a strength that could impact us for a lifetime. Since photos are direct and powerful they are also the perfect foundation with which to build the spaces we can’t find in the common narrative, spaces filled with mirrors shining our truths back at us.
I wanted to talk to some artists focused on portraiture (people as the main subject) who were reflecting those truths within their own photography, slowly laying the groundwork for a much wider and inclusive view of the world, something I myself was striving to do with my own photography. Hopefully these chats would open my eyes to other ways of achieving these goals.
The talented folks I was able to discuss these ideas with are from both sides of the ocean: from the States we have Jordyn Belli (they/he) from Chicago and David Emery-Nemeth (he/him) from Philly while back on our little island we have Chiyana Ankhrah (she/her), Denis Robinson (he/they), and myself (he/him) all from London.
In addition to photography as an art form uniting us, there was our shared queerness (of various flavors) which meant that we all knew what it felt like to be left out of the mainstream and that thread is where I wanted to start our conversation.
How does your queerness affect the way you see human bodies through your camera lens?
This was a good starting point since who we are in the world tends to inform how we interact with it. Chiyana, whose work seeks to empower and uplift Black women, doesn’t think her queerness is a factor, “Weirdly, I’ve never really thought about my queerness in relation to my art or the lens that I view bodies because it’s just simply a part of who I am and I think that is something that is reflected in some of the work I do, particularly in my self-portrait photography.”
Jordyn, who focuses on moments of queer intimacy in their work, believes that queerness is crucial, “Queerness has taught me everything I know and see today.
As a trans person, my own body has shifted a lot and therefore I’ve had to challenge my beliefs surrounding my body
and then, just as you’d expect, I challenged those beliefs around others’ bodies, and around my preferences, etc.”
David, a prolific portrait photographer, finds his queerness to be a superpower when it comes to his photo subjects “It’s funny because I’m very like ‘Yes, girl!’ or a ‘Yes, oh my gosh!’—even with guys—and it gives them a confidence boost because they don’t really get that and it makes them feel comfortable and safe.”
Denis, whose recent #ProudPortraits series was showcased during Pride month at Fiorucci in Soho, doesn’t factor sexuality in with his process. “My career for the last 38 years has been as a hairdresser and I approach taking photos exactly the same way I approach cutting someone’s hair. I sit with them and chat with them before I put them in front of the lens. This gives me an opportunity to get to know them and ensures for me that I am not objectifying the person in front of me. As I get older I am becoming increasingly asexual although I still identify as a gay man, so I am not looking at the person with a sexual desire, but an appreciation of the beauty everyone has.”
Which makes me consider how essential queerness is to my own methods. Since my photos are primarily self-portraits they are all inherently queer because that is who I am, but it also frees me from the constraints of how a straight world sees me and the roles it wants me to play. When I’m in front of the camera I want to see the kinder, softer version of myself that doesn’t fit into the common shape of masculinity which in many ways segues into the next question I ask my guests.
The male gaze has been a dominant factor in portrait photography for quite some time, how do you feel that your work is breaking those constraints?
The male gaze has a lot of baggage behind it especially when you’re working in the realm of artistic portrait work which often incorporates nudity or implied nudity in its composition. Masculinity has to be aggressive and powerful under the male gaze while femininity can only be in service of the men consuming it, with no room for feminine expression to mix with the masculine or, heaven forbid, feminine power for its own sake.
Chiyana has worked hard to dismantle the male gaze within her own work, “I use my photography to highlight and uplift Black women in order to destabilise Eurocentric beauty standards. It’s really important to use my art to do this because Black women are historically left out when it comes to getting fair representation for us in the beauty and fashion industries. This is how I intend to break through the restraints the male gaze places on photography.”
Jordyn also refuses to accept the limitations of the male gaze “I stopped catering to the male gaze in real time, in my personal life, and it poured out into my work. However, to expand on that- to me, the male gaze means much more than just a nearly-naked girl in studio lighting and a provocative pose taken by a male photographer with all their friends commenting fire emojis underneath it on Instagram… I know you’ve seen it.
The male gaze makes the model the object of the image, and not the subject.”
David pushes against the stereotypes by showcasing men in ways the male gaze refuses to accept, “One of my friends that I shoot has head-to-toe tattoos. You look at him, like when I first met him, and it was intimidating because this guy has a ton of tattoos, but he’s a very nice guy who loves plants and cats. He’s a straight male who’s very in touch with his feminine side. We did a shoot in a plant store and he’s naming all the different species. We did a shoot with a crop top, did one in flowers, so we could break those masculine molds which is important. I even did a shoot of my husband—which he had asked for—of him just crying because he deals with a lot of mental health.”
Denis didn’t see himself represented in an industry so dominated by the male gaze, so he chose to do something about it, “Fashion and portraiture is pretty heavily populated with white straight men, so as a queer man wanting to establish myself in the photography world it felt very natural for me to showcase my own community. When I look at how we’re portrayed in the mainstream media and equally within our own LGBTQ+ media we are very much shown as a white male middle class demographic. This isn’t my community, and even though I am a white middle class gay man it isn’t how I want to be represented which is essentially how my proud portrait series was born. I wanted to create a display of who we are as a people and show what community and pride should be about.”
The male gaze, and the caricature of masculinity it forces through its imagery, is something I’ve always fought against as a queer artist. The idea of it never sat well with me, made me feel like I was outside of a club that not only failed to understand me, but aggressively fought against my inclusion. When I created “The Yellow Wallpaper” series it was to visually represent the themes from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story—men’s control over women’s bodies through patriarchy, mental health, and isolation—yet I also found it expressed my frustration with the shackles of the flavor of masculinity which had no room for emotion, empathy, or kindness.
Redefining the limited emotional viewpoint of the male gaze through our collective experiences was only the start of a journey that went beyond these artistic foundations and pushed our visual expressions outside the constraints of traditional photography.
What does decolonisation mean to you and do you feel like you are expressing it within your own work?
I start with a generalized overview of what decolonisation means in the context of photography which is to interrogate the beauty standards and subject matter currently favored in the mainstream and work towards making it more inclusive, expansive, and in some cases less phobic. Of course, that’s a very simplified description and decolonisation goes much deeper in scope, but I would rather let the photographers describe their relationship with the concept in their own words.
Chiyana starts with a strong description of what decolonisation means to her, “decolonisation means reclaiming cultural, psychological and economical freedom from the coloniser, for example, the Caribbean from European rule. Typically decolonisation seeks to remove the concept of white supremacy and this is where my photography comes into play. By creating work that focuses solely on the beauty of Black women I help to start to remove the concept of white supremacy from the fashion and beauty industries.
To me decolonisation in art is to remove the white voice from the narrative of Black and POC people’s lives, culture and stories.
To me it is the ability to reflect our own experiences in our art so that what is being said is authentic and truthful.”
Jordyn further dives into the myriad of elements that decolonisation combats, “To avoid the male gaze in your work, even if you aren’t a man, you have to decolonize your mind. Do away with the ideas of what you think is attractive or going to do well on social media and focus on the actual image creation and the human connection along the way. Every preference we have is rooted in white supremacy and western colonization. Lots of our preferences are fatphobic, transphobic, homophobic, ageist, ableist, racist, classist…the list goes on. I’m not going to say it’s easy to change. Having these ideals so rooted in our society that we don’t even realize it makes it difficult, but I continue to decolonize my mind and my work and I think anyone can do it. Once you do away with these limiting beliefs the whole world opens up.”
David realised instinctually his work had already gone in this direction, “I first heard the word decolonisation this year and to me decolonisation is uprooting a large group/race dominating everything. It’s so important to express diversity through your work. Whether I have 10 followers or a million followers, I am sticking to supporting all marginalized groups not only when something traumatic happens.”
Denis echoes the sentiments everyone shared, “Decolonisation to me means striving for equality, diversity and inclusivity. Another point that I have been wrestling with (forgive me if this doesn’t make sense) but we keep hearing the term levelling up. I think decolonisation means levelling down, bringing the patriarchy down will enable those who have long been suppressed to move into the positions that should always have been theirs.”
Having these discussions out loud, sharing how we are all striving to make a world filled with authentic variety and celebrating those differences, left me with a sense of hope that perhaps the stories in our future could convey the incredible beauty of our rich existence instead of the small sliver we are shown now.
Can you imagine, someone like us, who has felt forgotten by the storytellers of old, now seeing themselves joyfully reflected back?
That would be amazing. Until that day comes, artists like these lovely photographers will continue to expand who we see and how we see them to help ensure that everyone gets the chance to see themselves reflected back.
Written by Gabriel Novo