In between shooting the Out 100 and traveling to his first solo show in Perpignan, France, Michael Sharkey agreed to meet with me for an afternoon of domestic chores and dessert eating at his home in Ft. Greene. He also answered some questions for me about his ongoing project (six years and running) Queer Kids. Here are the results. Enjoy!
Abigail Smithson: How did you come up with the title for this work?
Michael Sharkey: Queer is an inclusive term and it was one that was originally derogatory. In my mind it has always been a word that is historically derogatory. It has been re-appropriated. It has taken this long to enter the mainstream as a legitimate label that is no longer negative. It’s a nice word because it offers a take on sexual orientation that is more nuanced and complex and inclusive of transgender issues. A lot of the project not only deals with the issue of sexuality but also gender. I also like the alliteration of the “K” sound. We were trying to find something that was catchy. “Queer Youth” sounded too much like Hitler Youth or something. Kids can be problematic because it implies an immaturity that a lot of these young adults don’t possess because they are actually quite mature. But for the general public I think that it works because you are dealing with minors and the title signals that.
AS: Because of the personal nature of this project, I can’t help but wonder how long you were thinking about the project beforehand. Was there a light bulb moment when the idea for “Queer Kids” came to you, or was it building up as a project idea for a while?
MS: Not that long. Now it’s been approaching seven years that I have been working on this project. It really was just a way for me to pursue a subject that was interesting to me photographically. And then it has evolved, but not even that much, to be honest. It really has maintained it’s photographic integrity. It’s primarily photographic. The text is supplemental.
AS: Reflecting on shooting “Queer Kids” for six years, how does the first shoot compare with the most recent? What have you learned from the project as a whole?
MS: Kids now are dealing with a whole other set of issues. It feels like now the gender issues have sort of become primary. A lot of these kids are thinking seriously about transitioning and then some of the kids today feel that gender is a non issue. They’re like who cares if I am a guy or a girl? What does that even mean other than genitalia? This is it. I’ll dress exactly how I want, behave how I want and sleep with who I want. It could be a guy, it could be a girl. It’s also very trendy right now to be polyamorous and to be bisexual. Talking about kids having sex is really difficult in America. I guess it’s probably difficult anywhere but we have especially conservative views about it.
AS: Each kid has a very unique look, complete with hairstyle, accessories and clothing. How much of the posing and outfit choice was left up to the subject? How much discussion took place with the kids during the time before the shoot?
MS: We love to look through clothes. It’s all about going through the closets, finding outfits that they love. Sometimes I will bring a stylist with a huge bag of clothes. I think of the kids as stars.
AS: Previously, you’ve said that these photos embody your experience as a queer kid growing up in small town America and there is something very American about the portraits you have taken. From the suburban cookie cutter houses in Port Orchard, WA to the locker room in Glastonbury, CT the context in which you’re shooting looks classically American. Do you think this is a project that you could take internationally? Would the portraits mean something different to you if you were to take the project abroad?
MS: I am glad that comes across. Now it seems that my job is done in America. I want to move on to Europe, South America and Asia. Kids today live in a global society. They live in their community as well and they live in their culture and they have a home, but on top of all that they are part of a global community and I think in that regard that there are things that we all share, in terms of culture. Of course there are things we share in terms of humanity and that has always been the case. But culturally now we share quite a bit. America feels like it’s already there. Everything is in place for it to happen now. Before it felt…the kids were scared. It was a real act of bravery for them to sit in front of the camera and to tell their story. Now it’s not that. Now it’s more fun, which is great.
AS: With the exception of a few portraits shot in studio, you’ve photographed most of the kids on location in an environment that creates a context for their story (bedrooms, back yards, school campuses and front porches). How did you choose the locations and why did you choose to photograph certain kids in a studio?
MS: I always push to shoot the kids in their bedroom because I think it’s the most interesting. It reveals more about their personality than any other spot. But a lot of the time the kids are not out to their parents necessarily. Even if they are, they feel uncomfortable having an adult photograph them in their bedroom. Or even having me seen by their parents. Having their parents even know that they are involved with the project is difficult sometimes. I you are under eighteen you have to sign a release. I ask for it to be signed in order to publish the image. I will still take the image but I won’t be able to publish it if I don’t have a signed release. There are not a lot of studio shots but those kids are homeless. I was doing some volunteer work at the Aly Forney Center. It is one of the few philanthropic organizations in the city helping LGBT youth. Most of their clientele is homeless. They provide food, shelter, basic medical services, physiological counseling and referrals for things that are out of their expertise and resources. I was going there and preparing lunch and hanging out with the kids. Some of the kids there are so incredible. Super talented, super smart and really strong. And they are homeless and teenagers. I really wanted to shoot some of them so we did portraits in the studio.
AS: Adolescence is an unsure and awkward time. Even as a straight girl I think I was pretty insecure and awkward. How did you make the kids feel comfortable?
MS: I am a little militant about my politics. I feel really strongly that people need to see and hear the truth. I have always been like that. I have been very antagonistic in terms of culture and politics and the way that I present myself. Because I feel like I have had to fight, I feel like a fighter, that I am fighting a battle. So I am rallying the troops and I think the kids sense that and they are glad to see an advocate and know that I am on their side and pushing to make their lives better. And it’s a way for them to take a moment and express themselves and feel good about themselves because they know that I am going to present them in the most positive way and that they are going to look amazing. A lot of it has to do with looking great. And that comes from my trade of being a celebrity photographer. So my job is to make people look amazing and that’s what I am doing with these kids and they love it. They’re like “Whoa, I didn’t know I looked that amazing” and that’s a huge ego boost at that age. It’s transformative.
AS: As a teenager, would you have been willing to participate in a photography project like this? Would you have found it liberating or uncomfortable to discuss being gay openly with someone?
MS: I wonder. It’s hard to say because it was a different world. I’d like to think that I would have found it a liberating thing to do. I was very “out” when I was 15. Not to my family, but to my friends.
AS: What kind of interactions did you have with the parents of the kids and what role did they play in the making of the portraits? Were the parents accepting and supportive of the child publicly embracing their queer identity?
MS: Sometimes it’s really positive. Some of the parents contact me: “I have this queer kid and he would love to be photographed. Do you think you can take his picture?” Sometime the parents are cautious, sometimes they’re just not around. When I started the project in 2006 it was really taboo. The subject was taboo. And to think six years later how much progress we have made, is insane. It’s almost inexplicable. How could you make so much progress?
See more of Michael’s work here and be sure to follow the progress of “Queer Kids” at facebook.com/QKUSA.