Saturday, 11 July 2015

Queer Persona

I am supporting the artists of the LGBTQ event 'I am a Camera' this weekend hosted by the great people at FOTOFEST, Houston, Texas.

To communicate queerness non-verbally and within the limitations of a two dimensional medium, we should consider whether sexuality actually has an identity. Exploring sexuality photographically first requires an overt focus on the persona that represents it. To be clear, I am referring here to Persona defined by Jung as the personality that an individual projects to society, as differentiated from a more complete or authentic self.

To be homosexual is different to being defined as a homosexual. I recall the early silence I carried about my own sexuality, feeling like a form of lie when the the predominant expectation of society was (and still is to a large extent) that if you do not declare yourself as 'other' you are therefore inevitably pigeonholed as 'normal' defined as heterosexual. So coming out was and still is essential and with that comes a definition of self that is readable to the world.

The need to define heterosexual at all is an indication that this majority political persona in itself is a sub-group also, all be it in the majority but this does not mean normal when discussing matters of sexuality and gender, it is not a politically democratic issue to be one thing or another; regardless of numbers all people are equal in their definition of self. The heterosexual persona must be recognised as defined and created as much as any other and not some form of 'natural state'.

To work on a photographic project that in some way documents sexuality, the photographer must make a subjective choice as to what stereotypes to include or exclude be it queer or straight. To use an extreme example; if I posed in a spangly pair of hot pants and cowboy hat I might be construed as a homosexual man but if you saw me in my scruffy jeans and teeshirt in the high street, the trigger to recognise and define me as homosexual will not be activated. The photographer's urge to produce an image of value will often be led by the effectiveness of communicating a story or idea easily and this is often driven by stereotype.

The queer community is complicit in this politicisation of LGBTQ persona, which began in the 60's and 70's, to make homosexuality seen as a defined group to help fight visible and invisible prejudice, hatred, intolerance and phobia. Indeed these persona stereotypes still exist today as form of cultural identity and are hugely useful as a support for anyone struggling to come to terms with their sexuality for the first time, including heterosexuals too. Persona's feel essential as we start to engage with society and they help immensely in the interaction with others but they act as mask to hide who we really are, our complex humanity beyond our sexuality. What was once a useful mask may eventually become an identity that defines us but does not fairly represent us.

I speak from experience, my project of gay couples that first registered for the ground breaking London Partnership Register in 2001/2002 has always caused me much consternation in how to present it. I have never known quite where to place it and for many years I have excluded it from my public profile, although it has been the most instrumental project in defining my reputation.

I feel that photography that documents sexuality as a lifestyle is unhelpful and unrepresentative, the focus of the two dimensional moment is on the lazy non-verbal definition of queer. Autobiographical queer work that sits as a series, including my own, is in its existential nature isolationist and self ghettoising. It reinforces stereotypes that seem like a barrier to progress now in society where equality is at least understood even if it is rejected. A more powerful message now is queer as normal, banal, mundane and un-extraordinary and truly equal, perhaps even eventually irrelevant. The couples in my early portraits of marital bliss dared to demand this form of equality which seemed radical at the time.

Photographically this is why my project rarely makes an appearance in its original form. I occasionally enter it for exhibitions and competitions in countries where I consider the message of gay as 'normal' is such an anathema that my images can still have an impact and this was most successful in Moscow last year where the project was awarded 1st prize and shown in a Moscow gallery, flouting the strict anti-gay propaganda laws. This though is more about offering hope of a better world to those trapped in societies that are terrified of the realities of the human condition.

I now show some of my gay images but they are mixed into a broader portfolio of works but not isolated in their own little patronising sub-camp. Gay sits with straight and we are all sharing the emotional complexity of being human, taking responsibility for our own fucked up lives and trying to be happy regardless of gender, sexuality or race. That's where I live anyway, come and join me if you like.

Sexuality is hugely complex and way beyond the narrow political confines of the definitions we use to define ourselves and others. The artists in 'I am a Camera' are mostly well chosen and they are predominantly engaged in this more complex dialectic, I celebrate the artists presenting more ambivalent works. We are all capable of feeling love for each other in surprising ways that can be too complex to be seen easily through a camera.

When I enter 'gay' into a search engine, these are the first two images that come up.

© Getty Images. Photographer Unknown

© Getty Images. Photographer Unknown

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