Queer identity as a means to resist, protest and beautifully expose queer subjects
By: Audrey Cole/Reporter—
Representing authenticity is a chief principal of what two New England photographers accomplish as they shoot from behind their lens, making the queer community not only visible but also empowered in their genuine identities, an art form not often captured by most.
“There is no dearth of straight, cis photographers out there doing beautiful work,” said Cate Barry of New Haven Conn.-based Cate Barry Photography. “The limitation I see among them, however, is that they are more often than not queer and trans illiterate. As a baseline question, queer, trans, and GNC [gender non-conforming] people often find ourselves asking photographers whether they are ‘friendly’ toward us. At best, we often find ourselves explaining our relationships, sexual orientation, or gender identities and pronouns. At worst, we can be misgendered, misunderstood, and even outright refused service.”
Alex Mancini, a Boston-based photographer also expressed the significance of gender diversity in the field. Mancini highlights those most often overlooked, utilizing storytelling through her work. She accomplishes this in part through her project, Beyond the Binary.
“Gender diversity is painfully absent from not only the mainstream media but from our societal conscience,” Mancini said. “The goal of this project is to highlight those in the community who are rarely given a platform to share their stories, while simultaneously serving as a resource for those looking to educate themselves, or looking for those they can relate to. I believe that education and visibility are at the root of solutions to many of the problems facing different communities today.”
Mancini left her day job in 2018 to pursue her creative work full-time. Beyond the Binary combines in-person interviews with photo shoots on-location.
“For the first two years of its life, the project was primarily based in the Boston area since I had a full-time job that did not allow me much time to be able to travel,” Mancini explained. Since then, she has expanded the project across the country.
“So far I have done almost 60 interviews,” she said.
Activism and resistance through photography
Both photographers use their lens to fight back against systemic oppression against the trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and queer identities, especially under the current presidential administration, where countless efforts have been made to curb equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
“If you’re in front of my lens, we are actively defying all of that ignorant, painful BS through radical self-love and a whole-hearted embrace of your inner and outer hotness,” Barry said. “You will leave our session feeling on top of the world, the president be damned. That is the measure of my success as an artist.”
Fighting back against the machine takes on many forms for Mancini, including using her artistic endeavors to create widespread impact, in the hope of garnering acceptance, which is a part of what keeps her motivated, she explained.
“I use my art in any way I can to fight back because I’ve learned that if I try to fight back in traditional ways, I get burnt out very quickly,” Mancini said. “I very firmly believe that creative, artistic, and otherwise non-traditional approaches to battling oppression can be just as impactful, if not more so. Using my art means no one can stop me from doing what I’m doing, and I can do it in any way that I want to. That’s very empowering. It fuels me to keep going.
Educating about nonbinary and trans lives
Education also plays a critical role to creating an understanding of the community, she said.
“I believe that visibility and education are fundamental to changing hearts and minds on any issue,” said the Boston photographer. “Rather than throwing myself at a brick wall trying to bust through (this current administration), I can build my own path around it. Not only does this help me stay motivated, but more importantly, it brings connection and empowerment to others in these communities who don’t get to see themselves or don’t get a chance to speak. My main goals for this project have always been to provide a platform for others to share their stories, and to hopefully help move that needle in my own small way toward more public acknowledgment, understanding, and acceptance.”
Visibility is also essential to the progress of the most vulnerable among us, Mancini added.
“Representation matters and storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to impart information and to change hearts and minds,” she said. “The easiest way to erase an entire group of people is to render them invisible. And when you erase them, it becomes much easier to oppress them, to commit violence and cruelty against them, because no one is looking or caring. This is exactly why so many people think that this is a ‘new’ and ‘modern’ phenomenon that somehow is only happening now. Non-binary and gender nonconforming people have always existed, just like queer and trans people have always existed, and those with any number of those combined identities.”
Not the same as photographing cis people
At the same time, Barry’s goal is to break through the traditional barriers established by the photography industry, while empowering the LGBTQ+ community to claim its place in the world.
“The aesthetics and logic of this industry is led by and geared towards (white), cis straight people,” she said. “Wedding photography, in particular, is a sea of (white) straight couples, almost exclusively young, thin, and adhering to normative gendered appearance. Queer, trans, and GNC folks rarely see themselves, their beauty, their relationships, and families, reflected back at them. At the same time, straight, cis folks often see only idealized reflections of their own experience, which stymies their worldview and shores up heteronormativity. I like to use the language of portrait and wedding photography, with its time-honored grammar of drama, romance, and emotion, to showcase queer and non-normative experiences and empower LGBTQ folks as righteous creators of culture and identity.”
Married to a trans man and together for 12 years, Barry has experienced first hand the intricacies associated with capturing authenticity and recognizes that photography is an “extremely vulnerable art form” which requires “deep trust and collaboration” between the subject(s) and photographer.
“My experience alongside him [her husband] has given me a deep understanding of how trans and GNC [gender non-conforming] folks navigate the world—the complicated and often painful negotiations with the law, work, community, family, and friends—along with the superpower of seeing the world from multiple gendered angles,” she said. “My relationship has given me a profound empathy and deep respect for trans and GNC folks, and that takes root as a powerful, affirming love through my lens. I am so all about celebrating the infinite ways people feel, use, and embody gender.”
A self-identified queer, cis, femme woman, Barry said she is “endlessly excited and inspired by the multitude of ways queerness is embodied through different people’s relationships and orientations,” which has become the focus of her work.
“There is something to be said about feeling at home in your work, and centering queer experiences ensures I am always at home,” she added.
Through Beyond the Binary, Mancini has received invaluable lessons as she continues to travel across the country to tell these stories about the community and about herself.
“I’ve learned that this community is incredibly strong, and so connected,” she said. “So many of the stories I hear have common threads from coast to coast. We are all dealing with the same issues, the same oppression, and we all want many of the same things, from better representation to better health care to the dismantling of the myriad inequitable systems that work to keep us all oppressed. More personally, this project continues to push me and teach me things about myself and my own identity, which I have realized is a large part of why it has been so important to me to pursue. As the project evolves, so do I.”
To capture the portrayal of diverse identities righteously, it takes a deeper understanding of queer culture and how to appropriately address it from behind the lens.
“Many straight, cis photographers walk into a situation/wedding/session with deeply ingrained expectations of what love looks like, what gender identities look like, and how that all translates into photographic images,” said Barry. “It looks like common ‘straight’ poses being awkwardly and inappropriately applied to queer couples. It looks like confusion, awkwardness, and ignorance around pronouns and GNC identities. It looks like gendered posing and framing for portraiture that doesn’t align with the subject’s identity. It looks like asking LGBTQ couples to engage in PDA without having any of the deeply held knowledge of our history, or the risk we often take by being publicly affectionate. In short, it looks like ignorance that often puts the burden of education upon the paying subject instead of on the photographer.”
LGBTQ+ Photo Pop-Ups
Recognizing the need in the community to be portrayed accurately, comfortably, and professionally, Barry’s traveling LGBTQ+ photo pop-ups were born.
“I started doing LGBTQ+ photo pop-ups in 2016 as a way to bring high-end portraiture into the queer community in a fun, informal event,” said the Conn. photographer. “They began and remain as LGBTQ+ gathering places where folks can spend some one-on-one time with me and walk away with at least one high-quality portrait or headshot. They’re held in various places, pop-up style, and operate with the help of LGBTQ+ volunteers.”
Although Mancini recognizes the serious challenges and “terrible things happening in the country” since the 2016 presidential election relating directly to the LGBTQ+ community, she is encouraged that on individual levels, strides are being made for the better.
“… We are seeing a bit more media representation, and at the day-to-day level, I think the general discourse and dialogue around these issues is becoming more prevalent and is starting to be treated as something to be respected, or at least something to learn more about, rather than feared or criticized,” Mancini said. “Does that mean it’s all going great? Definitely not. But I know for me personally, since 2016, I have been able to have conversations with strangers and with people in much older generations who are either already at least a little familiar with the concepts, or who have a genuine curiosity and want to learn. And when I have gotten pushback, I’ve been able to have a dialogue with folks rather than an argument, which I think is a huge step forward.”
A photographer, artist, jewelry and home décor designer, Mancini’s creative energy, along with the collaboration of her wife, benefits those in and out of the LGBTQ community, falling anywhere on the gender spectrum.
“My new project is still in the works, but will explore the concept of what makes up a person—the external and internal worlds, the layers, that exist inside each of us to form who we are as a whole,” Mancini said. “It will not focus on any one community, but rather anyone who feels they are made up of many parts that are equally important and crucial to their identity, which can be anything. It is intentionally broad, and the hope is that its final form will move viewers to consider the ways in which we are all dynamic, multifaceted, and do not fit inside of one definition.”
As for Barry, her work centers particularly on the LGBTQ community.
“I focus my attention on LGBTQ folks because a. we’re beautiful and our love is epic; and b. our stories deserve to be told with the care, respect, and empathic understanding often not afforded us in our culture.”
To learn more about Cate Barry and to book your photo shoot or event, visit catebarryphotography.com. To stay up-to-date with upcoming LGBTQ+ pop-ups in your area, sign up for Barry’s e-mail newsletter on her website. All pop-ups are on a sliding scale, ranging from $0-$25.
Stay in the loop with Mancini online and learn more about her new project at alexmancini.net. To participate in the Beyond the Binary project, fill out the signup form online at alexmancini.net/projects.