Art, more than anything, opens up the possibility of approaching one’s own sexuality beyond the limits imposed by taboos. Not only does it allow for a risk-free, playful exploration of gender and forbidden desires, but it is unique in capturing its contradictions.
In recent years, a young and active queer photography scene has emerged, helped in large part by social media. Indulging their desire for self-presentation, affirmation, and reflection, many photographers portray male homosexuality in particular as a private idyll. At the same time, they shine a critical light on their own and society’s approach to transsexuality and gender roles and expose the corrupting but also affirmative power of pornography.
Films, series, and mainstream cultural appropriation suggest that society has largely embraced queer lifestyles. However, a number of documentary photographers provide evidence that being gay or lesbian can still lead to marginalization, isolation, stigmatization, and violence in certain countries and communities. Their works also take the regime of sexuality itself into account and show that many bans on same-sex contact have colonial origins.
new queer photography is a carefully researched and richly designed book which introduces around 40 contemporary photographic positions, including those of well-established photographers as well as plenty of unknown and less well-known talent. The publication presents drag and gender, queerness and transsexuality in all their facets and combines artistic and documentary photography between eroticism, culture, lifestyle and criticism.
YASS met Benjamin Wolbergs, the person behind new queer photography who works as an editor and art director in Berlin and has been working in this book for the last four years with a lot of passion.
Who is Benjamin Wolbergs and how do you define?
I am a gay man living in Berlin and working as an Art Director and Editor, mainly for art book publishers worldwide. And, sometimes, I conceive and develop my own book projects which always turn out to be the best and most satisfying part of my work; and this was also the case with new queer photography.
What is art for you?
Art for me is a source of inspiration and learning, and it works the best when it produces a break in our usual perception. For me, personally, as an art book designer and editor, it is literally indispensable; art is the source and reason for my daily work.
How did you come up with the idea of this book?
The idea about this book came to my mind about four years ago when I was working for the publishing house “Taschen” on the layout of a book about physique photography with photos from the 50s, whose aesthetics and visual worlds were clearly intended to appeal to a gay audience. In the course of this work, I asked myself: what would a book with contemporary queer photography look like? What photographers, topics, and styles would be included in such a book today? At about the same time I became aware of the work of Florian Hetz and Matt Lambert and I started looking for more queer photographers and, quite soon. I was blown away by all of the different themes and visual worlds I discovered and, especially, by the artistic quality of these works.
What areas did you want to explore with this photography book?
I wanted to present many diverse queer experiences, (self)representations and visual perspectives from around the world. The most important thing was to tell these stories through the queer gaze without any preconceptions and without reproducing stereotypes or any clichés.
The publication starts with participants of opulent and glamorous ballrooms around Europe, documented by Dustin Thierry in a lush black and white that recalls underground scene photographs of the 20th century. You can immerse yourself in the vibrant queer night life scene with Spyros Rennt in Berlin and in London through beautiful polaroids made by Lukas Viar. You will see London drag queens at home in Jan Klos series “Queens at Home” or “Beautiful Freaks” at partys in Ralf Obergfell’s images. Danielle Villasana shows us the brutal and difficult life of trans women in Peru and through the polaroid series “SEXUGEES” Bradley Secker gives voice to refugees who have fled war and poverty and now struggle to survive in Istanbul. We are recipients of daily queer intimacy in Vietnam (Maika Elan), Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze documents queer Georgian bodies and the Iranian-American and German-raised photographer Ashkan Sahihi portraits “Beautiful Berlin Boys.” Through M. Sharkey we learn about “Queer Kids in America” accompanied by a beautiful essay by Alexander Chee. The Portuguese photographer Pauliana Valente Pimentel tells us with “Quel Pedra” a legend from Cape Verde. You will visit with Benjamin Fredrickson the Folsom Street East BDSM street fair in New York City and Mohamad Abdouni raises awarness of queer Arab culture. We see Shahria Sharmin’s Portraits of Hijras in Bangladesch. Julia Gunther let us take part at the “Miss Lesbian Beauty Pageant” in Cape Town and Robin Hammond takes us in some of the 67 countries “Where Love is iIllegal.” You will be irritated at first sight by Florian Hetz’ distorted, foreshortened, twisted, and cropped bodies, approached from strangely intimate angles and by Damien Blottière’s chic collages. And you can sink in Manuel Moncayos’ poetic and dreamy worlds. There are many nonbinary bodies in the book and you will find many different trans experiences: beauties captured by Lia Clay Miller, transmasculine people portraited by Soraya Zaman, young subjects in the process of transitioning gender by Milan Gies and finally we are witnessing Laurence Philomène’s “Puberty.” Almost each page of the book presents some different perspectives of beauty and celebrates alternative and indiviual concepts of it.
Do you think there is enough queer representation in the art scene?
There has been something happening the last years but there is definitely room for improvement.
Have our societies embraced queer lifestyles?
Also here there has been something happening the last years but there is definitely much room for improvement. And you can also see how fragile this is by looking for example at countries like Poland where right-wing populist politicians are declaring entire districts of the country to “LGBTQ-free zones.” I also think it is much easier for a heteronormative society to accept the LGBTQIA community on an artistic and entertaining level, like for example Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which is quite far away from their personal life. But, unfortunately, things are still looking quite different when queer, trans or non-binary people are coming out in some heteronormative surroundings for example as a family member, colleague at work or someone in their sports club.
What was the process of making the book like?
The whole process took me over four years and the many different steps of conceiving and designing a book like this were related to a lot of different feelings and experiences. The research process for instance felt most of the time like a treasure hunt. To discover new talents was each time incredibly overwhelming. But I was also going through some phases with a lot of doubts asking myself “Is a “conventional” art book a suitable format for presenting an issue like this? What is my own take on the term queer, what should it encompass and disregard, and what must be included in it? Is the selection sufficiently diverse? Or are essential positions missing? Is it a balanced choice?”
To finally find a publisher was very difficult with a lot of vain hopes and many disappointments. And not to forget the crowdfunding campaign I had to make to gain enough money for the production which was most of the time extremely nerve-racking and sometimes depressing too. So all in all the whole experience was like a rollercoaster of emotions!
Who are your inspirations and the people you admire?
I can’t say there is one particular person who inspires me. Speaking of art it can be for instance just one single piece or series of an artist that inspires me … or just one single sentence or thought …
What shall we expect from you in the future?
I will definitely continue conceiving and designing (queer) books!