Holly Revell is a Create artist and professional photographer specialising in queer performance, portraits and documentation of transforming identities. Holly’s work is archived at Bishopsgate Institute.
Below, we hear from Holly about the experience of facilitating our queer identity photography workshops:
In January and February 2020, I ran a series of workshops with METRO Charity’s LGBTQ youth group Zest, made up of young queer people aged 12-16. As soon as I met the group, I could SEE their queerness. It was wonderful to step into the future where gender felt fluid and visible. I hadn’t worked with such young queer people before and I was excited to find out about their stories. Queer culture is so fast-moving, I was curious about how relevant my work would be to these young people.
I started the project by showing participants some work from my archive of queer performance photography, introducing them to some of the icons and trailblazers such as David Hoyle, Scottee, Jonny Woo and co, Ginger Johnson, Travis Alabanza and Chiyo Gomes
© Holly Revell Photography
I was impressed by how engaged and interested the young participants were in the performers and the photographs I was showing them. They had a thirst for learning about their history. Is this because queer history is harder to find, lesser-known and untaught I wonder?
“They had a thirst for learning about their history. Is this because queer history is harder to find, lesser-known and untaught I wonder?”
What was intended as a short introduction became a more central part of the workshops: each week we would take inspiration from queer icons. I soon realised that they know their history and are extremely passionate about it! There were some great moments, from a 14-year-old trans person talking about Alan Turing and a discussion about Philip Schofield’s coming out that day, to a 12-year-old boy pulling out a book titled ‘queer icons’ from his school bag.
I expected them to know Rupaul’s Drag Race as that has become so mainstream, and they did, but I was heartened to find that they were also interested in more avant-garde examples of drag performers. I was able to broaden their horizons by showing them performers who were resisting Rupaul, performers who were ‘not allowed into the club’ and who criticised its lack of inclusivity.
“I soon realised that they know their history and are extremely passionate about it!”
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In the practical photography sessions, we had participants emulating some of my most iconic images such as ‘Ginger Johnson – Breakfast’ replacing the milk with sugar, which they poured over themselves – getting messy like true queer artists do and acting out scenarios about homophobia in the office.
We had a queer wedding with all its drama and affairs being performed for the camera, a David Hoyle- inspired self-portrait made by a 12-year-old boy and a gay soldier’s funeral where the union jack flag was replaced with the rainbow flag.
I helped set up a series of beautiful images inspired by a participant’s relationship to their safe space in the cupboard and how they’d grown both physically and in confidence. I showed them images of Claude Cahun who they put me in mind of. This person seemed so shy at first but really opened up and embraced the workshops.
Some participants also created a hilarious video made in the style of a YouTube make-up tutorial. This was loosely inspired by a Divine David video I’d shown them previously and by current trends such as Rupaul – it was both amusing and interesting to hear afab (assigned female at birth) non-binary young people paraphrase ‘the snatch game’ and its misogynistic undertones.
“When I was planning the workshops, I had a good idea of what I wanted the young people to do. I wanted them to create a powerful series of portraits.”
Overall, this series of workshops was a huge success with many laughs and some beautiful images made during the process. There were different personalities in the group, some of the young people natural performers and very confident with their gender and sexuality. Others were very shy and self-conscious, preferring to be behind the camera taking more natural candid photographs.
When I was planning the workshops, I had a good idea of what I wanted the young people to do. I wanted them to create a powerful series of portraits. However, I soon realised that the participants would dictate the results and they were a lot more playful and candid than I had anticipated. I had to let go of my ambitions and remember how powerful and queer these fleeting moments captured with blur and colour were.