Magnus Hastings is a British Photographer who grew up in London, where he taught himself photography. After leaving drama school he realised he would pursue photography. Very soon he started shooting covers for the biggest gay magazines in London and the UK, while at the same time,he was immersed on the colourful London gay scene, where his favourite subject thrived; Drag Queens!
Magnus has always been drawn to the art form and people he considered kindred spirits. His passion for drag photography took him to Sydney in 2005 where the drag scene was vibrant and exciting. His relation with drag is more of a love affair and he proudly shows the world the art form of drag through his eyes. His project Why Drag has met critical acclaim and, we can say without doubt that he is the international leader in drag photography. In 2016 Elton John said that Why Drag “is the best fucking photography book in years”.
Rainbow Revolution is a collection of vibrant portraits that celebrate the expanding spectrum of queer identity and visibility. Starting with an empty white box, renowned photographer Magnus Hastings invites members of the LGBTQIA+ community to creatively envision the space. Funny, political, personal, racy, magical, and matter-of-fact―each individual presents themselves as they would like to be seen.
Recently, we had the pleasure of enjoying his work with Gottmik and we simply cannot get enough. YASS met Magnus and we had a great chat together, full of queerness and fun! Enjoy!
How do you identify and how would you describe yourself?
I identify as a screaming homosexual. I tried dating girls when I was younger, but it felt so wrong. I see myself as a gay much and very much super gay.
How did your career start? When did you realise you wanted to be a photographer?
My dad was a semi-personal photographer and I grew up watching him developing pictures. He had a dark room in the house and I watched these amazing pictures materialised through the water and the chemicals. I taught myself photography when I found all this equipment in the attic and I set up a dark room in my bedroom. At the same time, I wanted to be an actor and went to drama school. When I left drama school and started acting I also started to do photography, and then I realised that this is what I really love and that I did not want to be an actor at all. So I quit acting while I was doing a play in the West End and I threw myself into photography and very quickly it worked and I got quite successful.
How were your childhood years?
My childhood years were difficult. My parents divorced when I was five. I remember they were very different and they would have many fights that led to them going to court for several reasons. As a child I was a cry-baby and I was bullied a lot, because I was cross-dressing and I wanted to be the girl and play the female characters in the plays as a child. It was hard, but also privileged.
What made this London born and bred man move to Sydney and the Los Angeles?
I never moved to Sydney. I used to go there for three months all a time, which is the period that my visa was allowing. Sydney always felt like my other home and I used to fly there during every winter when my seasonal depression was appearing. This was going on for many years and, then, I became successful in London as a photographer. But, I was always like a “gay” photographer and at that time, I was doing celebrity stuff too. At one time, I was in LA and I remember people speaking about me, so I felt I needed to have my visa sorted out. So, the next stage would be LA. After playing down the whole gay aspect following the advice of lawyers and people, I totally embraced it and reconnected with Courtney Act and started focusing on photographing all the amazing drag queens in LA.
You have been photographing drag queens all these years and have been asking them “Why Drag”. What is the best answer you received to this question?
This drag question that is splitted between all the younger and the older drag queens. The older drag queens approach this question from a perspective of wanting to fit in the constantly changing drag, whereas the newer generation talks much more about art and expressing themselves through drag and not through creating a character, but by changing their identity and approaching drag as an art-piece that is evolving.
What is the best thing about photographing drag queens?
The best thing is that drag queens are part of my world and I get it completely. I can understand them from inside out and not as an observer. The drag queens are ready to work and pose and try anything and they are not stiff like models. The drag queens are fearless.
What does drag mean to you?
It is my world. When I arrived in Sydney 16 years ago, I was like coming back to my world and it felt like home. I started photographing these drag queens and that felt part of my life, part of my world where I was participating.
Tell me about the #GayFace project and the Rainbow Revolution book. How did you come up with this idea and what is the message behind?
I came up with the idea a couple of years ago. I was sitting in a bar and I was thinking what I wanted to do. I knew already that the name of my next project would be “GayFace”, as I loved this kind of insulting expression. The whole world was getting depressing, right-wing everywhere, Trump taking trans and LGBTQ+ rights away from us, so I thought I want to stand up and show you can be out and proud. I wanted to photograph the whole spectrum of the queer world and showcase the whole community and especially trans people and make sure it was filled with people of colour and inclusivity. I ended up shooting around 135 people secretly in San Francisco on the iconic white square frame for two months and then, the plan was that everyone would drop their images on social media at the same day! And it happened, the day was the 4th of May and that became a big thing on LGBTQ+ culture!
Do you have any favourite images from this project?
I have so many favourite images in the project. This is very personal, as it takes me back to the shooting. The message behind every photoshoot was that we are all fucking awesome. The whole point was not retouching images but creating things for real and everything is about theatre and joy and fun, but with a serious message and an element of anger along with a humour and a big load of fuck you.
Everyone is talking about the iconic photoshoot box! How do you feel about it?
I love it, but I am done with it. It has been two and a half years, I have done every other idea and at this point I am over it! I loved the idea because it was clever and beautiful, but it is played out now! I was living with this box for a long time and quite recently I threw it away during lockdown and that was very cathartic.
What is the best and worst part of your job?
The best part is being creative and coming up with ideas and meeting amazing people! I like working for myself and coming up with my own concepts and creating them.
How did the pandemic and the recent lockdown affect you?
I am kind of a recluse, and for the first couple of months I felt I was in my element and I was fine, but then it got too much. I live on my own with my dog, and I got lonely and a bit crazy and depressed at times. Also, all the gyms are closed and could not d any exercise, but I developed the habit of getting up every morning and having a four-mile walk, so I got myself to a place where I am ok. My mood is going up and down like everyone’s. I am missing my friends in England a lot though.
Who are the people you look up to?
I look up to people who are comfortable in their own skin and say and do whatever they want to say and do and that they are truthful and stand up for what they believe in.
You spend a lot of time behind a camera. Do you miss being in the front?
No, I do not. I was an actor, I went to drama school, I was a child actor, but I get really nervous in front of a camera. I am much happier and more successful behind the camera. I miss rehearsals because they are really fun. And when we were doing theatre rehearsals, I was very naughty during the rehearsals.
Do you feel successful?
Sometimes I do and other times I feel completely like a fraud. It is always a surprise when people recognise me and my work and it is lovely. I forget that I am considered a successful photographer. Very difficult questions. I would say Yes and No.
What is next for you?
I am working with Gottmik and I am really enjoying it. My future will be mostly about queerness and drag, but I cannot say much for now. Covid has definitely changed my plans, but stay tuned!
*all images are courtesy of Magnus Hastings
A fascinating article. I remember Magnus as a child in London; his father, George, taught him to say “Hello sailor” which he said with subtle intonation. So it’s no surprise to me to find him immensely successful and at home in the gay world. I wish him happiness and fulfilment. Robin Dulake, Dorset, England.