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Placing Queer Youth in Focus

“Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus” is a photographic essay of the stories and identities of LGBTQ youth across the US.

Michael expressed his feelings about being Black and Gay in photographer Rachel Lee Smith's multiyear photographic portraits of LGBTQIA youth. (Photo: Rachelle Lee Smith)

Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus is more than a book. Taken over the course of a decade, Rachelle Lee Smith’s photographs capture the faces of a generation of queer, trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning young people, ages 14 to 24. Each participant adds personal handwritten thoughts to their portrait, telling of their passions, confusions, joys and sorrows. Order Speaking OUT today by making a donation to Truthout!

Photographer Rachelle Lee Smith has spent more than a decade photographing the individual pride and identities of LGBTQIA youth. The following is the Truthout interview with Smith about her collection, Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus.

How did you come to select the LBGTQIA youth who are photographed in the book?

Every person in Speaking OUT elected to participate. I did not seek people out, nor did I try to fill a quota. Like all new experiments I began with friends. It was a friend, after all, who was the catalyst for this project. I had a positive and welcoming “coming out” but as I grew older and met people who had dramatically different experiences than mine, I wanted to share the variety of experiences that young queer people encountered. The first person I photographed was homeless and had been train-hopping throughout the country. I photographed her all over town over a period of weeks and spent one afternoon in the studio. I then photographed friends until I solidified the vision for this project. From there, it was referrals from friends, then friends of friends, then I hung flyers at the local LGBTQ centers. As the project grew, I was able to travel upon request and I photographed people around the country.

How does your format of a stark white background, the photos of individual youth and their statements on the image frame emphasize that you are presenting individuals as they see themselves?

One of the things I love about documentary photography is the power of storytelling it presents. Traditionally, photos exude this power with the capturing of a split-second moment in time. Journalistic street photography was my passion, but, with Speaking OUT, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and I wanted the subjects to have their own voice and for them to tell their own stories. By stripping away any environmental influence, the subjects are free to fill in the blanks. The white backdrop acts as a blank canvas. For the subjects to handwrite directly on top of the image that I handprinted in the darkroom adds another level of tangibility and tactile storytelling. Because I shot with film, the subjects and I had a working relationship that spanned over days, weeks or months. I would print the contact sheets and allow the subjects to choose their own photo. I only weighed in if there was something technically wrong from my end, such as a cable in the shot, etc. This allowed people to choose how they wanted to be represented and what they wanted to convey. I did not guide what they wrote. I did not ask a question or give a format. The handwritten text allowed their personality to come through.

Doug is one of dozens of LGBTQIA youth who participated in photographer Rachel Lee Smith's project, resulting in the book Speaking Out: Queer Youth in Focus. (Photo: Rachelle  Lee Smith)Doug is one of dozens of LGBTQIA youth who participated in photographer Rachel Lee Smith’s project, resulting in the book Speaking Out: Queer Youth in Focus. (Photo: Rachelle Lee Smith)

Explain how you get the young people whom you photographed to be relaxed enough to express, as you call it, “the heart of their feelings”?

I simply shot and talked a lot. I think one advantage of shooting with film is that it allows for more uninterrupted time … meaning people don’t stop to ask how they look after every frame, etc. I eventually ended up including digital as a back up, but wanted to keep the process the same. With friends and strangers alike, I often wouldn’t know their background or why they wanted to participate, so we would have these conversations while I was photographing. Some people are naturals, but most people are not comfortable acting themselves amidst backdrops, lighting and cameras … so it takes a while for people to warm up, open up and feel at ease.

Many of the youth you photographed are older now — since the project took place over many years — and you have in the book some of their reflections as older individuals on photos taken when they were younger. What was the overall response of those people who participated in the photographs in the book, Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus?

In all cases, the follow-up conversations have been positive. Each person’s story has changed for the better and lives have gotten better due to society changing to be more open, laws changing, etc. This, of course, is all in jeopardy now with the new administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. Many people have reached out, letting me know how happy they were to have participated in the project either because it captured a moment in their life, it showed how much they have evolved, or [allowed] them to reflect. Overall, the majority of feedback I have received was that they are proud to have been able to be a part of something that has lived on to help other young people.

What have you found the reaction of people who are not LBGTQIA to the book to be?

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Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus

In these photographs by Rachelle Lee Smith, taken over the course of a decade, young LGBTQ people tell their own stories.

Click here now to get the book!

People often thank me for gathering and sharing the diverse and honest stories of (a small portion of) LGBTQ youth. I hear a lot of stories about a sibling, child, friend or family member that would have or will benefit from seeing the faces and reading the words of the people in Speaking OUT. It gives people access to the joys, sorrows, pain, happiness and silliness that LGBTQIA people experience and I have been told that it gives a chance to humanize us and make use relatable, and helps create empathy … which is my ultimate goal.

Is there going to be a second stage to this photo/writing project? I feel as if I have met so many wonderful people through the images and writing of each person. I’d love to meet more.

Thank you! I am inclined to want to do a follow-up to compare/contrast at the end of the Trump administration to gauge the emotions of young people now, and the subjects that I have previously photographed. But, I am in talks, working on a new project that captures and collects the stories of LGBTQIA seniors … to gather experiences from the first real “out” generation before they disappear. Stay tuned.

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