QTIPOCS On The Block is a new column by Abdu Mongo Ali (best know as the performer, Abdu Ali) which celebrates young, driven queer, trans, and intersex artists of color.
Born in Long Island, Elliott Brown is a Brooklyn-based photographer and when experiencing his work I’m gifted with feelings of security, solidness and swank.
I wanted to talk with Elliott after digging into his work, which was suggested by mutual friend, Devin Morris, of 3 Dot Zine, but I already had gotten a glance of it on the musician SerpentWithFeet’s Instagram, where Elliott’s photos of the artist for Dazed Digital were posted. Through those photographs you can instantly see how visceral, honest, and unapologetic Elliot’s work is; no shade, it woke me up which is a desperate feeling in today’s oversaturated creative world. To be real, I wanted to write about him because he is me. My people would see Elliott’s photographs as vital not only to our existence but to our growth within this world. His work provides not only a relative expression, but also solidarity -- an on-demand noun both in the analog and virtual world within my community. I am here for that and so is he.
What lead you to start doing photography and what compels you to keep shooting?
Elliott Brown: I started photographing random shit at the mall and members of my family when I was younger. I watched America's Next Top Model, but only for the photo shoots. For some reason I didn't get that Nigel Barker was a professional photographer that made a living from his work. Once I realized you could make money from photographing, I decided I'd pursue it and my visions more seriously. Which is not to say I'm only here for money. I was more so excited that I could create something, be passionate about it, and make money from it. The second I realized this is what I wanted to commit to, I made it as much a part of my life as I could. Originally, I wanted to be a fashion photographer because that made the most sense to me because it’s usually dramatic, ornate, and glamorous. Once I got to NYU, I was encouraged to work outside of fashion in order to apply that vision to fashion later on. I don't necessarily want to work in fashion anymore, but I do want to work commercially. Editorial and advertising are still incredible opportunities to push ideas that haunt and submerge viewers.
Also, photography and visuals have become ways for me to process and understand my life. They are chronicles of my development; the person I am and want to be can be understood in what I've produced and the potential of it.
In your series “Foundations”, you explore and magnify the black body. The photos seem to be commenting on the exploitation and stereotyping of the black gay body, what are you trying to communicate to the viewer?
“Foundations” is like a diary: notes and reflections. It is my history, to date. It’s a compilation of images that are seeds for larger projects more than it is an actual series. The majority of images that are available of black gay men depict us as one of two options: the antithesis of white gay men--brooding, unfeeling, towering--or the antithesis of black heteronormative men--flamboyant, weak, superficial. These images are obviously insufficient and they don't reflect me or the wealth of black gay and queer men that I've met. Being a gay man is unfortunately informed by really stupid categories -- bottom, top, bear, leather, twink, otter, etc--and they dominate how gay men understand and relate to one another. I'm usually read as a twink and men assume that I'm submissive and can be taken advantage of. All of my behaviors are then extensions of my identity as a twink. I don't think I need to explain how limiting and stupid that is. I photograph myself so that I can dismantle any fear or shame that I've felt in defying these options. For that reason, a lot of my work is staged in public places. I want to access that tension.
You are in a lot of your photos. Why is that? I also like that when you are in your photos you give direct eye contact to the camera. Is that intentional?
I think most photographers end up photographing themselves out of sheer convenience and availability. It can be daunting to have to wait to work on an idea because someone isn't available. In the past people were less receptive to what I wanted to do. But, I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't do or if I didn't trust myself to engage the person I'm photographing appropriately and collaboratively. So, I turned to myself and found there was a wealth of shit I wanted to talk about that my own body could articulate.
My early self-portraits were working through the realization of my sexuality. Very simply, what does it mean to be gay? Is my experience as a black person linked in that meaning? I spent seven years interrogating my sexual identity. With so much of my experience being only in my head, I needed a way to confront it. First, by actually being intimate with other men. Then as sex became less fulfilling outside of the physical, I decided to document and abstract those experiences to further reflect on them. A lot of what I was doing was very gestural and performative--from signaling to men in the park that I was interested to parodying my social identity to suit others' favor or make it seem like I was enjoying what I was doing. I wanted to interpret what was theatrical about my identity--what social parameters informed my interests and the relationships I sought. That lead me to investigating my interest in white men. I struggled deeply with being black. Like most young black children who attend integrated schools and live in primarily white neighborhoods, I didn't realize my blackness until I realized it was different and apparently not in the way that meant you were special. Even as all my friends were black, the cultural lexicon I was most fluent in was black, the things I enjoyed most came from and were done by black people. Yet, I would observe white people and wonder deeply about them. What did they feel?
I didn't accept that I was gay until my first year of college, so all of my early interests in white men were characterized by admiring and wanting to be them. What I thought was merely an aesthetic interest or preference, ultimately translated into a disdain for myself, and a lack of trust in who I could be. It became necessary for me to do this project on my relationships with white men because it forced me to clearly identify the issue and be critical of it. The love and desire I sought in those relationships was regressive. Making direct eye contact in the images is a way for me to arrest myself and the viewer.
How do you feel about the imaging and narrative of the black male queer body in mainstream and underground American media?
LOL. The mainstream is always teetering between respectability and subversion. There is always a compromise in that visioning. Since there is a thirst for that relentlessness which is missing in a mainstream context, the underground can do that. I think also, because the mainstream is so predetermined and illusory, there's little room for responsiveness. The underground is determined and upheld by the environment it exists in, so it is constantly in conversation with the audience in a way that the mainstream can't be. Underground media sounds like my friends and communities. I think about people like you and Serpentwithfeet, and how comforted I am by what y'all are so relentlessly giving. I think about Kearra Amaya Gopee, who doesn't explicitly work with black male queer bodies, but works with imaging blackness as it exists within the Caribbean diaspora. Her work and palette expand on the internal productions of race. I think about Serena Jara, who makes empowering images of friends who have transitioned with her into womanhood. She reminds me that as a photographer you hold a lot of power and that it's important to collaborate with who you're photographing to negotiate and offset that power. These are just a few of the people that inform my understanding of underground media. The underground, from this view, is honest, accountable, self-aware, responsive, and mutating.
Do you think it is important for blacks to own the images of our identity and present them in a public platform by our own terms?
100%. There is a thirst for rich, intelligent depictions of black people, especially those that defy respectability, don't operate exclusively out of the past, and are inclusive of the various ways in which black people access, perform, and comprehend their blackness. That being said, it's important for black people of any and all varieties to visualize their realities and fascinations.
Your photos have a lot of velocity and bluntness, and they have this provocative exposition in them. Why do you stick with that aesthetic?
Right now, I'm just playing around and experimenting, seeing what speaks to me aesthetically and what doesn't. For the most part I've nailed down what I want to discuss in my work--how is race, specifically blackness, produced in an intercommunal manner? Regardless of the extent to which we agree on our position in America and how we've dealt with our past, we've been able to identify the hand responsible for this conversation in the first place. So let's look at us. What characterized our upbringing? Where have we been the most afraid? What don't we know about one another? What challenges are there in loving each other? How are we feeling? Those are the questions I'm interested in right now, as far as race goes. I'm far too proud of my blackness to only acknowledge it in its relationship to oppression.
What is on your brain right now as a photographer? What is the thing you want to talk about now or in the future?
I think a lot about the response to black and queer work being a pigeonhole. Blackness is so expansive, especially in its relationship to queerness. There's so much I've yet to discover, put together, or touch on. So how can something so limitless be perceived as limiting? That says to me that only one narrative regarding blackness is of interest: the one that is in constant tension with oppression. And of course it is that. This isn't an erasure or a desire to no longer work with that aspect of blackness but I'm equally as invested in black diversity and expressing that.
Elliott Brown is a student at NYU and his work has also been featured on Butt Magazine, New York Magazine, Afropunk and Gayletter. Go to his website to check out more of his work: www.elliottbrownjr.com