Realistic depictions of queer youth are missing from the media. Photographer Rachelle Lee Smith is working to change that.
You look at the cover of Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus, and the first thing that you notice is diversity. More than any media I’ve seen in recent memory, this cover is the face of youth.
And it’s also the face of queer youth, who are too often overlooked or in the center of attention for the wrong reasons.
That you can’t tell these young people apart from others is why this book is so important. You can’t tell who a person is by looking at them. And while you might think that the kid next store is just like the kid on the movie screen, in reality they are desperately looking for someone like them in the media, and finding no one.
Photographer Rachelle Lee Smith set out on a seemingly simple project: to use photography to explore the experience of queer (self-identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) youth, ages 14-24. But how do you document something that is so individual and personal, without placing yourself, beliefs, or opinions into it?
Let the subjects speak for themselves.
Smith photographed the volunteers against plain white backgrounds in a studio and then gave them the pictures to write on, draw on, add to as they wished. About this part of it, Rachelle Lee Smith discusses Speaking OUT, “I shot in a studio, which was a new experience for me, and a little uncomfortable, but I really wanted to just strip everyone away from their environmental influences. So I shot everyone against a white backdrop for the project. And I did this not to isolate them or single them out, but to eliminate environmental influence and give them the white backdrop as a blank canvas on which to tell their story.”
The project and the book were 10 years in the making. One of the most amazing parts is seeing the reflections of some of the participants years after they were photographed and wrote their pieces.
The images reflect a wide range of experiences of queer youth. One of the first pages says,
There is strength in numbers, power in words, and freedom in art.
The writing (in both senses of the word, because this is writing, in pen or markers on a white background) ranges from telling about being labeled, beaten, discriminated against, and misunderstood to being surprised (in a good way) by a high school “jock” to saying this about people’s assumptions:
I don’t walk with a limp wrist & my hands flared out. I’m not always over dramatic. I’m not a stuck up “girl wanna be”. I don’t go after every guy I see. I’m like a transformer there is deff. more that meets the eye.
A Columbian girl talks about being assumed to be straight when she walks into a lady’s bar because she is wearing heels, and not looking “Latin enough” to be asked to dance at a Latin bar.
A guy makes up his own set of check boxes: Black? Gay? Try both…
One young man confesses that he’s gay but curious about girls, and why he is afraid to tell anyone.
A person write, in bold letters:
They aren’t Me
And one of the last images is covered in words that brilliantly sum up what we all need to realize about queer youth, and people in general:
What am I? A son, brother, Military cadet, Educator, friend, coworker, student, grandson, Athlete, spouse xox, Model, and gay, LOL. But most of all a person. Don’t judge me. Get to know me.
Isn’t that really what it’s all about?