‘Queer Photography’ Now

‘Queer’ and ‘photography’ are slippery terms, each imbued with a resistance to meaning and definition. But when brought together they appear to promise a stable and consistent history, obscuring the ways in which ‘queer’ and ‘photography’ have changed over time, and how ‘queer’ can sit askance to the multifarious (often non-Western) conceptions of identity onto which it is mapped. When used to taxonomise creative practices, ‘queer’ can lose its generative ability to challenge epistemologies of sex and gender, and obscure difference, especially across postcolonial contexts.

Building from these tensions, this panel seeks to interrogate how ‘queer’ and ‘photography’ have worked in tandem, asking why and to what ends these terms have been usefully deployed (or not) at various historical junctures. How has ‘queer photography’ been read backwards, and applied to both artistic and vernacular images? How do these histories inform the way that ‘queer’ and ‘photography’ sit alongside each other now? Given recent developments in imaging technologies, what might we imagine ‘queer’ and ‘photography’ to mean in the future?

Session Convenors:

Flora Dunster, Central Saint Martins

Theo Gordon, University of York


James Michael Levinsohn, University of Toronto, Canada

What Queer Obscures: Photography in John Jack Baylin’s Bum Bank

In the introduction to 2014’s Feeling Photography, Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu contend that theories popularized by Victor Burgin and Allan Sekula marginalized photography’s “queer subjects” by privileging a “’straight’…rubric of thinking” over feeling. To remedy this marginalization, Brown and Phu propose introducing affect theory to photo studies, asserting that a “theory of feeling of photography” amounts to its queering. Examining scholarship on “queer photography” a decade later, I argue that its establishment as a taxonomic category has obscured as much as it has revealed. The designation queer has become entangled with photo-history’s broad reparative turn, which seeks to reframephotography’s nature as ameliorative, benevolent, and politically liberatory. Reparative photo-scholarship’s premises are therefore ill-equipped to deal with queer photographic practices that challenge established epistemologies of sexuality by emphasizing its destructive, aggressive, and politically reactionary potentialities. As an example of such a practice, I examine photography’s deployment in California-based John Jack Baylin’s 1970’sBum Bank correspondence art network and its publication Fanzini, closely associated with better-known Vancouver-based network Image Bank. Baylin juxtaposed found mass-media images in montages that endorsed their ideals of celebrity and consumption, while simultaneously subverting their heteronormative assumptions by rendering them into sites of male homosexual desire. However, Baylin’s photomontages often manifested this desire, particularly for racialized bodies, in spectacularly violent and degradingly fetishistic ways. Demonstrating how Baylin’s work complicates ideas of queerness circumscribed bythe reparative impulse, I also interrogate what, if any, value can be found in “queer photography” that is as politically regressive as transgressive.

Vered Maimon, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Intimacy as an Art of Failure: On Shai Ignatz’s Photographs of Strangers

My paper focuses on the photographs of Israeli artist Shai Ignatz that are created out of encounters with strangers. The artist posts a call in gay websites, offering to photograph individuals in their own domestic living environment. Cruising enables the act of photographing, stimulating and soliciting it, yet at the same time, the camera hinders the fulfilment of sexual desire by positing limits. Failure is thus integral to these works in which the documentation of the awkwardness of the photographic session itself becomes as important as the creation of individual portraits.

This notion of failure is particularly potent in the series Independence Park in the Morning (2001–2003). During the 1990s, when Ignatz created the series, the park functioned as a major cruising spot for gay men of different classes and national identities. The series was made in response to the highly successful photographs of Adi Nes and the films of Eitan Fuchs in which gay men appear as muscular and attractive soldiers in a kitschy manner that enforces while supposedly ‘subverting’ the prevalent ways in which in Israel masculinity is equated with militarism and machoism. Ignaz’s series challenges the homonationalist rhetoric of these works, by intentionally photographing men who fail to conform to the normative ideals of the gay community, and its preferred public forms of representation. Photographing in the park, I argue, enacted a refusal to any form of identification even an ‘oppositional’ one that end ups, essentializing queerness if not ‘normalizing’ it. Rather than producing ‘queer’ photography, the series shows what ‘queering’ strategies can mean in practice within specific national and cultural contexts.

Brian Curtin, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

Paradise at Night: Photography, the State, and Bangkok’s Queer Sexual Cultures                                      

This paper revisits the beguiling quality of Ohm Phanphiroj’s series of photographs of teenage male prostitutes in Bangkok, titled Underage (2010-). A published essay and a conference presentation previously explored how this quality could be critically understood by situating the series in relation to the noir literary tradition of Bangkok as a place of permissiveness, rather than strictly in terms of photographic histories and theories. The relation was elaborated as reflecting structural-social conditions of inequality and disenfranchisement in Thailand. 

A continuing analysis of Underage here departs from David J. Getsy’s insight that a failure of classification highlights the classificatory project as a problem in itself. Phanphiroj’s mixing or refusal of genre[s], firstly, claims a reflective view of the conventional aims of documentary photography to highlight or ameliorate a social problem – instead allowing recognition of the ambiguous relationship audience[s] can hold to controversial subject-matter. Extending this auto-critique, secondly, the paper makes a close examination of how Underage stages what Ariella Azoulay termed ‘impaired citizenship’ – an argument that queer sexualities occupy a vexed place within modern Thai history and state regulations: practicing freedom, so to speak, while often requiring regulation or state protection. The paper ultimately aims to understand photography’s instrumental role in highlighting a local context of inequity, and against the typically celebratory image haze of Bangkok’s queer sexual cultures. And, finally, note how photographic criticism, its wider application, may be shaped in this regard.

Gigi Wai-Chi Wong, Western University, Canada

Images on Which to Build a Future: Reframing the Queer Optics of the Asian Diaspora

My paper investigates how visual records of queer experience within the Asian diasporic communities are inscribed within the materiality and performativity of photographic images and practices. I use visual anthropology to inquire about how different photographic practices – portraiture and family portraiture – of enacting queerness are mediated within the queer Asian diasporas. My project looks at how queer images engender intimate encounters, affective sociality and foster solidarity (Gandhi, 2006). I explore the ways in which research at the intersection of affect, queerness and photography (Gopinath, 2018) can enable us to mediate and translate how queer Asian diasporans relate to each other and to their own bodies.

Drawing on affect and performance studies, my paper conducts a visual analysis of photographic practices highlighting the queer Chinese diasporic bodies by using specific examples from queer Chinese artists like Mengwen Cao (China/US) and Ka-Man Tse (Hong Kong/US) as case studies. It explores how the politics of intimacy that shape queer Asian diasporans’ desires, histories and affinities are being conveyed through the tactile and embodied nature of looking (Campt, 2017). I suggest that through this form of tactile looking (Olin, 2012) new structures of collective feeling can be seen as alternative routes for living (Brown and Phu, 2014). Further, I will analyse how queerness in contemporary Chinese photography illustrate forms of “diasporic cartography” (Wang, 2022), which explores alternative modes of world-making by eliciting photography’s capacities as a pictorial inducer of affect and sentiments (Ahmed, 2006; Berlant, 2011; Cvetkovich, 2003). This offers a new understanding of queer photography and sees it as an affective gesture and practice that envisions a collective future and new politics of belongingness.

Olenka S. Dymytryk, University of Cambridge, England

Dodging and burning: queer photography in Ukraine

The presentation will turn to the use of photography by nonnormative subjects in Ukraine. Using ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ as metaphors, it will engage with queer photographic practices of self-expression, representation, community-building and worldbuilding. It builds on my recent research of artistic sexual and gender dissent in Ukraine, and will focus on several case studies.

In the first part of my presentation, I will address the intricacies and problems of queer and trans photographic (self-)representation before 2022. I will explore the self-portraits by Misha Koptev and ‘Misha Koptev’ Synchrodogs’ series side by side to talk about sexual dissent in Ukraine and the critique of the ‘imperial gaze’. I will also address sexual and gender dissent as ‘tamed’ or ‘menacing’ through the study of the performance by Friedrich Chernyshov (Fritz von Klein) in collaboration with Olga Kononenko. In the second part of my presentation, I will address the changes that take place after the beginning of the war in 2014, and the full-scale invasion in 2022. I will point to the infrastructural changes affecting ‘the right to look’, and to the ways photography became the means of sustaining queer kinships and communities, and documenting war crimes and injustice. When dodging (a bullet) or burning (of one’s personal, family or community photo archives) retain their literal meaning, ‘queerness’ (and queer solidarity) develops through multiple temporalities.

Matthias Pfaller, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Queering Photography in Chile

As in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, in Latin America photography has been used to document queer performances (e.g. Sergio Zevallos and Grupo Chaclacayo in Peru, Las Yeguas del apocalipsis in Chile, Carlos Motta in Colombia), or to portray queer practices and identities (Paz Errázuriz and Gagball in Chile). Their images of resistance against the religious and societal corset of lingering Western colonisation are characterised by a documentary style that underscores the existence of queer life through the realism of photography. However, both “queer” and “photography” are Western concepts that fail to account for the historic and lived experiences of criollo and indigenous people. Therefore, some artists reject this nomenclature and documentary value.

In this paper, I discuss the work of Chilean artists Leonora Vicuña, Zaida González, and Neocristo, who are queering photography by colouring analogue photographs and creating computer-animated alter egos. Their practice constitutes a form of care toward the depicted people and an imagination of an alternative, non-heteronormative space. Full of references to local pop culture and personal desires, their images reconfigure the vocabulary of Chilean queerness in different moments of Chilean history, from the 1980s to today. Yet, while Vicuña, González, and Neocristo, in particular, move away from the traditional photograph, their works retain the connection of the photographic material with its physical referent. Thus, they pay respect to the people they have portrayed and their bodily self-manifestation as “misfits” in mainstream society.

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