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19 November 2007, 5:30 pm No Comments

Photography: Pride/Prejudice by Rachelle Lee Smith

Earlier this month, photographer Rachelle Lee Smith held a show at the HRC building in Washington. “Pride/Prejudice” features photographs of queer youth, along with text exploring various issues that affect them individually. Smith’s work provides insight into their minds, and her photographs are potent reminders of how important it is for us to support and encourage young people who are questioning their sexuality and gender. I spoke to Smith after her show about the series and photography. The interview is printed below the fold and illustrated with selected images from “Pride/Prejudice.” Click on each image to read the text.

TNG: When did you start taking photographs?

RLS: I had my very first camera in elementary school… the kind with the flash bulbs and loved it! I first took classes in high school and spent my lunches and free time in the labs. I was always the kid with the camera.

TNG: What inspired you to start photographing?

RLS: Being nosy basically… or I should say curious. I used to be terribly shy and found the camera to be a mask for that shyness. When I realized all I could learn and capture with cameras… I dove right in!

I really have been drawn to the journalistic/documentary side of capturing raw emotions and energy and getting the candid and very “in the moment” shots. It also helped politically to show presence and raise awareness, which was, and still is, important for me.

TNG: Where did you get the idea for “Pride/Prejudice”?

RLS: Meeting people and hearing stories that were very different from mine has really served as a catalyst for this project. I had started the project by photographing people in their surroundings and comfort zones, but realized that that was too easy and obvious. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone (by bringing people to a studio) if I was going to ask the same from the subjects. For once, I did not want to let the photograph do the talking, but rather eliminate their surrounding environment and have the subjects speak for themselves.

TNG: How did you find the people depicted in the photos?

RLS: I began by photographing friends and acquaintances, for comfort purposes. I put out flyers, visited youth groups and LGBTQ organizations and have been contacted through word of mouth. But the first person I photographed for this project I actually had met on the street when she — who is now a he — was asking for money to train hop back to California!

TNG: Did you write the text? Or did each subject contribute his or her own story?
RLS: The only text that I contributed was the writing on my self-portrait. This is very much a collaborative project.
This is the process to complete one image:

The subject and I meet up at the studio, and we meet up again after I process the film to choose, together, which photo will be used. I print the photo in a color darkroom (not digitally), and then we meet up again for the person to write directly on their print. At that point I hand over the photo and am done my part. They are free to write whatever and however they chose. I do not give guidelines and the end product is a surprise to me every time.

TNG: Do you think that photography can make a stronger political statement than other art forms or writing?

RLS: Before the “digital revolution” I felt more strongly about answering, “yes!” to this question. Now I feel that less and less — people look at a photograph as truth and the accessibility of digital slightly lessens the appeal. But one image, as the saying goes, I do believe can say a thousand words and I feel that photos do indeed still tell stories. In such a fast paced time with the sense of immediacy and urgency, I feel that photographic images, in general/as a whole can still politically dominate other art forms for powerful expression.

TNG: What have reactions been to “Pride/Prejudice”?
RLS: I have been fortunate to have shown my work in very open and LGBT friendly and hungry places and therefore I have had great reactions and responses to this work. The reactions are actually what keep me motivated and focused if I should ever lose sight of why this is so important. It is so rewarding to hear people relate to what other have written or feel less alone or isolated when reading the experiences that someone similarly had — or better yet, having someone read an inspiring story that allows them to look forward to getting to that stage in their life.

TNG: How long did it take to put the whole series together?

RLS: I have been working on it for 6 or so years now… with breaks here and there for “life” or work (paying work that is) being too overwhelming, as it is a long process to get one complete image. I have around 50 completed images, but still have some people that I have shot years ago that have yet to think of something to write on their print or to even look at the negatives from the shoot. I will continue to work on it until I can get it into a book… and then from there I will work until that book is in every library and youth center and school and cof
fee table across the country!

TNG: Are your works available for purchase?

RLS: Sure thing! But being that every photo is one of a kind and cannot be reproduced due to the fact that each subject has written directly onto the print… it will take a lot for me to let one go!

TNG: Are you working on any projects now?
RLS: I am continuing this project until the aforementioned goals are in the works. I have never considered myself a project person as I usually like to follow the action… but. Ideally, if I can get this current project published as a book, I would like to do something similar, but to focus on an older generation. I think I would learn so incredibly much from a generation that came before mine. The stories would be inspiring and help remind people of the progress that has been made.

That would be my next long-term work and the other project I would like to see in book form, is a classy sexy female book. There are countless numbers in the gay male market, but not much selection when it comes to female eye candy. That could be a fun change!

Rachelle Lee Smith, 27, was born in Philadelphia, and after spending some time in New York for school, realized she was a Philly girl at heart and moved back to the city. She works full time at the University of the Arts in the Media Arts Department, which specializes in photography, film and animation. Smith does freelance work and works on personal photography projects whenever she can.

Smith has shown her work in Philadelphia, St. Petersburg, Florida, Syracuse, New York, Warsaw, Poland, and most recently in Washington, where she had a show at the Human Rights Campaign earlier this month. She has also published work in The Advocate, Girlfriends, OUT Magazine, School Library Journal, and has forthcoming work in February 2008 in HRC’s Equality magazine.

Check out more of Smith’s work at www.rachelleleesmith.com.

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