Beauty in abundance: Ryan Pfluger photographs 100 queer couples across the US

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Pfluger’s new book of portraits – Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens – is a a hybrid of non-fiction, memoir and photobook

The cover image in Ryan Pfluger’s new book, Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens, is a portrait of Jari and Deniz. Staring directly into the lens, they stand thigh-deep in an overgrown meadow, holding each other. The land around them is sprawling, lush and open. It hums with the warm glow of the sunrise. As we’ve come to expect from Pfluger’s portraiture: beauty is abundant.

“Being publicly in love with Deniz has come with its challenges,” Jari writes. “Things we can’t control. But it could never measure up to the genuine and deep-souled beauty that has come out of this relationship. There is a unique comfort being in a relationship with another trans person. The comfort in knowing that my body and how I choose to express my gender are never up for question. That I am never stunted in my process of exploring, and my whole self is welcomed with loving arms.”

© Ryan Pfluger.

Manifesting as a hybrid of non-fiction, memoir and photobook, Holding Space is a moving reflection on the challenging reality of intersectional relationships. Published by Princeton Architectural Press in November, the book traces the stories of 100 queer couples across the United States. The result is a rollercoaster of emotions, illuminating the tension between public and private, how the conditions of a relationship can be safe and hostile simultaneously, and how life’s biggest lessons are often learned the hard way.

Pfluger has been ruminating on the book’s concept for over a decade. “My first serious partner, 20 years ago, was a Black and Native American man,” says Pfluger. “I loved that person, but I wasn’t taking into account how different our upbringings were. There was a lot of stuff unsaid in our relationship. There was so much naivety [on my part]. After being in several loving, intimate relationships, I realised how much I didn’t know and how much that affected the relationships.”

Beyond intimacy, the photographs in Holding Space tell us little about the relationships of folx like Brandon & Matthew, Akeem & Samuel and Andi & Connor – until they collide with their text. It’s here they become images interrupted. Interrupted by feelings. By events. By history. By everyday battles and uncomfortable truths. Pfluger does this by carefully engaging in the act of witnessing, enabling thoughtful questions to surface. Together they start a dialogue about the growing pains of modern relationships and how they entangle with our lived experiences.

© Ryan Pfluger.
© Ryan Pfluger.

“I decided I needed to remove myself as much as possible. While it was fulfilling and a true passion project, this work was the most logistically complicated and emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done”

© Ryan Pfluger.

“While the book is about intersectionality, it’s also about how we relate to one another,” Pfluger explains. “The judgements we make, based on our own lives, the way we treat different groups as a monolith rather than taking the time to understand everyone’s personal experience. There is so much unlearning in the book. We see individuals reevaluating their upbringing and themselves. Thinking through what that means to truly find yourself, especially at an older age. I wanted this project to go deeper into the emotional baggage we carry our entire lives.”

 For Pfluger, the project has been a framework to grapple with the inherent power imbalance in portraiture. For the last 15 years, his practice has centred on photographing social, cultural and political leaders, family, friends and his wider community. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can interact with my subjects ethically,” Pfluger shares. “I was figuring out the difference between what I’m drawn to and where my voice is appropriate. As a white person, I wanted to think about how to approach [the topic] authentically, so I wasn’t fetishising or using a community for my gain.”

 The result was a collaborator-led process. Each couple chose to participate, deciding where and how they would be photographed. They selected the final image based on an initial edit from Pfluger and authored their own text. From now on, each collaborator will control their image and where it is seen. They can also opt in or out of any future presentations of the work.

© Ryan Pfluger.
© Ryan Pfluger.

“I feel like [the process] is important to talk about,” explains Pfluger. “I decided I needed to remove myself as much as possible. While it was fulfilling and a true passion project, this work was the most logistically complicated and emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done. It was a very new way of working for me, and I think it’s interesting to think about what it means for a photographer to relinquish control. [Making the work] also felt like a physical release. I realised I don’t need to be so precious about it because the moment itself was so precious.”

While the book has guided Pfluger towards new ways of working, its creative force is rooted in its nuance. Holding Space records the contemporary moment while illustrating the precarity of marginalised identities past and present. Perhaps most importantly, it asserts the intention of the LGBTQIA+ community not simply to have their love accepted by the dominant group, but to reimagine the possibilities of being together in limitless and free ways. 

Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens by Ryan Pfluger is published in November by Princeton Architectural Press and is available to pre-order now.

Gem Fletcher

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.