Photography

Photographing the Drag Community over FaceTime

Whilst necessary, social distancing measures pose an existential threat to LGTBQ+ nightlife but Damien Frost's portraits of queer performers highlight the scene's resilience.

Australian photographer Damien Frost has long been recognised for his photographs of members of London’s LGBT+ nightlife scene. His Instagram account @harmonyhalo and 2013 photo book Night Flowers serve as archives — both digital and analogue — of drag kings and queens, cabaret artists, club kids and other late-night characters. These magnetic portraits, enlivened by the subject’s outré choice of attire, give a sense of permanence to a community constantly endangered by club closures, gentrification and day-to-day alienation. 

You’d expect Damien’s choice of subjects to be motivated by political reasons but it’s mostly a matter of chance, stemming from a self-imposed challenge to take a portrait a day. Taking to the streets to find his subjects, he ended up doing his best work at night and stumbling upon the joys of queer nightlife: “My rule was that I couldn’t go home until I found someone to take a portrait of; in the process of doing this I would stay out later and later.” But his interest in London’s club kids is also highly personal, resonating with his experiences of “being underage in goth clubs” in suburban Sydney and “the regret of not having photographs of that time in my own life.”

Donatella

Under social isolation, the night-time fashionistas frequenting Damien’s work have all but disappeared from the streets. Whilst projects, like weekly zoom party Club Quarantine, have attempted to keep queer party culture alive, the exhilaration of a crowded dance floor or cabaret show can’t easily be replicated through a screen. And, with the highlight of everyone’s social calendars being a weekly trip to Tesco, there’s little reason to get dressed up — no matter how fabulous your fashion reputation. In response, Damien has shifted his practice indoors with an ongoing series of FaceTime portraits capturing a drag community currently under government lockdown. 

Depicting drag artists from different cities in their own homes, blue painted faces, gargantuan headpieces and BDSM chokers clash with the intimacy of domestic spaces. In a mix of the technological and the organic,  flowers (both fresh and slowly decaying) frame the iPad — displaying a different nightlife diva front-and-centre and a miniature Damien on the left-hand side — at the centre of each composition. This, he explains, is a reference to the memento mori and vanitas paintings from European art history. “I think I’m subconsciously referencing these as they’re often a metaphor for the passing of time and the superfluousness of worldly possessions,” he says. “Now seems an appropriate time to look at these themes.” 

This photography project has helped Damien gather insight into the concerns facing the LGBTQIA+ community during this difficult time. For some members of the trans community, he explains, the stakes are particularly high; “people who are transitioning on hormone therapy are not getting access to the treatment they need.” In addition to these pressing and anxiety-inducing medical concerns, the performers who Damien has been profiling are now subject to extreme economic uncertainty due to the crisis. “The alternative queer community I have been in contact with during this period have been severely impacted,” Damien explains. “They are mostly all very social animals and depend on the viability of the nightlife economy to make money; leading to loss of income and the subsequent threat of eviction and massive debt once the lockdown is lifted.

In the face of these harsh realities, Damien’s series is a resplendent ode to the queer community’s  strength and resilience — not just in these present times but at every stop along the way. “Many in the LGBTQ+ community were already isolated on different levels on a day to day basis before this forced isolation and don’t have the safety-net of a family or a supportive home to move back to if the situation becomes dire,” Damien explains. Now that queer nightlife has been put on pause, they are particularly impacted as they no longer have access to a vital lifeline of escapism and support. As Damien puts it: “Queer people have lost the communal aspect and support network that being in a party or club with many like-minded people has. It isn’t just about going out and having a good time; there’s an intimacy and meeting of minds that is harder to replicate online.”

As beautiful as these portraits are, there’s an air of melancholy to them given the probability that queer clubs, already catering to a niche audience, will be some of the last venues to recover from the current crisis. Yet, with the queer community’s spirit of resistance and the not-to-be-understated importance of these spaces, it’s sure that LGBTQ+ nightlife will make a triumphant return in one way or another. For the time being, Damien is just continuing with his series as he waits for social distancing measures to relax and, whilst he has enjoyed his FaceTime portraits, he hopes to move from URL to IRL sometime soon: “I truly miss photographing people in person!”

 

Check out more of Damien’s portraits via the gallery below and on Instagram at @thedamienfrost. East London queer bar Dalston Superstore is currently fundraising to support queer nightlife performers. 

12 May 2020