Britain, for all its charms, can be dominated by grey skies and gloomy headlines. So it’s uplifting to come across the work of Charley Williams, whose portraits of drag queens and LGBTQ party-goers show Britain as the joyful and free place it can be. Her work is rooted in Bristol, where she lives. This small city, in England’s West Country, is famous for being progressive, and it has a vibrant and liberating spirit that abounds in Williams’ work.
Dominique Fleek, the image that made the Portrait of Britain 2018 shortlist, captures a drag artist transforming into character. Williams tends to find her subjects in nightclubs and at festivals, and as such, her portraits explore a queer and carnivalesque world. Ahead of Portrait of Britain 2019, we spoke to Williams about how photography can tackle intolerance and can move us towards becoming a more open and accepting society.
What did you want to capture about your subject, and about modern Britain, with the portrait that you entered into Portrait of Britain 2018?
The subject of my photograph is Montell Cunningham, mid-transformation into his drag alter-ego, Dominique Fleek. One of the reasons I wanted to photograph him during the transitional phase was to capture both the masculine and feminine aspects of his personality. To me, he represents the ongoing cultural shift towards gender and sexual fluidity.
As an LGBTQ person of colour, Montell is a minority in this country and is at a much higher risk of attack because of his orientation and race. I only see a beautiful, confident individual who has as much right to be here as anyone else. Creating this work is my way of pushing back against hatred and homophobia.
I live in Bristol, one of the most progressive and peaceful cities in the world. It’s important to me that my work is seen by people outside of the city, to further push the boundaries of society.
Why do you think Portrait of Britain is important today? What do you think we’ll see in Portrait of Britain 2019?
Politics is dividing us more and more in this country; Brexit has us foaming at the mouths. Portrait of Britain is hugely important in demonstrating the diversity of our great country, and in bringing us all together despite our differences.
Hanging out with drag queens and drag kings is totally normal to me, but it may not be for everyone. When flipping through the Portrait of Britain book, I saw a lot of people that I would never encounter in my daily life. Photographs give us insights into the lives of people we wouldn’t otherwise meet. It makes me proud to be British. It’s a reminder that even if we have different beliefs, we are all British and, ultimately, we are all one.
What was it like to be shortlisted?
It still feels surreal! I am so humbled every time I see my copy of the Portrait of Britain book at my bedside. Having my work recognised by such a well-known organisation has really validated my work and given me confidence that I didn’t have before.
How has the award boosted your career?
I think the main change is how I perceive myself and my own work. I’ve really started to take my photography seriously and I spend a lot more time thinking about the reasons why I am producing the work that I do.
I still shoot a lot of drag events and have made a name for myself with my drag portraits. I am currently in talks with another Bristol photographer, Shelby Alexander, and we are planning to exhibit our work on drag queens together this year.
What themes do you like to explore in your work?
I have always been very interested in how we present ourselves to the world. I find it fascinating that we often try to reject labels, yet we also hold onto them when we want to define who we are.
My main focus is definitely drag. I will continue shootings portraits and drag events throughout the year, including Drag World, which is a huge drag convention in London in the summer. I’ve also got plans to shoot at some festivals this year – I want to explore the subcultures that only emerge at festival time.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering Portrait of Britain 2019?
If you’ve produced something that you are really proud of, just go for it. I thought that because I was using flash and shooting on digital my work wouldn’t be considered. It just goes to show, if you don’t put yourself out there you’ll never know!