What It Means to be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility

Adam Lowe

Photography serves multiple purposes. It serves as a historical record. It expresses self and identity. It allows entry into private worlds and validates its subjects as worthy, normal or visible.

It is for these reasons amd more that photography has played such a vital role in the queer search for recognition. In What it Means to be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility, the new exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, Sophia Hackett (associate curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario) compiles a series of photographs that reveal the secret lives, public identities and community struggles of LGBT+ people in North America and Europe.

The diversity of queer experience

What is most distinctive about this gorgeous exhibition, launched to celebrate WorldPride 2014 in Toronto, is the prevalence of multiple queer identities: black, dyke, trans*, young, older.

Unlike similar, and less ambitious, collections, the focus here isn’t solely on monosexual, white gay men. With its focus clearly on a range of underground,  politicised and overlooked identities, there is a subtle radicalism to the exhibition, despite often everyday subject matter.

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Representing LGBT+ realities

The accompanying exhibition book quotes JEB (Joan E. Biren) from 1979: ‘I had never seen a picture of two women kissing, and I wanted to see it. I borrowed a camera…’ This sets out one of the motives behind some of the pictures: the need to represent reality as experienced by LGBT+ people and document that for future posterity.

For instance, there are images of transvestites and trans* women in their homes and at private gatherings, dressed as they wish they could be in a time when LGBT+ visibility was just a dream. There are revealing YouTube videos of trans* people going through their transitions – with the obligatory before and after shots – which, although pandering to dominant modes of discourse that medicalise the trans* experience, nevertheless allow a glimpse into lives often overlooked – as told by the people living those lives.

Images range from shots of political demos to staged mugshots of trans* women to club photos from Toronto’s HotNuts. Queer is, by turns, theatrical, colourful, sombre, angry, quiet, loud, loving, formal and informal. This is one of the strengths of this short, but powerful exhibition.

Faces and Phases

The exhibition is complemented by the exhibition Faces and Phases exhibition by Zanele Muholi of Durban, a recent MFA graduate from the School of Image Arts,  Ryerson University, Toronto. This latter exhibition aims to challenge the underrepresentation of black queers in media and culture, focussing primarily on portraits of black LGBT+ in post-apartheid South Africa.

What it Means to be Seen is presented by TD Bank Group especially for WorldPride 2014 in Toronto, and runs until 24 Auguust.

Images courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre.

For more information, visit ryerson.ca/ric.

About Adam Lowe

Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people. He sometimes performs as Beyonce Holes.