Photos help shape our perceptions of people, history, and the world around us. Years ago, Benjamin Wolbergs, an editor and art director living in Berlin, saw images on social media of a young queer community. The photos were open and honest, critical and self-exploratory. They strongly contrasted with Wolbergs' experiences growing up in a small city in southern Germany; his first interaction with the queer community didn’t happen until he was an adult moving to Berlin in 2001.
Wolbergs wanted to put these queer images — so different from what he saw in the attempts of representation in the media — together in an anthology that would serve as a window into queer photography and life in our time. With Hollywood offering sometimes dubious representations of LGBTQ people (Happiest Season being a recent example), and brands from Budweiser to Listerine jumping on the Pride train, the idea started to form of a collection of work by queer artists, not advertisers.
So he started researching. Four years later, his book New Queer Photography: Focus in the Margins contains images from 52 photographers, from well-known artists to others whose work is relatively unknown. The book veers back and forth between the erotic and the repressed; Wolbergs shares pictures of daily life from countries that are queer-friendly and those where being gay is still illegal. The collection also includes representation of drag, queerness, and trans identity in many different forms. Wolberg emailed with BuzzFeed News about how he hopes to add to the queer life canon in 2021.
What was going on in your life when you started to research for this book?
I was bored and frustrated by the queer visual representation in most media, whether it was in print, online, or TV. The focus is still often on white, muscled cisgender men, even in publications that are directly referring to queerness. So I thought it is long overdue to contribute a more diverse and inclusive visual representation.
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? I became aware of the work of Florian Hetz and Matt Lambert, and I started looking for more queer photographers. 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 was the first queer piece of art you remember seeing?
It was probably the photography of Nan Goldin.
In the intro to your book, you talk about focusing on people at the “margins” of society. What does that mean to you, and why is that important?
“Focus on the margins” — which is also the subtitle of my book — is like a summary of all stories and images that you can discover in New Queer Photography. For me, living and working on the margins means dealing with injustice, discrimination, and oppression, but I am also talking about pure joy, self-presentation, pride, solidarity, and empowerment that you can experience on the margins in a quite special way.
Some of the most obvious examples of people on the margins of society who are discriminated against, oppressed, and attacked because of their sexuality and gender identity are the subjects of Robin Hammond’s portraits. His project Where Love Is Illegal features LGBTQI+ people from countries where same-sex love is criminalized and can lead to discrimination, physical and mental violence, imprisonment, torture, and even capital punishment. But a closer look reveals that there is a certain ambiguity at play even here: The photographer’s remarkably sensitive approach allows the courage and strength of the subjects to triumph over their victimization. Hammond’s images give them visibility and an opportunity to tell their own stories — despite the serious risks this entails.
Yet living on the “margins” — under different circumstances — may often create the very conditions that enable people to throw off the shackles of social norms and spread their wings in total freedom, exploring their gender identity in all its fluidity and playing with it in a natural and uninhibited way, as you can see, for example, in Spyros Rennt’s and Lukas Viar’s images of queer nightlife scenes. Their pictures portray people oozing confidence and assurance, far from any sense of victimhood.
For the photographers represented in this book, working on the margins opens up unique opportunities. Isn’t a marginal perspective in many ways much more exciting than looking at things from the center? Doesn’t working on the margins provide scope for a freer and more experimental creative process, very different from one that complies with and conforms to all the norms and expectations of mainstream society? And isn’t the margin of society a fertile ground that spawns great and exciting narratives and notable works of art?
Whose work was new to you when you started researching for the book?
I knew some photographers from Instagram, magazines, and books, but most of the photographers in New Queer Photography were new to me, and I was discovering them during my research process for the book the last four years.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I want to sensitize people for all the injustice, discrimination, and oppression that is happening there. But I also want to celebrate pure joy, freedom, and the unique creativity that — under different circumstances — can also happen at the margins.
The book is also a celebration of individual perceptions and alternative ideals of beauty that — thank god — exist and should be recognized. Sometimes I was blown away by this broad spectrum of beauty, aesthetics, and gender identities in general that I discovered by many of these photographers — which was so far beyond the (cliché) images that had been shaped over decades by mainstream media and culture. If this book evokes a similar reaction by their recipients, I couldn’t ask for more.