Queer Youth Challenge Society’s Attempt to Define Them in Revealing Photography Project

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By Marcie Bianco
September 29th, 2014

A new photography project is giving voices to queer youth, one snapshot at a time.

Rachelle Lee Smith’s Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus, recently published as a book, highlights the individuality and diversity of a community that has long felt devalued, underestimated and silenced. Queer youth in particular are in need of support and opportunities: According to the Williams Institute, LGBT youth comprise an estimated 40% of the homeless youth population.

In Speaking OUT, Smith brings together myriad queer youth, ages 14 to 24, and presents their portraits “without judgment or stereotype, by eliminating environmental influence with [the use of] a stark white backdrop,” she writes on her recently funded Indiegogo. [T]his backdrop acts as a blank canvas, where each subject’s personal thoughts are handwritten onto the final photographic print. […E]ach individual is given the spotlight and a chance to have a voice, but also the strength of the group as a whole.”

In an interview with Mic, Smith revealed that she was inspired to create Speaking OUT because of her own relative ease coming out. “I had a remarkably positive experience, and my friends and family were accepting and supportive,” she said. “I knew that was rare and I was very lucky, but I did not realize the depth of my fortune until I went to college and met people that had dramatically difference experiences from me and that shared some horrific stories.”

In particular, Smith recalls the story of a friend being “chased down the street by frat guys yelling slurs and throwing beer bottles at her.” Identifying the story as “a defining moment,” Smith told Mic she knew she “needed to do something with the only tool I had — my camera.”   Smith began by photographing friends, but word spread. Soon it was “friends of friends, then word of mouth, and then I reached out to local schools, youth centers and community centers,” primarily in and around Philadelphia. 

“I did not ‘seek diversity,'” Smith said. “It just happened, and I did not turn anyone away who wanted to be in the project. Unfortunately, I have dozens of unfinished prints from people that are not in the book.” Growing up an “extremely shy kid,” Smith found comfort and solace in photography. “My camera was my mask that I could hide behind and do good in the world,” she said. “It allowed me the confidence to get up close and personal and ask a lot of questions in any situation.”

The use of a white backdrop, allowing the subjects complete purview over their representation, was critical for Smith. “It was important to me to let the subjects speak,” she said. “Instead of letting the photo tell the entire story, I capture the person, but then let them fill in their experiences with their handwritten text directly on top of the photograph.”  So far, the project has recieved a resounding amount of support. Besides raising its full $15,000 target on Indiegogo, the series has been shown at the HRC headquarters in Washington, D.C., and featured at World Pride in Toronto. “I feel so fortunate to be able to get these stories out there and have this book as not only a nice coffee table book, but more so an easily digestible and fun educational guide to growing up queer,” Smith said.

A lot has changed for LGBT advocacy and awareness in America, with the past 10 a watershed decade for the movement. Smith said she has met a number of gay rights activists, including Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who recounted their stories of growing up gay. Now, she explains, people “wear LGBTQ-related T-shirts that they can buy at the mall. It’s an incredible shift, but one that I hope the younger generations do not take for granted, because our struggles have been long and hard, but they are paying off!” “I have seen the themes of what people in this project have written move from themes of fear, shame and anxiety to themes of pride, ownership and unabashed joy,” she said. “And I think it will only continue in that direction.”

Image Credit (all): Rachelle Lee Smith
Dr. Marcie Bianco is a columnist and contributing writer at AfterEllen and Lambda Literary, as well as an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College at Hunter College. She has also contributed to Curve Magazine, Feministing, The Feminist Wire, …

Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus

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