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Focus on the Margins - 1
06 Jan 2021

Focus on the Margins

 

New Queer Photography

 

The Internet and social media allow photographers to have global reach. Their works offer glimpses of different worlds that subvert conventional ideas of gender and aesthetic codes and that frequently escape the attention of mainstream society as a result. Benjamin Wolbergs embarked on a four-year-long journey to explore these worlds, which exist both in Europe and in countries where any deviation from established norms is punishable by death.

Interview by Greg Zwygart, Mannschaft Magazin

 
M. Sharkey
M. Sharkey
 

Benjamin, what does the term queer mean for you?

On a personal level and in the context of my book, I use queer as an inclusive umbrella term that refers to all nonheteronormative lifestyles. For me, it stands for a way of life, but also for a particular attitude and a subversive act. But that’s just me – if you ask ten people about how they define this concept, you will get ten different answers.

Your photo book shows portraits of very diverse individuals from all over the world. Is there something they have in common?

Living on the margins of society is probably one of the things they all share, but of course there are stark differences as well: it’s difficult to compare the life of a queer individual in Berlin with that of a queer individual in a country where they potentially face the death penalty for how they live and who they love. Nevertheless, probably every queer person knows what it feels like to be a minority in a predominantly heteronormative environment.

 
Ralf Obergfell
Ralf Obergfell
 

That arguably explains the book’s subtitle “Focus on the margins.”

I didn’t imagine only the negative aspects of injustice and oppression that spring to mind when you think of the margins of society. There are a lot of positive things as well. Living on the margins often creates the very conditions that enable people to cast off the shackles of social norms and conventions, to spread their wings in total freedom, and to explore, question, and experience their gender identity in an uninhibited way. Dustin Thierry’s photos of opulent ballroom scenes from Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, and Paris illustrate the creativity that can be unleashed on the margins, while the subjects of Spyros Rennt’s and Lukas Viar’s Berlin portraits ooze confidence and assurance, far from any sense of victimhood. Similarly, the images of Francesco Cascavilla, Jordan Reznick, and Claudia Kent demonstrate that individual perceptions and alternative ideals of beauty can be expressed and experienced more freely on the margins.

The texts in your book also address issues such as political oppression. To what extent are they essential to understanding queer photography?

I believe that they give many of the photos a political dimension and an element of social criticism, whether deliberately or not. This is illustrated by a substantial number of the documentary-style works in the book. One impressive case in point is Robin Hammond’s series “Where love is illegal,” which portrays LGBTIQ individuals from countries where same-sex love is a criminal offense. A closer look at Hammond’s photos in particular reveals that there is a certain ambiguity at play: the photographer’s remarkably sensitive approach allows the courage and strength of the portrayed subjects to triumph over their victimization. His images give them visibility and an opportunity to tell their own stories, despite the serious risks this entails.

 
Lukas Viar
Lukas Viar
 

What is the difference between queer photography and new queer photography?

In this context, the word “new” simply refers to the contemporary aspect of the photos. Most of them were created in the last five years. 

Classic gay photography is marked by hypermasculine elements. Has it been replaced by new queer photography?

I would say it has been expanded by incorporating other essential and interesting aspects, aesthetics, imaginary worlds, and issues – it was high time for that to happen, and I think it feels very liberating and natural.

Many publishers described your project as “interesting” and “important,” but none of them was willing to publish the book. Why was this the case?

I have worked as an art director for art book publishers across the globe for ten years, so unfortunately I know from my own experience that the market for high-quality art books is in decline. Photo books that are not prefinanced pose a serious financial risk especially to smaller, independent publishers. And then I come along with a topic that clearly doesn’t resonate with large swaths of the public. Unfortunately, it’s much easier and more profitable for publishers to stick with their tried-and-tested methods than to venture into something new.

 
Matt Lambert
Matt Lambert
 

In the end you managed to find a publisher, but you still had to launch a crowdfunding campaign together.

Without this source of funding it is unlikely the project would ever have come to fruition. As a freelance art director, I was lucky enough to be able to keep working on the project in my spare time. My commitment to this book was never motivated by financial considerations, but by my passion for the photographers in it and my love of queer photography.

Do we need a change in our aesthetic ideals?

We need an awareness and a willingness to recognize, consider, and celebrate alternative ideals of what is aesthetic and beautiful. To me, the one-dimensional perception of gender, beauty, and aesthetics propagated by large parts of the media is obsolete, humdrum, and also a little toxic. But my book also includes photos of queer individuals who satisfy more or less conventional aesthetic tastes, and in my mind there can be no doubt that they also belong to the broad spectrum of queer photography. However, they are in the minority compared to the many other perspectives in my book, and that’s a good thing. This is 2020, and the time is long overdue to develop an appreciation for and celebrate a more individual notion of beauty. I hope that my book can help to achieve this goal in some way.

 
Lissa Rivera
Lissa Rivera
 

Is there a risk of getting sidetracked by trying to do justice to this great diversity?

Deciding which photographers, works, and themes to include was actually one of the most difficult things in the process. I think what worked out well for the book and the selection in the end is the fact that I trusted my intuitions more than any overly dogmatic approaches.

What major challenges did you encounter in editing the book?

The research, which took me around four years, was one of the most rewarding but also most difficult tasks. What really sustained me throughout the project was my enthusiasm for continuously discovering new talent and immersing myself in new works. It almost felt like an addiction at times, and I often imagined myself to be a kind of treasure hunter who was quite literally trawling the depths of the Internet for hidden treasures. It wasn’t easy to decide which photographers and works should ultimately be included in the book. A lot of time and thought went into this process. It was also difficult to stop my research. I kept looking out for new and interesting photographers right up until the last minute, just before the book went to print.

 
Damien Blottière
Damien Blottière
 

Did any of the photographers have a particular impact on you on a personal level?

I was deeply moved by Robin Hammond’s portraits, which I mentioned earlier, and the personal stories behind them. You can read them online at whereloveisillegal.com. They really brought home to me again what a huge difference it makes in which part of the world you live as a queer individual. From the vantage point of Berlin, which is where I live, you just need to look at our neighbors in Poland, where right-wing populists have declared entire regions to be “LGBT-free zones.”

In your epilog you write that you doubted yourself while working on the project. Did you find a way to deal with that?

Is a “conventional” art book a suitable format for presenting an issue like this? What is my own take on the term queer? Are any essential positions missing, and is the selection fair and balanced? On most questions, I was able to come to a satisfactory conclusion for myself over time. I kept reviewing and revising some aspects of my approach. And actually I cherish my self-doubt (he says smiling), so long as it doesn’t get out of hand. It has always been more of an impetus for my work than an obstacle.

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