Benjamin Wolbergs on curating his New Queer Photography anthology

Benjamin Wolbergs, editor of the stunning new 300-page hardback photography anthology, New Queer Photography, offers us glimpse inside the book with an illustrated insight into the work of some of the 52 contemporary photographers included in the project, his own selection process, and the journey to publication.

What exactly do we see in Matt Lambert’s photo that features so prominently on the cover of New Queer Photography? A violent act of oppression and degradation? Tender intimacy or lustful play? Or possibly all of it at once? It just takes a tiny change in our focus on a particular detail of the picture to profoundly change our whole perception. This interplay, this balancing act between sometimes diametrically opposed aspects is at the heart of the message that New Queer Photography is trying to convey: focus on the margins!

Ghana. March 9th 2018. Photo Robin Hammond/Witness Change.

Some of the most obvious examples of people on the margins of society who are discriminated against, oppressed, and attacked because of their sexuality and gender identity are the subjects of Robin Hammond’s portraits. His project “Where love is illegal” features LGBTQI+ people from countries where same-sex love is criminalized and can lead to discrimination, physical and mental violence, imprisonment, torture, and even capital punishment.

Photo Robin Hammond/NOOR for Witness Change.

But a closer look reveals that there is a certain ambiguity at play even here: the photographer’s remarkably sensitive approach allows the courage and strength of the portrayed subjects to triumph over their victimization. Hammond’s images give them visibility and an opportunity to tell their own stories, despite the serious risks this entails.

Miss Lesbian 2012 Zintle & Inga. “Rainbow Girls” is the 3rd installment of Julia Gunther’s ongoing project ‘Proud Women of Africa’: a photographic record of women who live or work in Africa.

Julia Gunther’s photos are another powerful illustration of the extraordinary resistance and strength that people can develop as a result of their empowerment and self-presentation, which allows them to overcome their status as victims. “Rainbow Girls” is a photographic documentary series about the Miss Lesbian competition, a lesbian beauty pageant in the middle of one of Cape Town’s townships.

Terra. ‘Rainbow Girls’ is a photographic documentary series about lesbian women in South African townships. Julia Gunther.

“All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way,“ says photographer Julia Gunther. “They’ve been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But they are also all still proud. Proud of who they are, of their lives and the love they represent.”

Photograph by Spyros Rennt.
Photograph by Lukas Viar.

Yet living on the margins—under different circumstances—may often create the very conditions that enable people to throw off the shackles of social norms and spread their wings in total freedom, exploring their gender identity in all its fluidity and playing with it in a natural and uninhibited way, as only a cursory glance at Spyros Rennt’s and Lukas Viar’s queer nightlife scenes will show. Their pictures portray people oozing confidence and assurance, far from any sense of victimhood.

Photograph by Francesco Cascavilla.
Photograph by Jordan Reznick.
Photograph by Jordan Reznick.
Photograph by Claudia Kent.

The images of Francesco Cascavilla, Jordan Reznick, and Claudia Kent give a vivid impression of individual perceptions and alternative ideals of beauty that can be expressed and experienced more freely on the margins, while the creativity that can be unleashed on the margins is evident in works such as Dustin Thierry’s photos of opulent and glamorous ballroom scenes from Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, and Paris, or the exquisitely vibrant snapshots of the London drag scene by Ralf Obergfell and Jan Klos.

Carsten Mizrahi celebrating his Sex Siren Grand Prize trophy at the ‘Peoples Choice Awards Gala’. Photograph by Dustin Thierry.
Photograph by Ralf Obergfell.

In fact, for the photographers represented in this book, working on the margins opens up unique opportunities. Isn’t a marginal perspective in many ways much more exciting than looking at things from the center? Doesn’t working on the margins provide scope for a freer and more experimental creative process, very different from one that complies with and conforms to all the norms and expectations of mainstream society? And isn’t the margin of society a fertile ground that spawns great and exciting narratives and notable works of art?

Photograph by Jan Klos.

So let’s focus on the margins; let them be a source of regret and rage; let’s fight them if they give rise to oppression; let’s show solidarity if they breed injustice; but let’s enjoy and celebrate them wherever they foster creativity, individuality, and self-presentation, wherever they spread liberation, freedom, and joy.

Something artificial happens with light in Hao Nguyen’s photographs. Sunlight is in tension with a flashed-out face, shadows are cast strangely or not at all, a pink and fuzzy sky blurs as it intersects with a subject’s skin. Figures pose as they might in selfies or casual snapshots; the subtle strangeness of these portraits marks them as something more. The subjects, possessed of the kinds of racialized and androgynous bodies that are often denied unselfconscious eroticism, bask in the camera’s glow and in the light of the flash. (Photograph by Hao Nguyen).
These black-and-white self-portraits by the New York City-based photographer Michael Bailey-Gates serve up a revolution of gender, or of androgyny, with a perverted neo-classicism that recalls Mapplethorpe recalling Eakins. Posing in light makeup, the artist uses a distinct cosmetic and visual vocabulary in each photo to convey a precise modulation of gender presentation. Grungy floors, props, and poses referencing the archives of high fashion combine to create images that serenely overturn viewers’ expectations. (Photograph by Michael Bailey-Gates).
Thomassen’s photographs, full of casually expressed sexuality, play with the tension between fiction and reality, between the photograph as a document and a creative act. Born in rural Denmark, Thomassen has exhibited work at the Danish Embassy in London, NW Gallery, and Warehouse9 in Denmark. (Photography by Birk Thomassen).
Bettina Pittaluga began taking photographs at the age of 14 while growing up in the south of France. Since first holding a camera, she has always used her snapshots — in which queers both coupled and single pose casually if self-consciously — as ways of capturing, conveying, and preserving emotion. (Photograph by Bettina Pittaluga).
Even when their faces are obscured, the subjects of Melody Melamed’s portraits seem to reach out and touch the viewer; they make the eye want to dive in, to touch the soft flesh, richly colored fabrics, and textured hair that populates the visual worlds of her work. The subjects of her photographs, many of them people of color and of trans experience, do not often receive such lush visual treatment. In her photographs they become heroes, kings, and queens of their own lavish and tactile worlds. (Photograph by Melody Melamed).
The Mexican-born and Berlin-based photographer Manuel Moncayo conjures dreamy worlds filled with solemn silences. Bodies and structures, whether natural or man-made, are juxtaposed in slices of an image’s frame, centered amongst a hazy background, or arranged in space, together but alone, in a private dance or ritual. (Photograph by Manuel Moncayo).
Damien Blottière began his career as a fashion editor, unsurprising given his images’ unrelenting chicness and sleek sheen. Photographs and found material are combined and manipulated; curated as in a fashion editorial. Instead of purses and shoes, however, buttocks and nipples, zippers and rope are sliced and replaced, fetishized, set apart from their surroundings. (Photograph by Damien Blottière).
Flowers, bodies, and trees kiss and touch and become one in the surreal, or maybe hyper-real, world of Alexandre Haefeli’s photographs. Color-saturated skin seems to stick to the visual plane of the photograph, the beige hue of the flesh exploding into a riot of reds and whites, greens and blues and yellows; in black-and-white photographs exploring classic gay sexual themes, feet and arms and fingers penetrating mouths are presented with the same lush, generous glow. (Photograph by Alexandre Haefeli).

I have been working on this book for the last four years, and in retrospect it feels like a long, drawn-out journey with many unexpected twists and turns, yet always with a clear focus on reaching the final destination: the publication of new queer photography.

My journey began when I came across the work of Florian Hetz, which opened my eyes to a world full of talent of which I had so far been completely unaware. At the same time, a long and difficult road lay ahead of me. Countless detours and roadblocks had to be overcome to make headway and reach the next milestone in the production of this book. Looking back, however, what had initially seemed exhausting and sometimes led to bitter disappointment and frustration very often turned out to be useful for taking the project to the next level.

Photograph by Jan Klos.

In particular, finding a publisher proved an almost insurmountable obstacle. Everywhere I got the same reply: the project was interesting, important, and well-organized, but it did not fit in with their program, was too “explicit,” or simply did not enjoy “broad popular appeal.” Having reached what I thought was a dead end, I finally came across Verlag Kettler. I still remember the first feedback I got from Matthias Koddenberg, Verlag Kettler’s managing editor: “with this topic, you are pushing at an open door here.” This was exactly the kind of answer to my project proposal that I had been waiting for. And things continued in exactly the same vein. From the outset, our collaboration was marked by complete faith in my concept, design, and curatorial work. No conditions were imposed by the publisher on the selection of photographers and photos, the design, or the choice of materials. I enjoyed their full support, commitment, and enthusiasm every step of the way.

Ultimately, the issue of funding came up. Since we did not want to compromise on the variety and number of photographers included or the quality of the book, the only acceptable solution was a crowdfunding campaign.

In some ways, this turned out to be a harsh experience because it was hard to accept that I was dependent on the support and goodwill of strangers. Being confronted every day with the possibility that the project could fall through was nerve-racking and sometimes depressing. During the first three weeks of the campaign, it actually seemed as if the project was doomed to fail. But I was overjoyed to see that things picked up in the final week and the campaign stood a good chance of being successful.

Photograph by Dustin Thierry.

One very faithful companion stayed with me throughout the journey, however: my doubting mind. Different questions kept coming up. Is a “conventional” art book a suitable format for presenting an issue like this? What is my own take on the term queer, what should it encompass and disregard, and what must be it included in it? (In this book, I use the word queer as an inclusive umbrella term). Is the selection sufficiently diverse? Or are essential positions missing? Is it a balanced choice?

On most questions, I was able to come to a satisfactory conclusion for myself over time while I kept reviewing and revising my approach. Yet some slight doubts lingered, and I had to swallow the bitter pill of not being able to win over a dozen artists for my project. Some of them turned down the offer because they did not want to be represented in the book or did not feel they were advanced enough in their artistic development to publish their work. Some others unfortunately did not reply to my request. Yet I am all the more grateful to each and every one of the fifty-two photographers (and six authors) who embarked with me on this journey and made a success of the project together with me.

Ultimately, it is always risky to produce an anthology of this kind, and not everybody will agree with the selection of photographers and images. It is simply impossible to introduce every talented photographer, every artistic position, every theme, and every aesthetic style in a book like this one. Choices have to be made based on individual perceptions, criteria, and taste. I have always tried my best to present as many different photographers, important themes, and queer imaginary worlds as possible, trusting my intuitions more than overly dogmatic approaches.

It would be possible to continue this journey forever, discovering new positions and ideas, but looking at this book, which is the result of four years of traveling, I believe I can be happy with how far I got.

By Benjamin Wolbergs

New Queer Photography is available now and can be ordered directly at Follow Benjamin Wolbergs on Instagram @benjaminwolbergs.

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