A new cohort of contemporary photographers are challenging the status quo, drawing on their personal histories to make work that is inherently relevant for the future
Photography is dynamic, continually shifting creatively, conceptually, and in how it functions in society. Increasingly, the identity and values of an image-maker are just as important as their images, and the internet and social media have enabled a new sense of autonomy over their audience and distribution.
While the wider industry makes slow and fragile progress in reckoning with the urgent and necessary transformations it so desperately needs, a new generation of photographers are already manifesting that change. They are proactively decolonising the medium and setting an agenda of radical inclusion, while responding to their communities’ needs with a fierce rejection of the outsider stance. Calling on the past to speak to the present, they use their voices carefully and responsibly to honour stories, preserve culture, and activate and liberate the community. Among many other notable artists, the work of Devyn Galindo, Myriam Boulos, Juan Brenner and Micaiah Carter resists cultural convention and puts forward new and diverse visions of what photography can be.
It all began with Sweetpea; an olive-green 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon that cosmically found photographer Devyn Galindo via a lesbian dwelling in Long Beach, California. Inspired by the Van Dykes – a community founded in 1977, comprised of a defiant group of lesbian van-owners who travelled across North America and Mexico seeking a life of “radical rebellion and feminist empowerment” – the Los Angeles-based artist began her own travelogue. “My aim is to preserve our queer oral history for future generations,” Galindo shares. “Knowing that dykes have been on this journey before, and there will be dykes and queers on this journey in the future, brings me a lot of peace in the present moment. If we don‘t preserve our history, we will be erased from the mainstream narrative.”
For Van Dykes Journal Vol II (Vol I traced a three-month journey from LA to the Florida Keys), Galindo spent the late summer of 2020 documenting a trip to the Pacific Northwest. She stopped along the way to photograph and interview queer people. “This project really saved my life last year,” she says. “It was the only real contact I had with humans after spending the first half of the year in lockdown. It was very special and liberating to focus on generating imagery to inspire queer creatives.”
Structured as a paperback zine, the project merges a tactile, diaristic collage of memories from Galindo’s journey with joyful photographs and candid interviews with nine individuals she encountered en route. The work is rich and generative, opening up vital intergenerational dialogues and enabling people to share their stories on their terms and in their language. It exists outside and in defiance of the binary and straight imagination, honouring her collaborators’ roots in radical action and freedom struggles.
“I see this work as a new iteration. It’s a little more inclusive, creating a safe space for queer, non-binary and trans people.”
“It‘s not about reaching a point where you fit in the cis-het world,” Galindo says. “It‘s about creating queer futures that break down all of those barriers and leave room to imagine something new. New ways of forming relationships and bonds, new ways of forming community and chosen family, and new ways to live off the land respectfully.”
While utopic, the original Van Dykes were often exclusionary in premise, mirroring the lack of intersectionality still rife in liberation movements today. Galindo‘s project, however, seeks to harness the collective energy of the 1970s, but hold space for the contemporary stories and concerns of the LGBTQIA and QTPOC community who continue to face erasure. “I see this work as a new iteration. It’s a little more inclusive, creating a safe space for queer, non-binary and trans people,” she says.
“My images are part of my liberation,” says Myriam Boulos. The Lebanese photographer has spent the last six years documenting life in Beirut, shedding light on government corruption, ongoing injustice and the country‘s dilapidated infrastructure. “Lebanon is a very fragmented and contradictory country. We are dealing with patriarchy, violence – Israeli military planes and drones continue to fly over Lebanon almost every day – racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and rape, which is everywhere and not penalised. I feel the urgent need to talk about issues that don‘t have immediate solutions,” Boulos says. “For me, describing them in words and images is the first big step in taking action.” In confronting these unimaginable disparities and profound lack of safety, Boulos employs her work to document, but also to raise awareness and activate the fight for justice.
On 17 October 2019, Lebanese citizens led a revolution against the ongoing corruption. Boulos‘ response was to create; converging her art and activism. “I started to use photography to question, defy and resist society,” she explains. “My flash became a tool to put the light on things that are oppressed by the system.” Her photographs capture emotion and information, while mirroring the frenetic energy of the resistance. In the chaos, Boulos records the solidarity between the demonstrators, reflecting her deep personal investment in the issues. “The events in their raw state are a lot to take in. Photography became a medium to slow things down when they get too intense during the revolution. I photograph, then process it in my own rhythm.”
On 04 August 2020, a catastrophic explosion rocked Beirut‘s harbour. It was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded and killed over 200 people, wounded 6000, and made 300,000 people homeless. “These last few months were a nightmare, a mix of tears, sweat and mourning combined with surreal highs when I realised I was still alive,“ says Boulos, who processed the horror of the aftermath through visual documentation and recording testimonies of survivors. “It is so important to tell our story, as it is always dictated and controlled by the western media and gaze. There are different and contradictory experiences in every situation. My focus is to listen and share individual experiences.”
Boulos has assumed a new dimension in her work, creating a vehicle for those affected to speak directly to their fellow citizens and the wider world as a vital method of resistance and collective healing.
“Aged 19, I ran away from Guatemala City to be a photographer in New York,” Juan Brenner recalls. “I knew only a few words of English. I bought a one-way ticket and ended up staying for 12 years.” Brenner fought hard to establish himself in the fashion industry, shooting for Vogue and Nylon, but ultimately the unrelenting toxic lifestyle became too much. He returned to his homeland to take stock of his life and find peace.
Plagued by a 36-year civil war, military coups and a devastating earthquake in 1976 that destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed more than 25,000 people, Guatemala’s fraught history left the nation precarious and fragile. “I grew up isolated from anything happening in the downtown area, I didn‘t get to experience the city, and I had this conception that there was no such thing as a Latin American artist. I just wanted to get out,” Brenner says. “Coming back was traumatic. I began to realise that I had just been ignorant about our origins and how the country‘s history brought us to where we are. We are a visually rich country, but it‘s impossible to get away from the tourist clichés.“
After a seven-year career break, Brenner returned to photography with renewed energy to untangle and make sense of his past. Studying the legacy of colonisation and oppression, while reckoning with a history of injustice and erasure, he visualised his own myth for reconciliation. His first body of work, Tonatiuh, explores the scars left on the people and the land after it was colonised. The project was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards in 2019. It also marks an evolution of Brenner’s practice, with the photographer now focusing on documentary storytelling to capture his nation in a state of constant flux.
“I like to think of my work as the B-side of Guatemala – it’s a surprise that no one has heard of, but turns out to be much better than the single.”
His latest book, The Ravine, the Virgin, & the Spring, published by Pomegranate Press, is a topographic study of his hometown’s intimate eccentricities. The title, a blend of Guatemala City’s nicknames that speak to its geography, faith and eternal sunshine, reflects his bittersweet ode to the city. Shooting primarily from his car, Brenner spent months discovering spaces and emblems unseen and unfamiliar to locals. “This book began from wanting to understand why Guatemala is the way it is,” Brenner says. “We never really recovered after the earthquake. Architecturally it‘s so stark with limited urbanism, but the slums grew in uncontrollable ways. It‘s hard to move around, it’s dangerous, crime is up and rising, and mass transportation sucks. You are forced to be in a bubble all the time.” By putting a frame around the city’s chaotic harmony, Brenner finds new ways to interact and describe the territory. “I like to think of my work as the B-side of Guatemala – it’s a surprise that no one has heard of, but turns out to be much better than the single.”
Micaiah Carter’s series 95/48 is a multigenerational conversation about Black life in America. Mapping and connecting images from his father’s sketchbooks with contemporary images from his archive, the LA and New York-based photographer builds a timeless vernacular. “I wanted to create a language that talks about our experiences of being Black men in America at the same age, but in different decades,” explains Carter, one of BJP’s Ones to Watch in 2020. It’s “contrasting between my dad and his friends, and what they were trying to do back in the 70s, and what we’re trying to do now.”
The project, which takes its name from the birth years of the photographer and his father, Andrew Carter, circles around questions of visibility, justice and freedom, and how they manifest for generations almost 50 years apart. Carter’s father, a retired Air Force sergeant, came of age during the era of disco and the Black is Beautiful movement, a cultural revolution that celebrated and affirmed power and pride in Black culture and identity. His photographs capture tender moments of everyday life; friends and family, dancing and relaxing. “He made scrapbooks when he came back from the [Vietnam] war. They capture this powerful expression of creativity and community,” Carter says. “In Atlanta, he started this group to be a safe haven for soldiers from different communities; people of colour, queer, and soldiers from different religions. In the late 70s, there were very few places they could openly be themselves.”
In Carter’s symbol-laden images, he emanates a powerful hybrid of joy and resilience, an energetic response to his father’s scrapbooks. “The work is built with the family and friends I connect with,” he says, “shown in the images through simple social gestures – a fist bump, a raised fist – and how that communicates to another Black person.” Enriched by warm tones, inspired by his upbringing in California’s Mojave Desert, Carter’s portraits emit a radiant presence and quiet confidence. Using the past as a compass, 95/48 seeks to illustrate shared experiences through a sacred familiar bond, capturing strength and beauty to present an expansive portrayal of Black life.
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.