We meet the photographer who spent four years documenting party-goers at one of Bethnal Green’s only LGBTQI+ venues.
London’s queer nightlife is legendary for its electric energy and creative spirit but recent years have seen some of its beloved venues come under threat from rising rent prices and gentrification. Whilst the capital’s LGBTQI+ community has already waved good-bye to hotspots like Camden’s The Black Cap and Hackney’s The Joiners Arms, the economic realities of the pandemic look set to accelerate the closure of many more queer-orientated businesses. A future without places where LGBTQIA+ people can congregate and create would not only be a hard hit for the community but for the wider cultural landscape, which owes so much to the innovation of queer cabaret, art, theatre and nightlife.
Conscious of the need to preserve our queer venues, in whatever form we can, Jean-François Carly has been detailing Bethnal Green’s The Queen Adelaide for the past four years. Since the bar rose from the ashes of The George and Dragon — a Shoreditch pub shuttered after a sudden rent hike — in 2016, the Belgian photographer has been snapping its eclectic punters, party-goers and DJs. A living, breathing archive of East London’s LGBTQI+ scene.
We caught up with Jean-François to talk community, London’s unique identity and queer parties post-Covid.
Hey Jean-François, nice to meet you! Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get into photography?
I already developed a love for photography from the age of six and during my student years, I got backstage access at the Paris shows of Belgian designers like Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck and Véronique Leroy. In those pre-digital days, I shot everything on grainy black and white and started showing around mini-portfolios. From there, my work got noticed and I started being commissioned for editorial and commercial fashion shoots and some portraits. For this series, I went back to my origins with a mix of straight-ups, spontaneous action shots and some still life.
When did you move to London?
I’m originally from Belgium but moved to London in September 1999. I immediately felt at home, easily made friends and was inspired by the creative energy of the city which gave me a drive to succeed. It turned out my work was much liked by editors and brands and I could continue making a living from my passion here.
And how would you describe the queer community in London?
The community in London is vibrant, diverse and inclusive. Very creative, colourful, truly original. Historically, London has always been a creative hotbed of music, fashion and arts. I feel that the instinctive collaboration between those inspired a large community of people to freely explore their identities and laid the foundations for tolerance and acceptance. It has a unique identity compared to other places. It’s difficult to describe, you have to go there to feel it!
Agreed! So when did you start going to The Queen Adelaide then?
I started going from day one, towards the end of 2016. I know the owners, Liliana and Richard, who opened The Queen Adelaide after they unfortunately had to close The George and Dragon in Shoreditch.
Four years is a long time to be going to the same bar! What kept you coming back?
I fell in love with the community, was always meeting new interesting people; it’s a very seductive place with a strong creative buzz, full of energy and characters. I never got bored there, some nights can be quite wild and eccentric. And it’s close to home, a big bonus! It became my favourite hang-out.
Why did you decide to start bringing your camera with you?
It happened very naturally as I like capturing people wherever I go. As a regular at The Queen Adelaide, I started taking photographs on every occasion. I was inspired by everyone’s style, creativity, fluidity, bringing their own flair, strong personalities and followers. I would always ask people if I could take their picture and everyone would happily indulge me, freely and uninhibitedly. The Queen Adelaide is quite an intimate venue with beautiful original features and some mad decorative style in places. The environment makes it easy to meet and talk to new people of all ages, backgrounds and professions. That’s what I’ve captured in my series and what makes it unique, personal and relatable.
How do you feel about these images now, looking back on them?
After nearly four years, it became apparent I had created an extensive body of work and I realised I was documenting an important part of London’s social LGBTQI+ life and decided to turn a personal passion into a meaningful art project. To this day, I continue to take pictures there and have recently started again when the pub re-opened post lockdown.
Beyond your personal experience, why are bars like The Queen Adelaide important?
They are an original and integral part of the LGBTQI+ community and provide safe environments and refuge where you can physically express yourself, interact and be seen in your full glory! They are an important platform for performers, artists, DJs and musicians and make vital cultural and commercial contributions to the local community.
Are you concerned about the future of queer spaces?
Very much so. The pandemic has literally affected everyone, but minority communities, organisations and groups usually suffer more as funding and support are cut from already small budgets. In the past ten years, we’ve witnessed a swathe of queer pub and venue closures across the country due to rising commercial rates. The Queen Adelaide is one of the very few LGTBQI+ venues in Bethnal Green and I’m delighted they have managed to re-open. With my project, I want to help bring a renewed focus and claim more space for the community.
5 August 2020